Shanghai Lawyer. It’s an uninspiring title and even the author’s name – Norwood F. Allman – has the dullness of an accountant about it. But Allman was very much more than just a lawyer, and his memoir is one of my all-time favourites. For breadth and depth of experience during the tumultuous first half of the twentieth century, it stands among the very best China books. In the words of Paul French, it is “perhaps the most complete autobiography of China in this crucial period.”














In 1916, a year after graduating from the University of Virginia, Allman joined the American Embassy in Peking as a student interpreter. Though Allman doesn’t mention it, he actually met Mao Zedong, then working as a young assistant librarian at the University of Peking, and would meet him again later during and after his rise to power.

In 1921 Allman was appointed United States consul in Shanghai, where he was a judge on the International Mixed Court. Three years later, he resigned from the consular service to practice law in Shanghai, first in partnership and later in his own firm. Whether dealing with local or foreign clients and villains, the legal cases make for fascinating reading. Describing one of his earliest cases in the Mixed Court he writes:

A man had beaten his wife to death and afterward for good measure had chopped her up with a hatchet. There was no doubt as to his guilt. He admitted the crime. The difficulty was that the magistrate and I could not agree on the sentence. I took the view that because of the revolting nature of the crime and because of his admitted guilt the man should be executed. The magistrate, an old-style gentleman and to my mind out of date in his ideas, thought that ten years was enough. After all, wasn’t the woman the man’s own wife! As neither of us would budge from his opinion we agreed to transfer the case to another assessor and another magistrate. They sentenced the culprit to life imprisonment.

Allman was keen horseman, polo player, and he was also involved in the American contingent of the Shanghai Volunteer Corps, which was called on to defend the International Settlement during various Japanese clashes with Chinese troops.

As if he wasn’t busy enough, Allman was also a successful businessman, most noticeably as owner and editor of the Chinese language newspaper, the Shun Pao, which he took over when editor and owner Shi Liangcai was assassinated on Chiang Kai-shek’s orders. The author doesn’t call out CKS in his book, saying the murder was a mystery. Running a newspaper was a sure way to make enemies and there were other deaths and near escapes.

Allman was in Hong Kong on business when the Japanese seized the British colony in December 1941. After six months in Stanley Internment Camp, he was expatriated in mid-1942, with his Shanghai Lawyer published in the following year. When such a good book is produced so quickly by a non-professional writer and one busy with work – after arriving back in the United States he was appointed head of secret intelligence in charge of operations in China for the OSS (Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA) – there’s often a helping hand in the background. In the case of Shanghai Lawyer, the answer is front and centre in the acknowledgements: “I wish to thank Frances Russell Kay for her collaboration; without her assistance this book could not have been written.” A footnote to the new edition explains that “Frances Russell had been women’s editor of the North China Daily News in Shanghai in the 1930s. She returned to the United States in 1938 and continued to work as a journalist into the 1970s.”

It’s also worth calling attention to the book dedication; “To the
 GENERALISSIMO and MADAME CHIANG KAI-SHEK, The Two Outstanding People of History.” As well as a reminder that this was a war-time book intentionally written as anti-Japanese and pro-Chinese propaganda, there was a personal connection. Allman knew both of the Chiangs; his wife was at Wellesley College with Madame Chiang, and the Allmans “attended that history-making wedding ceremony held in the famous old Majestic Hotel in Shanghai in 1926 which united the bright-eyed Mei-ling and the slender, scholarly-looking soldier, Chiang Kai-shek, whose star just then was in the ascendant.”

And just when you think Allman has been everywhere, met everyone, and done everything, another terrific episode is thrown in. Take the filming of Pearl S. Buck’s novel The Good Earth, for example, originally planned to be shot in location in China. Allman writes: “Time and time again what started out strictly as a legal case turned into a nonlegal job. When a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer representative consulted me about a number of routine legal matters in connection with the filming of The Good Earth I had no idea I’d end up as a casting director.”

Reading one memorable anecdote after another, you sometimes feel like shouting, “No more, it’s too much.” However, you can’t begrudge Allman all his exotic successes, because there’s a sad ending to the story. It’s heart-breaking to read his earnest desire to return to China after the war. The final chapter, entitled “I’m Going Back,” ends with words of determination to return and praise for the resilience of Shanghai:

I, for one, want to be in on the ground floor in the reconstruction of Shanghai. I hope to be the first American back there. It may be quite a different Shanghai from the one I left over a year ago. The Japs, when they see they are on the losing side, may burn to the ground this city they have saved for themselves, but Shanghai is a resilient place. It was born out of the wars of 1842 and it survived the Taiping rebellion, the Revolution of 1911 and its resulting civil wars; it was attacked by the Japs in 1932 and again in 1937. No matter what happens, Shanghai will rise again. It is impossible to destroy its tradition and perfect geographical location. No matter what happens, I want to return to Shanghai.

He went back in 1946, but would be forced out of the country in 1950.

As amazing as the material in Shanghai Lawyer is, the author was actually holding back. He forgets to mention he was a spy. And this is where the new edition of the book is invaluable. The Earnshaw edition is a reprint of the original with some added material. But what content! Old reprints tend to sell poorly and so the add-ons are sometimes perfunctory efforts from the publisher – a brief intro and some footnotes. Not in this case: Douglas Clark, himself an old China hand who has practiced law in and written about the country, has done a magnificent job; he has added hundreds of illustrations, useful footnotes, newspaper clippings (including contemporary reviews of the book), a foreword and an epilogue (which briefly covers Allman’s later work with the CIA).

Norwood F. Allman died in 1987 at the age of 93.

Shanghai Lawyer is published by Earnshaw Books. It is also available from and various other retailers.