Shanghai Story by the great Alexa Kang is a historical epic in the vein of such classics as The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. Whereas those books concentrated on the well-represented European Theater of World War II, Kang’s trilogy will focus on the lesser-known Sino-Japanese War.
The novel opens in 1936, one year before hostilities between China and Japan broke out. During this lull in tension, Clark Yuan returns to Shanghai after studying in America. He’s almost like the embodiment of modern China – eager to progress and move forward, but certain customs and mindsets bind him to the past. Determined to help modernize his country, he joins the Kuomintang – the Chinese Nationalist Party – and takes a job within the government. However, Clark has his rose-colored glasses shattered when he realizes the Kuomintang – and China in general – is riddled with corruption.
All is not entirely bleak for Clark, since he soon meets Eden Levine, a German-Jewish refugee. Her father – Dr. Levine – had helped Clark’s own father, and he brings by a customary gift. Clark and Eden have an instant attraction to one another, although they do their best to smother it. After all, in this era, a white man and an Asian woman pairing was frowned upon by society. Swap the genders and it’s even more taboo. Russian women in Shanghai often turned to prostitution to make ends meet and were often disdained by their fellow whites. Why? Because they “lowered” themselves to sleep with Chinese men, something white women were expected not to do.
Clark and Eden are the main protagonists and have a “will they or won’t they” romance throughout the book. The second book has an Asian male model, so I always pictured Clark as him. However, whenever I read Eden’s chapters, I couldn’t help but think of Liv Lisa Fries from the Babylon Berlin TV series. Fitting too, since she’s also German. Eden and Clark are far from the only characters. Like all good historical epics, we follow a large cast, although mostly through Clark’s and Eden’s POV.
There’s Wen-Ying, Clark’s little sister who works in the British Embassy. Her blossoming political beliefs coincide with China’s desire for greater autonomy and the abolishment of the foreign concessions within Shanghai. Clark’s other little sister – Mei Mei -has a pompous boyfriend – Liu Zi-Hong, much to the chagrin of Clark. Then there’s Greg Dawson, an American adviser for China’s infant Air Force, who also has a crush on Wen-Ying. I suspect that in future books, Greg will wind up as a Flying Tiger. Historical figures also make appearances, no less than Soong Mei-Ling aka Madam Chiang Kai-shek.
Clark and Eden’s budding romance is complicated by Shen Yi, a simple girl from a good family. So good, that his parents arrange them to be married, despite them having little in common. Shen Yi is keen on the idea, but Clark – who has had his head filled about Western concepts of individualism – is dreading it. Besides, he finds Eden popping into his thoughts more often than he would like, distracting him from his work.
As a Kuomintang functionary, he is determined to help China modernize, but his good deeds have blowback. Most notably, when one of his family’s servant comes to him, begging to help her opium-addicted husband, Clark agrees. Against his better judgement, he reaches out to the Shanghai Police, with tragic results.
Eden is also busy, especially after she finds a job as a reporter. She soon becomes involved with a major subplot, the murder of a Jewish girl. It appears that a German soldier – Johann Hauser – it the killer, but Eden has he doubts. Writing several articles suggesting that Johann might be innocent, she soon finds herself the target of Shanghai’s Jewish community’s wrath. Branding her “Hitler’s whore” Eden will have to stick to her guns and try to uncover the true murderer.
Alexa Kang sheds some light on the fact that during the 1930s, German advisers were a common sight in China, helping modernize the Nationalist Army. German influence was so prevalent, that the 88th and 87th Divisions were nicknamed the “German Divisions.” Added to that was the iconic German steel helmet – the stahlhelm – was worn by Chinese soldiers in from 1935 onward. After the German advisers were pulled out in 1938, the stahlhelm was slowly replaced by British MK, French Adrian, and (after 1941) American M1 helmets.
There is no clear plot within Shanghai Story, much like The Winds of War, it’s a character-driven novel as opposed to plot-driven. We follow the adventures of Eden, Clark, and others, in this twilight age of Old Shanghai. That’s not to say the story drags. There are great details and the novel moves quite well, as you’re sucked into the character drama. Reading this novel allows you to travel back in time to 1936 Shanghai, a bygone world that lives on in fiction and memories.
