By Wasserstein, Bernard
History Today , Vol. 48, No. 9
1930s Shanghai was notoriously populated by characters of dubious political and moral allegiances. Bernard Wasserstein shows how the Japanese used their contacts among the city's lowlife to assist in their invasion and occupation.
In July 1940, a fresh and exotic face enlivened Shanghai expatriate society. The Princess Sumaire, aged twenty-two, stepped off a boat from India and engaged a suite at the Cathay Hotel. She immediately attracted attention on account of her elegant appearance, her scandalous behaviour and her mysterious origins. Within a short time she had made a wide, multi-national circle of friends. Among them were officers of the local Italian garrison, a number of English and American society girls and a couple of professional dancers who went by the stage names `Don and Dolly'. Sumaire's circle also included some more sinister figures: an abortionist, brothel-owner and sexual extortionist, Dr Albert von Miorini, a monkey expert, narcotics dealer and unqualified `doctor', Hermann Erben, and a shady Franco-American journalist, aviator and pimp, Hilaire du Berrier.
Sumaire settled down in the `Paris of the East', relishing its cosmopolitan night life and lively cafe society. But Shanghai had a darker side. With its lurid vice, endemic violence, and conspiratorial atmosphere, no place on earth in the 1930s and 1940s better exemplified the twilight zone between professional and political criminality.
Shanghai's ever-open door attracted an extraordinary agglomeration of ill-assorted foreign communities: `White' and `Red' Russians imported their fierce mutual animosity from their homeland and perpetuated them in exile; German businessmen dutifully celebrated Hitler's birthday at the German Garden Club but found to their dismay that they were outnumbered in Shanghai by thousands of `non-Aryan' German-speaking refugees from Nazi persecution; upper-crust `Shanghailander' Britons rubbed shoulders with Baghdadi Jewish property tycoons; Korean gangsters, Filipino musicians, low-life cardsharps, pickpockets and assorted con-men plied their various trades. So too did demi-mondaines of various nationalities who preyed on tourists at the Park, the Metropole and the Cathay hotels, as well as on naval and military men of half-a-dozen countries in other, more questionable, haunts.
Even in superficially respectable areas of the city, meretricious glamour and horrific poverty, filth and squalor intertwined symbiotically. At Ciro's night-club, the first in the city to enjoy full air-conditioning, British Saipans and Chinese mobsters tangoed with their wives or mistresses into the small hours. Outside, uniformed Russian doormen -- self-appointed ex-Tsarist `generals' whose spurious medals could be purchased by the dozen in the Hongkong market -- held importuning hordes of deformed Chinese beggars at bay. In less salubrious dance-halls, bars and `joints', lines of Russian `taxi-dancers' and Chinese `sing-song girls' sat waiting for customers. In 1935 one in every thirteen women in Shanghai was reckoned to be a prostitute.
Throughout the city violence was a constant threat, whether in the form of political assassination, gang warfare or lovers' fights. The stained cobbles of `Blood Alley' (rue Chu Paosan) in Frenchtown bore witness to the frequency of brawls along foreign soldiers and sailors. Wood, who allowed Shanghai to endure, owed an apology to Sodom and Gomorrah -- said the American Christian missionaries who strove to combat the devil in his own habitation. A Chinese journalist agreed: Shanghai, he wrote, was `a city of forty-eight-storey skyscrapers built upon twenty-four layers of hell'.
Who was Sumaire? Why had she come to Shanghai? Was she really a princess? Detective Sub-Inspector McKeown, of the British-controlled Shanghai municipal police, whose special beat was Indian affairs, reported that Sumaire claimed to be the daughter of the late Maharajah of Patiala. …