Champions Day: The End of Old Shanghai by James Carter; Kings of Shanghai: Two Rival Dynasties and the Creation of Modern China by Jonathan Kaufman - review by Mike Cormack

Mike Cormack

Playing for High Stakes

Champions Day: The End of Old Shanghai


W W Norton 340pp £22.99

Kings of Shanghai: Two Rival Dynasties and the Creation of Modern China


Little, Brown 350pp £20

Although it is China’s largest city and its commercial centre, Shanghai tends to be obscured by Beijing. These two books attempt to shift the spotlight back onto the city that was known as the ‘Pearl of the Orient’ during the 1920s. Champions Day by the historian James Carter examines Shanghai’s history through the prism of one day in November 1941, when the Shanghai Race Club held its annual Champions Day horse races. Kings of Shanghai by Jonathan Kaufman, formerly the Wall Street Journal’s China bureau chief, tells the story of the Sassoons and the Kadoories, both Jewish families originally from Baghdad, who came to dominate Shanghai’s commerce in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Champions Day has perhaps the bolder conceit. It uses a 24-hour period as a frame through which to view wider social and cultural matters. Carter traces the history of horse racing in Shanghai and describes the various sections of society that attended race meetings there, from the members of the foreign colonialist class, who lived in the International Settlement and were free from Chinese laws, to the Chinese residents who were allowed to attend races to gamble but could not become members of the Shanghai Race Club, which stood on the site of what is now People’s Square.

In the first two sections of the book we meet the ‘Shanghailanders’, a term generally used to denote a ‘foreign resident of the city, usually western European, most commonly British’, though there were also ‘Chinese Shanghailanders’, who did not quite fit in one way or another. Carter writes interestingly about

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