Life is often full of surprises and meeting a particular person can come with a strike of luck. I was not suppose to meet with Liliane Willens, having missed all of her three presentations about her book “Stateless in Shanghai” while she was in town. It was at the invitation of a friend that I actually met her for lunch… along with a few other people. It does not really qualify as a date, but sitting next to this young lady in her 80’s was a thrilling experience.
Liliane was born in Shanghai in the late 20’s and only left in the early 50’s, living through a large share of old Shanghai. She not only went through it, but also had a great talent to tell her story… in perfect French. “French is my mother tongue”, she said. “I was educated at the College Francais, rue Vallon (now Nanchang lu). The school of Rue Remi (another school of the French Concession, on now Yong Kang lu) was for the poors, Russians with no money.”
“My father understood very fast that old Russian aristocrats fell down the social scale in Shanghai, so he made everything he could do distance himself from them. He spoke excellent French that he learned while working for a French company in Vladivostok, thus he pretended that is was not Russian… but Romanian. Romania felt somehow closer to France and he got away with it for years. I only discovered years later that I was in fact Russian. He worked for a Canadian insurance company in Shanghai. The French would never buy insurance from the English or American, but while speaking French for a Canadian company my father was able to reach them in their language. He was very successful. We had a car, that was a big thing at the time.”
“The Bund area was really for the elite and high society, we did not go often. In fact we rarely left the French Concession.” Asked about the Chinese city, she answered “going to Zabei or Nantao…never! It’s only long after that I realized the kind of separation there was between us and the local people. However, in my class were sons and daughters of rich and powerful Chinese families who lived in the French Concession.”
Hearing and sharing stories with her was so great that time flew really fast during this lunch. I had many questions but little time to ask them, but one was essential for me. “There were motorbikes then, yes!, with like a little car on the side. I think the French police had some, and the post office.” I always assumed that sidecars existed in 1920-30’s Shanghai, as they were fashionable in Europe at the time. With a clear confirmation of it, driving around old Shanghai streets in a sidecar is even more of a time travel experience.