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.
Manning writes in her author’s note that she was inspired to write this novel by a visit to the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. Administered by the Shanghai government, the museum promotes the notion that China went out of its way to welcome Jews to Shanghai at a time when few other places in the world would open their doors. But there is some question as to how much the Chinese community in Shanghai actually welcomed Jews, as opposed to simply tolerating an extra twenty to thirty thousand refuges in an already cramped and forlorn part of the city. The Shanghai port was pretty much a free-for-all as Britain, the United States, France and Japan administered different parts of the city and it served their business interests to maintain an open port.
In The Song of the Jade Lily, Romy is a teenager when her family is torn apart during Kristallnacht, or the night of broken glass, in which Jewish stores in Germany and Austria were looted and destroyed. One of Romy’s brothers was killed by the Nazis and another taken to Dachau for hard labor. Desperate to leave Vienna, yet torn over whether to stay in case Daniel is released from Dachau, Romy’s parents make the harrowing decision to escape. With the help of a Christian neighbor, they secure passage on a ship to Shanghai. Like most Jews who fled Nazi Germany and other occupied areas of Europe, Romy’s parents figure they’ll be away for six months to a year, after Hitler is defeated. One of the reasons the Shanghai Jewish refugee story stands out so much is because they didn’t stay in Shanghai for half a year. Most were there for close to a decade.
Romy’s story in Shanghai during the war is juxtaposed with her granddaughter Alexandra’s discovery of her true Shanghai roots in parallel storyline set in contemporary times. Alexandra’s mother, Sophia, was adopted from China and traveled to Australia with Romy at the end of the war. There is a great mystery over Sophia’s birth parents, but one can guess that she wasn’t a complete stranger to Romy before the adoption. The thoroughness of Manning’s research comes through in her story, but yet exactly how the biracial Sophia, to say nothing of the Chinese adoptees she lived among, got past the “White Australia” policy is not explained.
That aside, Manning writes a compelling story that brings the reader into 1930s and 1940s Shanghai. Like other novels set in the Shanghai Jewish ghetto, her characters suffer greatly after the Japanese round the European Jewish community into a small area that’s already cramped. Romy is of what would at the time been considered “upstanding” character, yet her friend Nina. desperate to survive, turns to prostitution. Romy’s father keeps the family alive through his work at the Jewish Hospital. And Romy and a Chinese neighbor named Jian develop a romantic relationship. All of these elements have been parts of other novels set in Shanghai during the war, like Daniel Kalla’s trilogy: The Far Side of the Sky, Rising Sun, Falling Shadow, and Nightfall Over Shanghai, as well as Juliet Conlin’s The Lives Before Us, Rachel DeWoskin’s young adult novel, Someday We Will Fly, and Lois Ruby’s middle grade novel, Shanghai Shadows.
And it’s not just the West that is interested in this history. In Chinese publishing, author Bei La is working on a 10-book series about the Shanghai Jewish refugees. Her novels will be translated into English by Howard Goldblatt, who has translated many of China’s leading writers. And the Chinese anime, A Jewish Girl in Shanghai, was written by Wu Lin and adapted into an internationally-acclaimed film. There’s also the fact that the Shanghai government established the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum.
The reasons for the close relations between Chinese and Jews—and now Israel—are a subject for another day, but whether coincidence or cause, it has paralleled the release of books like Manning’s most recent novel.