Remembering Shanghai

Book cover

Many autobiographies have now been published by people who live in Old Shanghai, and most of them were written by westerns. The really interesting part of Remembering Shanghai, is that it is a story of a Chinese family in Old Shanghai. Living in the same city as the foreigners, but often not in the space, the personal story makes a really interesting read.

The first wave of autobiographies about Old Shanghai was published in the late 1940s and 50s, when foreigners who used to live in Shanghai, realised that they would not go back after the communist takeover. Among those are “My twenty-five years in China”, by China Weekly Review publisher  John B. Powell, as well as Emily (Mickey) Hahn books published after her departure, including “China to me” (for more details about Mickey Hahn’s life in Shanghai, see article “Tara Grescoe’s Shanghai Grand“). Since the events in China were still very much in the Western news, those books sold well at publication.

Another wave of Old Shanghai books came when those people who had lived and worked in Old Shanghai retired and spent time remembering the golden days of their youth, mostly in the 70s. At that time, Old Shanghai was pretty much a forgotten topic, those books sold in small numbers and are now difficult to get. Two good examples included Ralph Shaw’s Sin City (Ralph Shaw was in the Shanghai Police force) and John Pal’s Shanghai Saga (John Pal was a employed in the customs office). Although facts are sometimes distorted by memories, those books are great source of first hand details on life in Old Shanghai.

With the rise of the city on the international scene, Old Shanghai books have been in fashion again from the early 00s. Some who left Shanghai in the late 1940s started to come back to the city they had fondly kept in their memories. Some of the most well known are Liliane Willens’s Stateless in Shanghai as well as Rena Krasno’s book (stranger always, Once upon a time in Shanghai). Both lived in the former French Concession of them attended the French Collegue Municipal Français. Another one is Tea on the Great Wall, by Patricia Lu Chapman. Author give a first hand view of foreign Shanghai, but what makes the new Remembering Shanghai special is that it was written by Chinese people.

Author Isabel Sun Chao was born in  a wealthy family from Changshu, in Jiangsu province. Her father had relocated to Shanghai in his youth and was managing the family properties in the city. The life of Isabel and her siblings was on the outside very similar to the one of wealthy foreigners, as the children attended the best schools in the international settlement. Inside home, it was quite different, as a permanent fight between traditional China and modern Shanghai was raging within the family. Traditional China was represented by her father, a poet and a Chinese painting collector, and even more by Qingpo, the grand mother ruling the house with an iron fist. On the contrary, Isabel’s mother was embracing the modern city and its life of fast pace. She eventually became one of the first Chinese women to actually divorce her husband.

Just like foreigners stucked in Shanghai after the Japanese , Isabel and her sister Virginia went through the privation of the war, and finally were able to be the only two members of their family to escape Shanghai before the rise of Communist power. Due to political events, the two branches of the family were separated for years and communication was lost for many years. It’s only in 2008 that Isabel went back to the view the family house on now Zhenning Lu, together with her daughter Claire.

I actually met with Isabel and Raymond Chao in 2011 and wrote a post about it (See post “Shanghai exiles” for more details). This showed them that their story interested people and helped turning the project into reality, with publication in end 2017.


3 thoughts on “Remembering Shanghai”

  1. This is the Shanghai I grew up with, from the memories of my father. It lives deep in my heart although I haven’t been there yet. It is my dream to walk in those memories, in reality, once more as I begin to write our family’s story.
    Thankyou for sharing the past with us.

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