Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Nicole Mones: "Night in Shanghai"

War. Love. Jazz. Mozart. Politics. Gangs. Luxury. Poverty. Indentured servitude. Multiple languages and cultures. Frantic refugees. This was Shanghai, 1937 to 1941.

In the novel Night in Shanghai by Nicole Mones, all these themes appear. Against a background of well-researched history, it's the fictional tale of a Black American musician, Thomas Greene, who comes from Depression America to play in a Shanghai jazz club, although his background is classical music. His interaction with other Black jazzmen and with musicians and music lovers from all over the world is at the core of the story, along with his awareness of what it meant to be Black in pre-war America, and what it might mean to live in a less racially biased society.

Thomas deals with Chinese gangsters, with committed Communists and supporters of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists, and with people just trying to survive: gamblers, rich people, poor people, men, women, Americans, Europeans, and locals. With them he experiences the presence of Japanese troops in the city and the impending invasion and then conquest of Shanghai by Japan.

Shanghai, an international city, had a patchwork of illogical laws that among other things allowed refugees to enter freely. Thus Jews fleeing from the Nazis (with the help of a Chinese embassy bureaucrat in Vienna) found Shanghai virtually the only open country on the planet, requiring no visa to enter and stay. Thomas's experiences include learning of the Nazi persecutions in Europe, the suffering of refugees, their fear for other Jews left behind, and the Japanese refusal to send them to their death.

Author Nicole Mones was originally a food writer, so I trust the historic accuracy of her descriptions of multi-ethnic food that bring the 1930s city in the novel to life. Nanjing Road, she writes, was "the most famous shopping street in Asia and a patchwork of Shanghai's international influences: Parisian bakeries, Balkan dairy shops, and Austrian-style cafes competing with shops dispensing nuts and dried fruits from central Asia." (p. 74)

During his wealthier days, before the war closed down the jazz club, Thomas eats numerous meals in high-end restaurants, where he's aware that in much of America a Black man would never be served. For example he eats: "a rich, milky-white seafood chowder brimming with fish, shrimp, scallops, tofu, thin-sliced sea cucumber, and tangy mustard greens, touched by white pepper. To accompany this they had plates of pungent steeped cucumbers, gluten puffs with winter mushrooms and bamboo shoots, and ma lan tou, a minced salad of a local freshwater weed and savory dry tofu." (p. 95)

At Cafe Louis on Bubbling Well Road "the city's most elegant cakes and chocolates were created by chefs plucked from the tide of skilled Jewish refugees pouring into the city." Thomas's partnership with one refugee musician enables him to survive as they play classical music in hotel lobbies for tips and free European-style meals. (p. 155)

Chinese street food often played a role in the characters' lives. It could be offered in a "giant flat-bottomed pan" that contained "tight-packed rows of chubby pork dumplings with sesame-crisped bottoms." Street vendors also sold food to Thomas's landlords (in his less prosperous days), who brought it up to their attic apartment using ropes and baskets: "Steamed rice cakes made of rugosa rose and white sugar! Shrimp-dumpling and noodle soup! And -- From the east side of the Huangpu River -- beans of five-fold flavor! The basket went down with a few coins, and came up with food." Or simply "hot roasted ginkgo nuts." (p. 209, 152, 245)

An attempted Thanksgiving dinner cooked by an American's Asian wife, during the dark days of Japanese occupation was a desperate effort at hope among those endangered in the war: "a whole roast chicken... as close as they could come to  a turkey" with "rice and eggplant braised in miso, and hot and sour Korean-style cabbage." (p. 255)

A rich gang boss's comfort food, was "xi fan, rice porridge." He served some to his son, who had been brought up in an American boarding school, distancing him from his self-made father. "It was jarring, the hint of family, and Lin [the son] had to remind himself that it was an illusion. ... Lin picked up  his chopsticks and reciprocated by serving the boss with meticulous care, choosing from the onions, peanuts, pork bits, and pickled vegetables on the small condiment plates around the table." (p. 126)

And today, 2015: Shanghai has had enormous appeal to tourists and readers for well over a century. "Concessions" were specified areas of Shanghai that the very weak Imperial government of China had ceded to France, England, and America in the 19th century. Now, even after the long Communist period, these neighborhoods still reflect their history.

"The all-you-can-eat weekend dim sum buffet at Lynn.
The restaurant is located in the French Concession, the popular Shanghai
neighborhood that until the mid-20th century was still considered French soil."
...from L.A.Times article on Shanghai published February 7, 2015.


~~louise~~ said...

Perfect choice for this time of year, Mae...Sounds fascinating...thanks for sharing...

Jeanie said...

This sounds fascinating. I never would have picked this up. Maybe now I would.