Alexa Kang Interview
1) What inspired you to write Shanghai Story?
I’ve been writing and publishing WWII historical fiction for three years before I started Shanghai Story. WWII fiction is a niche but relatively popular genre. However, I noticed there are very, very few WWII fiction books set in China. This is the case for both English and Chinese fiction, even though the war in Asia made up a big part of WWII. Of the WWII books I did find that were set in China, their themes generally focused on personal hardships suffered by an Asian woman protagonist as a result of culture and as a civilian victim of war. None delved into the political aspects of the war, where the protagonist was actively involved in combat or resistance.
As a Chinese-American fluent in the Chinese language, I felt I was in a unique position to bring a different dimension of the war to WWII fiction readers. I wanted to give readers a comprehensive overview of how China descended into WWII, and what the Chinese people did to try to fight back.
Another subject that fascinated me was the Jewish refugees. When I lived as an American expat in Shanghai several years ago, I discovered China was one of the few countries that accepted German and European Jewish refugees. So many people did not know this. I wanted to explore this forgotten part of history in a fiction novel.
2) What research do you do before writing the novel?
Researching Chinese history before and during WWII is very challenging. In the West, WWII was very well documented in the US, UK, France, and Germany. To an extent, it was also quite well documented by the Japanese during the war for propaganda reasons. In contrast, China lacked the technological and human resources. They didn’t have cameras, video equipment, and planes to conduct high-tech surveillance, nor did they have military reporters embedded in their troops. Chinese soldiers were often uneducated ruffians. They didn’t write memoirs or letters, which would’ve provided firsthand accounts for students of history like me. Of the few records that might have existed, the Communist regime that took over in 1949 did not care to preserve them.
So, to research the past, I began with my usual methods. I read non-fiction books for background information. I watched many YouTube clips that would give me a visual understanding of the places, events, and the world I was writing about. I also visited the Shanghai Jewish Museum, where I was able to buy memoirs written by Jewish people who lived in Shanghai before and during the war. After that, I researched resources in Chinese online. My Chinese reading skills came into great use here. The Chinese resources (shared mostly by content providers from Taiwan) gave me much more extensive and in-depth details about major and minor historical figures, as well as the political situations behind various historical events. I even got to read letters written by Chiang Kai-Shek himself to his armies.
Lastly, I drew on my own experience living in Shanghai for from 2006-2012. It is unbelievable to me how, when you look past the facade of modern technological advances, Shanghai today is almost exactly the same as it was in the 1920s and 1930s. I know this from the memoirs and non-fiction books I read, and the YouTube clips I watched. The unimaginably large population; the cosmopolitism and foreigners living there; the food, the culture, how people behave; their ways of thinking and how they conducted businesses–so much are the same! As a result, I was able to write many parts of the book almost from an eye-witness perspective.
3) A large subplot of the novel consists of the murder mystery involving a German soldier and a Jewish girl. Was there any real-life equivalent that you based this off of?
Yes, there was! This subplot is loosely based on the murder of Pamela Werner, a young woman who resided in Beijing before and during the Japanese occupation. I had read about this incident in several sources. The most extensive coverage of this crime was given by writer Paul French in his book, “Midnight in Peking“. However, Paul’s theory about the murder had been countered by author Graeme Shepard in his book, “A Death in Peking: Who Really Killed Pamela Werner”. The fact is, we will never be able to prove this case one way or the other because it is now impossible to find all the evidence and records of anything from pre-war China. Nonetheless, this is still a very intriguing case, and I always like to adapt real events into my historical fiction books.
