In 1942, Jewish refugee Max Faerber opened Paragon Book Gallery in Shanghai. Faerber had worked for a newspaper in Vienna before he fled the Nazis for the brighter shores of Shanghai. During his first few years in China, Faerber put his newspaper skills to use and managed a German Jewish newspaper, one of many publications produced in the refugee communities in Shanghai. But when the Japanese occupied the whole of Shanghai in December 1941, Max looked for another profession. He turned to bookselling.
In 1935, Ruth Day paid a six-week visit to her mother and step-father who were at that time living in Shanghai. When she returned, she published a short book on the trip. The book had a run of just 200 copies and seems to have quickly disappeared—but at least one copy found its way to the New York Public Library, where it was found by then PhD candidate Andrew Field, who contributed an introduction to its republication.
Toward the end of his life, Algernon Blackwood famously reminisced that “I used to tell strange, wild, improbable tales…” The tale of the friendship between Lu Xun and Uchiyama Kanzō would have met Blackwood’s standard—a look at Shanghai during those times, now nearly 100 years ago, suggests why.
Despite the growing tensions between China and the West, one East-West relationship has endured with a continuing mutual fascination: that of Jews and Chinese, one increasingly reflected in literature and film. In particular, the story of the Shanghai Jewish refugees has enjoyed a resurgence over the past decade; Kirsty Manning’s novel, The Song of the Jade Lily, is one of the latest examples.
There always comes a time when, as people age, events move from being “within living memory” to “history”. There is even more urgency to capture these voices in a place like China where, for reasons of war and turmoil, fewer voices were, on the whole, captured at the time.
Despite the not-entirely-rare memoirs, novels, and narratives about Jewish refugees in Shanghai during World War II, it remains a little-known corner of history. Juliet Conlin’s new novel tells a story of two of them.
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.