The Green Gang and the Blue Villa

Over the last four or five years, I’ve put in many hours looking at the details of Sterling Seagrave’s 1985 book, The Soong Dynasty. The book describes the rise and fall of China’s influential Soong family, and its connections with Chiang Kai-shek, the politician and general who played a central role in China’s government from the 1920s until 1949, when the Nationalist government he led was defeated by the Communists and moved to Taiwan.

The Soong Dynasty spent 14 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and has been surprisingly influential on later writers, something which I will go into if I ever finish my critical review.

The notes in Seagrave’s book give the impression of great detail, and the bibliography, listing over 200 books, is massive. But a closer look shows something quite different: the notes are riddled with errors, over half the books in the bibliography are never used in the text, and large chunks of the book are either unsourced or incorrectly sourced.

Trying to track down these references and sources has given me some entertaining hours. I doubt I will finish my critical review any time in the near future, but I’m going to post some of the more interesting results of the search here over the next couple of months to at least get some use out of all this; perhaps it will stir me enough to eventually finish my review.

The first of these posts is on one of the main themes of Seagrave’s book: the role that Shanghai’s Green Gang played in the rise of the Soong family, and Chiang Kai-shek. Seagrave lays out his theme at the beginning of the book:

A recent flurry of scholarship on China has brought to light the stories of a number of Chiang’s early intimates, which I have included in the bibliography. By carefully piecing these elements together and showing how these cronies interacted with Chiang in the early 1920s I have been able to reconstruct enough of the basic outlines of a major political conspiracy to show how it worked and who were the principals involved. (12)

This major political conspiracy is no less than a “pact” between Chiang Kai-shek and the Green Gang to take over the government of China. As Seagrave says:

Chiang’s direct connection with the notorious Shanghai Green Gang after the winter of 1926-27 has been known for many years, but there has been only a vague understanding that those links went back much earlier, and of how they affected his career. It is now possible for the first time to see the “Divine Skein” linking them all the way back to his youth, before 1910, and the manner in which the Green Gang leaders used Chiang decisively (and were used by him) to snatch the revolution from the hands of Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s coalition. (12)

Seagrave’s description of how Chiang and the Green Gang pursued the ends of their conspiracy, aided and abetted by the Soongs, is full of lurid details, but the sources of these details are sometimes utterly obscure. Tracking these details down is sometimes amazingly difficult, and there are many points that I’ll probably never figure out, but there are some points I can now resolve.

The post for today is on just one small item: a brothel that Seagrave claims the Green Gang owned or controlled, called the Blue Villa. The Blue Villa appears only twice in Seagrave’s book, but it can illustrate both Seagrave’s writing style and the problems involved in tracing his sources.

The Villa’s first appearance is on page 152, where Seagrave is describing the different social positions of the Soong family and Chiang. The Soong family, whose daughter Mei-ling eventually married Chiang, is at the high end;

At the opposite end of the Shanghai social scale, Big-eared Tu enjoyed visiting the famous Blue Villa and cruising the other Green Gang brothels in the Blue Chamber district with a young, ill-tempered bravo by the name of Chiang Kai-shek.

Big-eared Tu is Seagrave’s favored designation for Tu Yueh-sheng, one of the main figures in the Green Gang from the 1920s up until war broke out between China and Japan in 1937. This anecdote of Tu and Chiang in the red-light district (Blue Chamber district) is Seagrave’s attempt to put some detail on his claim that Chiang had links to the Green Gang “all the way back to his youth, before 1910.”

The second appearance of the Blue Villa is on page 158, where Seagrave gives a description of Shanghai’s decadent nightlife:

It is estimated that one out of every twelve Chinese houses in Shanghai was a brothel, which put the total number at 668 brothels for the International Settlement alone. One out of every 130 residents of the city was a prostitute. Of this number, more than half were owned by the Green Gang or owed allegiance to it. There were 121 prostitutes in the Blue Villa alone.

This style of writing is typical of much of the book. Specific details such as the location (the International Settlement, a district of Shanghai under international control, and not subject to Chinese law), and the number of prostitutes (121) are essential to Seagrave’s evocation of time and place, and give a strong impression of both realism and accuracy.

Seagrave’s annotation does sometimes give sources for some of these details, and following these sources can often give interesting results. Other times, however, Seagrave gives no source at all for his vivid details. The Blue Villa is one of many such cases.

Without help from Seagrave, such trivia is difficult indeed to track down, and I looked for the Blue Villa’s source for some time. Eventually I had a chance to look at most of the works listed in Seagrave’s bibliography. I believe it is in none of them. Not even the name Blue Villa, much less a count of how many prostitutes worked there.

I’ve also looked through a fair number of the various books that have been published on “Shanghai, city of adventurers” over the last 100 years or so. There are surprisingly many of these, and I can’t swear I’ve gone over everything that is out there, but I have read close to a dozen books on the subject, and as far as I can tell, the Blue Villa, far from being famous, is not mentioned in one of them.

The closest I came to a nibble was a book by Eric Chou, a Chinese journalist. In addition to co-writing a biography of Chiang Kai-shek with Brian Crozier, Chou also wrote a book called The Dragon and the Phoenix: Love, Sex and the Chinese. This book has a chapter called “Shanghai–the Paradise of Sinners” that has some interesting details. According to Chou,

The best-known club in Shanghai at that time was run by Tu Yueh-sheng, the all-powerful leader of the Blue Gang. It was at 181 Rue Giraud, with a rear gate opening on to Rue Foche. The huge three-storey French-style house was surrounded by an enormous garden of several acres. With armed guards posted at both front and rear gates, the club could pass as the residence of some V.I.P. …On the ground floor, thirty-six roulette wheels kept spinning… The second floor was a different world, and only the very select guests had access to it. (109)

This passage is one of the most vivid description I have found of the “decadent nightlife” of Shanghai. Tu’s club sounds like an interesting place. Unfortunately, it is probably not the right place. The Blue Gang is indeed another name for the Green Gang, but the tantalizingly nameless club was located in the French settlement, not the International Settlement. Rue Foche is probably an error for Avenue Foch, now known as Yan’an Central Road. This road did not exist before 1920, yet Chiang and Tu visited the Blue Villa as customers in Chiang’s youth. And the luxurious club Chou describes certainly doesn’t sound like the kind of place that the then proletarian Chiang and Tu would visit.

