Is the English-language bookshelf already too full of novels set in pre-WW2 China? Has that rich seam of Shanghai ore not been thoroughly exhausted? And on a broader note, is it time to move on from the Second World War? No, no, and thrice no. Shanghai was by population count alone one of the world’s greatest cities, and in terms of character, with its unique mix of foreign and Chinese peoples, its commercial, cultural, and political elements, it makes for an unparalleled setting. The Second World War is the greatest human drama in human history; our fascination with it is unlikely to wane – instead, I feel it will broaden into a longer frame than the usual 1939–1945 one. The start date should be moved back to August 1937, when the Battle of Shanghai began.

Rumors From Shanghai opens in early September 1940, when Tolt Gross, an African-American law graduate from Seattle, arrives in Shanghai to take up a position, keen to prove himself.

He had heard it was a place where skyscrapers soared and nightlife pulsed. That it simmered with a bouillabaisse of people from around the world. That it had been hived off from China by the English, the French, the Americans, various other countries, and most recently, the Japanese. That it hummed, unmindful of the world-wide Depression of the past decade, the war in Europe, even Japan’s invasion three years earlier. It remained a thriving, unstoppable engine of commerce. He would manage a business stretching from the United States to Asia. The starting gun had sounded. Nothing stood in his path. Those law firms back home that wouldn’t hire him? The professors who refused to meet with him? The people who questioned how a man like him could coax a horse to carry him over high hedges, could wield an epée, could discuss serious topics? He was here to stake his claim.

Gross has come to Shanghai to be a manager for an American flour company, a position complicated by his boss’ dislike for him. Gross might be fresh off the boat, but he’s well prepared. While growing up in his grandfather’s hotel, he learnt Mandarin Chinese and Japanese from hotel employees, and he’s fluent in both languages. He also has some friends from law school in Shanghai: Quentin Wang from a wealthy Shanghai family, and a young Japanese man called Saburo “Tak” Takematsu. Both men come with an attractive sister, Diana and Sumiko. The latter is the unwanted subject of romantic attentions by a cousin, aggressive Japanese naval officer Captain Takeda.

Takeda joins Gross and his friends for a night on the town as a new cultural experience, during which the pivotal scene in the book occurs. A drunk Captain Takeda is in a nightclub talking to Gross about how Sumiko is being corrupted by decadent Western ways. Gross rebuts Takeda’s characterization:

“For the kind of evening we had tonight, light-hearted fun is the name of the game. But, Sumiko…she’s not doing anything wrong. No shady joints. And believe me, if that’s what one’s looking for, Shanghai has them in spades. … In fact , by our lights, Sumiko is quite reserved. Even formal. She doesn’t play the tipsy filly at some ring-a-ding. She doesn’t flirt.”

Count the idiomatic phrases in there; fun period color, but it feels incongruous considering the linguist gap between the two men.

As the conversation turns to a coming clash of civilizations between East and West, Takeda tells Gross to look at things “from the perspective of the chess board…” Gross then pulls out “the board he always carried in his inside jacket pocket” and begins placing chess pieces.  Before long, Takeda is holding a rook and explaining: “In the case of America, that would be Hawaii. Not the United States proper, but an important piece of the game.” The confused American asks: “How did we go from debating how to woo Japanese girls to attacking Hawaii?”

Good question. It turns out that this secret plot reveal is not just a slip of the tongue, not a drunken moment of weakness, because Takeda repeats his Hawaii boast several times; yes, he’s talking about a major actual attack on Pearl Harbor. Not just war-gaming a scenario, not thinking aloud, and there’s permission from high command.

Takeda provides an explanation for so casually revealing this secret, but I feel it’s not a satisfying one for readers:

“No one in your country would believe the word of a Negro on a matter such as this. Even if you were inclined to try, my colleagues here in Shanghai would make sure you and your friends had nothing further to say.”

What will Gross do? He risks his comfortable new life in an attempt to alert the US authorities. It makes for an exciting read, the tension ratcheting up as we follow the month-by-month chapter countdown to the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

Despite the problems I’ve outlined above, plus a tendency to tell rather than show (“laughing evilly”), Rumors From Shanghai is an entertaining thriller. The novel, built upon extensive background reading and other research (there’s a great bibliography at the end of the novel) and years of residence in Shanghai, paints a compelling portrait of time and place. Sommers also did extensive reading about notable African Americans in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Seattle. For the fictional character of Tolt Gross, she drew upon the lives of William Grose, Susie Revels Cayton, and William McDonald Austin for inspiration.

William Grose (1835–1898) sailed the world with the U.S. Navy before various adventures in California and becoming a wealthy hotelier in Seattle. Tolt Gross is his imagined grandson.

Susie Revels Cayton (1870–1943) was a writer, editor, leftist activist, and leader in the Black community in Seattle. She learned Japanese from a servant, as did the fictional Gross.

William McDonald Austin moved from Barbados to the United States to study law. He was the first African American to graduate from the University of Washington. Like the fictional Gross in Rumors From Shanghai, he was unable to find satisfactory employment in the US and so headed overseas, though in his case to the Philippines in 1902.

Rumors From Shanghai is published by Earnshaw Books.

Amy Sommers’ website has some great material on African Americans in old Shanghai.