A date with Liliane

Lunch with Liliane
Lunch with Liliane

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.

12 thoughts on “A date with Liliane”

  1. Merci Hughes – petites corrections – nee vers l fin et non le deubut des annes folles (20eme) – Nom de famille est WILLENS. Ecole REMI.

    Merci de la publicite pour mon livre. Un grand plaisir d’avoir fait votre connaissance.

    A mon retour je veux bien faire une tournee a bord du sidecar!


  2. This is great post. I’ve been to the presentation on the 30th– don’t know how many there were in total, but this one was in Cotton’s and many present-day members of the Russian Club in Shanghai were present. Liliane has a wonderfully effective manner of delivering and connecting pieces of information, and it was a thrill to hear her remember and analyze the past. She didn’t mention she didn’t know they were Russians! I thought they whole family was ‘in’ on their Romanian secret. Fascinating!

  3. Oh. What a wonderful encounter! I enjoy reading this chapter. And I’m also interested to check out the school on the former Rue Remi — just wondering if it’s the present day Guang Ming Zhong Xue?

  4. Kat – My sisters and I believe we were Romanian nationals!

    Cintia – Yes, the former Ecole Remi for Russian emigres on Route Remi is now a school but I don’t know whether it is a secondary school or an institute. Someone in Shanghai could find out.


  5. The pleasure was all mine to ome to your site all of a sudden! I entered Ecole Remi in 1936 and left it in 1946! Sorry to say that I have only few photoes of that period but still I can share!
    Thank you,

  6. I also enjoy your post which you sometimes send to me. I know Lily Willens. Great and important Book. I too am Shanghai-born, 1943. And originally went for the first year of my schooling to College Municipal Francais before having to leave Shanghai in the Spring of 1950 for Hong Kong.

    I am now doing presentations on my history in China, particularly since my Mother was born there too, in Harbin. I am working with Universities and Confucious Institute both in Shanghai and in NYC with photos from family and archives. Each Spring-Summer I am there as a Foreign Expert at Tongji University and ECNU, in the Language and Theatre Arts departments presenting and giving lectures. I would love to meet you this year in Shanghai. Please send me an email if you can meet. I will be there as of the 30th May. Thank you. A tout l’Heure. Anna/Anita

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