One thing of note: In his book, Paul French theorized that Werner was murdered by a dentist who preyed on young women. In Shanghai Story, I did include a dentist as a suspect. My reason wasn’t to adapt Mr. French’s theory. His theory, however, gave me an idea. In my younger days (eons ago), I dated a dentist for one month. All my friends at that time called him the “psycho dentist”. Probably most people at one time or another had unwittingly encountered someone who turns out to be, “Whoa! this guy/gal is psycho!” This was my personal insanity moment, ha ha. No, he was not a murderer, but he was definitely racist, had a crazy belief that all women were gold-diggers, and some things he wanted to do at work that wasn’t ethical as they would’ve infringed on the privacy of his business partners. I noped out of there fast but not fast enough. Anyhow, making a murder suspect a dentist then was a little private joke for me.
4) At one point, Clark tries to help a servant’s opium-addicted husband, only to have his good intentions backfire. Will this come into play in future books?
No. This episode was instrumental in showing the corruption of the KMT regime and how drug addiction devastated the lives of the poor. Opium addiction will be a problem that returns in the third book, Shanghai Yesterday, but it will return in a very different capacity.
5) This novel reminds me a lot of the “historical epic” subgenre like The Winds of War, where there is not a singular protagonist, but follows a specific family’s experiences during turbulent events. Did you take inspiration from books like these?
A reader of my other WWII fictions series, Rose of Anzio, also said that series reminded him of Winds of War. I’m humbled by the comparison, and I wouldn’t dare to speak of my books with the great Mr. Wouk’s in the same breath. But no, my goal has never been to write historical epics. Rather, I’m a romantic at heart. I’m a sucker for love stories where two people fall in love against a tide of events beyond their control, like Gone with the Wind. I can’t find anything like that in contemporary fiction, so I decided to write my own.
6) Was there any historical factoid you came across while researching that you found particularly fascinating?
Ok, this little detail does not make it into my books, but I came across the rumor that Soong Mei-Ling (China’s first lady Madame Chiang Kai-Shek), had an affair with Wendell Wilkie, the Republican nominee for U.S. President in 1940. He lost the election to Franklin Roosevelt, but Roosevelt nonetheless sent him around the world as a goodwill ambassador for the United States. Apparently, Wilkie had not given up hope to run again for the White House, and Soong thought he could one day become the U.S. President. The two power-hungry figures, both married, became enamored with each other. At one large reception, the two were rumored to have slipped away, with Wilkie returning at 4:00 a.m. His friend, Gardner Cowles, who accompanied him on the trip, reportedly said that Wilkie returned “cocky as a young college student after a successful night with a girl…giving me a play by play account of what had happened.”
Rumor had it, Chiang himself turned up at Wilkie and Cowles’ quarters and searched the place upside down, including under the bed, to look for his wife and evidence of adultery.
7) When compared to the European theater of World War II, the war in Asia and specifically the Sino-Japanese War has had very little representation in English-language fiction. Why do you think that is?
I believe one reason is that the Allied troops, by and large, did not fight major battles in Asia. Yes, there were some troops that fought in places such as Guadalcanal and parts of Japan. In China, there were also the famous Flying Tigers and the much lesser-known SACO. American troops in the Philippines also suffered harshly after they surrendered at Bataan. Still, most of the battles fought by the Allies were in Europe. Many readers who seek out WWII fiction had family members who fought in the war. They want to understand what their fathers and grandfathers went through, and stories from the European theater give them the connection to their loved ones’ past. Stories set in Asia and China do not offer this to many WWII readers.
Another reason is that we in the West see WWII as the last good war, where the good fought against the evil, and the war had a happy ending. There were also many real-life stories of wartime romance, and European countries provided a romantic backdrop despite the reality of all the atrocities that happened during the war. WWII fiction set in Europe can be a fantasy escape where we can feel good about the world at the end.
The same cannot be said for China, the Soviet Union, and many other Asian countries. These countries did not have that kind of happy ending, and their soldiers and civilians did not experience the jubilation of the West when the war ended. After WWII, China plunged back into civil war that brought Mao’s brutal Communist regime. The Soviet Union suffered the same fate, albeit without a civil war post-WWII. Even for the Axis countries, Germany and Italy began to rebuild and return to normal. Japan, in contrast, was devastated by the atomic bomb. Reading stories about WWII and post-WWII Asia can be very depressing.
