Maura Cunningham, China Beat’s new Associate Editor, reviews Earnshaw Books’ “Shanghai: High Lights Low Lights Tael Lights.” Originally published on The China Beat, and republished with their permission here.
Clocking in at only 99 pages, Shanghai: High Lights Low Lights Tael Lights is an excellent appetizer for those of us who generally dine on heavier reading fare. The authors, Maurine Karns and Pat Patterson, make their purpose known early in the book: in the preface, titled “an explanation but not an apology,” Karns and Patterson state that they have written Tael Lights “with the hope of enjoying ourselves, of making a little money, and of not committing ourselves to anything for which we might be sorry” (xx). They proceed to describe, with delightful if decidedly un-PC irreverence, the Shanghai they saw before them when writing the book in 1936.
Tael Lights has recently been reprinted by Earnshaw Books, and is once again available to readers looking to supplement their stodgy Shanghai guidebooks with a more tongue-in-cheek introduction to the city. Karns and Patterson have produced a brief, idiosyncratic work — one which does not attempt to detail the entire history of Shanghai or present a comprehensive survey of the city’s hotels, restaurants, and tourist sites, but rather gives the reader a vivid impression of the Shanghai experience. Tael Lights is “Just a sort of a composite of what Shanghai looks like, and feels like and smells like after, say, the third whisky-soda, when, as Shakespeare or somebody said, the senses are sharpest” (xx).*
The absolute necessity of experiencing Shanghai, rather than gazing at it through the viewfinder of a camera, is a recurring theme in Tael Lights. Karns and Patterson urge their readers to forgo visits to the staid Longhua Pagoda and Willow Pattern Tea House, instead suggesting a trip to the Great World Amusement Park, Shanghai’s Coney Island, for tourists seeking a real taste of metropolitan life. The book lists and reviews the hotspots of Shanghai’s nightlife, devoting an entire chapter to “the fleshpots” and assuring readers that “A trip to the Venus [Cafe] is worth the sleep lost and is part of anyone’s education” (57). The writers, intoxicated by both the “Whangpoo whiskey” and the city surrounding them, express this joie de vivre in every page of their book. “The color and tang and spice of China is not in it’s temples nor in it’s lotus strewn gardens but in its crowded streets” (42), they remind their audience.
I was continually mindful of its original publication date, only a year before the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out, effectively bringing to an end the treaty-port society described by Karns and Patterson. Like the television drama Mad Men, currently set in the early months of 1963, Tael Lights celebrates an apparently untroubled world that is in fact not quite so footloose and fancy-free, and which will soon be turned upside-down. While Karns and Patterson mention the presence of the Japanese military in Shanghai, they make light of the Japanese fondness for “playing soldiers” (7) and state that tensions between the countries stem from “the Japanese yen for the Chinese tael” (25).
Their Shanghai is on the cusp of disappearing, yet what is most remarkable about the guidebook Karns and Patterson have written is the sense of familiarity I felt when reading some parts of it. Tael Lights evokes the relentless energy of Shanghai, the cacophony of its streets, and the many indescribable qualities which make it “the most unique city in the world” (2). Although several other elements of the book are entirely divorced from my own Shanghai experiences (the final chapter is entitled “There Are Also Some Chinese in Shanghai,” for example), Karns and Patterson have nevertheless captured a certain slice of the urban landscape that remains recognizable seven decades later. In his forward to the new edition, Michael Schoenhals writes that Tael Lights “retroactively foreshadows like no other work the globalized Shanghai of the 21st century” (xiii). Simultaneously exotic and familiar, the Shanghai depicted in these 99 pages is most definitely “a grand place to live, to work and to enjoy life” (98-99).
*The Earnshaw Books edition of Tael Lights maintains all original spelling and grammatical errors, and quotes here are reproduced without alteration.