'City of Devils': How WWII Brought Down the Shanghai Underworld

Japanese troops invade Shanghai in 1937. (Wikimedia)

Paul French's non-fiction "City of Devils" reads like a compelling noir novel. Detailing the rise of a U.S. Navy veteran and an Austrian refugee who partnered to rise to the pinnacle of the Shanghai gambling underworld, it also chronicles their brutal downfall in the fallout from the Japanese invasion of China and the international settlement itself.

Edward T. "Jack" Riley was born Fahnie Albert Becker in a Colorado logging camp. He was raised in orphanages after his parents abandoned him and eventually served in the U.S. Navy from 1914-1921. Sentenced to 35 years for his role in a robbery/kidnapping, he eventually escaped from an Oklahoma prison, changed his name to Jack and made his way to Manila.

Riley got the idea to pay off U.S. servicemen to help him smuggle slot machines into and eventually established himself as the "Slot Machine King" of the territory.

Jack Riley and Joe Farren were the kings of Shanghai nightlife in the late 1930s. (Picador Books)

Joe Farren was a popular dancer who came to fame as "Dapper Joe" alongside his wildly popular dance partner (and spouse) Nellie. He later became a show biz impresario who produced Shanghai's most lavish and popular nightclub floor shows and wanted to run his own joint instead of working for others.

Shanghai was an international settlement created after the opium wars of the 1800s. The French ran their own district, while the rest of the international community ran another section and neither was under the control of the Chinese government. After Japan invaded China in 1937, that autonomy was threatened as Japan took over the Chinese territories surrounding foreign-controlled Shanghai. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Japan took full control of the city.

"City of Devils" colorfully recounts the assortment of hustlers, misfits and criminals who populated Shanghai in the decade leading up to World War II. White Russian refugees from the Communist takeover, American military veterans who decided that Asia offered more opportunity than whatever waited back home and experienced gangsters from Europe, South America and wider Asia all rubbed shoulders and competed for limited resources as the economy collapsed when the war came.

Spoiler: no one here comes to a good end, but the intrigue and drama is so outrageous that you won't miss the happy ending. "City of Devils" could inspire a great modern noir film, one directed by John Woo and starring Ryan Gosling and Christian Bale.

(Picador Books)


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