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 China’s 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
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 Shanghai’s modern day jazz
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
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
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.
Labels: books, China, Shanghai