Night in Shanghai - In Conversation with Nicole Mones

I fell for the writing of American author Nicole Mones a few years ago when I first read her love letter to Chinese food, disguised as a novel called The Last Chinese Chef (2007). Mones writes beautifully about China and the intersection of cultures, from Lost in Translation (1999) to A Cup of Light (2002), and now her latest work, Night in Shanghai

Night in Shanghai brings the decadent, seductive jazz age of the 1930s to life as seen through the eyes of African American pianist Thomas Greene. It's a vivid, lyrical, musical novel that draws the reader in to the world of Ye Shanghai, with its powerful underground gangs, irresistible jazz, and heady mix of Russian aristocracy, Chinese elite, and wealthy foreigners. Thomas finds that in Shanghai he can become whoever he wants to be, but as the Japanese grip on the city tightens we are left with a sense of impending loss - these might be the last days of old Shanghai.

Night in Shanghai is also the extraordinary true-life story of how the city of Shanghai saved the lives of 25,000 Jewish refugees fleeing Europe at the start of Word War II. At a time when every other nation in the world rejected thousands of terrified Jews (including the United States, Great Britain and Australia), Shanghai opened its ports and welcomed them in. 

In an unbelievable twist Mones and her researcher uncovered evidence that the Chinese government also had a well-established plan to re-house 100,000 Jewish refugees in Yunnan. The evidence of this plan has all but been swallowed by history, and deserves much wider recognition.

When Mones' publicist sent me a copy of Night in Shanghai out of the blue, I read it, loved it, and emailed to ask if Mones might be interested in an interview. I admire her so much as a writer but didn't think for a million years she would say yes, so imagine my surprise and utter delight when Nicole herself emailed to say she had been a follower of this blog for some time and would love to do an interview. I felt like the kid who gets to ask the Prime Minister a question. 

Here's what we talked about - I hope you enjoy the conversation.

FR: In Night in Shanghai the city of the 1930s is brought vividly to life. Why was this era important to you, and what does it represent to you in terms of Chinas history?

NM: The last hundred years of Chinese history have always enthralled me, maybe because as someone who started doing business in China at the close of the Cultural Revolution, I've been able to observe China's present stage of modernization pretty much from the start. I feel like the struggle to modernize--personally, socially, economically, in terms of governance--has been the story not just of the current era, but of the whole last century in China. Shanghai has always been at the edge of modernization, and there have been some periods when things happened so fast, you could see life changing before your eyes. One of those times in Shanghai was the 1930s. Another is right now.

Speaking of researching the era… I found it so interesting that when historian Hanchao Lu interviewed elder residents of Shanghai about their memories of the 1930s, they expressed special wistfulness over the songs of the food peddlers. Roving snack vendors used distinct melodic chants to draw residents out of their homes and into the lane—chants which elder Shanghainese could still remember, sixty years later.

I thought of those memories when I read your epic series on Shanghai’s street food. I’m so grateful you’ve created this urban ethnography, beautifully photographed, and accessible to all. It’s important. Because just as the roving, chanting snack peddlers were largely wiped out by years of war and revolution, it could be that the street foods thriving today will one day vanish under roaring development as well. And then nostalgia and memory will collect around what you have captured on this site.

FR: The story of 25,000 Jewish lives saved in Shanghai in World War II is one still barely known around the world. Your research uncovered some unexpected findings – in particular a plan to relocate 100,000 European Jews to a resettlement area in Yunnan in 1939, a plan ultimately abandoned by Chiang Kai-shek.  Can you describe what it was like finding these documents, and how it changed the course of your novel?

NM: You can tell I am someone who loves research, but this had to be one of the peak discoveries of my life—and I didn’t even discover it, my brilliant researcher Daniel Nieh did. He was combing through a Chinese military history database, pursuing an unrelated question, when he stumbled on documents detailing the Jewish Resettlement Plan of 1939, which aimed to save 100,000 additional Jews from the Holocaust by establishing a Jewish resettlement zone along the Chinese-Burmese border. It failed, of course—but not before two lives (and a pile of money) were lost trying to make it happen. Amazingly, my draft of Night in Shanghai already had some of the plot elements needed to include this true story:  Shanghai’s Jewish refugee musicians were already integral to my protagonist’s survival during the years of the Japanese Occupation in Part Two, and H.H. Kung, the architect of the Jewish Resettlement Plan, happened to already be a side character.  Rewrite the novel? Of course.

I was surprised that such a large Holocaust story had been forgotten by the West; my publisher could find only two references to the Plan’s existence in books published in English. The unique role China played in saving lives during the Holocaust—and that includes the 25,000 Jewish refugees who rode out the war in Shanghai—is something in which all Chinese can take pride. 

