Shanghai Boy by late Ron Ratcliffe Monday, Jan 21 2019 

I came across “Shanghai Boy” by late Ron Ratcliffe on the net quite accidentally. A self-published family legacy book covering three generations, this book was not written for literary enjoyment. There are salacious details, slapping of servants (what is usually glossed over in Shanghai based memoirs), and the unique perspective of Shanghai as seen by an English-German adolescent.

What interested me the most in this book is one sentence in reference to the Shanghai Sikhs, their “questionable sex habits.” Intriguing but nothing beyond that to explain why the author came up with that conclusion. Did the author’s grandfather,  (an SMP officer who trained Sikh policemen) see them indulge in indiscriminate sex? Then he passed this discriminating judgement? Well, we’ll never know.

More than the teenager, it’s his grandfather and mother who seemed to have interesting details to offer on life in Old Shanghai. The grandfather & his short-tempered wife who would straighten servants not through scolding but by hitting them, their daughter whose birth was well, quite a surrogacy plot and her stint on German-run XGRS radio station.  More on this in my next post.

Here’s the link to the book:



Cowan and Bailey Monday, Dec 24 2018 



In 1930s, cabaret artistes, musicians, sketch comedy actors from Europe and America were touring Asia. Bombay, Calcutta, Ceylon, Singapore etc were part of their eastern circuit. Cowan and Bailey, an American revue that entertained the Europeans and Americans in the British and Dutch colonies and treaty-ports with their act that included slapstick humor, song and liveried (read insensitive & racist) performances.

Shanghai clubs and dance halls too featured Cowan and Bailey. Not much information is available (from my understanding) on the eponymous duo but their variety show also included other actors  including Ted and Evelyn. One, Estelle Davis/Estelle Cowan was their ” charming mistress of ceremonies.”

John Cowan or is it Lynn (? unlikely name for a man) Cowan and Bill(?) Bailey also appeared in Singapore with The Coconut Grove Syncopators.  Cowan and Bailey  it seems  had piano and banjo numbers while very suave looking pair of Ted and Evelyn, “exponents of modern rhythm” who had solid credentials as they had performed with Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers in “Gay Divorcee” and “Top Hat” were the dancers.

Cowan and Bailey’s finale would include the star cast ensemble with some kind of showstopper parody. Obviously, the acts would be changed from time to time: On 16th June, 1936 Malaya Tribune reported that Cowan and Bailey appeared in Malaya/Singapore in their latest Dutch Comedy number totally different from their earlier presentations. In December 1939, there is a picture clipping showing Cowan and Bailey singing to Christmas dinner guests at Cathay Cafe in the British governed Singapore.

Cowan and Bailey also had their own cafe it appears in Singapore at Cathay Cinema (The Straits Times, May 1939).

Their popular numbers included impersonation of Eddie Cantor, an American performer, a penguin dance and a Zulu warrior dance. In the comedy act titled  “Black Magic” they would be dressed as “wild and woolly” Zulus, faces painted black and with enlarged feet. Ted & Evelyn would appear with them in this finale.

In 1941, Cowan and Bailey it appears had their own place called the Coconut Grove at Pasir Panjang where one could “dine and dance under the tropical moon and swaying palms.”

Joe Farren in Old Shanghai had the Cowan and Bailey show at his Paramount Ballroom.

Shanghai Sikhs were hired as security guards for some of these establishments, one lost his life in a shoot-out but details on the man are as skimpy as the outfits the cabaret, taxi-girls  and chorus line dancers wore.



Source: Singapore newspaper archives.






Boris in Shanghai Saturday, Dec 22 2018 




Fun week immersed yet again in history, yet again Shanghai but where the city is a sidelight in the greater adventures of a trained Russian ballet dancer who toured the Paris of the East with his wife in 1930s and made a living for sometime dancing in clubs including Paramount Ballroom where Joe Farren was its manager. One remarkable man and his delightful journey in the east from Bombay to Kathmandu with a stopover in Shanghai.


