The Last Rose of Shanghai: A Novel
I’m sixty years old, an entrepreneur, a philanthropist, and a troubled woman. I’ve dressed carefully for the meeting today, wearing a black cashmere cardigan, an embroidered yellow blouse, black pants, and a custom-made shoe. I hope, with all my heart, that I look refined and humble, just as an easygoing billionaire ought to appear.
I turn my wheelchair around, moving from one octagonal table to another. It has been a long time since I last came here, and the hotel seems to greet me like an old friend: the chestnut wood–paneled walls, the black-and-white prints, and the golden chandelier hung on the ceiling like a blazing bird nest. In the air, of course, there are no familiar jazz tunes, or angry shouts, or his steady voice. After all, it has been forty years. Our past—my light, my tears—is gone, forever out of my reach. But I hope after today it will be different; after today, I’ll be at peace.
I’ve decided to donate this hotel—this iconic landmark built by a Briton, controlled by several governments, now under my ownership—to an American documentarian whom I’ll meet today. I’ll ask her to do only one thing: make a documentary. This is an unusual deal, a poor deal on my part, but I don’t care. The documentarian has flown across the ocean to meet me, and I’m eager to meet her.
At a black table near Corinthian columns, I park my wheelchair. I shouldn’t be nervous, but my heart races. Did I forget to take my medication this morning? I don’t remember, and I can’t seem to move, either, caught in the crack of memories.
About two years after the fall of Shanghai, four months after the war started in Europe, I was twenty years old, and I had a problem. My nightclub, a million-dollar business, was running out of liquor due to the wartime shortage. My visits to the breweries and trading companies had yielded no luck, and the customers had taken notice of their adulterated wine. At my wits’ end, I went to see the last person in the world I’d ask for help: my business rival, the British businessman Sir Victor Sassoon.
He lived in his hotel, located in the heart of the International Settlement near the Huangpu River. Close to the building, I asked my chauffeur to park my brown Nash sedan so I could get out and walk the rest of the way. My scarf around my face, I passed squeaky rickshaws and rumbling automobiles, my head bent low, praying no one would recognize me.
It was late in the afternoon; a great storm had blown through, the sky looked gloomy, and the sun lay behind the clouds like a silver coin. The air, chilly, smelled of perfume, cigarette smoke, and the fried dumplings from the racecourse a few blocks away. When I reached one of the hotel’s entrances, I saw ahead of me a jeep crash into a man on a bicycle—a local Shanghainese, I could tell—who held his leg, screaming, his face bloody. From the jeep jumped a Japanese soldier in a khaki uniform. Smirking, he stepped up to the poor biker, took out his pistol, and shot him in the head.
The loud gunshot pierced my ears and my heart, yet there was nothing I could do but look away. We had lost the city to the Japanese; now, sadly, all of us Chinese in Shanghai were like trapped fish in a sunless marsh. To avoid the hook of death and go on living, we had no choice but to remain unseen under water.
I quickened my pace, went up to the landing at the hotel’s main entrance, and stepped through the revolving door. A gust of warm air roared to greet me in the lobby. Letting out my breath, I unwound my scarf and took in the rich Persian rugs, gleaming marble floor, luscious burgundy leather chesterfields, and bouquets of fresh roses and carnations nestled in tall indigo vases. I loved this hotel. Before the war, I had often pampered myself by booking the Jacobean, one of the hotel’s extravagant suites that featured unique French decor.
I didn’t see Sassoon, but a blond man on a chesterfield, clad in a gray flannel suit similar to one my fiancé owned, was frowning at me. Near him, three men in blue American Fourth Marines Regiment uniforms, who must have heard the gunshot, stopped smoking their cigarettes and turned to me as well. They looked annoyed, as if I were an intruder who had just broken into their dining room.
I wondered if they thought I had something to do with the shooting outside, but mostly likely they were displeased because I was the only Chinese guest in the lobby. I had to be careful. Everyone knew the Chinese and foreigners were like salt and sugar that must not be mixed, since the foreigners in the Settlement viewed the locals as a nuisance and we shunned them as enemies. These men in the lobby didn’t know me, but people in Shanghai, including Sassoon, held me in high regard.
And I had come in my usual finery: a tailored red dress with a slit near the thigh and a luscious black mink coat with a tuxedo collar, accessorized with gold leaf earrings, a gold necklace, and an expensive purse. There were not many girls in Shanghai like me—young, fashionable, wealthy, dare I say beautiful, and skillful from years’ experience of running a nightclub. I knew how to handle all kinds of people.
