Matthew Wu reviews a novel crafted from the personal stories of those who fled mainland China as a consequence of WWII and the Chinese Civil War.
Helen Zia, The Last Boat Out of Shanghai (Ballantine Books, 2019), 544pp.
There are no reliable statistics that record the number of people who left China during the turmoil of the 1940s and 50s. Scholars can only approximate by looking at population changes in the countries that received Chinese immigrants. In Hong Kong the official population ballooned from 600,000 at the end of World War II to 2,360,000 by 1950. At scales this enormous, the temptation to abstract and dehumanize is considerable. Hong Kong’s colonial governor, Alexander Grantham, who at first opposed enacting large-scale relief efforts for the influx of refugees, referring to the mounting humanitarian crisis as a “problem of people”—a bureaucrat’s turn of phrase if there ever was one.
Helen Zia takes the opposite approach. In The Last Boat Out of Shanghai, Zia crafts intimate portraits of individuals as they navigate World War II, the Chinese Civil War, the agonizing choice of whether to stay and where to go, and, ultimately, life as immigrants. In doing so, she sheds light on an under-reported mass migration which radically altered the landscape of China and the world.
Zia’s narrative is powered by the gripping life stories of four main characters. We are first introduced to Bing, who is given up for adoption as a child just as the war begins. We follow her colorful new family as they survive by their wits in a journey that takes them from Shanghai to San Francisco and finally to New York. Next is Benny, the son of a high-ranking collaborator with the Japanese government who is forced to reckon with his father’s decisions in the occupation’s aftermath. The third character, Ho, is a mechanical engineering student who, against all odds, earns a spot in a graduate program in the United States. Yet, when he arrives in the U.S. he is cut off from his family and must forge a new life under the watchful eye of the Immigration & Naturalization Service, the agency tracking Chinese arrivals to root out Communist sympathizers. Finally, we meet Annuo, the precocious daughter of a Nationalist army officer, who joins the exodus of Nationalist troops to Taiwan. Once there, she has to find a way to escape both the chaos of martial law and her domineering father.
In alternating chapters, we see how these individuals’ lives are upended. Each character experiences the death of a way of life, and is forced to navigate this existential challenge through force of will, ingenuity, and cooperation. Zia skillfully weaves these four biographies, inserting historical context along the way. The effect is a work that feels at once rigorous and personal.
Zia’s book is also a rumination on whose stories get told. Social class is a recurring theme. In Shanghai, the majority of locals and a growing number of refugees from other provinces lived in squalor just outside of the foreign concessions, which were protected by extraterritoriality treaties granting foreign residents—and some fortunate Chinese—relative safety and comfort, even as war ravaged the continent. When it became clear that the communists would take over, the ability to escape depended on who you knew and how much wealth you had. Zia’s characters must navigate these systems of privilege, and where they found themselves within Shanghai’s complex hierarchy informed their wartime experience. However, both in her choice of subjects and in the book’s conclusion, Zia stresses that the Chinese exodus, mirroring the Chinese population, is not monolithic. It included people of various classes, regions, and cultures, each with their own dynamic identities shaped by inconceivable circumstances. The call for a more nuanced understanding of Chinese identity—both within and outside of China—is one of the most important takeaways from the book.
At its core, The Last Boat Out of Shanghai can also be read as an act of compassion. At first, I couldn’t help but wonder how much of the book was true. Zia clearly states this is a work of nonfiction built upon hundreds of hours of interviews and research. Yet the level of specificity regarding events, conversations, and thoughts from seventy years ago stretched my incredulity. However, by the time I reached the book’s end, I no longer felt this way. Yes, there must be some degree of creative retelling both by Zia (her imperative as author) and her subjects (this is the nature of memory), but think of the reverse case: for almost every Chinese person, this time period transformed their family history. It is also a period that is rarely discussed or recorded. My own family is not an exception. As Bing, Benny, Ho, and Annuo were escaping Shanghai, my grandparents made their way from Beijing to Chongqing to the Philippines, and then to Hong Kong. I only have a vague idea of what they experienced, and there’s no way for me to learn more, as my grandparents passed away before I was born. The The Last Boat Out of Shanghai allowed me to imagine what this uncertain era might have been like for my family. This could only be achieved if the narrative’s emphasis was placed on the individual—what they saw, thought, felt—even if this ensures what results is a partial reconstruction.
The Last Boat Out of Shanghai is strengthened by its focus on the personal. It is a service not only to the individuals whose experiences are chronicled in the book, but also to those millions with unfilled gaps in their family history.
Matthew Wu is a writer and editor from Albany, New York. A graduate of Bowdoin College, he writes about politics, culture, and education. He is currently based in Taipei, where he studies at the National Taiwan University.