British-born business consultant and writer Paul French has lived in Shanghai for a good chunk of time — though not nearly as long as Carl Crow, who spent a quarter of a century in the city during the tumultuous early decades of the 20th century. And it’s this long stint that Crow, an American adman, spent in Shanghai which forms the basis of French’s latest book, Carl Crow: A Tough Old China Hand — The Life, Times and Adventures of an
American in Shanghai, a fascinating and entertaining insight into the remarkable career of an entrepreneurial ex-pat. Shanghaiist spoke with the author to find out more.
Who was Carl Crow? Carl was a Missouri boy who studied journalism and then pitched up in Shanghai in 1911 to start China’s first American-run English language newspaper, the China Press. The whole thing looked like a disaster as very little was happening in China of interest to foreigners at the time. You have to remember that in 1911 Shanghai was a small, introverted and very boring city — the wild times and the money was still to come. However, in October that year everything changed; the Qing collapsed and Sun Yat-sen came to power and Carl had a story.
He made the paper a success, went to Tokyo and turned another paper into a success before coming back to Shanghai and starting his own advertising agency that made him wealthy and revolutionized advertising in China.
He hung around in Shanghai for 25 years before being chased out by the Japanese in ’37. He went back to America and played a key role in running America’s wartime propaganda effort in China. Perhaps the most amazing thing about Carl was his guanxi — he was friends with Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek, Madame Chiang, Zhou En-lai, a few warlords and just about every prominent foreigner on the China coast between the wars.
Carl Crow’s biggest achievement? Carl Crow Inc — his advertising agency. When you stroll down Dongtai Lu and see all those Shanghai sexy girl calendar ads you’re looking at Carl Crow’s most enduring legacy. He was one of the people who developed that style along with a range of highly skilled Chinese artists. What you normally see in the markets are images and ads from the later 1930s but in the book I’ve traced back the roots of that movement and Carl’s involvement to the early 1920s. Shanghai calendar girl art represents an amazing fusion of western and Chinese advertisers and artists that has not been repeated by today’s advertising community in Shanghai — this was not the imitation that propels the industry today but a genuine domestic homegrown art form.
Your favourite Crow anecdote? There’s so many of them — in fact I’ve written a book that is basically 300 pages of Carl Crow anecdotes! Some of his anecdotes were important — such as being the only foreign journalist to cover the negotiations between the Qing and Sun that ended a 350 year old dynasty or interviewing Zhou En-lai and Chiang Kai-shek in Chongqing in 1939 when the war was going very badly for China. However, I’d go back to 1923 when Carl ended up negotiating release of 25 westerners and 200 Chinese from a bandit warlord in Shandong. The bandit had basically kidnapped a trainload of people and taken them to his inaccessible mountain lair. Carl was hired by the American government and the Red Cross to try and sort it out — he eventually arrived at a system whereby he was sending supplies of food up a mountain to a warlord camp and getting a ticked off invoice back everyday from the warlord. Few people can build a rapport like that with a bandit but Carl did and got the hostages all released with no fatalities. It was a major headline event at the time and later became the Marlene Dietrich/Anna May Wong movie Shanghai Express.
Where in Shanghai was Crow’s centre of activity? Any places that still exist today? Sadly most of the venues have gone, but the buildings remain. Of course Carl was very early into Shanghai and the International Settlement didn’t go back so far meaning that his daily world was a little prescribed by Shanghai’s dimensions. His office was on Jinkee Road (now Dianchi Lu) just off the Bund — it’s now an upmarket KTV place. He drank along the Bund at the Shanghai Club (British only but Carl was allowed to join) at No. 2 and was for many years the President of the American Club on Fuzhou Lu which is still there and was until recently the People’s Court building. He also headed over into the French Concession to the French Club which is now the Okura Garden Hotel on Maoming Lu.
He lived on Connaught Road (now Kangding Lu) in a substantial property which is now sadly gone and a boring little supermarket sits on the grounds. He also loved the horses and never missed the races — of course the Race Course is long gone now and reduced to the urban blight of People’s Square. Still you can just about reprise Carl’s daily lunchtime walk — from the War Memorial on the Bund, which stood at the junction of the French and British Bund (now where Yan’an Lu meets the Bund), along the waterfront to the Garden Bridge, across the Bridge watching the boats (now also sadly no longer on Suzhou Creek due to the Creek being blocked off) and into the Astor Hotel (now the Pujiang Hotel) for tea. He’d then head back and stop at the Cathay Hotel (Peace Hotel) for their supposedly excellent curried prawns. Not a bad life really.
What did a typical Shanghai day entail for Crow? Carl was a worker and got to the office early. His main business was placing ads in the newspapers and designing ads for western companies looking to get in on the China market action. However, he wasn’t a wage slave and liked his long lunches and also enjoyed retiring to his clubs, particularly the American Club, after work. Any excuse for food was found and he ate everything — Chinese, western, street food, banquets — and later in his life it showed in his waistline.
Sadly he was a little too early into Shanghai to really get a taste for the ‘Whore of the Orient’ and preferred the clubs and restaurants to the knock-down-and-drag-out bars and the sing-song girls. He did like a gamble but never won much.
He was a traveler and resisted getting caught up in the bubble atmosphere of Shanghai. He traveled the entire country — indeed as far back as 1913 he wrote what is basically the first Rough Guide or Lonely Planet to China: The Travelers’ Handbook to China. It went through over 15 reprints before the Second World War tracking the new roads, railways and hotels in China. He went up the Yangtze to Chongqing when that was a hazardous trip, to the border with Russia and on the Trans-Siberian railway when it passed through Tsarist Russia, to Sichuan when the province was basically an isolated country on its own … and remember he did most of his traveling around China when the country was riddled with marauding bandit warlords and the notion of a two-star hotel was still two decades away!
