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.

Singapore Kate by Robert Standish Wednesday, Nov 28 2018 

Robert Standish’s Singapore Kate should have been titled Shanghai Kate. For much of the “action” takes place in Old Shanghai. Robert Standish aka Stephen Lister, both pseudonyms for writer Digby George Gerahty (1898 – 6 November 1981) introduces us to the exquisitely beautiful English girl, Kate Marlowe in Old Shanghai.

The Publisher’s note mentions how Kate Marlowe, an innocent young girl from Sussex  faces a fighting battle against predators which as we find out later in the book include pimps, a brothel madam and always in pursuit wealthy Shanghai suitor keen on making her his mistress.

Robert Standish mentions he first met Kate Marlowe in Jessfield Park (Zhongshan park) in 1920 (though the book is published in 1919 or 1964…needs checking?) in Shanghai & was immediately smitten by her beauty. He later met her in Provencal, then Switzerland and after her death he inherited her Memory Box that could only be opened by pressing the tiger’s tail & putting a hand on the sage’s head. Much of what Standish wrote is based on the contents & clippings from Kate’s memory box.

The plot is fairly straightforward: Kate Wilder/Ferrari/Marlowe, leaves her unfaithful husband, Colin Wilder, is later (1903) employed by dubious Madame Rosalie/Rosalie Jenkins selling high-fashion evening gowns from Paris & London to the westerners at Raffles Hotel,  Singapore. The copper-haired beauty with blue-gray eyes attracts the attention of one John Ingleby of Ingleby & Waters, an old and established firm in Shanghai. The married John Ingleby tries his best to win her over, plots with Rosalie but finds Kate unimpressed. Instead, the engaging charms of the swashbuckling Gordon Maitland, a broker from Shanghai appeal to her much more.

Rosalie & Kate arrive in Shanghai from Hong Kong, ensconced in Kalee Hotel funded by mastermind Ingleby but unbeknownst to Kate.  However Kate and Gordon first meet at the lobby of Kalee Hotel where he jocularly calls her ‘Singapore Kate’. But, Kate & Gordon’s early courtship comes to a twisted end with Ingleby sending Maitland to Hankow on a work errand. The ploy does not work and Kate finds out the truth & a distressed and alcoholic Madame Rosalie is soon found dead in Huangpu river. For failing Ingleby presumably….

Strapped for funds, Kate then moves to Broadway Hotel in HongKew (HongKou) run by Konstantin Pavelitch. Thereon,  well-laid traps preying on Kate’s dwindling fortunes and  innocence, the journey from prostitution to a madame of a brothel is marked with characters including Ingleby who died in her bed (not for the reason you are thinking of…tsk, tsk!), mountainous woman Belle Darling, Toni Simonides, a violent Greek cafe proprietor, Mary Simonides, a Cockney ex-dancer married to Toni, Edith Ingleby, all play a role in changing rather tarnishing Kate’s life forever.

The characters are so real, straight out of Old Shanghai’s badlands. The author’s note is what makes the story so very real.

I am reading another book though non-fiction on Shanghai prostitution and few characters described in this book & Singapore Kate bear quite a similarity. The timeline however needs checking.

So, was Kate a real person? Well, yes. Who was she? Was she Emily Moore? Who was Ingleby? There’s a brief mention of an Inspector from Shanghai Municipal Police who helps Kate successfully execute her revenge against those who pushed her into prostitution (a little too dramatic and seems contrived).

In the end, Kate leaves Shanghai forever auctioning her house (a brothel near Soochow/Suzhou creek) and its contents including 250 evening gowns, a magnificently carved ivory four-poster bed, linens, curtains and carpets….

“In every whore, Kate believed, there was a real need for respectability.”  She left Shanghai as quietly as she had come. That need for anonymity and respectability was possible only after Kate made her money through prostitution.

While I felt huge amount of sympathy for Kate, the story harped many a times on her jaw-dropping beauty that seemed to strike men of all kinds.Could she not have taken up a teaching job or become an actress?  As Kate points out that she could not become a governess because women mistrusted her and jobs for white women were very few. Plus, once she was in Belle’s brothel, it was not possible to come out with her reputation unscathed.

A very good read.





Shanghai Municipal Police: E. Crabtree Friday, Nov 16 2018 

The Shanghai Municipal Police (SMP) consisted of the British plus foreigners including British Sikhs, Russians, Americans, etc. One wonders on how they got along. Imagine a conversation between a Sardar, a Brit, a Russian & an American …. the colorful language, lot of gesticulation, the name calling that may have transpired … not to forget the lost in translation jokes and issues….or perhaps the communication was very much formal & stiff considering the police was after all British, their dry humor notwithstanding.  Only the Brits & Americans spoke English, making for smoother interactions one thinks.

The presumed camaraderie between the English speaking British and American cops   goes for a toss though when you read E Crabtree’s account in The Blue Book magazine.

Crabtree, a seaman, wrote of his time (first in the Yangtzepoo police station, later the Reserve Unit) in the Shanghai Municipal Police (The Blue Book Magazine, September 1932) , under his British superior, cleverly referred to as “Smith.”

