These Violent Delights: A 1920s Shanghai Romeo and Juliet

Emily Dong, Staff Writer

These violent delights have violent ends

And in their triumph die, like fire and powder

Which, as they kiss, consume. 

—Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

Taking place in Shanghai, China during the 1920s, the novel follows the tense blood feud between competing gangs: the Scarlet Gang and the White Flowers. Eighteen year old Juliette Cai, heir to the Scarlet Gang, and Roma Montagov, heir to the White Flowers, are each other’s first loves (and betrayals). However, lurking in their city, an unknown monster is spreading madness among their people. As the city’s deaths stack up, Juliette and Roma realize they will have to set aside their weapons and rivalry to stop this mayhem, or else there will be no city left for either gang to rule.

The book is a retelling of the Shakespearean tragedy Romeo and Juliet, as reflected by the romance between the main characters, Roma Montagov and Juliette Cai. Readers will enjoy reading about Juliette due to the author’s incredibly realistic and complex characterization. As Juliette was born in China, and then lived in America for some time, she was constantly torn between her two identities. This is a common problem that many Asian Americans can relate to. It’s a confusing and jarring experience and it makes up a huge part of  Juliette’s identity, causing her to feel like an outsider often. She felt that to become the heir of the Scarlet Gang, she had to constantly prove herself worthy and gain respect from its members. Similarly, Roma Montagov is the heir to his gang, the White Flowers. The two characters share a common ground as both are trying to prove their worth to their fathers, who look forward to giving up leadership. The two create an interesting dynamic throughout the book that readers will enjoy, as they are rival heirs who were once maybe more. 

Other than Juliette’s struggle between her two conflicting identities, the book also takes on many political themes like colonization, white privilege, and western imperialism. For example, the novel depicts westerners coming into a country and claiming part of it simply because of their feelings of superiority. It was heartbreaking to read about how helpless Juliette and the Chinese as a whole felt as foreigners made a home in their city and rose to power with no regard towards the people already living there. In 1920s Shanghai, the city had many foreign occupiers, including the British, the French, the Americans, and the Russians. However, the Scarlet Gang and the White Flowers were still at each other’s throats as they tried to assert dominance over certain territories.

Regarding the romance in the book between the two characters, it was interesting to see how Juliette and Roma are forced to continue their families’ blood feud, making this an engaging forbidden romance and enemies to lovers read. As readers keep reading, there are flashbacks that reveal Roma and Juliette’s past and the relationship they had when they were younger. 

I adored Chloe Gong’s descriptive writing throughout the book, and the prologue really pulls readers in with its beautifully built suspense and creepy atmosphere. The cast of characters are well developed, each with distinctive and unique qualities. With its mix of genres and political themes, Gong creates a vibrant and grounded world with unique twists on the classic Romeo and Juliet plot. Overall, I enjoyed Gong’s debut novel and its engaging premise, plot, and writing.