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.
After interviewing over a hundred Shanghai refugees from that era, Zia chose to hone in on several of these in order to flush out their stories from before World War II until two decades after the end of the Chinese civil war. mentions her mother’s story in passing before delving into the profiles of two boys and two girls, Ho Chow and Benny Pan, Bing Woo and Annuo Liu, respectively.
Ho Chow hailed from a working class family and moved to Shanghai as a child so he could further his education. Heo struggled to keep up with his classmates in school while his family could barely scrape together enough food to stave off starvation. Ho ultimately gained acceptance to a couple of US universities for engineering, but didn’t mean to stay indefinitely; he hoped to return to China to start an automobile company. With the Communists victory in the Civil War, Ho’s family pleaded with him to stay in the US to avoid persecution for his Western connections. There was little choice: had he returned, not only would he have been in jeopardy but he also could have hurt his family’s chances for maintaining a normal life in China under the Communists.
Benny Pan’s life in Shanghai had been luxurious. His father had been one of the top police officers during the Japanese occupation and had gone on to hold a top position in the Nationalist government as it battled the Communists during the civil war. When his father was arrested and imprisoned for being a wartime collaborator, Benny’s life was turned upside down: his mother left his father and his sister was pushed out to safety with relatives in Hong Kong. Benny was the one character in the book that didn’t flee China; instead he went inland to escape his family’s poor reputation in Shanghai.
The two women characters prove more resilient. A lonely girl, Bing Woo was shuffled between different families and finally settled with a widow and her grown daughter. Almost left behind in Shanghai when her adopted sister Betty obtained tickets to sail to the US with her husband and young children, Bing ended up in a hammock in third class while the rest of the family stayed in a proper berth. When the family landed in San Francisco, Betty encouraged Bing to earn money through dancing or socializing with men.
Annuo Liu was the daughter of a high-ranking official in the Nationalist government who always found fault with her, no matter how hard she tried to please her parents. Her family left Shanghai for Taiwan and found it even more foreign than smaller towns in China. A Japanese colony a half-century before the end of WWII, Taiwan was filled with Japanese-style homes; Chinese residents spoke Japanese. When the Nationalists decamped to Taiwan, they took up from where they’d left off on the mainland. Suspected leftists were massacred in droves, martial law was enacted, and incoming refugees were interrogated to prove they weren’t communist subversives. Annuo felt so disheartened in this new land that she did whatever she could to leave for graduate school in the US. Despite finding the university in Oregon extremely isolating, she worked hard to bring the rest of her family to the US, as her authoritarian father had demanded.
Life in the US wasn’t easy for any of the profiled refugees. No matter how long they’d been in the US or how much they were contributing to their professions, Ho Chow and Bing constantly found themselves on the verge of deportation because of restrictive anti-Chinese immigration laws,.
Zia has refreshingly honest take on the wild corruption of the Nationalist government and explains that life in Shanghai was not easy under Chiang Kai-shek. She touches upon the repression of the Communists, but it seems to pale in comparison to the poverty and right wing death squads that terrorized Shanghai residents during the war. Even so, most refugees never imagined they wouldn’t be able to return to China for the next 30-40 years. As Annuo’s mother told her, “..we will only be gone for six months—a year at most. Then we’ll be back.” Few managed.
It’s unclear which, if any, of the people whose lives Zia profiles are related to her mother Helen, but Zia’s prose is so compelling that the characters all seem close to the author. While it is her storytelling that keeps the reader engaged without reference to larger issues, Zia concludes, “… one day such stories may become lessons for historical reflection, not broken paths to be retrod.”