Stuck, I gave up on the hunt for a couple of years until I starting thinking about putting together a class in modern fiction and at last stumbled across a Blue Villa. The source is a 1965 novel by the French writer Alain Robbe-Grillet, called La Maison de Rendez-vous. I actually remember this novel from adolescence because of the paper-back cover, which I will put up if I can find a good picture of it. I had run across the Blue Villa in La Maison earlier while searching on Google, but confused it with a 1995 movie by Robbe-Grillet and mistakenly discarded it.

The “plot” of La Maison, like most of Robbe-Grillet’s works, pretty much defies description, but the Blue Villa is a central location in the story. It is a very vague sort of place, a brothel located in Hong Kong and run by a woman named Lady Ava. Hong Kong is not Shanghai, but it was still intriguing. Could the source of Seagrave’s Blue Villa really be here? French “new novels” are not normally a good source for works on history, to put it mildly. Still, perhaps Robbe-Grillet had learned of the Blue Villa, maybe from the same unknown source Seagrave had, and appropriated it for his own uses.

This seems not to be the case. Roch Smith, in a book called Understanding Robbe-Grillet (a necessary volume for those who want to read him), has a note on the origin of the name. In a 1997 letter to Smith, Robbe-Grillet explained that

The ‘Blue Villa’ of the novel has two sources: on one hand, the house of Victoria Ocampo, gray eminence and patron of Argentine literature … And on the other hand, a house of games (and of other more or less illicit pleasures) that was called ‘The Wide World’ and was in Shanghai. I visited it, but transformed into a conventional Communist house of culture. Edgar Faure told me about what went on there before.

Argentina is not what we’re looking for of course, but it seems that Robbe-Grillet’s Blue Villa did indeed have at least part of its source in a real Shanghai location. “The Wide World” is Roch Smith’s translation, but he gave the French original, “Le Grand Monde.” This is a familiar name. The English version is the “Great World” and there is an article on it in the English Wikipedia. It was restored to its original function as an amusement hall plus theater for Chinese opera after the Cultural Revolution and is still a popular location today. (160)

It was not, and is not, a house of ill-repute, as Robbe-Grillet was led to believe, but there is an interesting, if distant, Tu Yueh-sheng tie that is explained in Brian Martin’s book The Shanghai Green Gang (pp. 192-194). Distant here means that it was not Tu, but Tu’s older patron, Huang Chin-jung (Seagrave calls him Pock-marked Huang), who eventually acquired control of the “Great World” in 1931 (through quite shady means, apparently).

Unfortunately again, the “Great World” was established in 1916, which is probably still too late for the Chiang-Tu cruising that Seagrave describes. And again, “Great World” was more like a modern pachinko parlor than an exotic brothel with 121 prostitutes waiting on customers.

So while the Great World may have supplied some of the inspiration for Robbe-Grillet’s Blue Villa in La Maison, it doesn’t fit most of the details in Seagrave’s account.

Why then did both authors have a place with the same name? Now very suspicious that Seagrave had found one of his sources in Robbe-Grillet’s fiction, I still had to admit that there was always the (remote) possibility that there really was a Blue Villa that Seagrave found somewhere that I failed to look, and that the Robbe-Grillet connection was simply a random coincidence.

But browsing through Robbe-Grillet’s works, I found one more reference to the Blue Villa, in a 1977 novel called Topology of a Phantom City. (I read the Grove edition translated by J. A. Underwood) The strangely appropriate passage is as follows:

Pretending

If one is alone one must pretend to be two. With two, one must pretend to be three. Anything more than that is too difficult, even with several windows and several mirrors of different shapes. With more than three people it is best to pretend to be alone.

Doubtful Identity

Otherwise one has to resort to subterfuges such as wigs or cosmetics for painting the mouth and eyes, or wear a cloche hat with lace and flowers, the kind known as a “funny hat,” and assume an inspired, dreamy look (it is difficult not to laugh), imitating the drifting expression of the girl who has just had a letter from far away, from the Indies or the Andes or the Endies, from some country that does not exist, a blue letter recounting incredible things: the story of the three girls living at the bottom of a well, the story of the seven adolescents wed by Gille de Retz, the story of the twenty-four captives shut up in the underground prison of Vanadium, the one about the hundred and twenty-one underage prostitute of the Blue Villa in Shanghai, or the nine hundred and ninety-nine nocturnal companions of King Solomon, son of David; or it might be the story of the eleven thousand virgins of Cologne, or lastly that of an indeterminate number of girls who do not exist, as pretty as pictures and whose pictures multiply from page to page of a book one pretends to be seeing for the first time. (95-96)

Here at last we have the Blue Villa in Shanghai, occupied by 121 prostitutes. Now I don’t have a funny hat, but it really is difficult not to laugh. If this is not the source of Seagrave’s details, it’s one of the most goddamn remarkable coincidences I’ve ever heard of. If it is the source … well, he should at least have listed it in his bibliography. Or perhaps Seagrave’s publisher should have listed the book as fiction, which doesn’t require annotation for little homages like this.

[first posted Feb 21, 2015; revised Feb 23]

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