White Shanghai: A Novel of the Roaring Twenties in China

Written by Elvira Baryakina
Review by Silvia Barlaam

White Shanghai follows the life of several characters, mostly Russian refugees from the Bolshevik revolution, and their fate in the city of Shanghai, where they seek respite and are instead met with hostility, diffidence and administrative problems. The main storyline revolves around Nina and Klim, a couple whose love is certain but who set their life on different paths.

Alongside them, little by little, many other characters are introduced, from little Ada who can’t prove she’s of American descent and has to earn a living as a dancer, to Jiri, to Tamara, confined to her bed and living through the stories told her by visitors, to Lemoine, who deals in unclear business and knows who to go to in case of trouble. There are the Bernards: Edna, who is a passionate journalist and helps Klim find a job as correspondent, and her husband, Daniel, who Nina decides to woe with her graces. And more. There’s also Shanghai, and China, a city and a world on the brink of many changes; the whites and the Chinese, cultures clashing and mixing in the same breath; a mix of languages, Russian, English, Chinese, Czech, to name a few; the nouveaux riches and the old nobility, the tea trade and the opium trade and the champagne and liquor trade, and hundreds more stories and quirks of characters and historical events.

Baryakina holds it all together with a light touch and secure handling of the style and content, mixing history with romance with all‑rounded characters from diverse paths of life, as easily as the book’s cover sets the tone, setting and style of the narrative with a bold touch of Chinese red lanterns, a warm palette and a classy lettering style typical of the Twenties, overlooked by a thoughtful woman’s face.