Monday 17 April 2023

Guest review by Helena Pielichaty: THE LAST BOAT OUT OF SHANGHAI by Helen Zia


"The broken paths are still being trodden, not mended. That is why stories like this are so important and need to be told."

Helena Pielichaty
is a children’s writer. She has had over thirty books published, mainly by Oxford University Press and Walker Books. More on her website. 

Although there have been other works set around Shanghai during the turbulent 1930s-1950s, such as J G Ballard’s Empire of the Sun (1984) and Lilane Willens’ Stateless in Shanghai (2010), Helen Zia is the first to tell the story from a Chinese perspective. During an interview following the publication of Last Boat Out of Shanghai, the Chinese-American author, academic and activist declared: ‘There isn’t a single book in English about this; not even a dissertation.’

By ‘this’ she means what she calls ‘the forgotten exodus’ when, during the late 1940s, Shanghai became the epicentre for tens of thousands of people fleeing both the city and Chairman Mao Tse-Tung’s Communist regime. The book is the result of twelve years of meticulous research, including hundreds of hours of interviews with survivors, most of whom were in their seventies and eighties by then.

It is divided into four parts: ‘The Drumbeat of War’ (covering 1937), ‘Childhood under Siege’ (1939-1947) ‘Exodus’ (1948-1949) and ‘War’s Long Shadow’ (1949 -1957). Zia focuses on four of the interviewees: Benny Pan, Ho Chow, Bing Woo and Annabel Annuo Liu, beginning in 1937 when the Japanese took control of parts of Shanghai by force. Like all good non-fiction, Last Boat Out of Shanghai reads like fiction; and gripping fiction at that.

We are introduced first to Benny, a nine-year old boy with ‘unruly black hair, his knee socks bunched at the ankles.’ Benny is the favoured son of social-climbing parents, who, thanks to his father’s connections as an officer in the police auxiliary, enjoy a comfortable life-style. Like Jim in Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, Benny has learned to cycle past the dilapidated shacks and squalid tenements ‘reeking of raw sewage’ and to look the other way if he sees a dead body.

Next, we meet Ho, an earnest 13-year-old: ‘lanky, bedraggled and bewildered’ who has accompanied his grandmother to the ‘safety’ of the city, mistakenly thinking, like many others, that Shanghai, with its foreign concessions populated by Americans, British, French, Russian Jews and - since 1941 - German Jews, would offer protection. On Ho’s shoulders rests the fate of his family’s future; he must not let them down.

Then we have eight-year-old ‘Bing’ formerly known as ‘Little Sister’ before her poverty-stricken father sold her two years earlier. She was re-named Bing by her new ‘Mama’, whom she had grown to love but who now appears to have deserted her, just like Baba had. A new home beckons in Shanghai with a different ‘mama’ - Miss Woo - and Miss Woo’s foul-tempered mother. Numbly, Bing awaits her fate.

Finally, there is Annuo, barely two years old. Annuo has a big brother, Charley, who swears to protect her from the incessant bombs, and a doting mother who is a trained physician. Of her father, Yongchio, away fighting for the Republic of China’s Nationalist Party, she is less certain. She senses he has an antipathy towards her for some reason and she is right. This antipathy grows as Annuo does; Yongchio’s anger flaring at every perceived wrong doing and any spark of independence.

Zia follows these four people’s shared histories for two decades. I learned so much about Chinese and Shanghai's culture, family hierarchies, food, the vibrant street life, and the volatile politics. Yet one of the hardest parts to read about is the period during the 1950s, when, having witnessed so much cruelty and overcome all kinds of odds to reach safety, Benny, Bing, Ho and Annuo then have to endure further hostility in their new countries. Those bound for America, especially, arrive at a time when Senator McCarthy’s ‘Reds under the Beds’ hysteria had whipped up suspicion and prejudice against any Chinese refugee, regardless of their background and political affiliations.

In the epilogue Zia concludes ‘…If told often enough, one day such stories may become lessons for historical reflection, not broken paths to be retrod.’ I’d like to think so, too, but given what happened during a recent, similar ‘exodus’ – that of Afghans fleeing the Taliban in 2021 - the broken paths are still being trodden, not mended. That is why stories like this are so important and need to be told.

The Last Boat out of Shanghai is published by Ballantine Books.

No comments: