1930s Shanghai has long captivated people for its lurid underworld, usually presented in the form of the notorious Green Gang. However, there was a brief period in Old Shanghai where a new batch of gangsters rose to prominence, and their story is told in Paul French’s City of Devils.
Opening in 1941, we see the last, desperate days of “Lucky” Jack Riley. An American criminal, he has built a gambling empire, only to see it come crashing down. He’s a wanted man now, but Riley isn’t the type to be taken alive again. The book is nonfiction but reads like a crime thriller. We see Jack Riley’s seedy history, his early days as a boxer, his escape from an Oklahoma prison, burning his fingerprints off with acid, and signing on to a freighter in the Pacific, where he eventually winds up in Shanghai.
The book also details the early life of Riley’s partner, Joe Farren, from his beginnings in Vienna’s Jewish ghetto, to his seedy life in the Shanghai nightclub scene. Joining them are a host of gangsters, con man, gun molls, and corrupt officials. At first, the duo run a seedy dive in Shanghai’s infamous Blood Alley – Manhattan – but they soon branch out.
However, profits from bars are chump change compared to gambling. That’s where Riley and Farren really hit it big – slot machines. Their bars are soon packed with them, eating the spare change of hapless sailors, marines, and beer-swilling riff-raff. Revenue is so immense that “Lucky” Riley earns a new nickname – the Slots King of Shanghai.
In 1937, Shanghai changed forever. The Sino-Japanese War began in earnest, and Shanghai was one of the first battles in this grueling conflict. The crime syndicate that had ruled the city up until then – the infamous Green Gang – fled, in large part due to its partnership with the ruling Kuomintang regime. Those members who lagged behind were absorbed into the puppet regime of Wang Jingwei, a sort of Chinese Vichy.
This created a huge power vacuum in the city, which men like Riley and Farren, up until now relatively two-bit criminals, stepped in to fill. No longer content with the paltry bars they currently own, Riley envisions a grand casino siphoning limitless cash out of the city. The workhorse for this stable would be the massive supply of slot machines he owns. This untapped market was located in the so-called “Badlands,” the part of Shanghai occupied by the Japanese. The International Settlement and French Concession operated independently, and these years were known as the “Lonely Island Era.”
Until 1940 that is. At least for Frenchtown. Kowtowing to Japanese pressure, Vichy French officials turned their sector into a de facto Japanese outpost, encircling “free” Shanghai even further. After they open a full-fledged casino in the Shanghai Badlands, Riley and Farren earn more and more enemies ranging from the more-respectable Shanghai Municipal Council to the dreaded Kempeitai.
Paul French does a great job of incorporating fascinating details from food prices, drug culture, high society gossip, and court records into extremely crisp prose, leaving you eager to know what happens next. As with most stories set in the Sodom of the East, it doesn’t end well, but that’s the allure.
Paul French Interview
1) What inspired you to write City of Devils?
I’d long wanted to write a book about interwar |Shanghai – that old shanghai that is all too often remembered rather romantically and nostalgically. I wanted to capture that era but more realistically and show all sides – the poverty, the separation of being a refugee or stateless, what happens when you slip through the cracks in a society with no welfare; how desperate people could become when poor, or surrounded by war. I felt that looking at the city’s underwritten about foreign underbelly would be a good way to show the various sides of the old Shanghai coin. It had to be true and it had to capture the glamour, cosmopolitanism, creativity, and, often, degradations of the city.
2) Was it difficult to find detailed information about Jack Riley and Joe Farren?
At first no – of course, you can only really write a detailed true crime book about people who get caught, who the police know. Without that, your primary sources are too scant. With these two there were newspaper articles, police records, court hearings. they were famous so people remembered them, took photos of them, noted them in their memoirs. However, as ever, trying to get to the very essence of the two real men is quite hard. It’s always especially hard with people in the underworld as they lie and deceive. Jack and Joe changed their names, their pasts, their ages, admitted to nothing of course, and claimed they were just innocent businessmen.
3) In the book, you mention that some Green Gang members collaborated with the Wang Ching-wei Regime during the Lonely Island Era. Their leader – Tu Yueh-sheng – however, was famously in league with Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang. Were these Green Gang collaborators common? Were they punished after the war?
After the Japanese invasion in 1937 the Green Gang effectively fell apart. Yet their legend lives on – but between 1938 and Pearl Harbor (Dec 1941) they were absent from the scene. Du gone, the gang dispersed. This is the essence of City of Devils – that moment of a few years when the Shanghai International Settlement was surrounded by the Japanese army (Gudao, or the Lonely Island), and the foreign gangs in the city took over. Many of the Green Gang ‘retired’, many disappeared to Hong Kong, Singapore, other parts of eastern China; some formed smaller gangs, drug dealing networks etc. But many did join the new Chinese gang in town – Wang Ching-wei’s collaborationists. They were extortionists, torturers, brutal men. After the war some were caught and tried for treason, declared traitors (hanjin), though many just melted back into the streets and alleys of Shanghai.
Only now via my book!
5) Other than the different governments and police, how was life different in the International Settlement compared to Frenchtown?
Well, they drove on the left in the Settlement and on the right in Frenchtown. Obviously it was French law there too. But the main difference was that (without claiming too much legality for the Settlement) Frenchtown was a far larger, more corrupt place. It’s why the Red and Green Gangs had been based there and so many of the foreign gangs too. After 1940 it was controlled by pro-Vichy elements so it was effectively under Japanese control, though they chose to let it remain fairly easy-going.
6) Did organized crime gangs finance cinema in Shanghai during the Nanking Decade and the Lonely Island Era?
I don’t know of them financing cinema – though they controlled the labour unions so did have input there. The Shanghai film industry was famously rather leftist, even to the annoyance of Nanking on many occasions. The more pro-Japanese film industry was up in Manchuria making pro-Japanese movies with Chinese actors and actresses and Japanese stars like Yoshiko Yamaguchi (aka Ri Koran).
7) How dangerous were the Shanghai Badlands for the average Chinese and Westerner who dared to venture into them?
Pretty dangerous – gun battles were pretty common and foreigners got caught in the cross-fire; gang fights, choppings and slashings. Kidnappings of foreigners did occur and didn’t always end well. Assassinations. As well as bad heroin pills, adulterated dope and fixed table casinos that saw you lose all your money and kill yourself.
8) What has been the reception for City of Devils?
It’s been good – it’s sold well in the US, Australia and Europe and I haven’t seen any negative reviews. It was a starred Kirkus book and one of their reads of the year. The TV rights are with a serious and senior LA-based production company so we’ll see what happens there. The Chinese translation is out this year (delayed due to the virus but hopefully later). I have quite a big readership in China so i hope they like this one too.
9) Was there anything you cut out of City of Devils that was in the original draft?
Loads – it was 500 pages longer originally…
10) What are you working on currently?
Last year I did an Audible Original commissioned by the good folk at Audible – Murders of Old China. I went back and looked at 12 murders in the first of the twentieth century in China – each of which says something about Chinese history and Sino-foreign relations as well as being good tales. In most cases, I found new evidence not known at the time. It’s narrated by me. Audio is a new format for me (though I have written for BBC radio before) and I like it.
I just finished a film script and a small novella about the Jewish refugees who went to Macao in WW2. I’m working on a 6 part podcast for BBC Radio called Peking Noir that anyone who liked Midnight in Peking and City of Devils will like. That’ll go out sometime towards the end of the year. I’m also developing another script from an idea by me that was picked up by a movie company, but that’s super embargoed! Other than that I’m itching to get on with a new book that will continue the story of Shanghai’s gangs where City of Devils left off – i.e. into the Japanese occupation of Shanghai and the post-war years before the communist takeover. I have half a dozen full notebooks and need to get that all sorted!!