Interview with Author of Night in Shanghai and Member of National Committee on U.S.-China Relations: Nicole Mones

Hi Nicole, welcome to Oh, for the Hook of a Book! I am glad to have you here with me today! How are you? How has the launch of your book been going for you? Your cover is beautiful.

Nicole: Thanks! I love the cover too, front and back; it really captures the novel. The launch of the book has been unlike any other, since I am touring with a multimedia presentation of historical photos, film clips, and video. You can see it all on my website (, starting with the three-minute trailer on the home page.

Night in Shanghai is the first novel I’ve ever written based entirely on real people and true events—so even though it’s a novel, you actually can go online and look at the pictures! And the novel ends with a true-to-life epilogue; only the four central characters are fictional, and you learn what happened to everyone else. I truly love blurring the line between fiction and historical fact.

02_Night in Shanghai

Erin: My son, who is also an aspiring politician, historian, and blogger is joining us today, he’s very interested in your experience with China. Both of us are really looking forward to this interview, but first, join us in a drink. Do you prefer coffee, tea, or something else? We can sip and chat, have a seat right here in the comfortable chairs in my library room. The sun is actually starting to peek through the clouds.

Nicole: Perfect. I’m glad your son is here, because this is a book for the history lover. Tea, thank you… My drink of choice of choice for this virtual conversation would be a Dongting oolong, with a long, flowery finish—because that’s the flavor of reminiscence.

Erin: That sounds delightful, let’s all have that! Now, we’ll get our questions underway!

Q: Night in Shanghai takes place in 1936 in Chiang Kai-Shek-era Shanghai. What research did you conduct to accurately portray this historical era?

A: More than you could ever imagine. There’s powerful magic in verisimilitude, and I like to leave no detail unstudied. Some of the research was just my life… it was my privilege to sign my first commercial contract in Shanghai in 1977, and the city as I came to know it then, immediately after the Cultural Revolution, was physically almost unchanged from the 1930s and 40s. So many of the vanished jazz and entertainment venues portrayed in this book, along with the vintage look and feel of the city, were right in front of me back then–and so are within my personal memory. For example, twenty years ago, before it was torn down, I was able to explore the Canidrome—since at that time, the dog-track was re-purposed as the municipal flower market!

Through the decades, I have also listened to many Shanghainese elders share their personal memories of the jazz age, and of the war. I began listening to these stories as soon as I started learning Chinese—back when you still saw older women with bound feet! Of course I also spent several years poring over written histories, and in these secondary sources, I’m especially indebted to the scholarship of Stella Dong, Lynn Pan, Andrew Jones, Poshek Fu, and Gunther Schuller. First-person accounts by jazz musicians, memoirs by other notables who lived or worked in Shanghai, vintage maps, and even letters of the period were all incredibly important to me, because through these primary sources, I could see streets, I could hear voices. Finally, my wonderful researcher Daniel Nieh combed the Chinese internet to check details. Everything is accurate—the price of a steamship ticket (he wrote to steamship companies in Japan with such perfect Japanese that they went to the warehouse and pulled out 1937 fare schedules for him!), the name some street was popularly known by, the precise turn of a phrase in mid-30s Shanghai pidgin. That’s why Night in Shanghai feels so alive… because it’s true!

Q: I understand that your employment in the textile business sparked your love of Chinese culture. What about China fascinates you most?

A: There’s a saying in Chinese: huo dao lao, xue dao lao, hai you san fen xue bu dao. You can live to old age, study to old age, and still thirty percent will be unexplored. That’s it for me…from the moment I first set foot there as a young girl in 1977, determined to do business in textiles, I recognized China as a place so multi-faceted and magnificently complex that it would reward a lifetime of study, attention, and observation. I knew I could never come to the end of it. Like anyone, I can be frustrated by China, but I saw from the start that it would never bore me. And it never has!

Q: Night in Shanghai is not simply historical, but is also a beautiful depiction of Chinese custom and culture. What do you believe Americans need to learn more about to understand China beyond just the fortune cookies (which were American inventions) and the like?

A: You know, I think if you asked that question of ten different China experts, you’d get ten different answers, depending on each person’s field. Environmental degradation will seem most important to some China watchers, while others will focus on how badly China needs to learn to adhere to the rule of law. Both are critical issues. But I am a novelist, and so what I personally want Americans to see and sense and feel is the human landscape of China. Why do people think and live—and choose—as they do, in China? How have the pendulums of modern history shaped and sculpted the nation’s psyche? As someone who has been a fly on the wall through the last 37 years of China’s modernization, these are stories and characters I can bring to a Western audience.

