This book details the experiences of four would-be escapees fleeing Shanghai in advance of the arrival there of the Chinese Communist Party-controlled People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 1949. One of them is headed for Taiwan, but even at the start of the book Taiwan has more attention than this might suggest. There are no records in China of any exodus, for example, only accounts published in Taiwan.
On the pier prior to embarkation, one character, destined for the US, meets someone in a hurry to get a car onboard a ship heading for Taiwan for the benefit of his brother, who is there already. And lastly it’s recorded how the Jiangya, a ship packed with escapees bound for Taiwan, exploded and sunk in December 1948 in a heavily mined stretch of the Huangpu River connecting Shanghai to the sea. Fatalities had been far in excess of those on the Titanic. Another Taiwan-bound vessel, the Taiping, was sunk a few weeks later.
On May 25, 1949 the PLA takes Shanghai. Prior to this, between 1.3 million and two million “mainlanders” descend on Taiwan’s nine million population.
The author begins her main narrative by introducing us to three children, Benny, Ho and Bing, the first two from prosperous families, the last from a less prosperous one, but all living in Shanghai in the 1930s. Bing is the young woman who is first seen at the start of the story as she boards a liner for America. The narration of their young lives gives the author an opportunity to fill us in on a swathe of Chinese history of the period.
But there’s a fourth child, Annuo, younger than the others. Two of the others make it to the US, though Benny remains in China. Annuo, by contrast, is eventually all set to go to Taiwan.
Annuo’s mother is a qualified doctor, but her father is in secret fighter for the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). He quickly moves to the Chinese interior and twice the family move out of Shanghai to join him. Back in the city, however, names have to be changed so as to hide from the Japanese any connection with him. The battle in this period (the early 1940s) is between China, led by Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石), and Japan. When the defeat of Japan is announced, however, KMT strongholds, of which Shanghai became one, have nothing to fear apart from the distant communists.
After the war ended, Annuo and her mother (plus a brother and a sister) are sent to live in Hangzhou, a lake-side city so attractive that even Chiang’s eldest son, Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), opts to move there.
The PLA is not to remain distant for long, however, and many of the more prosperous Shanghainese are planning to leave. But where to? Annuo’s father decides on Taiwan, so after a ride to Shanghai on an overcrowded train the family flies to Keelung on a military cargo aircraft, also overcrowded.
“We have an obligation to teach the Taiwanese how to be Chinese again,” somebody says.
It’s important to understand that all these characters are real people. This is not a work of fiction, but of extensively researched fact. Photographs of all the main protagonists are included throughout.
In Taipei, Annuo’s family is housed, to their annoyance, in a Japanese-style building with tatami mats and paper doors. Annuo, however, succeeds in gaining a place at the prestigious Taipei First Girls’ High School, and her father eventually gets a job in charge of fisheries with an American-owned company.
Meanwhile, Bing and Ho settle into life in the US. Benny, however, remains in China and suffers greatly during the Cultural Revolution. Finally he too gets to the US after a special dispensation following the Tiananmen Square events of 1989.
Annuo easily obtains entrance to National Taiwan University (NTU), majoring in law like her father before her. From there she applies for graduate school in the US and receives admission to study journalism at a university in Portland, Oregon. Once there, she takes the Western name of Annabel.
After graduation, she heads to New York and finds a job in the rights and permissions department of a company called Scholastic Magazines. Proficient now in English, and with even a Shanghai restaurant nearby, Annuo is close to realizing her dreams.
The main attraction of Last Boat out of Shanghai is that it focuses on refugees and immigrants. Given the current hostility to such people, this is a huge plus. Comparisons with the refugees today to Europe from countries like Syria are inescapable.
Back in those days there were very distinguished immigrants to the US from Germany — Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann and Walter Gropius, for example. The Shanghaiese, however, often found life in a new country harder and sometimes had to move on following anti-Chinese developments, in Malaysia and Indonesia for instance.
Annuo eventually marries a physicist, Sam, and, after he finds work with IBM, she accepts a job at Reader’s Digest. After Sam is appointed a professor at Iowa State University, Annuo starts writing seriously in her own right, beginning with the Des Moines Register’s Sunday magazine. Her stories about life as a Chinese migrant in the US are serialized in Taiwan and she becomes a regular essayist for World Journal, a widely-read American Chinese newspaper. She eventually manages to bring her parents and siblings to join her in the US.
The author, Helen Zia (謝漢蘭), states that this book is the result of hundreds of hours of interviews with the four main protagonists, plus many other Shanghainese migrants now living in the US.
This is a long, attractively written and very comprehensive book. Reading it will inform you of 20 years and more of Chinese history. During Annuo’s time at NTU, for instance, we learn a lot about the Korean War and Washington’s fluctuating policies towards Taiwan.
Zia recalls a relative saying she was on the proverbial “last boat out of Shanghai,” showing that Zia too has her roots in the city. It is only close to the book’s end that she reveals that she is in fact Bing’s daughter.
This is an extremely impressive book, massively researched yet narrated with the touch of a novelist. Readers are bound to be fascinated by it, and it’s highly recommended.
LAST BOAT OUT OF SHANGHAI
By Helen Zia
When I visited John Lamorie’s eco-farm in Pingtung a few weeks ago, the first thing I saw when I stepped out of his car was an iguana running along the ditch that borders his property. “It’s been hanging around there for weeks,” he said. “Can’t get rid of him.” An invasive species from an exotic land that looks like a monster (the 1998 Godzilla film hints that Godzilla is a mutated iguana), iguanas have been in the spotlight for a year now, with a spate of articles highlighting their growing presence in southern Taiwan. The government banned their import in 2015,
July 26 to Aug. 1 Five hours after they ventured inland, the European expedition party returned to the St Peter and St Paul with five Taiwanese prisoners — two of them seriously wounded. Three party members were struck by arrows. What’s believed to be the first European landing on the nation’s east coast 250 years ago obviously did not go well. According to the 1790 English translation of the Memoirs and Travels of Mauritius Augustus Count de [Benovsky], the 18-person group found a few people on the shore and asked for food. They were taken to a village and fed
North Korea isn’t at the Tokyo Olympics this summer. And therein lies a tale — one of sports and viruses, but most of all a tale of complex politics. While it’s not making headlines here, the North’s absence is noteworthy, especially among those who watch the intersection of sports and diplomacy — and the way North Korea’s propaganda machine uses international attention to advance its needs. The no-show is especially striking when contrasted with the last Games. Perhaps the hottest story of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, was the North Korean delegation, which included 22 athletes, hundreds of cheerleaders
With market-trembling new rules and investigations, Beijing’s crackdown on its most prominent companies has seeped into nearly every aspect of modern life, wiping billions of dollars from Chinese and Hong Kong-listed stocks and bamboozling investment sages. From after-school tutoring to music streaming apps, and shopping to bike-sharing, stellar firms have been hit as Beijing tightens the leash on corporations, citing national security and antitrust concerns. Whether motivated by the control reflexes of the Communist Party or to avoid market contortions hurting the pockets and safety of the Chinese public, few expect this to be the end of the crackdown. Here are some of