East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

A most disreputable book

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51iu0ea3n7l-_sl500_sy344_bo1204203200_One of the fun bits – well, if you are the kind that finds such stuff fun – of doing research, is that you get a lot of weird stares for some of the books you are reading, or re-reading.
And because in these days either I am at home typing or I am sitting in a waiting room somewhere, I usually read my books in public.

And in the weird stares/odd looks department, my current perusal of a very very old and badly mangled used copy of Ralph Shaw‘s Sin City is certainly setting a record.
Yes, it’s because of the cover.
And the title, that even in an English-illiterate area such as the Astigianistan hills can be pretty obvious.

And yet…
Shaw was a journalist that plied his trade in Shanghai in the 1930s and 1940s, and apparently spent a lot of his time covering the most disreputable aspects of the Paris of the East.

“Blood Alley, or to give it its proper title, Rue Chu Pao-san, was a short street off Avenue Edward VII – a thoroughfare entirely dedicated to wine, women, song and all-night lechery. The only business of Blood Alley was the easy pickings to be had from the drunks, the sailors, soldiers and cosmopolitan civilians, who lurched there in search of the joys to come from the legion of Chinese, Korean, Annamite, Russian Eurasian, Filipino and Formosan women who worked the district. Here were the Palais Cabaret, the ‘Frisco, Mumms, the Crystal, George’s Bar, Monk’s Brass Rail, the New Ritz and half a dozen others – opened in the case of the cabarets around 6 p.m. daily and closed, depending on the staying power of the customers, any time after 8.30 a.m. the following day.

In midsummer, when swing-doors were left open in the Turkish bath heat, the cacophony of wafting saxophones and strident trumpets thumping out the hits of the day in discordant competition gave no pleasure to music-lovers but, inside the dives, kilted Seaforth Highlanders, tall U.S. Navy men, the seamen from the Liverpool tramps, the French, Savoia Grenadiers, had ears only for the girls clinging to them in the half light of dance-floor alcoves: ‘Darlink, buy me one drink, please.’

Most of the Blood Alley girls, the lowest caste in Shanghai’s cabaret society, lived mostly in the French Concession, usually alone in single rooms of terraced houses in the densely populated side-streets. Many of them clustered around Avenue Joffre, with its trains and buses, its European-style shops, its restaurants, bars, cinemas and its thronged sidewalks.”

The book collecting his reminiscences of the city – and it’s a lot of fun, and very informative – was originally published in 1973, and reprinted once in 1988 (my copy) and later in 1992.
It can fetch some extravagant prices online – but well-thumbed copies can be had for 1 cent.
People will look at you weird if you should happen to read it on a train.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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