O Shanghai, Shanghai! Wherefore art thou Shanghai?

Chloe Gong's 'These Violent Delights' (2020-21) and the unique, radical role of YA fiction in championing the experiences of marginalised communities.

Art by Alessia Poles.

The premise is timeless: two households, both alike in dignity. But 23-year-old Chinese-born New Zealand author Chloe Gong sets the scene of her New York Times best-selling young-adult duology, These Violent Delights (2020-21), in “fair” Shanghai, plunging Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet into the socio-political chaos that riddled the city in the 1920s. 

The blood feud in question is between the Scarlet Gang, a criminal network ruled by the Cai family with Juliette as its proud heir, and the Montagov-headed White Flowers, anti-Communist Russians who fled to Shanghai following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Amidst the underlying debauchery, Juliette and Roma Montagov must keep their hearts close and guns closer to stop a “madness” that could collapse both empires.

The young-adult (YA) genre has been dominated by white women and white female characters since its inception last century. Historically, it has been juxtaposed with the classic literature of high culture, like Shakespeare. But to many young readers, it is the entry point that establishes an enduring love for reading, placing YA in the unique, radical position to champion the experiences of young marginalised communities. Unsurprisingly, this opportunity for the genre has often been missed, instead favouring every shade of Bella Swan-white rather than promoting POC diversity.

As part of that white demographic, I was forced to confront my ignorance of Shanghai’s complex colonial history prior to picking up Gong’s duology. In the series, Roma and Juliette contend against the ultimatum of risking their lives to save their home or letting foreign countries claim it as it burns. Through this, Gong articulates how Shanghai was torn apart by French, British, American, and Japanese colonial occupation after China’s defeats in the Opium Wars during the 19th century.

In a Buzzfeed interview last year, Gong mentioned that she “wanted to see [herself] represented in the type of angsty heroines who got to star [in YA fiction]”. But Gong doesn’t merely have Katniss Everdeen pass the baton to Juliette Cai as the new POC YA girlboss. Rather, the whiteness of the YA genre is reconfigured to provide Juliette with a space to be a powerful knife-wielding, qipao-wearing protagonist, with all the historically-sensitive nuances that are intrinsic to her Chinese identity.

A key concept in postcolonial theory, outlined in Edward Said’s Orientalism, is allowing previously silenced cultures to share and reclaim their stories and identities. In a novel rife with bloodshed and corruption, a colonial perspective would arguably represent society’s demise by painting Shanghai as a hell-hole. However, Gong does the opposite. Whilst Roma and Juliette acknowledge the poison in their city’s veins, neither can leave nor truly want to. Shanghai’s colours sculpt them, and thus, Shanghai itself becomes a character in the series as a dynamic, culturally-rich, constantly morally-ambiguous point of conflict for our protagonists. This is quite common in postcolonial literature (see India in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children), but Gong brings it into a confrontation with the whiteness of YA, via a classic text in the European canon, for her young audience to examine the social disarray caused by colonialism in our own day. In such a way, she also emulates the subversiveness of Shakespeare’s play in its own time, challenging Elizabethan prejudices with tragically morbid warnings. 

But perhaps These Violent Delights also offers a more powerful, hopeful alternative for literature, as our country confronts internal divisions and foreign conflicts. The post-pandemic reader will notice that though the monsters in These Violent Delights are fictional, the anti-Chinese attitudes of the foreigners are anything but. Ultimately, Gong’s duology is a sharp reminder that our differences will either be the death of us all or our rebirth. 

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