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Review: Night in Shanghai, by Nicole Mones
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. 277 pp. $30

What’s that, an American jazz musician who can’t improvise? A Western-educated Shanghai beauty sold by her father to a crime lord? Put them together, and you have a romance as atmospheric as they get. Throw in the Japanese invasion of China, and you have Night in Shanghai, a late 1930s tale of back-stabbing politics and love against tall odds.

A girl scout, Yang Huimin, smuggled a Nationalist flag into a Shanghai warehouse besieged by Japanese forces in 1937. (Courtesy Wikipedia.)

A girl scout, Yang Huimin, smuggled a Nationalist flag into a Shanghai warehouse besieged by Japanese forces in 1937. (Courtesy Wikipedia.)

Thomas Greene is a classically trained pianist, an African-American from Baltimore recruited by the agent of a Chinese mafioso to lead an all-black jazz orchestra. Jazz is a very big deal in Shanghai, and Thomas is startled and pleased to earn a good salary and live where his race doesn’t matter, or, as he puts it, “no one looked at him twice, for the first time in his life.” However, the music comes hard (he must have a written score, or he’s lost), and his struggles are so obvious that the more experienced jazzmen he’s supposed to lead look down on him. I liked this touch, which I thought made his character more sympathetic as well as unusual.

As Thomas gets the hang of his job, his eye falls on Song Yuhua, translator for the crime boss, who’d kill both of them if he (or his many henchmen) saw them together. But Song has her own secret: She’s a Communist, in a city where Nationalist thugs working for Chiang Kai-shek regularly murder Party members. She believes fervently in the cause, and she expects her superiors to share her ideals, because, after all, they’re on the same side. But history is working against her, just as it’s working against Thomas.

I liked the prose in Night in Shanghai the best, redolent as it is of the local food, manners, and metaphors. “To bring it up now would only create fear, just as speaking of a tiger makes one pale.” Or, of a person privileged by birth, “the waterfront pavilion gets moonlight first.” The physical descriptions are vivid too, as with this passage about Suzhou, adjacent to the city outskirts:


Beyond the gate, cobbled streets unwound beneath overhanging willows, soft in summer with green-dappled light. Canals were crossed by stone bridges whose half-moon arches made circles in the water. From the ponds and fields and wooded hills came peddlers with live flapping fish, caged ducks, bundles of freshwater greens, and tender shoots of baby green bamboo.

Unfortunately, the other aspects of the book didn’t always measure up, especially when compared with A Cup of Light, Mones’s gentle mystery novel about a porcelain expert. In that story, the tension never lapsed, even with nothing earthshaking at stake. But Night in Shanghai, for all its sound and fury, lets the protagonists off too easily, at times, diluting its power and promise. Writing so close to history is partly to blame–many secondary characters actually existed–so fact restricts what may or may not happen. I admire Mones’s commitment to the record, yet, after such a fine setup, history works against the narrative instead of for it.

Even so, I can recommend Night in Shanghai as a story about an unusual place at a crucial time. I learned more about China and the Japanese invasion, Shanghai as a city flooded by refugees (it required no entry visa), and, most particularly, that many African-American jazz musicians flocked there. The novel opened up this world to me, which I wouldn’t have known about otherwise.

Disclaimer: I borrowed my reading copy of this book from the public library.