A Night Out in the Badlands, 1941
Throughout the 1930s Shanghai had been a legendary city – an international metropolis where no visas or passports were required; the most modern city in Asia drenched in neon and its sultry summer night air filled with jazz; the fourth largest city in the world and the most densely populated; home to over four million Shanghainese and the city’s foreign inhabitants (known as “Shanghailanders”). Shanghai was a city that had always had more than its fair share of style – taxi-dancers, numerous dancehalls, cabarets and casinos, cheongsams, a glamorous movie industry. It was also home to gangsters of a dozen or more nations. Shanghai was a city of incredible wealth for some and terrible poverty for many. But the city endured in relative peace and calm. At least Japan attacked Shanghai in the summer of 1937 and everything changed.
The International Settlement and the French Concession (Frenchtown to the locals) became “solitary islands” surrounded by a marauding Japanese army who never invaded the foreign concessions fearing that would spark war with Europe and America. Shanghai became lawless and, for those with money, a non-stop party. Let’s take a tour of the best joints of 1941 Shanghai….Take your time, there’s no curfew in the Shanghai Badlands, you can dance and gamble till dawn…
First stop The Argentina, a giant nightclub that attracted a mixed crowd, though some stayed away on principle – it was said to be the favourite nightclub of the Nazi elite ensconced in the German Consulate…and they turned up in full Gestapo uniform. Why did they like the place? The manager was supposedly a Russian fascist while the Japanese secret police liked to hang out there. The overall theme was Spanish and Latin American gaucho that suited the Franco-friendly crowd. The Argentina was famous for its Miss China 1941 contest that saw the place packed. While the crowd may not have been to everyone’s taste, the entertainment was top-notch.
Not far away is The Del Monte. If the Argentina was Nazi-filled and wild then the Del Monte was old school Shanghai class, Jewish and mostly about the gambling. Run for years by Californian Al Israel with his wife Bertha and 200-pound Great War-vet brother-in-law ‘Demon’ Hyde. Al and Bertha did the place out like the Palace of Versailles (but with roulette tables). Eventually, during the war, the place fell to wrack and ruin and a young English boy living in the area, called James Graham (J.G.) Ballard, used to play in the ruins.
For some local action let’s drop into the Chinese-style Pai-Loh – the Pai-Loh’s run by Macanese and Portuguese gambling interests with a little opium smoked on the top floor. It’s a series of balconied floors with the gambling down in the basement pit. Punters up in the high balconies place bets by lowering silver dollars in small baskets on strings to the pit bosses below, a veritable stream of baskets constantly moving up and down, an elaborate pulley system across the ceiling. To the side of each table a cashier makes the bet, biting each piece of silver to verify its authenticity. The place was a goldmine.
If you’ve got any cash left then a quick stop at the Ali-Baba is recommended. In the history of the Shanghai Badlands it was probably the place most raided by the police for illegal gambling and selling opium. The local Shanghailander wags used to say, Ali-Baba only had forty thieves, but our Shanghai Ali-Baba has four hundred a night playing roulette!
And so finally to Farren’s, the star of the Shanghai nightlife (and the central location of City of Devils) – Farren’s was the largest nightclub and casino in Shanghai run by Joe Farren, a Viennese born choreographer, who teamed up with an American escaped convict Jack Riley. Riley was the man who brought slot machines to China and he made millions. Farren’s was the most expensive nightclub to open in the Badlands – giant neon, air-con, steak dinners, Irish linen tablecloths and an aerialist swinging from the rafters all night. Farren’s could hold 600 at full capacity, seat 200 for dinner and the floorshow, with the gambling up on the floors above to catered to the rest – roulette, chemin-de-fer, craps, dice and, naturally, slots. It was by far the classiest club to ever open in the Badlands. WE can stay here till dawn and beyond…as long as we like…the band won’t stop playing until the last punter leaves and the last roulette wheel is spun.
To find out more about Shanghai’s notorious and lawless 1930s, read Paul French’s City of Devils – out now in Hardback, eBook and Audiobook!
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