City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai

Image of City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai
Release Date: 
July 3, 2018
Reviewed by: 

For sheer noirish decadence, few cities around the globe have rivaled Shanghai between the two world wars and for a short time after.

It’s no coincidence that Orson Welles called the manipulative protagonist in his 1947 film, starring his estranged wife Rita Hayworth, The Lady from Shanghai, or that the crowded metropolis was known as “the wickedest city in the world.”

Vying for survival and success were gun-slinging gangsters and flamboyant gamblers, drug peddlers and whores, corrupt Nationalist functionaries and Communist revolutionary cadres, dissipated European colonialists, louche expatriates, and Chinese compradors.

Following on his bestselling 2013 book Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China, author Paul French returns to familiar, if fetid, ground with City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai.

This time around, the narrative is not as focused on a single, intriguing crime. Instead, the emphasis is on milieu and the colorful lives of two men, showman Joe Farren and gambler Jack Riley. Like Southern California, Shanghai was a place for reinvention, of fresh starts and blank slates. Vienna-born Farren was born Josef Pollak; Tulsa-born Riley was John Becker.

Shanghai was also known by a more benign and elegant monicker, "The Paris of the Orient." But as French tells the story it was more like New York’s Lower East Side portrayed in the film Once Upon a Time in America, and Isaac Bashevis Singer’s stories of the Odessa underworld. 

 In addition to the two main characters in City of Devils, there’s a supporting cast of colorful, mainly Jewish shtarkers, hustlers and café owners, a coterie washed up from around the world on the banks of the Whangpoo River: Sam Levy, Al Israel, Sammy and Al Wiengarten, Sol Greenberg, Monte Berg, Fred Stern, Joe Klein, Freddy Kaufmann, Walter Lunzer, and Albert Rosenbaum. They were tough guys, and some met violent ends.

One nightly ritual, open to all landsmen, was ham and eggs at 4:00 a.m. at Levy’s Venus Club, united by what French calls “Yiddish bonhomie.”

This bonhomie also took the form of such bizarre scenes as the Viennese film star and cabaret chanteuse Lilly Flohr singing the Andrew Sisters’ Yiddish classic, " Bei Mir Bistu Shein." Many of the members of the tribe gathered for a traditional Jewish funeral for a slain casino operator who wouldn't pay extortion.

These, French writes, were “Jews without any romanticism or nostalgia for any old country, and shithole shtetl or slum tenement. They’re all looking to make money, get rich, move up.”

There was even a U.S. marshal who called himself Sam Titlebaum, claiming to be an ex-cop from Chicago—none of which was true. What was true was that he was using decommissioned federal firearms to cover his substantial gambling debts, many to Jews.

Devils is written in the present tense, in a breezy tone, with lots of hard boiled, tough guy, period slang, especially Yiddish terms. Sometimes it gets a little overheated and for some, may wear thin. Still, the atmospherics are redolent.

As Pearl Harbor approached, and with it the ultimate collapse of decadent Shanghai, the narrative reaches a crescendo. And as it does, French seems to drop the "non" out of the book's creative nonfiction, with what seem to be imagined if not invented scenes for which there were no living witnesses or written records. Still, it’s a fascinating and fast-paced read.

Inevitably, things ended badly for the fabled Shanghai and its two “devils,” one of whom died at the hands of Japanese torturers, and the other in prison. World War II and the Japanese invasion and occupation drove the sin city to its knees, and Mao Zedong’s Communist revolution delivered the death blow in 1949.