I didn’t sway my hips like a flirt, didn’t lower my eyes like a servant, didn’t smile like someone for hire. Instead, I raised my free hand, gave them a polite nod like the businesswoman I was, and said in perfect American English, “Good afternoon, gentlemen. How are you?”
No reply was given. That was fine with me. I walked past them to the other side of the lobby, waving off the bellboys in beige uniforms offering their help. Sassoon, living in the penthouse on the eleventh floor, had said to meet him in the lobby but hadn’t come down yet. I was glad, for his notorious hobby of photography and his request still lodged in my mind, and I also needed a moment to subtly ask for a favor without appearing abject.
I headed to a chair near the elevator, where two white men, holding bottles of Pabst, staggered out. They were drunk, their faces sweaty, their eyes glazed. The one with a shaved head peered at me. A mutter, in English, hit me: “Dogs and Chinese are not allowed in this hotel.”
Had this been my club, I would have had the man escorted out. I fixed him with a glare, switched my purse to my left hand, and walked to the Jazz Bar at the end of the lobby. I had just taken two steps when a bottle flashed in the air and struck my head. A violent bout of laughter burst in my ears; I felt dizzy, but I could see, in the light-adorned lobby, everything was normal and no one was concerned. Not the blond in the flannel suit, who raised a magazine to his face, not the American Marines, who disappeared into the Jazz Bar, and definitely not the fat-necked old man, who clapped as though he were watching an amusing show.
I wouldn’t need their assistance anyway. Keeping my perfect composure, with one hand on my waist, I felt my throbbing forehead with the other. There was something viscous. Panic ran through me—my looks meant everything to me. “You hit me! I’m going to call the police.”
“Go ahead. They’ll take you to jail.” The man who’d struck me snorted, and then they chanted, “Jail, jail, jail.”
I hated to be threatened, but everyone in Shanghai knew this too—the Settlement’s Sikh policemen were biased, and we the locals, the losers of the war, couldn’t rely on them for any sort of justice. Forget about Sassoon. I just wanted to get out of there. I turned around, but somehow my high heels slid over a pile of shards and I dropped to the ground with a thud. It was mortifying.
“Let me help you,” a man said near me, his hand outstretched. It was an ugly hand with gnarled knuckles, the pinkie curled up like a question mark, and a web of jagged scars and snaky welts on the back. But grateful for the help, I let him pull me up, and I was glad, too, that the man seemed to be able to read my mind—he steered me away from the glass shards, away from the snarling ruffians, and rushed through the revolving door.
On the landing, the chilly wind pawed at my face. I pulled my coat tight around my chest, relieved, stunned. I had never been attacked before, and now I owed a debt of gratitude to the man with a scarred hand. I looked at him.
He was a young man, tall and wiry, wearing a black double-breasted coat with creased lapels, no gold watch or necklace—he was not the type of person I usually dealt with. His facial features were distinct: full lips, a strong jaw, and a prominent nose that seemed to tell the world he had a purpose for his life. But I would still have thanked him, had it not been for his eyes—a striking shade of blue.
Another white man.
“There they are! They assaulted us. Arrest them!” Through the revolving door, like a bad omen, the two thugs came out, accompanied by an enormous Sikh policeman wearing a turban.
What nerve they had. I swept aside my bangs to show the policeman my bleeding forehead, and in English, in my easy business voice, I said, “Look what they did to me, sir. They’re lying. But let’s forget about this, shall we? There’s no need to arrest anyone.”
This Sikh, a bull of a man, put his hand on the Webley in his holster. “Miss, I’m trying to do my job.”
Just a typical policeman in the Settlement, for any unbiased policeman would know a woman like me was more likely a victim.
“She’s telling the truth, sir,” the blue-eyed foreigner said beside me. He was holding my purse and scarf I had inadvertently dropped in the lobby. I would like to have them back, but prudence told me to keep a distance from him.
“Arrest them, arrest them.” Loud protests burst from near the revolving door, and the Sikh stomped closer.
“Sorry, miss.” He grabbed the front lapels of the man who had helped me.
It happened so fast: The foreigner pulled away, dropping my purse and scarf, and stumbled backward. Unaware of the staircase behind him, he missed a step, fell, and rolled off the landing to the street. The Sikh policeman lunged after him, those hateful attackers roaring with laughter.
I rushed to pick up my purse and scarf and hurried down the landing to my Nash on the street. Only after I reached my car did I look back. In the distance, among the mass of speeding rickshaws, long-robed pedestrians, and crawling black automobiles, not far from the biker’s body, was the enormous Sikh policeman, who clutched the hands of the foreigner, the innocent man, behind his back, and led him in the direction of the police station.