Joseph Kanon

Scribner Pub

June 25th, 2024

Shanghai by Joseph Kanon blends a historical novel within a thriller crime story. The setting is pre-WWII, 1939, in Shanghai.  Kanon delves into the geo-political world between the Japanese, Chinese, Communists, Nationalists, and the Nazis by using intrigue, danger, and treacherous political dynamics.

The story starts off in Nazi Germany where Jews are escaping to the only area that will take them, the International Settlement in Shanghai. To board the ship, they must surrender all their money except for a few marks and all their possessions except some clothes.  On the ship the main protagonist, Daniel, meets Leah Auerback and her mother, as well as a Japanese colonel, Yamada, a high-ranking official in the Kempeitai, basically the Japanese Gestapo. While sailing, Leah and Daniel start a covert affair.

Once in the port, Daniel Lohr goes to his Uncle Nathan who runs a casino, jazz club, and a brothel.  After Nathan is shot by someone in either the Japanese or Chinese gangs, Daniel becomes his eyes and ears, rising to prominence. He must navigate the gang violence, and the need to help Leah who is now the mistress of Yamada.  He considers her his possession and constantly flaunts it to Daniel. As Daniel describes it, “Shanghai was dancing on the rim of a volcano.” 

Readers will be held in suspense wondering what will happen to Daniel and Leah, will they survive and at what cost.  They also get a glimpse into what the world was like in 1939, especially for the European Jewish community.  It is a reminder of what can happen, especially in America today. 

Elise Cooper:  How did you get the idea for the story?

Joseph Kanon: I think the theme of the novel is the moral choices the characters are forced to make and what it cost them. I thought about what would happen to these people and wanted to write a story. They sailed into another life, another world by going to Shanghai. As they left Germany, they were not allowed to take any money with them except what amounted to six or seven bucks. They had no passport and were state-less.  They did not know the language. They felt scared and alien. They all survived by going to China. This city had constant gang warfare where people with money needed bodyguards. As far as I could make out none of the refugees stayed after WWII ended. Some went to America and Israel.

EC: Why Shanghai?

JK: My plot almost always begins with a place.  When I was in Shanghai as a tourist there was something that caught my eye. I learned that the Chinese government was preserving and restoring a few of the buildings that served the Jewish community in Shanghai just before WWII. What I saw in a museum that once was a Jewish synagogue were lots of photographs, an amazing diaspora of people from Germany and Austria. 

EC: Did you want to inform the readers about what was happening in Germany?

JK:  I touched on the race laws, Kristallnacht, the fear of the Jews, and how they felt trapped because nobody would take them. It was impossible to get an entry visa anywhere except in Shanghai.  People could leave the boat without a visa or landing papers. About 20,000 people did this. People went here, the other side of the world, because there was literally nowhere else to go. I wanted to show what it feels like to be a refugee with all the doors closed. 

EC: How did Shanghai come about?

JK:  The Chinese dynasty in power during the Opium War were incredibly weak.  They were forced to allow westerns to trade in China.  They chose five treaty ports, one of which was Shanghai.  Subsequently it became the greatest of all the ports. The Western traders were granted land concessions, places where they could live and do trade. The land was still technically Chinese, but the foreigners were not subject to Chinese law.  It became a place for criminals, spies, and bad actors. No one was truly in control, so no one controlled the visa situation. 

EC:  In the book you talk about The International Settlement. Please explain.

JK: The British, Americans, and a few of the other western countries pulled together and formed this. They made a lot of money, brought in Western trading companies, banks, …  By the 1920s Shanghai was the fifth largest city in the world. The Jews in Central Europe in the 1930s were able to come to Shanghai. I thought about what would happen to these people and wanted to write a story. Although Japan conquered the rest of Shanghai, they never tried to take this part over because they did not want to provoke the Western world. But after Pearl Harbor they did take over Shanghai. The British and Americans living there were interned because they were the enemy, but the refugee Jews were not considered enemies. Although their neighborhood was made into a ghetto. 

EC: Why did you put in the geo-politics of the time: Chinese, Chinese Communists, Russian Communists, and Japanese?

JK: I made a transition from pure crime to warlords fighting back and forth. There was ongoing Civil War between Chiang and Mao, the Nationalist versus the Communist. Chiang went to a gang leader, Du, who controlled the Opium trade.  He made a deal that he would turn a blind eye to the Opium trade if they killed the Communists. Crime and politics were one and the same thing often.

EC: How would you describe Leah?

JK: She is tense, a survivor, an observer, and sometimes is corrupt.  She is somebody who believes she is wise to the ways of the world, which she is.  She is pragmatic, realizing she is sailing off to unknown life.  Through her I want readers to question, at what cost does she crosslines to survive.  She wants to prosper and protect her mother. Their business was taken away and she had to extend sexual favors to bad guys. 

EC:  How would you describe Daniel?

JK:  He was exhilarated when he went on the boat because he feels he is given a second chance.  He likes to take life one minute at a time, an optimist, a charmer, and direct.  Someone who can think on his feet and can take advantage of an opportunity. In Germany he worked for Anti-Fascists who were caught and is afraid he would be named, but he is able to escape. Now the protagonist Daniel entered this world of nightclubs and dive bars because his uncle owned a nightclub.

EC:  How would you describe Nathan?

JK:  He is Daniel’s uncle but looks upon him more as a son. He is typical of a certain kind of crook, involved in a brothel that runs young girls, gang warfare, basically corrupt.  But he has charm, a warmth, funny, profane, and family is important. To me, he represents the Angel on one shoulder and the Devil on the other shoulder who are fighting for his soul. 

EC:  The relationship between Daniel and Leah?

JK: Leah tries to figure her feelings out.  She does not want any strings attached.  Whereas Daniel is protective and would do almost anything for her. They both must pretend.  I think both are in love with each other. The end chapter is set up so that a reader will not get a definite answer about them.  It is more ambiguous.

EC:  SPOILER ALERT: Did Leah survive because the last line in the book is “the last thing she saw before her boat fell off the map?”

JK:  Yes, I want readers to know she survives. It is only a metaphor. The reason for that quote is that on the old-fashioned maps there is sometimes a boat that is sailing over the edge.  She feels she is sailing over the edge to a new life that will probably not be great for her. 

EC:  How would you describe Yamada?

JK:  He pushes boundaries, believes himself superior, and underestimates Daniel. He is possessive, a predator, and a gangster. He takes advantage of the Japanese control of the rest of Shanghai. He works for the equivalent of the Japanese Gestapo. The possessiveness he feels towards Leah has a slight touching quality to it, but overall he is a bad guy.

EC: Next book?

JK: It is centered on post war Japan including the wartime trials. It will probably come out in either 2025 or 2026.




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About the Author

Elise Cooper

Elise writes book reviews that always include a short author interview.