Chapter Inspiration – China

Investigators arriving in China discover a country undergoing an immense identity crisis as it transitions from its millennia-old dynastic system to roiling political instability, which will see intensifying clashes between nationalist and communist interests. The campaign action centers around Shanghai with a potential trip to Hong Kong to track down Roger Carlyle, as well as the chapter climax appropriately located on Penhew’s volcanic Grey Dragon Island. In the 1920s, Shanghai earned the monikers “the Pearl of the Orient,” and “the Paris of the East” with substantial industrial and financial interests from the West. The discrete American, British and French sectors interacted with thriving local criminal and political enterprises. This rich setting provides the Keeper with opportunities to interweave Shanghai’s gangster activities with explosive intrigue in a simultaneously exotic and familiar setting. We offer a few suggestions to help create this depiction for your players. 

Busy Hong Kong streets – another East meets West destination.

Sadly, war destroyed much of 1920s Shanghai, so many films rely on sets attempting to capture the aesthetic. If interested in seeing the true, historical Shanghai, the 1934 Chinese silent film, The Goddess, captures the city in black and white. Regarded as one of the best-known films from China’s cinematic golden age, this work tells the story of an unnamed woman living as a devoted mother by day and a streetwalker by night. The tale highlights the struggle of life amid social injustice on Shanghai’s tough streets and can bring some depth and understanding to the chapter’s depictions of flower girls. While one of the most affluent cities in the world during the campaign, many struggled to subsist in a city with an astronomical cost of living.

A silent Chinese classic featuring Shanghai scenery before it suffered from impending war

While not quite contemporary with the campaign, the 1941 Shanghai Gesture offers a noir depiction of the city, which is based upon a Broadway play by John Colton. The American film offers a stereotypical Dragon-lady in “Mother” Gin Sling, which may offer some inspiration for Madam Lin Yenyu. The film illustrates the dangerous vices and perils awaiting American and European ex-pats in Shanghai, and you can expect all the offensive tropes attributed to Chinese typical to the era in this film. 

Stereotypical 1940s Hollywood casting for Shanghai Gesture’s “Mother” Gin Sling

More recent dramatic selections depicting Shanghai include Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun (1987), set during the World War II Japanese invasion, which features a handful of classic Shanghai structures, including the Longhua Temple. The stylized Chinese crime drama The Shanghai Triad (1995) captures 7 days in the 1930s criminal underworld, which includes a Triad Boss retreating to an island to escape rival gang members. To round out our own triad of dramatic Shanghai films we suggest The White Countess (2005), which was written by Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro (Remains of the Day). Set in 1936 Shanghai, an aristocratic White Russian émigré, Sofia, supports her family by dancing in a seedy Shanghai bar. The film follows her relationship with a former US State Department official (Ralph Fiennes), who pursues his dream of opening a Shanghai nightclub as the era of decadence begins to unravel at the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War. 

Triad Boss laying low on his island retreat.

If you prefer action instead of high drama and romance, Legend of the Fist: Return of Chen Zhen (2010) may appeal to you. Donnie Yen takes up the mantle of Chen Zhen, previously portrayed by Martial Arts icons such as Jet Li and Bruce Lee. While not as enjoyable as Lee’s classic Fist of Fury, this superhero martial arts flick features Shanghai as the titular character returns from World War I and joins the 1920s underground resistance to prevent the Japanese invasion of China. Espionage and action drive the film, and you may find useful material for your depictions of Isoge Taro and Chu Min. Unfortunately, the movie does not feature any Shanghai landmarks, as it was filmed on set in Hong Kong. 

Donnie Yen as Great War martial arts superhero

The campaign book provides some additional exciting and classic suggestions in the “Pulp Considerations” section of the China Chapter starting with Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). You likely recall the excellent two-fisted action involving Shanghai gangsters in a 1935 nightclub that kicks off Indy’s unscheduled flight to India. Despite filming in Macau, these scenes offer some delightful set-piece inspiration. We would like to have a film based on an early script of The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Empire (2008), which features Rick and Evy acting as wartime spies for the British government in 1940 and emphasizes the conflict between the Chinese and Japanese. After the prologue, bring a coffin recovered from the Dragon Emperor’s tomb to Shanghai with action eventually moving on to the Himalayas. Fans of the pulpy Mummy trilogy may enjoy returning to this final installment in preparation for their China chapter despite the substantial period discrepancy. 

A not-so-subtle reference in the Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

For Gray Dragon Island, the campaign book offers the fifth Bond film, You Only Live Twice, as inspiration for Penhew’s volcanic lair. The stolen Soviet spacecraft hidden in the villain’s secret Japanese isle lair serves as a great stand-in for the Pale Viper’s nuclear rocket. You have a screenplay by Roald Dahl for this Conner-era installment with a megalomaniacal nemesis portrayed by Donald Pleasance. This classic early Bond has aged well in the pantheon despite initially abysmal reviews and Dahl’s hammy script.   

Blofeld’s well-appointed volcano lair featured in You Only Live Twice. Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer

Finally, if looking for compelling reading material, we highly recommend the works of Paul French, in particular, his non-fiction dive into 1930s Shanghai underworld, City of Devils, which he presents with a detective noir narrative style, which includes period slang. The book features many colorful characters that could help craft your chapter NPCs. In a similar vein, French’s collection of biographical essays, Destination Shanghai, highlights Westerners in 20th century Shanghai, including the occultist Aleister Crowley, the African-American poet Langston Hughes, and various early screen stars. These vignettes illuminate the appeal of this legendary destination and provide deeper context for your chapter.