I published on his fascinating life on Here’s the link:


Flight From China by Edna Lee Booker Wednesday, Dec 12 2018 


In Edna Lee Booker’s delightful book, ‘Flight From China’  her time in Shanghai is described in vivid detail. Edna, had come to Shanghai as a foreign news correspondent for International News service &  reporter for the local China Press. Her professional assignments are covered in her other book, “News is My Job: A Correspondent in War-Torn China.”

Edna had to quickly adapt to the demands of Shanghai’s social life in which she was aided by her loyal Amah.  The several evening soirees that she soon attended required party dresses which were deftly sewn by her house tailor, her joyful garden with a pond, peonies and even a miniature tea house supervised by a hard-working gardener, her marriage to John  Potter (Chancellor?), an American real-estate businessman in Shanghai, the seaside vacations to WeihaiWei, her two children, John jr & Patty…all provide the sweet vignettes of Old Shanghai landscape.

The Shanghai men had a gamut of  entertainment options to choose from: clubs to cabarets as also seedy bars and brothels. The women seemed to have limited choice in that matter though dance and tea parties were plenty.

Edna completes her journey from being a fresh off-the-boat outlander to finally falling for the charms of the middle kingdom and becoming a Shanghailander…though she remains ensconced in her safe cocoon seeing Chinese politics and life either through her news assignments or closer home as she deals with more mundane yet entertaining stuff with her loyal Chinese employees.

Her history of China and Shanghai is to the point and also served as a helpful list of sorts to understand the various political and social upheavals as I was turning the pages. The layered history of Shanghai can be overwhelming but Edna’s style of prose makes it simpler and easier to understand.

So, it’s really quite hunky dory till Japan, China’s old-age enemy shows up. Their villainy when it affects the Chinese is sympathetically addressed including when witnessing the helplessness of a Chinese woman about to be attacked by Japanese soldiers.

As Japan starts invading and Shanghai is becoming more and more dangerous to stay for foreigners it’s time for Edna & her children to go home. Her husband, being a businessman & a Shanghai Volunteer Corps member stays behind.

Then it’s the internment (by the Japanese) account as narrated by John Potter which I though was fascinating as it provided the daily routine, chores, torture the internees experienced. A closer look at life in the internment camp interspersed with gloom, poetry and humor. Then his eventual release along with others where they head back home via Goa, India.

Shanghai, though, is no longer home.

I thoroughly enjoyed a woman’s perspective of made for a good change.









The Adventuress by Santha Rama Rau : Shanghai story by an Indian writer Tuesday, Dec 11 2018 

In 1950, Santha Rama Rau, an Indian American author published ‘East of Home’, a delightful travelogue to the Orient including China. Ms Rau was an ‘affluent vagabond’ thanks to her diplomat father and Planned Parenthood Federation International president mother Dhanavanthi Rau.

Santha Rau’s China insights are humorous and several witty anecdotes are narrated including her impressions of Shanghai. It is definitely a rare Eastern view (in English) of the Orient itself.

Her novel published by Harper and Row  titled The Adventuress is perhaps the first fictional piece I have read,  written by someone of Indian descent, on Old Shanghai.



Here’s a review of the book that appeared on Kirkus :

An entertainment (meant by no means as seriously as Miss Rama Rau’s only other much earlier novel–Remember the House), The Adventuress succeeds on her own decorously false terms, sidestepping the detritus of the war and only once shaken by the possibility of extinction in her determination to survive. The lady with no discernible past (and the ones she invents are outrageous) or future is Kay, first met in Japan enlisting the sympathies of an American who is willing to give her more than she wants. When next seen she’s secured her repatriation to Manila where for a time she attaches herself to an elderly woman and then–via a passport marriage to a pilot–reaches Shanghai. He also takes her more seriously than he should, and having fabricated here, falsified there, the arriviste finally arrives–in a sable coat. One likes her nonetheless and Miss Rama Rau tells her story in a guarded, insinuating and ingratiating fashion. It will be enjoyed.



Rau’s intimate knowledge of Japan shines through much more than her attempt to catch the full-bodied flavor of Shanghai which is on the brink of change & foreigners including the protagonist, a Filipino, trying to hide her past, are no longer finding it as easy to procure a job by simply asking or asserting their foreign status.

As a diplomat’s daughter, Rau had spent more of her time in Japan than in Shanghai where she was once a transient visitor.

