Shanghai Noir: China's Long History of Crime Stories, Real and Fictional

Now a center of global commerce, the city was once so dangerous that its name was slang for "to kidnap."

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A poster for the 1932 noir film Shanghai Express. (Paramount)

As my son and daughter will be the first to tell you, I'm a bit obsessed with Shanghai.  When they were teenagers, they'd tease me about my proclivity for bringing the city into dinner conversations that had nothing to do with Shanghai -- at least on the surface. Say the Beatles were the focus of discussion, I'd slip in the fact that George Harrison wrote the theme song for Shanghai Surprise, a film starring Madonna and Sean Penn that's excruciatingly bad.  If computer games came up, I'd point out that "Shanghai" was the name of an online version of mahjong.  And so on.

As I noted recently, allusions to noir books and films have featured prominently in commentaries on the recently purged Bo Xilai and his wife Gu Kailai. They were from Chongqing, where Bo was party secretary, but no other Chinese city is as tightly linked to the noir as Shanghai. Consider these basic facts:

  • During its century-long incarnation as a treaty port (1843-1943), Shanghai was viewed as such a dangerous place that its name entered the English language as a verb meaning to dragoon or kidnap.
  • By the 1930s, Old Shanghai (to use a common term for the city in treaty port days) became globally famous or rather infamous for possessing all of the things you would expect to find in tales by Damon Runyon or Mickey Spillane. Drug deals? Check.  Brothels? Check.  Gangsters? Double check.  This Chicago of the Pacific even had its counterparts to Al Capone: The Green Gang leaders Pockmarked Huang and Big-Eared Du.
  • Old Shanghai served as the setting for many Golden Age Hollywood films dealing with intrigue and danger.  Some remain famous (think 1932's Shanghai Express), while others are deservedly obscure (think 1935's Charlie Chan in Shanghai).
  • Throughout the early 1900s Old Shanghai also showed up regularly in Chinese films dealing with crime, as well as in books in various languages that focused on topics such as espionage and detection.  In 1933 alone, it was the setting for both André Malraux's La Condition Humaine (Man's Fate), a violent tale of conspiratorial plots, and Frabcus Van Wyck Mason's The Shanghai Bund Murders, a largely forgotten book by an author whose other works sometimes name checked other cities with noir associations (The Budapest Parade Murders, The Cairo Garter Murders, and so on).
  • When Cheng Xiaoqing, an early translator of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle classics, created Huo Sang, a Sherlock Holmeswith Chinese characteristics, he decided, of course, to have his detective solve crimes in Shanghai.  And when Hergé dreamed up a Chinese adventure for his famous boy detective, Tin Tin was sent looking for clues in the same city.
  • The wicked old treaty port as it was (or at least was imagined to have been) has never stopped showing up in films and novels that are pure noir or at least have some connection to the genre.  In cinema, late 20th-century and early 21st century movies that come to mind include Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun (1987), Zhang Yimou's Shanghai Triad (1995), and Ang Lee's Lust, Caution (2007).  Turning to novels, the city has figured in works such as Kazuo Ishiguro's When We Were Orphans (2000), which features an eccentric sleuth who is based in London but during World War II heads to Shanghai and has surreal and dangerous experiences there.
  • New Shanghai, as the unified city of the present is sometimes known, doesn't have the same sort of tight ties to noir as its fragmented predecessor, but it has not been overlooked completely as a setting for noir tales. Most notably, in recent years, the Shanghai-born but U.S.-based poet, translator and fiction author Qiu Xiaolong has been publishing a string of mysteries featuring Inspector Chen, who works for the police force in the city of his author's birth.

The city has played a crucial role in the careers of many powerful and controversial Chinese men and women, but not in those of either Bo or Gu. Cities mentioned more often than Shanghai in accounts of this fallen power couple include Dalian (Bo held his first major post there), Singapore (a place Gu visited often to make deals), and Chongqing (where Bo was Party Secretary and where murdered British businessman Neil Heywood spent his final hours).

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