These Rogue Foreigners Ruled the Streets of 1930s Shanghai
Paul French’s great-grandfather was stationed in Shanghai when it was a British Royal Navy town in the years after World War I. The man was a stoker—a sailor who shoveled coal into a ship’s furnaces and developed massive forearms as a result. French recalled his relative sporting incredible snakes tattooed up each arm, with the heads of the snakes intertwined down between his shoulder blades. It might be hard to imagine in the era of chart-topping rappers with face ink, a time when seemingly everyone has a tattoo somewhere or other, but to see this kind of body art during French’s boyhood was a revelation. To get more shanghai 1930s, you can visit shine news official website.
Thanks to stories passed down by his relatives, French always had a vague awareness that Shanghai was an incredible city before 1949, when the Communist revolution changed everything. A wide open place, it was perhaps the only major metropolis in the world where you didn’t need a passport or any kind of papers to slip in and disappear. These days, global party destinations like Ibiza are considered uniquely debauched, welcoming of outcasts and college kids alike, but the stories French heard about 1920s Shanghai stuck with him well into adulthood.
In his new book, City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai, French explores the appeal of the city to outlaws by telling the stories of the life and times of „Lucky“ Jack Riley, an American who escaped prison, and „Dapper“ Joe Farren, a Jewish nightclub impresario. The two men joined forces to lead a sort of Orientalist mini crime empire in 1930s Shanghai, serving up as much gambling, drugs and sex work as fellow foreigners could handle. We talked to the author to find out why the city was so welcoming of rogue outsiders, whether these guys were more sordid predators than hapless party boys, and how World War II ended their reign, changing Shanghai forever.
VICE: How did Shanghai come to enjoy such a unique reputation in the 1930s?
Paul French: It was part of China, but not part of China—it wasn’t like Hong Kong or Singapore or other colonies. It was an international city, run largely by foreigners. The fifth-largest city in the world at the time, after London, New York, Paris, and Berlin. Because of the Communist revolution, we don’t appreciate it now, but in the 1930s, Hong Kong was nothing special at all, Singapore was nothing special at all. Even Tokyo really was not that exciting. Shanghai was the most modern city. It had the hotels, art deco architecture, cars, jazz, nightclubs, dance halls, casinos, all of that. It was what they used to call freebooting capitalism. If you could get yourself there and wanted to reinvent yourself, it was the greatest city to go to.
„Lucky“ Jack Riley seems to epitomize the strange—and sometimes strangely forgiving—culture of the place, given that he was able to set himself up there. But it’s not like he chose that life, right?
He had a pretty tough upbringing around Tulsa. His father ran out pretty early, his mother was a bit of a drinker. He ended up in an orphanage and working in a brothel, but he did manage to get in the United States Navy. The military gave him discipline and a sort of family. They sent him out on what was called the Yangtze Patrol. American Navy ships went up and down the Yangtze river in China watching out for American citizens, missionaries and businesspeople. Jack got to liking Shanghai, but went back to Tulsa after the first World War and got himself in a bit of trouble.
He was involved in a kidnapping of a card game at a speakeasy. It was the time of Dillinger and the start of the FBI crackdown, and he got like 35 years in Oklahoma State Penitentiary. But he was a good baseball player and on the prison baseball team. They went out to play baseball against a civilian team, and he escaped. Got to San Francisco, where he rolled a drunk called Jack Riley and took his name. He burnt his fingerprints off with acid, got to Shanghai, and was Jack Riley with no fingerprints. He thought: I can never be busted for anything now.