As a reader interested in Shanghai’s past this book makes for a pleasant change where you kind of get a whiff of Old Shanghai, a peek here, a glimpse there but given the fact that Rau was really a passerby and not a Shanghailander one has to set the expectations a tad bit low. The plot line  is intriguing and unique, however.

This is one of the very few books (that I have come across till date) written by a female author of Indian origin and that in itself is a big cause for celebration in the world of Indians in Old Shanghai, don’t you think?






Maps of Old Shanghai Thursday, Dec 6 2018 

Maps of Old Shanghai are really the road maps to its fascinating history.


Here’s one of them: It’s a .png file. So if you can’t view it the png format may not be supported by your internet browser.



City Of Devils by Paul French & a question… Monday, Dec 3 2018 


Midnight in Peking by Paul French is one of my favorite books – a gripping and suspense-filled read. While based in Shanghai (2010-2012…very much a griffin) I seriously wished I could attend his talk/book launch sessions. It didn’t happen.

I was spending majority my time in Shanghai Municipal Archives where I did bump into Peter Hibbard once.. we were seated next to each other, poring over the spools of Old Shanghai history in microfilms. I doubt if he remembers me though.

City of Devils (I am not going to give a synopsis: if you want one, read it here on goodreads: in my honest opinion needs to be savored slowly: soaking in one chapter at a time. Only then the build-up, the cabaret & wheeling-dealing atmosphere of Old Shanghai, the inevitable downward spiral of a city and the doomed foreigners …  all come together and make it a delightful read.

But, before you start reading the very finely-crafted and brilliantly researched book , familiarize yourself with Old Shanghai history, especially when the badlands, casinos were in full swing.  Otherwise you may feel slightly overwhelmed. This book is not for the weaklings.

I met Paul at the Singapore Writer’s Festival in November this year. It took me this long to finish this book simply because I did not want to rush through and lose the flavor of Old Shanghai that Paul French meticulously recreates giving us, the readers, the feel for the era, the chorus lines, the gambling dens, the language – filled with racial slurs of that time and intermix of accents and foreign words.He does provide a very useful glossary at the end of the book & that did come in very handy! Also, some wonderful photographs.

Unlike Sikh history in Old Shanghai where it’s quite an impossible feat to match a name with a photograph (unless a family member provides information).

Old Shanghai is sometimes referred to the ‘Chicago of the East’ for the badlands, the prostitution and non-stop crime and corruption that once existed in the windy city as well.

The story is about two men in Old Shanghai:, Jack Riley and Joe Farren and how their business partnership flourished and floundered and how all “good” things do come to an end.

The only question I have is regarding Joe Farren’s (spoiler ahead) death. In the book, Paul French writes on the Japanese torture that may have ended Farren’s life which is highly plausible but John B Powell in his book, “My Twenty-five years in China” writes that Farren committed suicide (in Bridge House Political Prison) by hanging himself from one of the the bars of his cell.

So, which is it? Torture or suicide (could be because of the horrifying torture?) ?  I am inclined to think torture but one can’t discount Powell’s words who was in China at this time….


A must read.


Blanche Arral: Opera in Old Shanghai Saturday, Dec 1 2018 

blanche araalpic

In her memoir, “The extraordinary operatic adventures of Blanche Arral,” the established half-French, half-Belgian  soprano born Clara Lardinois wrote of her touring adventures, one which includes Old Shanghai where she met Harry Houdini.

After a storm devastated Le Casino du Petit Lac, a little theater in Hanoi (or Tonkin?) where she had invested her money, the French Government in Vietnam offered her a casino in Boson, a French concession near Haipong for the following summer.

Blanche,a short, plump and extremely vivacious woman then took a holiday to China.  Once in Shanghai, at the suggestion of a Frenchman who was hosting her there, she decided to give a concert. There was a minor problem: the French concession in Old Shanghai was too small to draw a big audience. So, Blanche hit upon a plan to invite talented amateur artists to assist at her show from an active local music society. The plan worked & she was a success. 

She was home at Shanghai with her own personal ricksha driver and also attended a Chinese wedding.

