At the end of last year I did a post about Shanghai in popular culture and how any reference to old Shanghai was a way of indicating extreme dodginess in a character in a novel or on TV. The classic example, which continues regularly, is, of course, that old tart Wallis Simpson and her Shanghai days (all that talk of the “Shanghai Grip” etc etc) but others abound, often in fiction, as a way of indicating suspicion and a bad and/or murky past. Last year ITV’s Marple changed an Agatha Christie Plot (Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?) to include a suspect having a dodgy Shanghai past while the author Elizabeth Wilson has done it twice now – once for a man and once for a woman, both with dodgy Shanghai pasts (in her novels War Damage and The Girl in Berlin respectively).
But it seems this tendency to use Shanghai to indicate previous dodginess goes back much further. Recently I have had (the very pleasurable) occasion to reread W. Somerset Maugham’s series of World War One spy stories Ashenden: Or the British Agent – superb stuff published in 1928 and based on Maugham’s own experiences during WW1 in Switzerland as an agent of British Intelligence. It’s basically the book that everyone who writes great spy books ever since has cited – Ambler, Le Carre, Furst…
In one story our hero Ashenden is sent to unmask a British subject spying for the Germans!! Maugham lists the villainous past offenses of the man – one Grantley Caypor – to let you know how thoroughly bad he is and that condemn him as a thorough cad:
1) born in Birmingham;
2) married a German woman;
3) became a journalist;
4) went to Shanghai where, “he got into trouble for attempting to get money on false pretenses and was sentenced to a short term of imprisonment.”;
5) and so naturally, with all those blots on his past he became a traitor and a spy for the German High Command while Our Boys fought gallantly in the trenches of France!!
Oh yes, Shanghai’s dodgy foreigners are not a new phenomenon!!