Amy Sommers on her debut historical novel, Rumors from Shanghai


Rumors from Shanghai tells the story of an American lawyer who goes to Shanghai in late 1940 because as a Black man, he cannot find work in his profession in the Pacific Northwest. There, just as has been true for countless others since the 1840’s when the British kicked off Shanghai’s transformation from an unimportant backwater to international-crossroads-meets-modern-metropolis lifeforce, he finds ample opportunity to explore his talents and relish the delights on offer for those with money in the “Paris of the East.’

Seattle was where I grew up and was educated, but never had I heard of its early Black residents. The history I was taught focused on Native Americans and White Settlers, with an occasional reference to immigrants from Asia. In the early 2000s, I came across news references to a William (Bill) Gross (or Grose), who had been a benefactor of sorts to one of Seattle’s well-known white settler leaders. I discovered Gross had been the second Black resident of Seattle, a successful entrepreneur and real estate developer. Before settling in Seattle, he himself had had extensive adventures in Asia, working on U.S. naval ships. When Gross died, he was among the wealthiest people in Seattle, yet a century after his death he was largely unknown amongst the general public.

After 9/11, news reported that warnings of a potential attack had been received by U.S. authorities, but ignored. I wondered if there was a historical precedent. It turned out there was: in the run-up to Pearl Harbor. America’s political and military leaders’ hubris and bigotry led to their pooh-poohing the possibility of life-threatening danger from the myopic, technologically inferior Japanese (as Americans then conceived of them).

I set out to write a historical fiction thriller that imagines a grandson of Bill Gross, who has received an education and opportunities rarely afforded at that time to African Americans. Unable to find work as a lawyer in Seattle, he heads to Asia to manage the operations of a successful businessman in the mold of the white settler who owed his start in Seattle to the good offices of Bill Gross.

Here’s a blog post with details about the some of the real Black Seattle residents whose stories fired my imagination: https://www.amysommers.net/post/rumors-from-shanghai-launched
And, here’s a blog post about early Chinese presence in the Pacific Northwest: https://www.amysommers.net/post/early-pacific-northwest-china-ties
On April 10 I am doing a talk and discussion with historian and University of Washington Professor Emeritus Quintard Taylor about the environment and possibilities for early Black Seattle residents: https://btt.boldtypetickets.com/events/111202224/blackpastorg-early-black-seattleites-inspiring-fiction.

I wanted the story’s protagonist to explore the prevailing narrative about who has agency to be adventurous, who has credibility to be believed, and what is lost to society by allowing bigotry to dominate our decisions. I’d welcome your thoughts on stories you hope to tell exploring those questions! Feel free to contact me about that, media requests or otherwise at amlysommers@gmail.com, and on Twitter I’m @AmySommers1.
About the Author 
Amy Sommers is a Sinophile and a fluent Mandarin-speaking China-focused lawyer, who moved to Shanghai in 2004 with her husband and two young sons. Living and working in Shanghai during a period of intense change, she became intrigued by the city’s pre-World War II incarnation.


“Shanghai in 1940 – an international city where anything was possible. Amy Sommers atmospherically recaptures Shanghai on the eve of one of its major turning points and snares the reader in a tale of war, international intrigue and a time when personal decisions were crucial.”

— Paul French, author of Midnight in Peking

“This is a story about the gifts that come with cultural exchange, the perils of refusing them, and what it’s like to lose them. By deftly shaping historical details, Amy Sommers has written a story for our precarious times.”

— Nancy Rawles, author of My Jim

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