To call the hundred years that straddle the 19th- and 20th-centuries as a radical period of change for China is an understatement, moving from the Imperial period, through the Republican era, and ending in the rise of the PRC. Dr Elizabeth LaCouture’s Dwelling in the World: Family, House, and Home in Tianjin, China, 1860–1960 explores this history by looking at Tianjin: a city divided into nine foreign concessions, and perhaps, at the time, the world’s most cosmopolitan—and colonized—cities. With a focus on family and the home, Dr Lacouture explores the interplay between these massive political changes and the lives of ordinary people.

From Rural China to the Ivy League: Reminiscences of Transformations in Modern Chinese History, Yü Ying-shih, Michael S Duke (trans), Josephine Chiu-Duke (trans) (Cambria Press, September 2021)
From Rural China to the Ivy League: Reminiscences of Transformations in Modern Chinese History, Yü Ying-shih, Michael S Duke (trans), Josephine Chiu-Duke (trans) (Cambria Press, September 2021)

This book is much more than the memoir of the scholar who has been hailed as the most important living Chinese historian of our times—it is also an invaluable record of a history of our times, witnessing the cultural, political, and social transformations of what Professor Yü Ying-shih notes as the period of the most violent turmoil and social upheaval in modern Chinese history.

On 6 July 1860, a British consul by the name of George Whittingham Caine arrived at the nondescript port of Swatow, today’s modern Shantou. He “disembarked from a warship to the cacophony of a seven-gun salute” and, following the obligatory hoisting of the Union Jack atop the improvised consulate building, “triumphantly declared the treaty port of Chaozhou ‘open’.” Yet unlike other treaty ports scattered along the maritime fringes of the tottering Qing empire, the British found themselves from the outset outflanked by established Chaozhouese (otherwise known as Chiuchow or Teochew) trading communities and failed to gain a foothold in the profitable local commodity trade in rice, sugar, beancake and, most remunerative of all, opium.

Wu Shih-sheng is a taxi driver, sinking in debt and living in a cockroach-infested metal shack in the outskirts of Taipei with his wife, Hsiang-ying. When she dies in a mental hospital, after claiming to have been hearing the voice of a ghost threatening her life and that of their daughter, Shih-sheng decides to dig deeper. His journey will lead him to consult with a deranged Taoist priestess, and eventually to embark on a dangerous hike on the top of Mount Jade, in central Taiwan, with the purpose of destroying the evil creature.

It wasn’t unusual in the 1980s and 90s for parents in China to leave their kids behind with grandparents in search of economic opportunities overseas. Anna Qu was one, and only reunited with her mother in New York at age seven after a five-year separation. A not unusual story then, up to a point: Qu finds that she was never going to be included in her mother’s successes. Her book Made in China: A Memoir of Love and Labor is much more about labor than love.

When Kat Chow was a girl, her mother once joked about being preserved by taxidermy after she dies so that her family will still have her around. Not long after, she succumbs to cancer, leaving grief in her wake. Grief pervades the immigrant story of Kat Chow’s new memoir, Seeing Ghosts. Although most of the book takes place in Connecticut, where Chow was born and raised, her story reaches back to Southern China, Hong Kong, and Cuba.