“Shanghai 1935: An American lady’s account of the city and its high-society” by Ruth Day


In 1935, Ruth Day paid a six-week visit to her mother and step-father who were at that time living in Shanghai. When she returned, she published a short book on the trip. The book had a run of just 200 copies and seems to have quickly disappeared—but at least one copy found its way to the New York Public Library, where it was found by then PhD candidate Andrew Field, who contributed an introduction to its republication.

Day’s father-in-law, Frederick A Cleveland, had been put in charge of salt tax in China, which under his auspices, was bringing in more than $160 million annually by 1933. Well-known and respected, Cleveland was Day’s entrée to Shanghai society, which is where Day mostly spent her time. She rubbed shoulders with the Sassoons, Koos, Mazes, various senior members of the diplomatic corps and Chinese political establishment, all the while dancing, going to dinner parties, taking the train to Peiping [sic], ducking in and out of some of the less salubrious parts of town.


Shanghai 1935: Shanghai 1935, Ruth Day, Andrew Field (intro) (Earnshaw Books, February 2019)
Shanghai 1935: An American lady’s account of the city and its high-society, Ruth Day, Andrew Field (intro) (Earnshaw Books, February 2019)

This a curious little book, a cross between a diary and a serialized set of articles for a magazine like Harper’s Bazaar, chatty, but well-observed. She was clearly taking notes. Born in 1892, Day was no longer—despite all her evident energy—in quite the first blush of youth. A dozen years into a marriage by 1935, she lived in Springfield, Mass, on Mulberry Street (as in And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street).

Day comes across as being quite American in not giving much of a damn how important or rich any particular person is: she seems to hold her own regardless of the company and seems game for just about anything. She does however like her cocktails, and goes into something of a decline when there aren’t any to be had. Anything boring was derided as being so “1890s”:


From the point of view of beauty, it was a disappointment, very long and made of dark mahogany, like any bar in an hotel of the 1890 type.


She’s also quite American in some of her views. When writing of “ricksha coolies”, she says:


The Sikh police, reminders of the British yoke, seem to take an especial joy in cuffing them about, and beating them with clubs.


The British yoke, no less. She had an eye for incongruous; she notes a scene that, if one replaces the mannequin with a real person, might be seen in any IKEA, at least in Hong Kong, today:


The shops were a strange mixture of the old and the new. Next to a native food shop might be an electric-lighted radio store, or a Chinese-owned department store. In one of these was displayed modernistic bedroom furniture, with the bed all made up, and the figure of a black-haired lady lying on it.


One can see Day testing out the stories she will be telling at dinner parties for the foreseeable future:


A few blocks beyond, at a small shop, the only funny incident of the morning occurred. I saw some small silvery-looking figures on horse back, done in relief, and I thought they would be wonderful for radiator ornaments for our cars at home. After the usual bargaining with the guide interpreting, I bought two, and then asked him what they represented. With some embarrassment he explained that brides hung them over their beds to bring babies. I decided then that they would not be suitable ornaments for automobile radiators.


She can be quite self-aware. When visiting a Chinese family and their children:


Their mother was much pleased by our surprise when each child spoke to us in English, a courtesy that I could hardly imagine in an American home, for a visiting Chinese.


And sometimes one feels she is hinting at some social commentary she hasn’t quite made explicit. At another gathering:


Japanese diplomatic service and their wives were with them. Some of the  latter wore foreign clothes and spoke English, while others wore Japanese clothes and spoke French.


And yet, there are reminders that the past, 1935 at least, was not entirely “woke”. When going to some of the less well-lit parts of town:


I felt as if there were sinister figures lurking in all the dark doorways, and was very glad that my companion looked so tall and strong!


Yet despite all this gallivanting about, Day was also aware of the economic issues of the day:


Just before I left Shanghai, there was a lot of bad feeling about the American silver clause decision, as it was asserted that a great many small Chinese shop keepers were being ruined and the Americans were being blamed for it.


This presumably refers to FDR’s establish setting a guaranteed purchase price for silver which, since China was on silver standard, sucked currency out of the country, resulting in shortages and capital flight. One can similarly see hints of the changing stature of the world powers:


Buicks, Fords and Chevrolets were everywhere, and once I saw one lone antiquated Rolls Royce!


In a later passage about a stop-over in Japan and a visit to a department store, she writes with prescience:


I had a sinking feeling when I looked at the complete line of tin and aluminum ware as well as everything electrical, and all so much cheaper than in America. For instance the electric curling iron I bought cost thirty-three cents American money, and the best invisible hairpins I have ever had, and double the usual amount, cost only three cents.
      I went back to the ship with a feeling mixed with foreboding, for I felt that competition from this nation of “go-getters,” is something to fear.


1935 does not seem quite so long ago after all.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.