Helen Zia’s mother fled Shanghai just before the Communists took control of the city in 1949, but Zia wasn’t aware of her mother’s perilous departure until she was an adult. Roughly a million people from Shanghai became refugees in the late 1940s. While it has hardly been forgotten, the People’s Republic has never recognized this mass exodus and only a few Chinese-language books about it have been published out of Taiwan. Zia’s new book, Last Boat Out of Shanghai, in which she selects four narratives to tell in detail, seems to be the first volume, at least for the general reader, ever dedicated to these events.
In 2011, Susan Conley’s candid memoir, The Foremost Good Fortune, took readers to Beijing around the time of the 2008 Olympics. Conley’s concise and poetic prose showed a side of Beijing few expats experience: the fears of a new cancer diagnosis while trying to navigate a new city with her husband and two young sons. This was followed in 2013 with a novel, Paris was the Place about a young American woman who moves to Paris during the 1980s AIDS crisis to be closer to her brother. She finds work at a refugee detention center where she helps women prepare for their asylum hearings.
Some of the most lasting consequences of war are displacement, refugees, and broken families. Eugenia Kim’s new and brilliant novel examines a family separated by not just one, but two wars.
Hawai’i is the one part of the USA proper that is unambiguously Asian, both in its origins as well as in its current demographics and orientation. Its idyllic image, writes Sharon Chang in her new book, Hapa Tales and Other Lies, is fraught with problems, namely that the Native Polynesian culture has been exploited over many years and in many ways. Right away, readers know they are in for a different interpretation of this vacation paradise.
There are some cities that lend themselves to darkness and intrigue. Macau is one of these places. First settled by refugees fleeing the Mongol invasion in northern China, it became a fishing village and later a haven for pirates. The Portuguese arrived in the 1500s and built a slice of the baroque Mediterranean in South China. It was returned to China in 1999 and today it’s the gambling capital of the world.
In the early-1990s, a new area of Shenzhen sprung up almost overnight: er nai cun, or second wives’ village. At that time, businessmen from Hong Kong began to work over the border as the manufacturing industry moved from industrial areas of Kowloon to the Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen. Not only were low wage jobs disappearing in Hong Kong, but Deng Xiaoping promoted capitalism in his 1992 tour of southern China, including a stop in Shenzhen.
If there is a place and time in China that appeals to English readers more others, it’s pre-1949 Shanghai. The Paris of the East, Queen of the Orient, and the City that Never Sleeps are just a few of its monikers from the 1920s until late 1940s. Because 70 to 80 years has passed since then, fewer and fewer people are around to share stories from that era.