... a lively work that uses the story of horse racing and the events of a single day at the races in the early 1940s to provide a panoramic look at a colorful city on the cusp of a dramatic transformation ... Even though Champions Day is clearly geared toward a more general readership, Carter weaves some engaging academic arguments into the book ... As with many books that aim to reach both academic and general audiences, this can be a difficult balancing act to pull off, but Carter does a wonderful job of combining rigor with entertainment. Different readers will likely appreciate different aspects of Champions Day. A serious, historically minded reader will come away most impressed by Carter’s deep knowledge of modern Chinese history and dedication to thorough research. A reader looking for light reading over an international flight, by contrast, will more likely focus on Carter’s fluent prose and the memorable quotes and phrases that enliven the volume.
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.