Chloe Leung reviews a beguiling memoir of Shanghai that spans four generations.

Isabel Sun Chao and Claire Chao, Remembering Shanghai: A Memoir of Socialites, Scholars, and Scoundrels (Plum Brook, 2018), 308pp.

Documenting the life of the Sun family across four generations, Isabel’s and Claire’s memoir opens with a retrospective glance at the 1940s Shanghai during their visit in 2008. It was the first time in six decades that Isabel, Claire’s mother, had returned to her childhood home. The familiar russet-framed window in the house reminds Isabel of the day that she left Shanghai for Hong Kong, restaging the bizarre feeling of her 18-year-old self watching the house growing smaller and smaller, as things look “so much smaller” now to Isabel at 78. Though centred around personal events of family members (Taiyeye, Qinpo, DieDie, Muama, Shufen, Virginia), the memoir interweaves the Sun’s domestic history seamlessly with that of the national Chinese. Born during one of the most tumultuous times in the Chinese history, the young Isabel witnessed the rise of both Chang’s democratic government and Mao’s communist government, the latter contributing to her departure from Shanghai.

Structurally, the memoir progresses mostly in chronological order, recounting incidents in the Sun family from Isabel at age 7 to the present day. Despite its chronology, the memoir does not present a linear narrative, but one that remembers the past in dishevelled snippets and fragments. In a way, the narrative itself performs the quintessence of memory – one does not remember the past as events which unfold in a linear fashion from a ‘beginning’. Instead, impressions, scenes, and objects pop up hither and thither, such that events are summoned and assembled into one cognitive mass which we called memory. Such a disorganised mode of memory seems to expose its inherent fragility, which, though prone to errors, is shown by Isabel’s and Claire’s memoir to be a therapeutic self-discovery.

Interestingly, Claire’s voice tends to replace Isabel’s in the discussions of politics and certain family histories. Yet, Isabel’s absence in these parts of the memoir seems to demonstrate the value she placed in her past rather than her declared indifference to history. We are first introduced to Claire’s narration when she retells Taiyeye’s political life as a legal counsellor. We are reminded that Claire delved into historical records and conducted interviews with people involved before she writes. With her extensive research and historical knowledge, Claire is thus introduced to readers as a creditable narrator. The interludes in-between each chapter featuring various Chinese customs are also mostly written by Claire, once again reinforcing the role of Claire as an objective “fact finder”. By allowing Claire, who is emotionally removed from all these events to tell these stories, Isabel seems to be distancing herself from the crucial memories of her family. However, Claire’s narrative is often meta-manipulated by Isabel. Phrases such as “Mom told me…”, or “Mom says…” are often mixed with other factual approaches of the event. Perhaps some portions of these memories bespeak shame or trauma that are too painful for Isabel to utter herself.

Overcome by the sudden flood of nostalgia, Isabel realises that she has been supressing her emotions for her family’s history for years. She turned “silent” when episodes of her family’s “glory and eccentricities” mixed with “concubines and scandals” struck her. Forced to be separated with her father because of the cultural revolution, Isabel admitted that it is “painful” for her to remember her father. When we look at the events that Claire narrates: Yeye’s and his brother’s betrayal of Taiyeye, the history of foot binding, Jidie’s gangster past, and Isabel’s fleeing of Shanghai during the occupation of Japanese Imperial army…these are all memories associated with trauma, scandals, and hard times. Through remembering these often regrettable histories through Claire’s pen, perhaps it allows Isabel to reminisce her past without also re-experiencing the melancholy, guilt, and shame that are attached to them.

For instance, in Claire’s recounting of Jidie’s trouble with the gangsters, Isabel is almost reconstructing a version of the past that might not have existed through Claire.

If he ever harbours regrets, Mom says she hopes Jidie was aware that the same incident also enabled him to meet Jiniang and, in fleeing to Taiwan, rescued them from an ignominious fate under the Communists

Hoping that her Jidie could make the best out of his adversity, Isabel wished Jidie would remember the unfortunate incident as the springboard to which he met his future wife and escaped the iron rule of the Communists. The act of remembering then, functions as a form of therapy which allows one to cope with traumas. By shifting the proportion of that memory – placing the significance of the mishap to its positive outcome, Isabel imagines a less regrettable life for Jidie. Similarly, by remembering her past occasionally through Claire’s impersonal filter, Isabel could connect with her family while pacifying the threatening shame that those histories may possess.

Though the editing of memory is to a certain extent self-deceiving, memory is by nature, a text that necessarily undergoes innumerable transformations throughout our lives. Seeing Diedie’s collection being open for sale, Isabel experienced a surge of sublimity for how things have come into a full circle: The painting that once resided in the familiar backdrop of her home now becomes an object with a price tag. This uncanny re-encountering of the painting allows Isabel to finally yield to the sharp edges of her past. Even though memories of Diedie were initially sore to recall, she was finally able to feel a “bittersweet sense of pride” for Diedie through this serendipitous re-encountering and the baptise of time. Memory is not only some pasts that we seek and speak, instead, it becomes an active agent who helps us to confront and make sense of our emotions.

Isabel’s and Claire’s memoir textualizes memory primarily in three layers: Firstly, Isabel’s first person remembering of her past; Secondly, Isabel’s remembering/editing of specific events through Claire’s removed perspective; and finally, the ways in which buried memories came back, changed, and stored themselves back in the minds of Isabel’s and Claire’s.

My intention was to go back to Shanghai to find my memories. In the end, it was my memories that found me – Isabel.

Intended to retrieve her long-lost memories, Isabel ultimately finds herself passively arrested by some parts of the past that she may have forgotten, or which value has changed since the time it occurred. Yet, there are potentially so much more to these three layers in the text of memory. As there are infinite ways one could read a literary text, one’s reading of memory also evolves over time as one grows.

Chloe Leung is currently an MPhil student of English literary studies at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Her research interests include Modernist and Postmodernist writings. She is currently working on a thesis on Virginia Woolf and early 20th century ballet, exploring the portrayal of physical gestures and bodies in stylising self-expression.

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