The first time I set foot in the war zone, a Ukrainian soldier chastely kissed my cheek before confiding he was excited to tell his mother that he had kissed a Frenchwoman. A few minutes later, just beside me, his fellow soldiers were perched on a tank, firing shots in the air to disperse residents who were opposed to their presence. The ringing from the shots caused me to lose hearing in one ear for a full 24 hours.

To imagine the Shanghai of the 1930s is to frame art-deco frontages on chiaroscuro streets, behind which noirish figures from a polyglot demi-monde sip whiskies and soda. The city in this era has an imaginative power in the Western mind beyond that of any other place in China, fuelled by an intoxicating cocktail of equal measures myth and reality. Paul French, a long-time resident of the city, now returned to London, offers two complimentary portraits of the place and those westerners pulled inexorably toward it in his new books, City of Devils and Destination Shanghai.

Bluntly and simply, this is a very scholarly book about twenty-one tombstones with Arabic and Persian inscriptions on them, epitaphs commemorating people whom most of us have never heard of. Every one of them is carefully photographed front and back, the texts transcribed and translated in the lengthy appendix. A second appendix describes “The Islamic Stelae of Hangzhou”.

When we had finished tea, we went down to the beach. My host untied an outrigger canoe and pushed it out into the shallows. I rolled up my trousers and followed him, my backpack on my back. I tossed the backpack into the boat and climbed in. Soon we were out in the bay, the sea floor falling rapidly away beneath us, the water sparkling and clear. We paddled away from the land, and then he turned the boat to the north, following the line of the coast. It was a beautiful day, and it felt good to be out on the water.

Anton Chekhov, it appears, was not the first Russian literary luminary to visit Hong Kong. Chekhov had stopped off in October 1890 and wrote about its “wonderful bay”. English-language literature had to wait until Somerset Maugham came through more than a quarter-century later. But Chekhov was beaten to the punch by Ivan Goncharov who stopped by in 1853.