A few years ago, locally-based writer and publisher Graham Earnshaw began releasing a series of out-of-print books about China pre-1949 and, more specifically, the interactions between foreigners and locals during that period (a copy of Carl Crow’s Foreign Devil’s in the Flowery Kingdom which made to Shanghaiist was particularly excellent). These books were extensions of an earlier web-based project, the Tales of Old China website, which has a remarkably extensive library and picture database cataloging the rich and fascinating colonial history of China.
Following up on these projects, Earnshaw has recently released Tales of Old Shanghai, the first in a series of original historical publications (Tales of Peking, Hong Kong , etc. to follow) to be released on the appropriately named Earnshaw Books label. Tales, like his website, is a seemingly random anthology of quirky stories, quotes, and images related to Shanghai during the treaty-port era. These entries, taken separately, are amusing little distractions, but as a whole they form an intricate patchwork of people, places, and events that helped to shape the world’s most intriguing city of its time.
Inside you’ll find the stories of gangsters and business tycoons, gamblers and prostitutes, immigrants and refugees. There are stamps, currency, maps, and the fabulous cartoons of Sapajou, a popular Russian artist from the period. We particularly enjoyed the section on Pidgin-English and the anecdotes about petty thieves stealing everything from hats out of tram car windows to the clock off the wall of the Municipal Court (while in session, no less). In short, it has all traces of random miscellanea that made Shanghai simultaneously a fascinating, wonderful, and horrifying place to be.
At first, this unconventional format may disorient those readers looking for a more traditional historical volume with a coherent narrative thread, but that’s just the point. This book is not meant to be read meticulously, cover to cover, in the attempt to learn every last detail about old Shanghai; it just isn’t there. This is the kind of book you can leave on your coffee table or in the bathroom, to be picked up and read a few minutes at time over an extended period. You don’t need to save your place, you can open to any page, and take a little something away within a few minutes to get all nostalgic for a period of time that we don’t actually remember.