 A little detour to Hankow on her cousin’s invite where there was a colony of Belgians assisting in the Peking railway construction, where Blanche gave a performance yet again singing songs that reminded the Belgians of home.

On her return to Shanghai, her ship got stuck in mud. For 4 long days where the crew of the ship finally mutinied against a Prussian captain who was reluctant to hoist  the distress signal.  Once rescued, Blanche ate “victuals” after subsisting on rice for four days and her cats relished a meal of fish.

After her return, Blanche performed many times (not just with amateurs anymore) and had no intention to disappear. Around this time Harry Houdini, the Hungarian American magician performed in Shanghai. Blanche was seated in the first row. In the middle of his performance he paused and said: “I see Madame Arral in the audience” waving gracefully in her direction inviting her on to the stage next to him so that he could make her “vanish.”

The audience was applauding & Houdini smiling but for Blanche it was an awful moment, a chilling proposition.  She stood up and said :”But I don’t want to disappear.”

The audience was still applauding and she went on say which would you rather choose: her disappearance or coming on to the stage and sing instead.

The next day Houdini visited her and questioned her reluctance to come on stage for his act the previous night and proposed a business partnership. But, Blanche had firmly decided that music was her thing.

Following is a 1906 reports which means that Blanche was in Shanghai before or around 1906.

  blanche arral

Tall tales Friday, Nov 30 2018 

Old Shanghai must have its share of urban legends and supernatural mysteries: Here’s a cartoon strip sketching one Robert Sistare’s unbelievable encounter that he swore was true in 1926 :


Source: Hand of fate (1952)

The Road to Shanghai by Henry Champly Friday, Nov 30 2018 

White slave traffic especially to the far east was a matter of concern. European women were much in demand in places like Shanghai in the 1930s and prior.

In his book, The Road to Shanghai, Henry Champly details the export route of white slave traffic, i.e prostitutes to China. Specifically to Shanghai.  Fake theatre groups touring Singapore and other places in the far east, pimps luring women with promises of marriage or helping to set-up dressmaking business etc was the modus operandi to procure women for the white slave trade.

On his voyage aboard various steamers to different places including Singapore, Saigon, Hanoi, Hainan, Hong Kong, Canton  he gleans more information and anecdotes on the white slave route to China. The White women were in much demand not by the white men alone but also the eastern men who fancied the pale-skinned voluptuous white girls. The profits were enormous and worth all sorts of risks.

Sailors had many stories on Shanghai as the “sanctuary of the White Venus” who was “more radiant than the New York one , more captivating than the Parisian.”

in 1933, “Shanghai women=Russian women.”  In 1910s & later, it was the American women, “the idols of mercenary love”  who ” dazzled” Shanghai. 1933 was clearly a Russian year….

In Shanghai, “the Mecca of pimps, the capital of trade in white flesh,”  Champly learns from a pimps’ lawyer (Marcel) all about Caveau Montmatre  at the end of Avenue Joffre(Huahai road), it’s  owners Lucien, the chauffeur and Paoletti, the Admiral (chauffeur and admiral being their nicknames). The white slave traffic we learn through Marcel has huntsmen who pick the White women from Europe, Siberia and Australia, forwarders who escort her to Shanghai and finally the receivers who initiate  and exploit the women into the sex-trade in Shanghai.

Cabarets, taxi-girls, the dregs of Shanghai in Chue-pao-san (Blood alley/Xikou Lu), Foochow/Fuzhou Lu , Chapei/Zhabei…all over the White prostitutes calling, “Coming dearie” could be seen and heard. Japanese, Chinese men besides the westerners were their clientele. The busty Harbin Jewess virago procuress for Venus Bar, Mme R, her French husband, Monsieur R, his mistress Sofia, Schira, the transvestite (or perhaps gay?), Shanghai’s underbelly is well described.

Champly even carries a letter to Canton for a Chinese warlord from Paoletti, the sixty something Corsican “Admiral.”

What stuck me in this translated book is the oft repeated bemoaning of the western “loss of face” as White women were now pandering to the “Yellow” men. It was beneath their dignity and the Russian women especially from Harbin speak of their pitiable condition that led them to prostitute themselves in Shanghai.

A good read.

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