Q: The story used as a sub-plot in Night in Shanghai included a daring but little known plan to bring Jews to Shanghai to escape the Holocaust. How did you come across this, and why do we not hear about it more?

A: My researcher Daniel Nieh was trolling through a Chinese military history database, checking details on the visa requirements for entry to various Chinese cities in the 1930s. He literally stumbled over—and as his eyes popped out his head, began to read and translate—Chinese documents on this incredible story. In 1939 the Chinese Nationalist Government passed a law setting aside two counties in westernmost Yunnan Province—land adjoining Burma—as a permanent autonomous resettlement zone for 100,000 Jewish refugees to be brought from Europe! This was in addition to the 25,000 Jewish refugees alreadysurviving the war in Shanghai. No other country on earth, including the U.S., risked so much to save Jewish lives. This became a powerful part of my novel, and of course I could not let it remain forgotten. Your question—why have we never heard of this?—is a good one. My guess is that it has been hidden first, because it failed, and second, because it was a plan created by the Nationalist Government—not the Communists. Perhaps in the first decades after the Communists took over, they did not want to celebrate and promote any good works of the Nationalists. Now, however, this is something in which all Chinese can take pride. China really tried to help Jews during the Holocaust—and I see clear signs (like the opening of a Holocaust Museum, and the establishment of Jewish Studies at the university level) that the Chinese government would like the world to know what they did—even if it was done by the Nationalists!  

Q: You write both novels and articles on China. What is your writing process like?

A: Well, as you can probably tell… first I do a huge amount of research! I really enjoy mastering a topic from every possible angle. Then, I put it all out of my mind, sit at the computer, and fly by the seat of my pants. Come to think of it, that’s more or less how I started my textiles business back in 1977. And you know what? That’s also how the protagonist of Night in Shanghai, African-American pianist Thomas Greene, finally learns to improvise—to solo. I guess you’ve got my number.  

Q: Did you travel for research of your novels, including Night in Shanghai?

A: Of course! It’s part of my magical thinking as a novelist: no street corner is ever described on which I have not stood, no street vendor’s snack is mentioned that I have not tasted, no line of Chinese spoken I’ve not heard. Once I spent a week in Shanghai for this book and accomplished NOTHING except that I found a highly detailed 1932 street map of Shanghai at a flea market. All the way home, I was kicking myself on having wasted a trip to China… but guess what? That map became my bible! Looking back, that was a great research trip! It just didn’t seem so at the time.

Q: I read that you are on the National Committee on United States-China Relations. What does your role in this organization entail?

A: My role in the organization is to benefit from the incredible insight on China provided by professors and diplomats! The Committee is made up of hundreds of career China-watchers, scholars, business leaders, and State Department people—collectively, their knowledge of China is beyond awesome, and helps make my work on China more authoritative. From my side, with China-based novels in print in 22 languages, I am one of the few in the group who speaks to a popular audience… I am the accidental (and popular) Sinologist. They are the experts.

Q: Some of the Chinese in this time period looked down upon Song and Thomas’s relationship. Did Chinese culture hold prejudice against some foreigners or other ethnic groups at this time?

A: In Night in Shanghai, Song is a secret member of the Chinese Communist Party, and she knows that a love relationship with Thomas will hold back her advancement in the Party. This is not because he is black, but because he is a foreigner–an American. The Chinese Communists were very anti-foreign in those early decades. When they came to power in 1949, after this novel ends, they threw out all foreigners. The only Americans allowed to stay were those who renounced American citizenship and joined the Communist Party—but even those brave souls ended up in prison ten years later, accused as spies, just for being foreign. All that anti-foreign sentiment did not really begin to turn around until the late 1970s.

Q: Why did both the Nationalists and Communists oppose Western music in China? Was jazz at all popular in any other part of China at this time?

A: in the 1930s, jazz was the most popular music in the world! This was the swing era… when Prohibition was repealed in 1934, and suddenly people could dress up and go out and drink and dance, ballrooms became the rage. The big, orchestral sound—swing—was born. This was popular in every city in China, just as in Europe, Japan, and elsewhere—but nowhere in Asia was jazz as big as it was in Shanghai. Shanghai went completely nuts for dancing, and nightlife, and jazz! So frenzied was the dancing and partying in ‘Night in Shanghai’ that the Nationalists and Communists alike were afraid all this jazz would weaken the Chinese people’s ability to resist the Japanese invasion.   Most Americans are aware that China banned all Western music for 30 years in 1949. This started in the 30s, with the fear of jazz.