How many other foreigners were there in Shanghai in Crow’s time here, and what kind of work were they doing? When he arrived there were very, very few foreigners and most were either British or French — only a couple of hundred fellow Americans. By the 1920s Shanghai’s population was about 1.5 million but still not that many Americans. However, by the mid-1930s Shanghai had a population of about 3 million with 70,000 foreigners swelled by the arrival of the White Russians and the stateless Jewish refugees.
Carl was in one of the smallest groups within foreign Shanghai — he was an American and they were always outnumbered by the Europeans — by the mid 30s about 2,000 Americans in the International Settlement (including Carl) and another 3,500 living in the French Concession. He was also an independent entrepreneur which wasn’t so common — then, like now, most people worked for large firms and were posted to Shanghai. Carl did his own thing from 1918 till 1937 when he left. The other group that gets little written about where the growing number of bums that turned up in Shanghai — again in an echo of today perhaps! They were known as the ‘beachcombers’ and included tramps, deserting army and navy guys, those with no discernible skills, con men and scam artists along with the legions who came to China with, what they thought, was a good idea to make a fortune but found it impossible and were reduced to begging, smuggling opium, teaching English or freelancing (again, sound familiar?).
Shanghai the “Whore of the Orient”, and all that. Did you get a strong sense of that when researching this book? Everyone of course has an image of Shanghai as the Paris of the East or the Whore of the Orient — the jazz, the parties, the opium, the money, the decadence. What I wanted very much to convey was that that popular image of Shanghai was a brief moment in the city’s history — a few years. The magnificent Bund, the all-night parties, the jazz was fleeting. When Carl arrived the Bund was nothing like we know it, the city was a backwater — it took the First World War to kick off the economic boom and not really until the late 1920s and 1930s did it really kick in. Carl saw the city when it was dreary, a home for British merchants with no bars, no nightlife and a very incestuous small foreign community. In the book I added pictures of Shanghai before and just after the First World War to try and reinforce that image — that Shanghai changed massively — arguably far more than it has in the last 15-20 years which of course everyone goes on about all the time. The current vogue for refashioning the city is just the latest in a long line and I doubt very much of lasting stature to match the buildings of the Bund will be left for historians to write about — in the future are we seriously going to compare the block built Westin Hotel with its silly crown alongside the HSBC Building or the fascistic looking Tomorrow’s Square with the old Race Course building opposite or something as horrendously tacky as Xintiandi with the Cathay Hotel? I doubt it, or at least I hope not.
Are any of Crow’s own books still in print, and are they available anywhere for readers in Shanghai? Sadly no — though there is a reprint of 400 Million Customers you can pick up online. Still, most of his books are available on the Internet or if you happen to live near any good secondhand bookshops — try Alibris or Powells or any of the big aggregators of old books on the net — you can usually get copies of his books for US$10 up. As well as the landmark 400 Million Customers, others are a good read — I’d recommend his book Foreign Devils in the Flowery Kingdom from 1940 — any foreigners living in China now will find many things haven’t changed much in the intervening 70 years.
Tell us a bit about 400 Million Customers. Is there still some good advice in there for hotshots arriving to make their fortunes in Shanghai today? 400 Million (i.e. the population of China in 1937) was a collection of all of Crow’s adventures in the advertising business condensed into the book that was to make his name as a successful and best-selling author around the world. Arguably it’s the best selling book on China ever — No. 1 in USA, UK and reprinted countless times and translated into 14 languages. Crow’s tone in 400 Million Customers was to be amusing but informative. His fascination with the advertising business had been such that it allowed him time to study the ordinary Chinese man and woman, as a consumer, a shopper and a person in a new society tempted by an ever-growing range of products and services to choose from (or reject) while looking at the misconceptions foreign companies held about China. The book achieved a level of fame that meant that Crow was still receiving fan mail up until his death and one radio announcer in America reviewed it as an essential read for the visitor to China — and that anyone going to Shanghai should look up Carl Crow. He came to dread the arrival of every passenger liner from America for a while as it brought eager readers and tourists to his office door demanding a tour of the city as promised on the radio back home. I promise you it’s the best book on China you’ll ever read (after my biography of Crow of course).
What do you think Carl Crow would make of Shanghai, 2006? Exactly the same as he did of Shanghai in 1936 — he’d laugh himself stupid at the inflated egos, ridiculous carry on and pomposity of the foreign community. The ex-pats who arrived in Shanghai with nothing else on their minds but fast money and did nothing but complain about life in Shanghai and the Chinese were the biggest bores Carl could imagine. Today, I would suggest, it is possible to bump into similar types around the more expensive establishments in Shanghai — whinging about food, ayis, pollution, etc. etc.
Carl understood the essential truth of the ex-pat experience in China — you don’t change China, China changes you — and if you don’t like it then leave.
I am sure that he would see nonsense like 3 on the Bund and Bar Rouge as a necessary evil in the commercial recuperation of the city and wish them luck but would not for one minute waste his time patronising such places in the belief that this was really anything very much to do with China.
So, in brief, of course a very small area of Shanghai would appear to some avant garde and progressive and to others lacking in any charm or class but it didn’t matter — the real China is always up the road and it’s up to you if you want to go see it or not. In Carl’s time most people didn’t bother and went back to drinking Champagne at the Cathay Hotel, standing on a balcony looking at the River, and Carl by and large avoided such types. Not a bad tip for 2006 either I reckon.
Carl Crow: A Tough Old China Hand — The Life, Times and Adventures of an American in Shanghai by Paul French. Hong Kong University Press (October 2006). Available online from Hong Kong University Press (with a 10% discount) or via Hong Kong from Paddyfield.com (quick shipping to Shanghai is available from both these sites).