Shanghai at the turn of the century was the key to China,
a teeming city ruled by foreigners, a place where the immensely wealthy
European traders competed for pre-eminence, criminal gangs wielded vast power
and every Chinese citizen paid homage to both.
It is to this complex and seductive city, shimmering with
heat and staggering under the riches brought by the opium trade, that John
Denton comes in 1903. Denton arrives from a poor provincial town in England
to join the Customs Service – his only hope to improve his prospects.
At first dazzled, awestruck and terrified, he makes his way from Customs agent to
immense wealth as a powerful taipan whose destiny is intertwined with
the fate of China in the first half of the twentieth century, surviving
revolutions, civil war and the Japanese occupation.
Denton makes and loses fortunes, fails in his marriage to
an American girl, and competes with the powerful and malicious Chen, leader
of the notorious Green Triangle gang, for profits of the opium trade and
for the lives of his children. But at the centre of this epic novel is the story
of the magnificent love between John Denton and the exquisite Su-Mei, first
as his mistress and then as his second wife.
Shanghai, which ends with the Communist takeover of
China, sets the stage for The Chinese Box
and A Change of Flag, the other
books in New's China Coast Trilogy.
Asia 2000 Has also published Christopher New's
The Road to Maridur.
"When a professor of philosophy sits down to write a
blockbuster, either it will be a disaster or something rather unusual will
"Shanghai was originally published in 1985, but it
has been out of print for the best part of a decade. Asia 2000 is to be
congratulated on its re-issue, not only because of its great local interest,
but also because it is a rare example of a curious phenomenon – a
blockbuster of quality.
"There is a certain kind of popular novel that is written
to a formula and is, according to publishers' conventional wisdom, sure to
sell. It contains suspense, romance, political intrigue and outright
adventure, plus some harrowing scenes and equally "vivid" intimate ones.
"It will, in other words, be a major Hollywood movie
between gaudy paperback covers.
"This is clearly the kind of novel Christopher New
originally sat down to write. And there is no doubt that he succeeded.
"Everything you might expect from a highly coloured
Oriental saga is here – bodies floating face-down in the harbour, beautiful
women with underworld connections, stock-market crashes, the opium trade,
harrowing poverty and fabulous riches, peasants peppered with bird-shot by
arrogant Westerners on a jaunt, kidnappings, kick-backs galore, inept police
and highly efficient gangsters.
"The difference, however, is that New was no thick-skulled
hack going for the big money but someone with a detailed appreciation of
traditional Chinese life, an ability to weave a complex and at times subtle
plot, and an informed grasp of history (the aftermath of the Boxer
Rebellion, Sun Yat-sen's republic, Chiang Kai-shek's forces, hunger
marchers, the Japanese invasion – all play their part).
"The result is a masterpiece of a kind, a book that has
more in common with established classics set in Asia, such as Paul Scott's
Raj Quartet or Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, than it has with
James Clavell's Noble House or Michael Crichton's Rising Sun.
Opinions will be understandably divided as to which is the stronger Shanghai
tale – this or J G Ballard's Empire of the Sun.
"The story begins in Shanghai in 1903. John Denton, fresh
from England, takes on a job with the Imperial Customs Service, at the time
largely staffed in Shanghai by foreigners. Pious, virginal and strait-laced,
he quickly learns the ways of the world, the flesh, and even the devil. He
is less corruptible than his fellows, however, and as a result loses his
post before long. But having started an affair with a 15-year-old sing-song
girl, he decides to stay in the East and go into business with his local
"He quickly amasses an enormous fortune – although not
without alienating powerful triad leaders and several of his compatriots in
the process. Through almost 800 pages his life sweeps from success to
tragedy and back again, and several times. By the book's end, World War II
is over and PLA soldiers are patrolling the streets.
"The characteristic weakness of this sort of novel is that,
in straining to be exotic, it becomes, almost in spite of itself, racist.
This book, however, is engagingly free from such prejudices. In fact, it
leans the other way, entering the traditional Chinese world with enthusiasm,
understanding and perception.
"New founded the philosophy department at the University of
Hong Kong in 1969. His equally serious attitude to his adopted craft can be
gauged from the fact that he has just published a book, The Philosophy of
Literature: An Introduction (Routledge). He certainly does not lack the
common touch, however, and it is this very combination of roistering
adventure and sober insight that makes Shanghai such an unusual and
"On the one hand there are scenes of beheadings and
mutilations enough to make the most reluctant hairs stand on end, while on
the other there are scenes – such as one where the hero and his Shanghainese
wife confront a sniffy and disdainful public school headmaster – where the
nuances of class and racial prejudice in the England of the 1920s are
"The book is beautifully plotted, immensely readable and
strikingly vivid. It would make a wonderful TV serial. But it is more than
all this. Much of it is wry, urbane, and even wise.