Q: What future projects or writings are you working on? Are we going to see more set in China?

A: Yes—I’d love to write another big historical, and maybe bring back Song Yuhua. But I’ll probably spend years doing research…

Q: Where can readers connect with you?

A: On my website—it’s easy. And while there, be sure to view the Night in Shanghai trailer on the home page—it’s amazing, and it tells the story of the novel in three minutes. The website also has galleries of captioned historical photos that bring to life the people and events in the book.

Erin:  Thank you so much, Nicole, for stopping by Oh, for the Hook of a Book today! It was a pleasure talking to you today and I look forward to hearing about your future endeavors and writings.

Nicole: Thank you! It’s been so much fun talking with you.

*Note: Thanks so much to my intelligent son for coming up with many of the questions and assisting me with this amazing interview during my short bout with the flu.

02_Night in ShanghaiNight in Shanghai, Synopsis~

Publication Date: March 4, 2014
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Formats: Hardcover, eBook

Genre: Historical Fiction

In 1936, classical pianist Thomas Greene is recruited to Shanghai to lead a jazz orchestra of fellow African-American expats. From being flat broke in segregated Baltimore to living in a mansion with servants of his own, he becomes the toast of a city obsessed with music, money, pleasure and power, even as it ignores the rising winds of war.

Song Yuhua is refined, educated, and bonded since age eighteen to Shanghai’s most powerful crime boss in payment for her father’s gambling debts. Outwardly submissive, she burns with rage and risks her life spying on her master for the Communist Party.

Only when Shanghai is shattered by the Japanese invasion do Song and Thomas find their way to each other. Though their union is forbidden, neither can back down from it in the turbulent years of occupation and resistance that follow. Torn between music and survival, freedom and commitment, love and world war, they are borne on an irresistible riff of melody and improvisation to Night in Shanghai’s final, impossible choice.

In this impressively researched novel, Nicole Mones not only tells the forgotten story of black musicians in the Chinese Jazz age, but also weaves in a stunning true tale of Holocaust heroism little-known in the West.

Praise for Night in Shanghai~

“Based on true episodes and peppered with the lives and experiences of actual characters from the worlds of politics, music, the military, and the government, Mones’ engrossing historical novel illuminates the danger, depravity, and drama of this dark period with brave authenticity.” — Carol Haggas, Booklist

“Mones’ breathless and enlightening account of an African-American jazzman and his circle in prewar Shanghai… keep(s) the suspense mounting until the end.” — Kirkus Reviews

“Amid the plethora of World War II fiction, Mones’s fourth novel (after The Last Chinese Chef) offers a rarely seen African American and Asian perspective. Fans of works such as Amor Towles’s Rules of Civility will appreciate the use of jazz as the backdrop to a world at war. Historical fiction fans will not be disappointed.” — Library Journal

“With a magician’s sleight of hand, Nicole Mones conjures up the jazz-filled, complex, turbulent world of Shanghai just before World War II. A feast for the senses…the lives and loves of expatriate musicians intertwine with the growing tensions between the Communist Party and the Nationalist Party, while the ominous threats from the Japanese stir the winds of war. A rich and thoroughly captivating read.” – Gail Tsukiyama, author of The Samurai’s Garden

“What an incredible thing Mones does in this novel of the compelling, sexy, rich and complicated world of historical Shanghai. Every page reveals some custom, some costume, some food, some trick of language that exposes a fascinating moment in history — the Japanese invasion on the eve of World War II. Mones weaves the multiple strands of her story much the way themes and melodies are woven into the jazz her protagonist plays, with subtle and suggestive undertones of human greed, power, and passion.” – Marisa Silver, author of Mary Coin


Buy the Book~

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Author Nicole Mones, Biography~

03_Nicole MonesA newly launched textile business took Nicole Mones to China for the first time in 1977, after the end of the Cultural Revolution. As an individual she traded textiles with China for eighteen years before she turned to writing about that country.

Her novels Night in Shanghai, The Last Chinese Chef, Lost in Translation and A Cup of Light are in print in more than twenty-two languages and have received multiple juried prizes, including the Kafka Prize (year’s best work of fiction by any American woman) and Kiriyama Prize (finalist; for the work of fiction which best enhances understanding of any Pacific Rim Culture).

Mones’ nonfiction writing on China has also appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post. She is a member of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. For more information visir

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