Sparked by Words

Night in Shanghai by Nicole Mones is historical fiction based on 1930’s Shanghai, the period in Chinese history where it is shackled by the corruption of controlling gangs to the period where it is invaded by the Japanese during World War II, finally reclaimed by Chinese leadership, only to be shackled again, now by the unforgiving ideology of communism. Against this backdrop two people of differing backgrounds fall in love. It is, like all great affairs, an unlikely attraction of doomed passion, but it is also the stuff of love, lust, longing, and legend.

Song Yuhua is the beautiful, intelligent, and well educated translator for Du, the Chinese crime boss who runs the city’s successful nightlife, at a time when everyone comes to nightclubs to play, sing, and dance, especially to the sensation known as jazz. The subservient role of women in China is well documented, and it didn’t surprise me to learn that Song was given in bondage to Du in order to cover her father’s gambling debts. She navigates a violent Shanghai underworld where loyalty to the kingpin rewards her with comfort and admiration but retribution for betrayal may cost her life.

Thomas Greene is a young African-American man. He has been trained to play classical piano, a skill ignored in the United States where his talent carries no value because of his race. Music informs his life completely yet segregation in Baltimore offers him nothing. Impoverished and despondent, he’s offered a job to play with a band in China. Thomas accepts, escaping the squalor and inequality that is the standard of Black life in 1930’s America. China offers him freedom and a luxurious life with a home, servants, and clothes inaccessible to him in America. He doesn’t let on to his new boss that he has no idea how to play jazz, but the other band members quickly discover his ineptitude.

These two young people of extraordinary talent suffer with their own histories of subjugation, one owned by a man as is custom in her country, the other finding more freedom in his adopted country than he will ever enjoy in the land where he was born. Enraged by the duplicity of her bondage, Song hides the fact that she is spying on her kingpin boss for the emerging Communist rebels living in northern caves. Thomas struggles to understand the intuitive improvisation required of jazz, finally achieving a level of skill admired by the rest of his band and loved by the club attendees.

Seeing each other across the floor of the dance hall, it is no surprise that they are drawn together. Still, their relationship remains unconsummated while their romance grows, until one night when it is obvious that the Japanese are at the threshold of Shanghai, the invasion only moments away. At such fever pitch, Song and Thomas finally find solace in each other’s arms. As any couple would ponder, they are in doubt if their love affair will survive the destruction of the country. Will it ever be safe for either of them? The tension adds gravitas to their dilemma about where they owe their most allegiance – to their cultures or to themselves.

A secondary plotline addresses one of Thomas’ friends, a Jewish violinist with whom he can share his affection for classical music. In  addition, the book presents the efforts of a Chinese diplomat to offer sanctuary to 100,000 Jews trying to flee Nazi Germany to a district in northern China. That this event really happened points up the cosmopolitan and influential persona of the city. On the verge of war from one front and revolution from another, the plan never comes to fruition; it becomes one more failure to save Jewish lives, nevertheless initiated with sincerity.

History books, often brilliantly written and researched, give the timelines, maps, treaties, names of actual players, and outcomes of an era. But historical fiction provides the heartbeat. Mones weaves complex history with dexterity, the result of masterful writing and a vision of individuals snagged in conflicts, both personal and political. Brought to an intimate scale, readers feel the upheaval of China through the eyes of her characters. Throughout the book reigns a sense of Shanghai taking a last, desperate breath before dying as a colonial larva and emerging as a communist moth. We all know of the millions of people whose lives were cast aside like empty pupa along the path to a new Chinese nationhood. Night in Shanghai left me longing for justice – and love.

I look forward to learning about your favorite N fiction books.


Other books that were serious contenders for N:

National Velvet by Enid Bagnold

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry


Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt  




Comments on: "N is for Night in Shanghai" (24)

  1. The first one that comes to mind is ‘Nathaniel’s Nutmeg’ by Giles Milton. It’s historical but non-fiction.


    • Thanks for the recommendation, Peggy. I’m limiting my list to fiction, but I appreciate the suggestion of any books. In fact, my current reading has focused on non-fiction.


  2. Sounds like a great read. Think I’ve only read 1984 out of your list. Can’t even think of an N title!!


  3. I did not know China was having the same problems with gangs in the 1930s like the US was having. I wonder if the phenomenon was global back then.

