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Shanghai Grand: Forbidden Love, Intrigue, and Decadence in Old China    by Taras Grescoe order for
Shanghai Grand
by Taras Grescoe
Order:  USA  Can
Picador, 2017 (2016)
Hardcover, Softcover
* * *   Reviewed by Barbara Lingens

This is a sprawling work breezily written about a specific time in Shanghai, which really must have been splendid if you were wealthy. Peopled with marvelous characters, especially the three most prominent - Sir Victor Sassoon, Emily Hahn and Zau Sinmay - the golden age of the city from about 1932 to 1943 has been well researched and described.

In the International Settlement of Shanghai (a crude and frustrating map of which is in the frontispiece) Sir Victor Sassoon managed to acquire lots of property, and it was his pleasure to build very interesting buildings, among which was the famous Cathay Hotel, now known as Heping Fandian (Peace Hotel). Here is where the rich and famous came to stay, and we are treated to many stories about them.

Here also is where Emily Hahn, an adventurous American writer, came and met Zau Sinmay, a Chinese poet, wealthy, well-traveled and generous to other artists and writers. Because their love affair spans this period, the author is able to let us see not only the Western view of that time but also the Chinese part: opium addiction, extreme poverty along with extreme wealth, displaced peasants and other refugees, nationalist fervor, Japanese occupation and finally the Communists' rise to power. It is truly an event-filled time.

My only quibble is that we could have done without at least some of the repetitions. The same descriptions of several of the characters are to be found over and over again. And I share the author's regret that there is so little we can know about Zau Sinmay's life. Nevertheless, this city history makes for lively reading. Enjoy!

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