LAST BOAT OUT OF SHANGHAI: THE EPIC STORY OF THE CHINESE WHO FLED MAO’S REVOLUTION by Helen Zia

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From 1931 onward, the Chinese people were confronted with continuous Japanese aggression, humiliation, occupation, and inhumanity.  In Helen Zia’s new book, LAST BOAT OUT OF SHANGHAI: THE EPIC STORY OF THE CHINESE WHO FLED MAO’S REVOLUTION the author seems to begin here story in 1937 when the Japanese launched their invasion of China, however as she develops her story it is important to realize that the Japanese had their eyes on China as far back as the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5, the Twenty-One Demands of 1915 during World War I, and their incursions into Manchuria in 1931.  By 1937 the situation had grown worse as Japan launched a large-scale invasion.  Japanese brutality has been well documented by the “Rape of Nanking,” and numerous other atrocities, including a policy of torturing and killing civilians.  After eight years of fighting the Japanese were finally defeated in August 1945 and what followed was the no longer dormant civil war between the Communist Chinese led by Mao Zedong and the Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-Shek that resulted in the Maoist victory in late 1949.

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Everyone was not enthralled with the arrival of communist troops closing in on Shanghai.  During the World War II Shanghai was divided into a Chinese section and an international one with a French concession where Chinese, Europeans, English and others were safe from the Japanese for a good part of the war.  Rich foreigners and native Chinese members of the middle class who had cooperated with the west, Christian missionaries, and those educated during at that time feared for their lives.  The city of Shanghai was the symbol of Chinese westernization and the focal point of escaping the mainland from oncoming Communist soldiers.  According to Zia , a child of two refugees, there is nothing written in English on the plight of those who attempted to flee in 1949.  Her new book is designed to fill that vacuum.

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Zia’s narrative traces the lives of four people, beginning with Benny Pan, the privileged nine-year-old son of an accountant and an officer in the police auxiliary who will become Police Commissioner in Shanghai; Ho Chow, the thirteen year old son of a land owning gentry family; Bing Woo, an eight year old girl who has been given away two times by her blood family and the first family that accepted her; and Annuo Liu, the two year old daughter of a rising Nationalist leader.  Zia will follow the lives of these characters and members of her family well into the present. In all instances in dealing with these characters deference was paid to Chinese traditions as a dominant theme.  Whether issues dealing with family relationships, key decision-making, or dealing with outside threats the opinion of women gave way to those of men despite the danger it might create for family members.  Another constant in the lives of these four characters was the fear of the Japanese to the point that several individuals discussed had to take on new identities to survive, especially those who had to travel back and forth into the interior of China to be with fathers, or escape arrest.

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(Mao ZeDong)

Zia does a masterful job explaining the origin of western control of the international section of Shanghai where people sought refuge and escape from the oncoming Japanese.  In doing so, Zia integrates the history of western imperialism in China dating back to the First Opium War, 1839-1842 that produced the first unequal treaties that gave first England, then other countries extraterritorial rights in China.  Outside of Shanghai, Chinese peasants lived a life of poverty, and the dichotomy emerged of “abject misery coexisting with unabashed opulence.”  The author employs the family histories of her main characters to describe the racist and ethnocentric attitudes and actions taken by foreigners in China.

As Zia presents her narrative many important historical events and occurrences are discussed.  Among the most interesting is the fact despite the danger and violence of Japanese occupation, roughly 20,000 Ashkenazi Jews were accepted in Shanghai and escaped the Holocaust.  By early 1943 over 7600 allied nationals, mostly American, British and Dutch were sent to internment camps which Zia points out were not as accommodating as those created in the United States for over 120,000 Japanese-Americans.  After the Japanese surrendered the issue of collaborationists raised its ugly head affecting family members who were arrested for their work with the Japanese.  Interestingly, as soon as the Pacific war ended, the Japanese continued to fight the Communist Chinese in the northeast under orders from the Americans and the Nationalists.  This angered the residences of Shanghai, but the burgeoning civil war between the followers of Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek took precedence over everything.

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(Chiang Kai-Shek)

The difficulties of displacement and reorientation following the Japanese defeat is on full display through Zia’s protagonists.  Issues of legitimacy in all aspects of society emerged, i.e.; students who had left for the interior during the war v. students who remained in Shanghai and were educated at universities.  Demonstrations, some rioting were all part of the landscape of Shanghai between the end of the war and the arrival first of the Nationalists and then the Communists.

Zia spends a great deal of time discussing the Nationalist seizure of Taiwan after the Maoist victory and the harsh dictatorship that was imposed by Chiang Kai-Shek and his forces.  She follows American domestic politics and its impact on Bing and Ho as they tried to renew their lives in the United States and deal with immigration authorities as the Cold War evolved.  The McCarthyite period, the outbreak of the Korean War, and other events impacted all of Zia’s subjects greatly.

As the narrative unfolds, Zia introduces several interesting characters that have important roles to play in the lives of Benny, Bing, Ho, and Annou.  Chief among them are Betty Woo, Bing’s adopted sister who seems to be able to support her family through her charm and savvy as she arranges marriages, money, and whatever needs that must be met.  Annou’s father is a disaster as he “hates” his youngest daughter, and Benny’s father, a Nationalist insider who is eventually captured and imprisoned by the Communists.  His father’s background became a source of his own suffering as Zia describes his treatment by the Maoist government through numerous campaigns including the Cultural Revolution.

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(People fleeing Shanghai, circa, 1949)

At certain points in the narrative the book devolves into a description of a series of human waves to escape oncoming tragedy.  First, the Japanese in 1937, then the Communist Chinese in 1949.  In each case massive numbers of refugees are created in Shanghai and later Taiwan, Hong Kong, and parts of Southeast Asia.  The mass exodus of 1949 produced an estimate of 1.5 million of Shanghai’s 6 million residents scattering anywhere governments would accept them.  Zia’s protagonists and their families are part of that exodus and she follows their stories to the present day.  What is clear is that the suffering of refugees during that period in history was a catastrophe for those people as are the refugee issues faced by survivors of the current Syrian Civil War, events in the Sudan, Yemen, Darfur, as well as migrants currently seeking entrance into the United States.

Zia’s work is to be commended as she presents a history of western imperialism, Shanghai, the diaspora of many Chinese as they disperse to Taiwan, Hong Kong, the United States and elsewhere after 1949.  She narrates Chinese history through the eyes of her subjects and provides the reader excellent insights into events on the mainland, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.  Zia writes well and is sensitive to the experiences of her subjects and how they were impacted by historical events.  It is interesting that New York will become an area that all four of Zia’s subjects find common experience and lastly, she should be commended for her  presentation of the Shanghai diaspora.

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