    I read The Notebook before it became the blockbuster hit on the screen. To tell the truth, I think it was one of those stories that were actually better as a movie than as a book. There are not a lot like that.


    • Yes, the Green Gang had a choke hold on Shanghai society in the 1930’s. Every yen went through their hands and few came back to the original owners. Lisa See, most famous for Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, (one of my most favorite books ever!) also wrote about this Chinese Mafia in her book, Shanghai Girls. I think criminal mobs have been around since the first caveman realized he could force his neighbor to bludgeon prey for him and then cheat the poor guy of his own food. Power, wealth, control – it’s a universal temptation. I no longer believe there was ever a society entirely nobly motivated. Someone was always a thug.

      Actually, Glynis, I agree with you about The Notebook. But after my mom developed Alzheimer’s, I gained more affection for the book, though I think it romanticizes a devastating disease.


  4. This sounds good. So much in it! I like your alternative N selections, but–as always–you’ve picked one I wouldn’t normally find on my own. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, Jacqui, you’ve discovered my strategy. I’m trying to choose books that might otherwise be overlooked, as well as those that made me read them twice – or more. Even so, most of my choices are well known. What would you pick for N?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Nate The Great by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat. Fantastic young reader series with witty writing and quirky illustrations. Boys who wouldn’t read anything devoured this series (I think they all had secret crushes on the weird girl Rosamond with cats).

    The books are for young readers but my 5th graders thought they were entertaining. So did I!


  6. I’ve read other books–fiction and not–about Shanghai and China in the 1930s-1940s, but not in Night in Shanghai. I’ll have to add this one to my list!

    I read and truly liked 1984, but my favorite N book (and my favorite N movie) is The Neverending Story. I read it decades ago and still feel a strong emotional connection to its characters and its message about the power of words and imagination.


  7. sounds fascinating! have it on my list to read – thanks, Sharon 🙂


  8. What a fascinating time and setting! Although if it was me, I admit nostalgia would have won out and I’d have written about National Velvet. It’s a book that’s always stuck with me. 🙂


    • Which is why I included National Velvet on my list – which, by the way, does not include every book I’ve ever read, just the ones that have had great impact on me for one reason or another. In selecting the books for this series, I wanted assure that many cultures, authors, time periods, and genres were represented while still remaining true to trying to pick my “favorite.” For some letters I had to waffle a bit and chose my second favorite of a particular author because I wanted to write about another book for the letter that my most favorite choice for that author would have filled – make any sense? Other times I wanted to write about more than one title but realized the posts would be too long. (Already too long!) My reviews are very personal as any series like this would be, and that’s why I love the input from readers. A very roundabout way of saying thank you, Cathleen, for your contribution.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. You always push me, without knowing it, to go further in my reading. Thank you, Shari


    • Night in Shanghai is an easy book to read, I hope you’ll like it. I never mean to push, however, just to share the books that have been meaningful to me. Audrey, do you have a favorite N book?


      • The Night Circus was one of the most difficult books for me to read, but the pay off was fantastic. There is an element of time travel that will cause pause, however, the relationships within will keep you motivated. I read this book about 4 years ago. Loved it.


      • You and I probably read The Night Circus about the same time. I loved the romance of Celia and Marco but found other parts extremely frustrating, like the fact that the book didn’t maintain a chronological timeline. Yet, there was no reason for it to move all over the calendar. I also disliked reading in present tense, which I find an affectation that contributes nothing substantial. Few authors can pull off present tense for an entire book. Still, the book is much loved by many people, and Erin Morgenstern has a facile imagination. I’m glad you reminded me of her book.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. It sounds like an fascinating story set in a time and place I don’t know much about. I was also very interested to read too about the proposal you mentioned in passing to create a safe haven for Jewish people in China. It lead me to an unexpectedly detailed Wikipedia page about the Jews in China. It makes me realize yet again just how little I really know of the world’s history.


    • It’s one of the unique qualities of fiction, that it can present history in an interesting guise that leads people to search out more information. I bet you know about some very unusual history bits, you just don’t know how unique they are.

      Liked by 1 person

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