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September 5, 2009 in The China Beat


Copyright September 5, 2009. Used by permission.


Clocking in at only 99 pages, Shanghai: High Lights Low Lights Tael Lights is an excellent appetizer for those of us who generally dine on heavier reading fare. The authors, Maurine Karns and Pat Patterson, make their purpose known early in the book: in the preface, titled “an explanation but not an apology,” Karns and Patterson state that they have written Tael Lights“with the hope of enjoying ourselves, of making a little money, and of not committing ourselves to anything for which we might be sorry” (xx). They proceed to describe, with delightful if decidedly un-PC irreverence, the Shanghai they saw before them when writing the book in 1936.

Tael Lights has recently been reprinted by Earnshaw Books, and is once again available to readers looking to supplement their stodgy Shanghai guidebooks with a more tongue-in-cheek introduction to the city. Karns and Patterson have produced a brief, idiosyncratic work — one which does not attempt to detail the entire history of Shanghai or present a comprehensive survey of the city’s hotels, restaurants, and tourist sites, but rather gives the reader a vivid impression of the Shanghai experience. Tael Lights is “Just a sort of a composite of what Shanghai looks like, and feels like and smells like after, say, the third whisky-soda, when, as Shakespeare or somebody said, the senses are sharpest” (xx).*

The absolute necessity of experiencing Shanghai, rather than gazing at it through the viewfinder of a camera, is a recurring theme in Tael Lights. Karns and Patterson urge their readers to forgo visits to the staid Longhua Pagoda and Willow Pattern Tea House, instead suggesting a trip to the Great World Amusement Park, Shanghai’s Coney Island, for tourists seeking a real taste of metropolitan life. The book lists and reviews the hotspots of Shanghai’s nightlife, devoting an entire chapter to “the fleshpots” and assuring readers that “A trip to the Venus [Cafe] is worth the sleep lost and is part of anyone’s education” (57). The writers, intoxicated by both the “Whangpoo whiskey” and the city surrounding them, express this joie de vivre in every page of their book. “The color and tang and spice of China is not in it’s temples nor in it’s lotus strewn gardens but in its crowded streets” (42), they remind their audience.