When we think of bombs falling on our city, we usually imagine them coming from far away, perhaps from an enemy country. We rarely imagine them from just down the road.
Yet, that is the first fact that dawns on us during the opening of “Bloody Saturday”, penned by Paul French (“Midnight in Peking”) and one of the latest offerings from Penguin China, with a release timed to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the events in Shanghai covered in the book.
“In the space of one night, Shanghai had gone from the legendary ‘Paris of the East’ to become a dark, frightened city of refugees.”
The Japanese battle cruiser Idzumo was moored off The Bund and alongside the Japanese Consulate. It was from this incredulous location that the cruiser launched volley after volley of shells targeted at the city’s Zhabei district and the then North Railway Station.
Thus is set the grim tone for the rest of the book.
In 1937, Shanghai experienced the weather of a typical August; hot days punctuated by the edges of typhoons that batter Taiwan; it gives the pages a nice metaphor for the horrors taking place on the streets below.
French’s matter of fact style of prose supplies an almost documentary tone to the timeline of events. He is almost nonchelant over the work’s entire crux; that of the Chinese airforce departing Nanjing and proceeding to accidentally bomb their own people along the Shanghai Bund and what is now Yan’nan Lu, during which one shell fell directly through the roof of the Palace Hotel (now the Swatch Art Peace Hotel).
With the numbers left alive today that witnessed the events first hand withering, French’s book becomes a historical document hitherto unwritten. That he quotes exclusively from foreigners living in Shanghai at the time may be deliberate, but it has also attracted him a storm of criticism.
That in and of itself, however, does not make “Bloody Saturday” any less of an excellent read, from start to end.