Thirdly, Western readers are not familiar with the history and culture of Asia, and that can be a barrier. For Americans, I think battles in Asia conjure up images of the Vietnam War. Guerilla attacks in wooded jungles probably do not attract many women readers. In Shanghai Story, I took the opportunity to reintroduce to readers a different Asian world. By presenting a glamorous, multicultural, cosmopolitan city as the backdrop, my readers were able to relate to the setting and the characters to continue reading.
Lastly, the problem might lie with the authors. Writing WWII fiction is already a monumental task that requires a lot of research work. For authors who aren’t familiar with Asian history and who can’t read Asian languages, the task might simply be too overwhelming.
8) Who is your favorite character and why?
Clark grew on me and became my favorite character in this story over time. I’m not someone who gets hung up on identity representations in fiction. If a story is good, I would enjoy it. As a business matter, I actually had a lot of reservation about writing an Asian male protagonist. Considering the rarity of Asian male main characters the English fiction book market, and hearing anecdotal reports from fellow writers, the feedback I got was that an Asian male protagonist depresses rather than raises sales. My author friends who write romance novels had told me their books with Asian man/white woman couples were their worst-performing titles. Writing a long series is a huge time and financial commitment. I was very hesitant to take the risk.
In the end, I’m so glad I did create his character. When I look at what is offered in fiction today, be it books, movies, or TV in the English-speaking market, there is no character like Clark. He’s the hero, the agent who has to step up against evil and save his people, and he’s not doing this as a stereotypical martial arts fighter a la Bruce Lee. I really enjoy presenting him as a stylish, handsome, modern man, which is also rare in Western entertainment. It helps that I can draw on actors from Asia to help me envision his character. I love it too that I can show him as a man with inner feelings and sensitivities, particularly his love for Eden and the heartaches it brought him. This is such an unexplored territory in English fiction. I found myself in a writing arena with no tropes or constraints. I take great joy in writing a character that hasn’t been done before in English fiction. I’m having a blast.
9) A large part of the novel is about the “will they or won’t they” romance between Clark and Eden. It was definitely considered more taboo if a white woman engaged in a relationship with an Asian man than the reverse and much of your writing covers their hesitation about this societal constraint. Is there a reason you wanted to incorporate this into the story?
Definitely. For me, the white man/Asian woman pairing in fiction is getting very, very tiresome. (My friends laugh at me when I say that because my husband is Jewish.) In writing Shanghai Story, I wanted to flip the racial pairing to bring something new to the table. It’s such a strange thing to say that pairing an Asian man/white woman in 2019 is pushing the envelope, but it is.
Anyhow, when Shanghai Story was launched, I was very worried that the pairing of Clark and Eden would not sell. To my pleasant surprise, my readers were very receptive. Some even complained that they didn’t get enough romance in the book. Others have said they’re looking forward to seeing Clark and Eden finally be together and happy. In the end, my worries were unfounded. The racial pairing did not negatively impact sales. I wish I have data analysts who can examine this positive outcome and give us some conclusions of what this all means.
There is another necessary reason for my writing an Asian man/white woman subplot here. I wanted Shanghai Story to be about war and politics. I don’t think the world needs another story (at least not from me) about an Asian woman suffering injustices due to sexism and oppression from cultural customs, and social mores. There are other authors who can write that better than me. Since Shanghai Story takes place in the WWII era, the Chinese protagonist has to be a man. Madam Chiang Kai-Shek notwithstanding, the story would feel inauthentic with a Chinese woman working for the KMT and negotiating deals with diplomats and high-level businessmen. With the Chinese protagonist being a man, my Jewish protagonist would have to be a woman if the story is to have a romance arc as well.
10) What are you working on currently?
Right now, I’m devoting my entire summer to writing Shanghai Dreams, the last of the Shanghai Story trilogy. The book is tentatively scheduled for release in September. I hope the final installment won’t disappoint.
US readers can purchase Shanghai Story here.
UK readers can purchase Shanghai Story here.
In the meantime, check out Alexa Kang’s website and sign up for her newsletter.