Anyone confused by the struggle over Hong Kong — the former British colony of Chinese people resisting Chinese control — could glean some insight from Champions Day: The End of Old Shanghai, the story of another Sino-British enclave that eventually reverted to native rule. In it, author James Carter offers a clear-eyed, nuanced view of colonialism that’s a useful contribution to today’s long-overdue reckoning with racism ... Carter’s fluent prose evokes the stylish colonial era without ever whitewashing its devastating impact on people of color ... Still, the book’s theme of East meets West is noted too often, and sections dealing with a multitude of hard-to-keep-straight characters drag. And, though well crafted, the detailed descriptions of decades-old horse races will grip only the most dedicated railbird. A few editing and historical errors have crept in, too, such as implicitly downgrading Japan from nation to city ... But these are small matters. We are all now being reminded that race relations is a deeply layered phenomenon. By excavating one of those layers for closer examination, Champions Day adds to the vital discourse.
The character sketches in Carter’s book trace a time plagued by racism and sexism. Not all women were household names like Emily Hahn or the Soong sisters, and Carter gives them voice ... Carter doesn’t romanticize Shanghai as a haven for expatriates, but rather shows the hope of Shanghai becoming a Chinese city run by Chinese, with some western characteristics. The opportunity passed in a flash, maybe not in the single day of this book, but Carter’s focus on one day in 1941—four years after Japan took Shanghai apart from the foreign concessions and just before they fell as well—emphasizes how the hopes for many in the city were shattered once and for all.
Carter, whose knowledge of Chinese history and culture is abundantly clear, moves fluidly back and forth between the historical perspective and the bitter moments when Japanese occupation would eclipse the city's once flamboyant heyday ... A satisfying juggling act of academic research and engaging popular history.