Smith, was a newly promoted sub-inspector who dredged Crabtree up in front of the SMP Commissioner for breaking regulations: once for smoking on duty, second for being shoddily dressed for a parade as a button on his tunic was undone and third for being disrespectful.” Smith tried to make Crabtree’s tours of duty as “miserable as possible” perhaps because he was the only American guy on that team, a reason that Crabtree conjectured. Crabtree’s third offense meant transfer to the Reserve Unit/Riot Squad duty at the Gordon Road Depot. But, Crabtree soon got his sweet revenge though unintentionally….

Crabtree takes us through a thrilling and a dangerous police chase that was really a ho-hum affair in Old Shanghai.  Chasing a Chinese kidnapper, shooting with Thompson guns, throwing over a hand-grenade that turned out to be a dud, riddling the roof from down below with bullets to injure the kidnapper…all elements that make for one helluva cops and robbers or in this case kidnappers story. Red Maria (the armored truck), Inspector Fairbairn, P.C. Menzies and few others are mentioned.

So how did Crabtree get his revenge… albeit, unintentionally?  Well, Smith wanted to look like a hero & rushed in a zone (where the Chinese kidnapper was hiding) that Fairbairn had prohibited anyone from entering. Crabtree seeing a shadow shot immediately as were his orders. The bullet went through Smith’s knee keeping him out of commission for two months and he ended up with a slight limp. A bloody revenge …actually quite tame if you consider the hair-raising and bizarre police chronicles in Old Shanghai.





Smith was a fake name. The account seems authentic.

E. Crabtree exists on the Shanghai Municipal Police roster compiled by Professor Robert Bickers and the time period seems to be correct. 

Source: The Blue Book Magazine, September 1932,

Ratanshaw Beghampore Vakil, Tianjin Thursday, Aug 23 2018 

After my return  to Philadelphia from Shanghai in 2012, I spoke to my very dear Parsi friend, Khorshed, of my interest on researching Sikhs and other Indians in Shanghai, Tianjin & Hankou.  I also apprised her of Shanghai’s Fire temple and its unfortunate demolition. To my surprise, Khorshed, mentioned that her father had been to China and had worked in Tianjin.

Khorshed’s father, Ratanshaw B Vakil,  had been employed as a manager in the Talati House Hotel in Tientsin in 1948. He did not stay in Tianjin for very long & headed to greener pastures in Singapore soon after. Today, at the National Archives, Singapore I had the opportunity to hear an audio-recording of his experiences in Tianjin.

As a manager of the Talati House Hotel which was owned by another Parsi, Mr Talati, RatanShaw Vakil, found Tianjin to be unsavory and unpleasant. Within few months of his arrival he was assaulted three to four times.  And, as a manager he had to deal with difficult guests including the shabbily dressed Chinese National Army soldiers who would occupy a corridor with young soldiers lying in front of the room allotted to their  leader.  Not knowing Mandarin, his pleas and continuous requests for them to move would fall on deaf ears. Mainly because much of the communication would occur through gesticulation,

Vakil, also noted that some of the employees would earn tips from residing guests by getting ” female entertainers” for them. Wages were low and tips were the way for some of the employees to supplement their income. Guests would walk in to their room with such women. In one instance a Chinese guest fumed and shouted in Mandarin, taking his pistol out and aiming at Vakil. Clueless, Vakil finally had help from an interpreter who told him that he had offended the Chinese guest’s wife by making an insinuation that she was an “entertainer.”

After this incident, Vakil decided to pack his bags and leave. He sailed to Shanghai and from there took a flight to Hong Kong and then Singapore taking up employment in a firm.

Vakil, mentioned that there were only 3-4 Parsis in Tianjin unlike Shanghai which had a sizable Parsi community. He stated that Talati, the owner,  stayed back in China even after Japanese internment and later died in Tianjin.


Audio-recording: Ratanshaw Beghampore Vakil, National Archives, Singapore.







Sitting ‘shiveh’ in the Shanghai Sikh gurdwara Wednesday, Aug 22 2018 

Oral Histories can take on diverse forms. A memory that is a personal note/impression of events in a place can either be a happy (or otherwise) recollection, an anecdote or a song associated with a place and at times folklores and even urban legends. Oral Histories substantiate traditional history and add drama to an otherwise bland representation (not always!) of facts, events, milestones, etc

In the context of Sikhs in Shanghai, there are few anecdotes and some Oral Histories that make for an interesting version of unreported facts. In the 1980 Susanne Goldfarb (1933-1987)  recording on Holocaust survivors by,  her Oral Transcript offers a glimpse of an interracial wedding held in the Sikh gurdwara in Old Shanghai. Susanne was six years old when she moved to Shanghai with her family in 1939 from Austria.The family took refuge in Shanghai fleeing from the Nazis.

On being asked on the topic of intermarriages of Jews in Old Shanghai , Susanne spoke of a marriage between an Indian man and a Jewish girl (from a Orthodox Jewish family)  in the Sikh gurdwara (presumably the Dong Bao Xing Lu gurdwara as that was the most prominent one) where the parents (Bengshens) of the girl sat in shiveh (seven-day mourning). Sitting in shiveh was a clear expression of the family’s disappointment in her choice of a Non-jewish suitor. The newly married couple later settled in Hong Kong.

Source:Wisconsin History.










3 Shanghai mystery books (non-English) Friday, Apr 3 2015 

Three Shanghai related mystery/fiction books listed on ebay.  $T2eC16h,!zcE9s4g4v2UBR1TRd,Zhw~~60_35 $(KGrHqJ,!pIFHHNp9SnWBR1TUkwICQ~~60_12 $_12 (2)

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