"You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy,” Ben Kenobi tells young Luke Skywalker in "Star Wars," referring to the seedy spaceport of Mos Eisley, and the line could be applied mutatis mutandis to virtually any polyglot port, both a long time ago in a galaxy far away and also right here on Earth. Every polyglot port city has a period in its history when it's flocked with people, flooded with business, but not yet policed by the law. And just as in "Star Wars," so too on Earth: In addition to scum and villainy, there's also adventure and, in this lawless period, undeniable romance.
For Old Shanghai, that period is clearly demarcated: It begins in 1843, when the city was first opened as a foreign port, and it came to a harsh and comprehensive end in 1941 when Japanese troops invaded. In that period, the International Settlement, the area reserved for all foreigners except the French, was established in 1863 (the French had their own Concession), the city's population, foreigners and Chinese together, soared over 2 million, and thousands of acres of the colony were occupied by foreign settlements, and those settlements were homes to both high society – posh hotels, fine dining, and grand events attended by the “400,” the wealthiest foreigners in the the International Settlement – and a sprawling, hyper-energetic demimonde of opium dens, gambling casinos, and illicit dance halls.
Paul French, author of 2012's bestselling "Midnight in Peking," has lived and worked in Shanghai, has written a new book about that demimonde and two of its central figures. In City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai, French goes to extraordinary lengths to trace the lives and careers of two men who very much didn't want to be traced – ex-US Navy boxing champ “Lucky” Jack Riley and “Dapper” Joe Farren, who fought and connived and maneuvered their way to positions of considerable power and influence in Old Shanghai in the years leading up to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.
“I'm drawn to flotsam and jetsam,” French confesses early on. “I seek out those foreigners who came to the China Coast and preferred to exist in the city's criminal milieu, to disappear into its laneways and backstreets,” he writes. “They're not distinguished or heroic. Invariably, they're liars and cheats … but many of them had a certain style, panache; their own particular flair.”
And in his handling this is certainly true of his two lead villains. Riley, a wanted fugitive and prison escapee whose birth name was Fahnie Albert Becker, comes to Shanghai like so many other pieces of flotsam and jetsam, scraping by in filthy pay-by-the-day flops and working as a bouncer at seedy clubs. Through a combination of toughness and instinct (with a healthy dose of the luck Old Shanghai so often seemed to bestow on the desperate), he becomes first a club owner and then, eventually, the “slots king” of the entire city. Joe Farren, born Josef Pollak in Vienna's miserable Jewish ghetto of Leopoldstadt, has equally dicey beginnings in “the Paris of the East” and soon rises to the status of showman extraordinaire, “running the best chorus lines in the swankest nightclubs.”
By dint of an enormous amount of research, French follows these two men and dozens of their associates through all the twists and turns of their careers, culminating in the last thing either Farren or Riley ever thought would happen: the two of them joining forces to create “much of the city's reputation as an international capital of sin and vice.”
Much like Old Shanghai itself, this story of the rise to power of two opportunistic grifters had a terminus carved in stone from its very start; no matter how many show girls Farren could bully, no matter how many slot machines Riley owned, the old ramshackle den of crime and dissipation was doomed by the larger geopolitical events coming to a broil outside the paper-weak boundaries of the foreign settlements. Japanese bombings and invasions shattered most of old city's life and brought down the evanescent rules of Riley and Farren, and in 1949 Chinese Communist troops occupied the city and all but a few traces of Old Shanghai would survive the Cultural Revolution.
Visitors to modern-day Shanghai would scarcely guess at its Mos Eisley past as a rag-tag center for villainy and adventure; sleek new buildings of steel and glass are being built every year, transforming the topography that vagabonds like Riley and Farren knew so well. But French believes some hints still remain. “It takes increasing amounts of imagination to catch a glimpse of the old glamour and style of Shanghai,” he writes, “down an alley, in the lobby of an old building, along the banks of one of the city's creeks and streams.” Readers seeking that old glamour and style will now have "City of Devils" to help them.