View of roof of Shanghai's Peace Hotel, formerly the Cathay, looking across the Huangpu River towards contemporary Pudong.
I fell for Shanghai—the city of legend, and the city as it is today—as the Year of the Pig gave way to the Year of the Rat in clouds of smoke and the stench of gunpowder. In the courtyards and laneways, the echoes from strings of firecrackers created an aural map of the contours of a city singularly slow to shed its past. On that first visit, the World Exposition of 2010 was still three years in the future, and the decanting of the population from the old city center of wood, brick, and stone, to exurban high-rises of concrete, steel and glass had yet to hit full speed. The old China hands I met said I should have seen the place fifteen years ago. (Of course, that's what old hands say, no matter where you go.) I was too busy marvelling at all that had survived into the twenty-first century to bother gainsaying them.
While I was duly impressed by the glittering new skyline rising on the Pudong riverfront, to my surprise I found myself strolling past the onion-dome of a Russian Orthodox church on the plane-tree shaded boulevard of the former French Concession, and taking high tea in the Tudor Revival mansion of a long-dead British newspaper magnate. A half-century of stagnation, combined with a new will to preserve heritage architecture—if as nothing more than a backdrop for movie shoots and wedding photos—had conspired to preserve much of old Shanghai. I roamed through buildings that felt like sets from the film Blade Runner: the corridors of Gothamesque towers, whose glassed-in lobby directories still listed the name of upper-crust tenants from the thirties, were now lit by bare electric bulbs, crowded with bicycles and scooters, and redolent of herbal concoctions being boiled behind triple-locked metal doors. I didn't know it at the time, but as I wandered the sidewalks of the district once known around the world as the International Settlement, my imagination was already taking up residency in a city I'd never known: the wicked old Paris of the Orient, a city whose major landmarks had been preserved in aspic for half a century.
The more I learned about pre-Revolutionary Shanghai, the more I became fascinated with the people who had washed up there. There was Morris "Two-Gun" Cohen, a Jewish brawler from London's East End, who, after saving the life of a Cantonese cook on the Canadian prairies, was named a general in the movement to liberate China from seven centuries of Manchu domination. There was "Princess" Sumaire, the niece of the wealthiest Maharajah in the Punjab, who, after working as a fashion model in Paris, scandalized Shanghai society with her open bisexuality and high-profile affairs with Japanese aristocrats and Gestapo agents. There was the triple agent Trebitsch Lincoln, a professional shape-shifter, whose career—from Rabbi's son in Budapest, to Protestant missionary in Montreal, to shaven-headed Buddhist Abbot in Shanghai—read like the back cover of a paperback thriller. It was as vivid a cast of chancers, schemers, exhibitionists, double-dealers, and self-made villains as had ever been assembled in one place—and they all crossed paths in the hotel lobbies, exclusive clubs, and dockside dives of pre-war Shanghai.
If I was mesmerized by the personalities who congregated in this "paradise of adventurers," I fell in love with Mickey Hahn, the St. Louis-born journalist and adventurer who put the whole crazy scene down on paper. In an attempt to mend a broken heart, she'd impulsively hopped anocean liner out of San Francisco, and ended up living in China and Hong Kong for eight years. The coup de foudre came when I saw a portrait of her, taken about the time she was sharing drunken confidences with Dorothy Parker in the Ladies Room of the Algonquin Hotel. In the photo, her hair is boyishly short, her skin pale against a black blouse, and her full lips are parted as she gazes up at the capuchin monkey named "Punk" perched on her left shoulder. In the heyday of the flapper, she looked like a proto-beatnik, one of nature's born individualists. I started to read her books: a travelogue about walking across the Congo with a three-year- old pygmy boy; her recollections of defying sexism to become the first female mining engineer to graduate from the University of Wisconsin; an essay about living on D.H. Lawrence's ranch in New Mexico, where she picked up a taste for corn liquor and cowboys while working as a trail guide. I liked her style (daring in fashion, breezy in prose), her utter lack of snobbery and prejudice, her fragile yet intrepid heart. In the long out-of- print books about her Asian adventures, she took me exactly where I wanted to go: on an insider's rickshaw ride that criss-crossed a bygone Shanghai, down alleys reverberant with the rattle of mah-jong tiles and scented with sweet almond broth, opium smoke, and the chemical bite of Flit insecticide.
And I got to know her friends, who were legion. There were the taipans, the wealthy businessmen she liked to shock by puffing on a cigar at such nightspots as Ciro's and the Tower Club, and their wives, the taitais, among them Bernadine Szold-Fritz, whose salon brought together the Chinese and European intelligentsia. (Bernardine, deeply enamored of Zau Sinmay, would later regret the night she introduced the poet to Mickey.) There were such roving reporters as Martha Gellhorn, also from St. Louis, who, on her honeymoon with Ernest Hemingway, made a point of tracking down Mickey for contacts in the Chinese military. There were the expat newsmen of China—the so-called "Missouri Mafia"—among them John B. Powell, the corncob-pipe smoking editor of the China Weekly Review, and Edgar Snow, who would follow a muleteer into the remote mountains of Shaanxi Province and return with the first articles by a Westerner to profile Mao Tse-tung and his rebel army.
Most intriguing of all was Sir Victor Sassoon, the third Baronet of Bombay, who, after photographing Mickey nude in a private studio in his penthouse suite, sent tongues wagging when he gave her a powder-blue Chevrolet coupe to buzz around town in. Though descended from an ancient line of Sephardic Jews who served in the court of the Babylonian Pasha and claimed descent from King David, Sir Victor spoke the best Oxbridge English, and, even as the world slid into Depression, unapologetically made the rounds of Shanghai's most fashionable nightspots in a monocle, top hat, and tails, looking for all the world like the caricature of a multimillionaire on a Monopoly "Chance" card...