Mind Map | Karen Kao

By the time you read this blog post, my husband and I will have embarked on our round-the-world journey. Oddly enough, China is not one of our destinations. We're looking for the unknown, something well outside our comfort zone.

Since maps and mapping are on my mind right now, this seems like the perfect opportunity to republish a post that appeared on my blog Shanghai Noir.

My mind map of Shanghai. Photo credit: Karen Kao

This is the map into my interlocking novels, The Shanghai Quartet. It’s a bulletin board my husband made for me, 6 feet wide and 4 feet tall. The backdrop is a map of modern Shanghai, enlarged many times over, onto which I’ve pasted the street names in use when this was Old Shanghai. Onto that map, I’ve tacked on Stuff: photos, postcards, lanyards and clippings. Welcome to my Shanghai.

Sailors and Strumpets

Let’s start in the northeastern quadrant of the city, the port of entry for most newcomers to Old Shanghai. This was (and still is) China’s greatest port. Not only in terms of its size or superiority of location but, above all, as measured in the wealth it generates for the city’s inhabitants.

This is where Kang arrives in The Dancing Girl and the Turtle and from where he attempts to flee China. Not far from the docks lies the Baptist Church where Beauregard the black American bouncer goes to worship.

Of course, any port town gets flooded by sailors from time to time, in which case, bars and whorehouses can’t be far away. The Trenches is where Max the American gets his first taste of decadence in the final volume of The Shanghai Quartet: The Smell of Opium.

Not far from The Trenches lie the Japanese Concession and the Shanghai Ghetto. During the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, Kang and Jin hide under the nose of Tanizaki inside the Shanghai Ghetto. Their daughter Li is born in that place but we won’t meet her until Peace Court.

The Old Walled City


Moving south along the Huangpu River, we come to the Bund. This was the home of the great banks and trading houses like Jardine Matheson and its arch rival Butterfield & Swire. The Custom House, where Max and Kang first meet in The Smell of Opium, still sits on the Bund.

The men who worked in these places were relatively well-to-do. They could afford to buy dance tickets at the Metropole Gardens. Ballrooms and department stores and golden houses for concubines clustered around Nanking Road West. Only, in the days of Old Shanghai, they called it Bubbling Well Road.

Back then, if you stood on the banks of the Huangpu River and gazed east, you’d see nothing but the horizon. Pudong was still a fishing village, a place where the police would send criminals like Du Yuesheng into exile. The criminals found their way back to Shanghai, of course. They hid inside the old walled Chinese City or just outside by the Little East Gate.

In the day of Old Shanghai, this was Chinese territory where only Chinese laws applied. It was a place of narrow alleys, open sewage and regular political convulsions. A barbarian like Max or Tanizaki might have come here for fun but they wouldn’t have gone unarmed.

Del Monte House


If you look at a map of Old Shanghai, you’ll find the real Del Monte House in the southwestern quadrant of Shanghai. This late-night club was established circa 1919 by a Californian named Al Israel. There, you could gamble, dance and whore the night away, just as Cho does in The Dancing Girl and the Turtle.

Map of southwest Shanghai
My Del Monte House. Photo credit: Karen Kao
In my fictional Shanghai, I’ve located Del Monte House on the exact same spot where my father was born and raised. The French Concession was where any self-respecting Chinese burger or aspiring foreigner would come to live. Max, Anyi and Kang all live in this elegant part of town.

But war against Japan destroys much of Shanghai including my fictional Del Monte House. By the 1950s, the brick facade is gone, sheered off by an American bomber. The fountain has become a communal wash basin. The once elegantly appointed bedrooms now house families who call themselves lucky  to have a roof over their heads.

This is the world of Peace Court, a lilong complex just a few blocks away from Del Monte House. Peace Court is home to Kang, Jin and Li until Kang tries to kill Jin. He disappears into the Laogai, the network of labor camps that flourishes in China even today.

New Territories

The northwestern quadrant is uncharted territory. Old Shanghai ended at the borders of the French Concession. Beyond that lay the Badlands where only the most daredevilish of pleasure seekers would venture.

On this part of the map, my thoughts run free. To other periods of Chinese history: the Great Famine, the Cultural Revolution, the present day. I roam beyond the confines of fiction to the realms of poetry, photography and painting. I don’t know where these ideas will lead me but that’s part of the fun.

When I  started writing The Shanghai Quartet, I tried to harness my thoughts into a timeline. I used pencil and graph paper. I drew four parallel lines for each of my four novels. Added a fifth dimension to include historical facts. As my story grew, the timeline lengthened and points of intersection popped up. Eventually, my timeline circled the room.

The timeline is gone but I still feel its embrace. No longer satisfied with a one-dimensional guide, my mnemonic structure is now as associative as my creative process is organic. Call it a memory palace in the shape of a map.

Note: if you'd like to follow my real life journey around the world, you can check out my Instagram account. No promises as yet on whether I'll be able to write while traveling but surely I'll be able to post a pretty picture or two.


Sandra Horn said…
Absolutely fascinating post! Thank you Karen!
Umberto Tosi said…
Thank you for this wonderful read and bon voyage, Karen!

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