Whether or not you have any plans of coming to Shanghai, there’s a wealth of literature that can open up this expansive and complicated city to you. From true crime thrillers to novels of historical intrigue, these books can bring meaning and order to the chaos of the streets for visitors, or provide a window into city life for those who like to travel from the comfort of their own homes.
Empire of the Sun, J.G. Ballard
No list of Shanghai literature is complete without Empire of the Sun. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel of life for a young, British boy in Shanghai’s international settlement during World War Two provides a unique perspective of a war that many people thought they already knew all about. Protagonist Jamie Graham must deal with the Japanese occupation after the Pearl Harbor attack and reconcile himself with his Japanese captors. The book has also been adapted into a popular film starring Christian Bale.
And the City Swallowed Them, Mara Hvistendahl
Available for purchase on Amazon Kindle, And The City Swallowed Them is a true crime account of the murder of Canadian model Diana O’Brien. Twelve days after arriving in Shanghai, O’Brien was found stabbed to death in a city stairwell. Credible information is hard to find for O’Brien’s family as they seek answers from shady police investigators and suspicious Chinese modeling agents. Navigating China’s opaque legal system in a battle for justice, the O’Briens ultimately come face to face with Diana’s accused killer.
Candy, Mian Mian
Originally written in Chinese, Candy tells the semi-autobiographical tale of two disillusioned, heroin-addicted teenagers. When narrator Hong’s Shanghai classmate commits suicide, she drops out of school and moves south to Shenzhen, where she falls in love with a musician and succumbs to an endless cycle of sex and drugs. Mian Mian does not try to glamorize drug use, instead, she weaves raw experiences together with her signature compassionate voice. This book is banned in China.
Shanghai Girls, Lisa See
Shanghai Girls follows the fictional lives of sisters Pearl and May throughout the early-to-mid-20th century. From war-torn Shanghai, the girls immigrate to America, where they must adjust to life as wives in arranged marriages. The novel explores the siblings’ complicated relationship; one that requires deep, mutual sacrifices. Author See has commented: “Your sister is the one person who should stick by you and love you no matter what, but she’s also the one person who knows exactly where to drive the knife to hurt you the most.”
Shanghai: The Rise and Fall of a Decadent City, Stella Dong
Such begins Stella Dong’s historical narrative of Shanghai between 1842 and 1949, a period of illicit sex, crime, and poverty. Filled with British merchants, Chinese warlords, Russian emigrés, Sephardic Jews, and German spies, the book relays a history that is larger than life. But no character can compare to the principal protagonist: Shanghai herself. From swampland wilderness to a modern-day Babylon, Shanghai makes a notorious name for herself, demanding a place among the world’s greatest cities.
Five Star Billionaire, Tash Aw
Four people’s lives collide in Shanghai when they get involved with Walter Chao, a billionaire with secrets and schemes up his sleeve. Each character comes to the city seeking something from it: a promised job, pop star fame, real-estate fortune, business success. The problem with the city, though, is that it’s just as influx as the characters. Offering a rare glimpse into today’s Shanghai, Five Star Billionaire captures the vibrance of China’s shining poster child of modernism.
Unsavory Elements: Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China, Tom Carter
Unsavory Elements is an anthology of 28 original, true stories from some of the most celebrated foreign writers who have lived in modern China. It presents an outsider’s experience of a country whose promises of wealth and excitement are drawing unprecedented numbers of foreigners into its grasp. While all the authors have their outsider status in common, the tales they tell cover a wide variety of issues, from dating a Chinese man to trying to relate to Shanghai’s rich and powerful twenty-somethings.