4 New Paul French Podcasts on Famous Visitors to Old Shanghai

By Ned Kelly, May 6, 2020

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Over the decades so many foreigners – rich, poor; famous, infamous; European, American; dodgy, legit – came to Shanghai. It’s hard to keep track of them all. A few have lived on in the city’s consciousness; most have been forgotten.

It seems everyone knows of the greatest geniuses who dropped by – Noël Coward (probably) wrote Private Lives in his suite at the Sir Victor Sassoon's Cathay Hotel in 1929; Charlie Chaplin and his new bride Paulette Goddard clowned for the cameras with opera star Mei Langfang in 1936; Einstein visited in 1922 to lecture on the theory of relativity; and, of course, in 2017 Paris Hilton ate a xiaolongbao, called spaghetti Bolognese Chinese food, and said, “Shanghai looks like the future!”  

There are more, though, as explored by Paul French in his book Destination Shanghai (which you can read more about right here). And French has now turned four of those 18 stories into podcasts, which you can get right here

Listen to the story of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford hitting the ‘Hai in ‘29; Warner Oland AKA Charlie Chan being mobbed on the Bund in ‘36; a Cathay Hotel showgirl’s 1937 war; and Penelope Fitzgerald in 70s Shanghai. 

Here are teasers to three of those...

Douglas Fairbanks & Mary Pickford

In 1929, Fairbanks and Pickford undertook a world tour to sell the new concept of ‘talking pictures’ to the world. London, Paris, Geneva, Cairo, Penang... everywhere the streets were mobbed with adoring fans of the world’s most famous celebrity couple. 

But the Chinese film censors had been unhappy with the portrayal of a Chinese character in Fairbanks’s hit movie The Thief of Baghdad. They threatened to ban him from the country. A PR disaster of Titanic proportions loomed; Hollywood’s representatives in China eventually sorted it out as the couple steamed towards the Bund, and Fairbanks and Pickford charmed Shanghai.

Douglas Fairbanks & Mary Pickford. Courtesy of Paul French

Warner Oland AKA Charlie Chan

The Swedish-American actor played Charlie Chan on screen 16 times, including in Charlie Chan in Shanghai in 1935. That movie was so popular with Chinese audiences that Hollywood sent Oland on a promotional tour to Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Chinese censors had objected to a lot of Hollywood movies and movie stars they felt insulted the Chinese people – Douglas Fairbanks, Harold Lloyd and, just before Oland arrived in town, his old friend and regular costar Chinese-American Anna May Wong. But Oland was mobbed at the Bund arrival by fans. He was followed everywhere by admiring throngs throughout his stay in Shanghai. 

The Mayor of Shanghai threw a banquet for him and presented him with a moustache comb declaring him an “Ambassador of Good Will” from America to China. The reason for Oland’s acceptance was simple really – Charlie Chan may have been a white actor in ‘yellowface’ spouting cod Confucian aphorisms, but he solved crimes by using his intelligence, didn’t drink and was a good family man.


Warner Oland. Courtesy of Paul French

Penelope Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald, recently widowed, decided to take one of the first package holidays to China in December 1977. After visiting Beijing, the tour party came to Shanghai and stayed in the Broadway Mansions. The rooms were still steam-heated and horrendously stuffy; foreign guests were discouraged from venturing out alone to walk around the city. 

So Fitzgerald, unable to sleep, decided to stop writing her travel diary and start a novel – The Bookshop, perhaps her best-loved book. The story of Florence Green, a middle-aged widow, who decides to open a bookshop in a small English town was a bestseller. Florence, the Old House Bookshop, the eccentric population of Hardborough in Suffolk, were all created while a homesick Fitzgerald gazed out the window at Suzhou Creek, the Garden Bridge and the Bund.


Penelope Fitzgerald. Courtesy of Paul French

Get the podcasts right here. To buy Paul French’s ‘Destination Shanghai,’ click hereFor more history stories, click here. For more on Paul French, click here.

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