Remembering Shanghai

As a genre, I tend to avoid the self-published memoir. While they sometimes contain amusing incidents, too many are written by Colonel Blimp types with an instructional message for young men and women seeking the benefits of elder counsel for their improvement, and the rest stretch 20,000 words of content into 80,000 words of waffle. Remembering Shanghai by mother and daughter Isabel Sun Chao and Claire Chao breaks the mould on all fronts. More than a memoir, it is a five-generation family history, but of a family whose main forbear shaped modern Chinese history and whose descendants, if they were not shaping history, at least had front row seats to many of its main events.

The Communist Party of China (CCP) is quick to blame foreigner aggression for the century of chaos that lasted from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. The CCP date the start of this to the First Opium War, a war of aggression started by foreigners, it’s true, but the CCP tends to gloss over the far bloodier – and indigenous – Taiping Rebellion that started ten years later, and in which millions were killed while China’s ruling class basically ate cake.

Sun Zhutang was born in 1841, the year of the First Opium War. His beginnings were poor, but at the age of twelve he was sent to work as a servant for a lawyer who recognized a bright spark, taught Sun how to read and write and prepared him to work as legal counsel for government. When the Taiping Rebellion came to his area, Sun, knowing the minds of the peasants better than the generals, rallied the peasants and, after some successes, aligned himself with two of the leading government generals who put down the rebellion.

Sun was rewarded. He was appointed to high government positions, made lots of money, and retired early to make even more money. As was normal in that era, he married and had several concubines, one of which gave birth to two surviving sons. They grew up to be scoundrels, pulling off a brazen heist of their own father’s money, which they promptly blew on fast living. Number 7 son died young, but not before siring the authoress’s father.

“Diedie” (daddy), as he’s referred to in the book, was a man of refined tastes, a lover of artwork, calligraphy and poetry. Although the family fortune had been much diminished, it was still substantial, and he was able to provide well for his family.

Isabel was the youngest of three children who survived infanthood and, as such, “had none of the pressures [her elder sister] endured as a first born, nor the responsibilities of [her elder brother], the only son.” Although her father was strict, she was his favourite: where, for example, her elder siblings had to wear traditional Chinese clothes, Isabel was free to wear Western fashions. LIke her siblings, Isabel was educated at the exclusive McTyeire School for Girls, where only English was spoken, and went to St. Mary’s Hall, an equally exclusive institution. Despite this largely English-language education, Isabel picked up her father’s ear for the allusions that make Chinese poetry so rich:

On summer evenings, soon after dinner was finished, the heavenly scent of night-blooming jasmine floated indoors. I would join the servants gathered outside the kitchen on rattan lawn chairs to gossip and savor the breeze. I can still hear the cicadas grinding their songs to the rustle of plane trees and glimpse the fireflies flitting to and fro, as though connecting the stars in a velvet sky.

This was to be short-lived, however. The family fortune was already in decline, and the family moved to a smaller (though still substantial) house when Isabel was young. Just as Isabel’s grandmother had divorced her grandfather, so too did her own mother divorce Diedie. Just as her grandfather had ripped off his own father, he himself was kidnapped and ransomed only with the help of Shanghai’s top gangster, Pockmarked Huang – who was also the police chief of Shanghai’s French Concession.

On a wider scale, the Japanese invaded when Isabel was still young, and that invasion and the Second World War caused the family, despite its wealth, many privations. These were exacerbated by the civil war that followed the defeat of the Japanese. The communists won, at which point Isabel was dispatched to Hong Kong to join her mother. It was to be many decades before she returned. Her father, sister and brother would remain in China, suffer through the Cultural Revolution, and struggle back.

There are many things that set this book apart. The descriptions of Shanghai in the interwar period are spectacular, not just in wonderful passages such as that quoted above, but also of a society in transition, away from traditional Chinese morality with men free to philander and foot-bound women and towards a less unequal role for women; from the warlord era of Isabel’s birth to the communist era, and from foreign aggression to indigenous brutality (in the Great Leap Forwards and the Cultural Revolution, but in many other quotidian ways).

Much of the historical research for the book was done by Isabel’s daughter, Claire. This could be a liability, but mother and daughter adopt a Ping-Pong approach, with the main narrative written by Isabel and the family history inserted. This works well – it’s clear that Diedie’s literary gifts stayed in the family.

Also, the book is beautifully produced. It has many illustrations, all in full-colour, and is speckled with entertaining break-outs between chapters. My only criticism is that it’s not available in hard-back. Buy and enjoy: you won’t regret it!

Erratum: It is available in hard-back: here.