The Russians

Tens of thousands of Russians fled to China after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, many of them aristocrats or White Russian army officers. By 1932, there were about 25,000 Russians living in Shanghai. They were stateless, disowned by the communists and ignored by the rest of the world. They brought a new kind of style to Shanghai, but also through their poverty and desparation, gave the native Chinese a glimpse of the fact that white people were not necessarily the infallible master race.

There were Russian musicians and dancers and poets. Some of the men became bodyguards to Shanghai's rich, while the stylish, desperate White Russians girls in the ballrooms and bars of the city were famous for their beauty.


An excerpt from Sin City, by Ralph Shaw, a British journalist in Shanghai from 1937 to 1949:

"The Russians with their long tradition of cultural pursuits were pre-eminent in making Shanghai one of the best-known artistic centres in the Far East. Flight from the Bolsheviks had bestowed on the city the presence of ballerina from Moscow and St Petersburg, first-class opera singers and, most popular of all, musical comedy stars such as Sophie Bitner, Rosen and Valin who became in exile almost as great an attraction as they had been in Moscow."


The dream of every single White Russian woman in China was to acquire a passport. She was stateless, had no country, could go nowhere. She was not a Soviet citizen but a refugee from Communist rule. The best prospect, of course, was an American passport. Thus single American males became the chief prey. Young, middle-aged,  senile, handsome, ugly as sin, long, short, fat, thin ... no matter. The goal was a passport. The British, the French, the Germans - anybody with a legal travel document were secondary prey.

Unlike their womenfolk the White Russian males were doomed to suffer the stigma Of statelessness unless, by some miracle, they could find their various ways to such countries as the United States, Australia, New Zealand or some British colony, there to reside long enough to apply for citizenship.

The lot of the Russian male in Shanghai was pitiful. The single other man had little hope of marrying a girl of his own race - or any. He had nothing to offer. Feminine eyes had in focus only those with a national status, with well-paid jobs, with homelands well up in the international league. What Prospect, for instance, could be offered by a former officer in the Czarist army who was working as a caretaker in one of the Sassoon office blocks? Or a former Russian admiral eking out a precarious existence as a cemetery keeper?

For the Young Russians, whose fathers had fled from the Bolshevik onslaught, absolute hopelessness, the omnipresent feeling of utter despair, thrust them into abject degradation. They became the victims of liquor and, much worse, drugs. A common sight in the French Concession, particularly in the vicinity of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Route Dourner, was the young Russian chap begging from passers-by - Europeans, Chinese, Eurasians, anybody. Or the degrading spectacle of young fellows, drunk or drugged to the Point of absolute insensibility, lying on the pavements."