"Shanghai was on The New York Times
bestseller list for eight weeks the year it came out. Fashions may have
changed, and Fat Boy Slim may now be more to some people's taste than a
lugubrious underworld character called "Pockmark Chen". But a vigorous and
entertaining novel such as this, set in Hong Kong's great rival on the South
China coast in its heyday, is certain to continue to appeal to a wide
audience in the SAR. It is good news that it is back in print."
South China Morning
"It's been a long time since this reviewer eagerly
read through such a grand, sweeping historical saga; indeed, it is
quite understandable why this novel, originally published in 1985, now
enters its sixth edition and why it was on the NY Times Bestseller
List for eight weeks. The history of Shanghai, an exotic city teeming
with business, politics, crime, pleasures, and pains, spans half a
century in the life of John Denton. Beginning as a poor but dreaming
Imperial Customs Inspector freshly arrived from the United Kingdom,
Denton guiltily sheds his puritan morality and rises into the world of
fellow taipans. His road to riches is bumpy, harrowing, and fraught
with temptations that will sometimes reverse his good fortune and at
other times propel him to unforeseen heights of power and ease. Slowly
but surely, this man, who in a sense is a man without a country,
becomes Chinese but never totally loses his foreign nature. And so he
will also tremendously suffer because of this dual identity.
"Christopher New draws the reader into historical
events with grace and ease, beginning with the post-Boxer Rebellion
and continuing through the challenges of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, Chiang
Kai-shek, the Japanese invasion, and introduction of Communism.
Weaving through these intense changes, the reader meets traditional
Chinese life which always manages to endure and even transcend
anything that intruders and invaders can devise. Denton, quietly
weighing and measuring the swirling tides of change, wisely forms two
pivotal relationships, one business partnership with his former
Chinese language instructor and the other with a Chinese sing-song
girl. Ironically, the tense plot twists and turns in an unpredictable
fashion because of Shanghai's decadent side, its alluring but
addictive opium trade, its illegal but tempting business practices,
its overlying control by vying Chinese triads, its tempting but
unhealthy sexual liaisons, and the consequences of these extraordinary
but ordinary events constantly interweaving in daily life.
"New offers us a panoply of creatively unique
characters, some who invite us to share their carefully plotted
thoughts, words, feelings, and deeds and some who are as elusive as a
quickly passing cloud in the midst of a rapidly passing typhoon.
Layers of meaning pervade the obvious, and nothing concludes as
initially portrayed. Satire on the "foreign white-devil" and Chinese
practices so fills this novel that one is never entirely sure where
anyone or anything fits. This is the historical truth that nonfiction
texts fail to convey, the realistic costs of history and the lessons
never truly learned from the past. Herein lies enough terrifying glory
and seductive stink to induce serious thought about past and present
east-west global policies. The wonder is how engagingly it reads!
"Take a good look at the pictures on the cover of
this new edition and meet the characters whose lives will transport
you into an epic world, one equally and even surpassing those written
by notable writers like Clavell, Michener, Scott, etc.
"Fine, fine writing!"
The Best Reviews
"Shanghai is a book of
epic proportions, full of plots and subplots woven around historical events.
New has spent much of his adult life in Asia and he captures its colour and
the expatriate experience there with a sure lens. His descriptions of street
life put you right in the thick of alleys teeming with bustling Chinese
"shouting their wares, bargaining, hawking and spitting, eating, bawling out
conversations across the narrow spaces". A jolly good read."
"In the James Clavell tradition, Christopher New's
Shanghai is almost a thousand pages of exotica packed with enough
dagger-tossing, opium-smoking and concubine-visiting to keep the weariest of
hammock-bound world travellers from nodding off....An extravaganza of
colourful characters, pleasing continuity and "other world" mystery."
"Shanghai has all the ingredients: exotic location,
epic sweep of time, strong characters, drugs, sex and violence....New
demonstrates a gift for putting the reader into a typhoon, a Chinese brothel
or a tense Communist rally. The epic takes John Denton through British rule
of Shanghai, Japanese invasion and Communist takeover."
United Press International
"Big, meaty, satisfying
and highly readable. Packed with history, drama and authentic detail."
Copyright © Christopher New