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Harriet Sergeant
(John Murray, 339 pages)

Few cities on earth have experienced the turmoil of this century more poignantly than Shanghai, and few books have brought to life its vibrancy and debauchery, color and horror. Harriet Sergeant's exquisitely researched history is fully up to the task. Imbued with intimate detail, Shanghai portrays the characters who lived in this boisterous city until it fell to the communists in 1949, through extensive interviews with former and current residents. The book reveals a Shanghai forged by many communities, from the White Russians to the British to, of course, the Chinese. The anecdotes are at once fascinating and repellent: hotels offering room-service heroin, 12-year-old girls sold into slavery (a practice abolished only in 1932), a gangster moonlighting as the highest-ranking police officer in the French Concession, the 5,590 corpses collected on the city's streets in 1935, a frighteningly typical year. And there are accounts of the atrocities committed by the warring Chinese armies and by the onslaught of Japanese troops.

Sergeant is by no means nostalgic about the past, but even her disapproval of Shanghai's ruling-class behavior is tinged with awe at the sheer decadence and wealth that underpinned what one former denizen called the "most unconventional municipality in the world." Her interviewees recall the hard-line Marxists sent from Russia to spread dissent in China who turned their post-revolutionary zeal to throwing parties, buying cars and womanizing; as well as the Chicago police who fled Shanghai's unruliness one month into a year-long exchange program. (Shanghai's finest described their overseas sojourn as a "year-long vacation.") The cumulative effect of so much depravity can be numbing, although the tales are leavened by humor and compassion. Shanghai is China's crucible, and Sergeant never loses sight of how this city changed the face of a nation. The result is a fascinating account of one of the most fascinating places on the planet during the most fascinating period in its history. A lengthy read, but well worth the journey.

By James Irwin

Few cities on earth have experienced the turmoil of this century more poignantly than Shanghai, and few books have brought to life its vibrancy and debauchery, color and horror

Fancy taking a dram with the Shanghai Scotch Malt Whiskey society? Or savoring a stogie with the cigar club? Then find out more at Shanghai-ed, the online version of Shanghai Now

If you wake up in Shanghai to clear skies, seize the opportunity to get an overview of the cityscape on a U.S.-built Bell 212 helicopter

Try the Shapo Guesthouse in Ningxia province if you'd like an escape from the big city

Fuyou market, a sprawling four-story mock Qing dynasty arcade, is a colorful and entertaining source of antiques


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