FR: I loved the frequent and easy use of chengyu and slang phrases and insults throughout Night in Shanghai. Tell us about your relationship with the Chinese language – how easy or difficult did you find learning Chinese?  And how does having a second language at your disposal shape the way you write?

NM: First of all, my Chinese is very poor, and I’m not just being polite; it is. Still, because I started doing business in China in 1977, an era when almost no English was spoken, I had to try to learn. At first it was about gaining freedom of movement, and the freedom to talk to people. For a lone operator like me, it also seemed like the best way to improve my business. I dawdled for five years, deluding myself that I was going to pick it up on my regular trips to China, but once I finally faced the fact that I had failed to get past ‘hello,’  ‘goodbye’ and ‘where is the bathroom’, I went back to school at night. Everything I’d hoped for followed, and much more. As soon as I started to understand how people framed their thoughts and feelings, how they mediated and organized the world around them, China as a whole began to make more sense to me. Language is a lens, bringing the civilization behind it into focus.

Which is why I like to play with language now, in writing about China.  The natural Chinese idiom (for both the moment and the person) gives distinctive voice to a Chinese character, in either thought or dialogue. Sometimes I don’t actually quote the expression so much as fold it into a character’s consciousness, like the moment when Song privately recognized that ‘she was only a girl, with no more power than a grain of millet in a vast sea.’ Articulating mindset through an idiom feels right, partly because a certain part of Chinese consciousness truly is the product of accretion, the long accumulation of shared culture, remembered and referred to through language. Pure gold for limning consciousness. And if I get sidetracked for an hour or two, poring over dictionaries and phrase-books in search of the perfect cheng yu, those are always happy hours. Mandarin is endlessly rich in references and allusions. And don’t get me started on curses and insults—the best.

FR: Some of the most beautiful passages in Night in Shanghai are those describing music, just as The Last Chinese Chef featured deeply beautiful and sensual scenes describing food. Where does your love of jazz come from, and what do you think of the Shanghais modern day jazz resurgence?

NM: I love music, it is the language I admire most. I learned the musical staff at the same time I learned the alphabet, and as a teenaged piano student, took the same theory classes at Peabody that (my protagonist) Thomas Greene took when he was growing up. Unlike Thomas, I lacked the talent to become a musician, but that is one of the great things about writing novels—the chance to live a few lives that are out of one’s reach.

Though music was a big part of my youth, I never heard jazz until I was out of university, just past my 21st birthday, working at a radio station in Texas as an on-air person and music programmer. Late at night, listeners would call up and request jazz. I noticed these callers were male, cerebral types—not like the local cowboys, who always asked for alt-country and southern rock. They were a niche audience, but passionate. So I listened, starting with ragtime and Dixieland, and coming forward, and what startled me was how jazz multiplied in complexity with each decade, pushing the envelope of structure and melody and improvisation further and further. Writing about 30s music—the Swing Era—was only possible for me because that  sound was still pretty close to the basic American song form, with orchestral texture, and improvisation that was controlled and decorous. I could grasp it. I could understand Thomas’s hands on the piano, and his arc as a bandleader. I don’t think I could have pulled off writing about hard bop, or the cool school, or anything in the genre that came after.

It thrills me that jazz players from all over are gigging in Shanghai these days, and people are listening. Do you know, in the late 70s, foreigners who were in Shanghai used to scoff at the notion that the once-great city would ever rise again. “Shanghai is dead!” they’d declare. “It’s never coming back!” And now, not only is it back, it’s young… with cafes and nightspots where people gather to hear jazz. In fact, there’s more jazz being played in Shanghai right now than in a lot of American cities, which also feels like a return to an old pattern.

FR: Lastly – I understand you have been a frequent traveler to China since 1977 and all your novels have introduced readers to significant aspects of Chinese culture and history. Have you faced any barriers in getting the English-speaking publishing world interested in China? And what are common misconceptions about the country you come across?

NM: I feel the English-speaking publishing world is very interested in China, though in movies and novels alike, public tastes in the West tend to favor romantic historical works (like the film ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’) that have little to do with what China is like today. I wrote an essay about this for the Washington Post just before the 2008 Olympics opened.

And it’s not exactly a misconception, but the biggest frustration for me these days, as someone who lives in the U.S., is that most Americans continue to focus the bulk of their attention on China’s human rights issues. Those are very important issues, of course. But I wish, as a nation, we could focus on doing whatever we can to help slow down China’s environmental damage. I feel this is the real emergency.  And maybe the right to a healthier environment underlies all other rights.

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