6 Famous Faces Who Made Old Shanghai a Port of Call

By Paul French, December 2, 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!”  

Here are snippets of six of the 18 tales in the new book, Destination Shanghai, which was launched at this year’s Shanghai International Literary Festival. 

Q. Which American playwright tore up the town and then had a mental breakdown in 1928?

A. The author of Long Day’s Journey into Night, and many other award-winning plays, Eugene O’Neill…

The pressures of being America’s most in-demand playwright, and a long-running messy divorce, led O’Neill to flee Manhattan and head East, via France, to Shanghai. He was accompanied by his mistress, Broadway actress Carlotta Monterey. 

O’Neill hit the town hard; the couple fought like cat and dog until he eventually collapsed. Meanwhile, the world’s press had begun a manhunt for the missing playwright. They eventually found him hiding out at the Astor House Hotel, whereupon one of Shanghai biggest ever press and paparazzi scrums ensued.

201902/paul3.jpgCarlotta Monterey and Eugine O’Neill. Courtesy of Paul French.

Q. Which King and Queen of Hollywood nearly found themselves banned from Shanghai in 1929?

A. The actors 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.

Q. Which great African-American poet arrived in Shanghai in 1933, lunched with Madame Sun Yat-sen, and didn’t think much of the YMCA?

A. The great poet of the Harlem Renaissance Langston Hughes…

Hughes came to Shanghai in the summer of 1933 after having visited the Soviet Union and Japan. Soong Ching-ling, Madame Sun, invited him to dinner at her Frenchtown house for a traditional Chinese banquet. Hughes found her irresistible.

He later went for dinner with the writer Lu Xun. However, his search for decent lodgings was intensely annoying. The ‘Chinese’ YMCA, on the junction of Sichuan Bei Lu and Shantou Lu, accepted ‘coloreds,’ but the other YMCA (American-run), which Hughes’s referred to as the ‘White’s YMCA,’ on Xizang Lu in Frenchtown, didn’t. 

Understandably, Hughes was to remain bitter about the racist regulations at the YMCA for many years afterwards, and rail against their ‘Jim Crow’ policies in his famous 1938 poem, Roar China!


Langston Hughes. Courtesy of Paul French.

Q. Which innocent young Englishman arrived in Shanghai in 1929, visited a bookshop on the Suzhou Creek and, possibly, was recruited as a Soviet spy?

A. Sir Roger Hollis, the former head of Britain’s domestic counter-intelligence agency, Mi5…

Hollis has long been considered by many to be the ‘Fifth Man’ – the British traitor, after Philby, Burgess, Blunt and Maclean – that was never exposed. In 1929, Roger Hollis arrived in Shanghai to work for British-American Tobacco. 

He regularly visited the Zeitgeist Bookstore on Bei Suzhou Lu, a left-wing shop run by German communists. There he met well-known American left-wing agitator Agnes Smedley, who was recruiting for the Soviet-run ‘Sorge Ring’ of spies operating in China and Japan. After several visits, Hollis stopped going to the bookshop and stopped seeing Smedley. 

Soon after, he left the tobacco business and China, returned to England, joined the secret intelligence services and neglected to mention to them his old friends on the Suzhou Creek. Had he been recruited? Was he effectively a Soviet agent at the heart of Britain’s spy apparatus from 1929? It seems highly likely. 


Sir Roger Hollis. Courtesy of Paul French.

Q. Which much-loved Hollywood star was surprisingly welcomed to Shanghai in 1936 and presented with a moustache comb by the Mayor?

A. Warner Oland...

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 co-star 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.

Q. Which famous British novel (shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1978), that has nothing whatsoever to do with China, was written in Broadway Mansions in 1977?

A. Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop...

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.

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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