'Last Boat Out of Shanghai' has four stories at once personal and universal

Shanghai residents left in droves as the Communists took power in China.

Last Boat Out of Shanghai By Helen Zia Random House 544 pp.

As the child of two refugees, Helen Zia can speak to the effects of displacement, separation, and the personal costs of survival, adaptation, and reinvention. As an advocate for Asian-American and other minority communities, for women’s rights, and for LGBT rights, Zia turns inward in her newest book, Last Boat Out of Shanghai: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Fled Mao’s Revolution, melding family experiences with world events to illuminate an unknown but far-reaching moment of history.

While most of China suffered the brutal Japanese invasion of the 1930s and ’40s, exacerbated by multiplying aggressions between the Nationalists and Communists, Shanghai’s significant international presence sheltered its inhabitants from devastation. The imminent Communist victory, however, prompted a mass exodus in the late 1940s, with estimates suggesting 1.5 million of Shanghai’s 6 million residents fled to anyplace that would admit them, including Hong Kong, Taiwan, parts of Southeast Asia, and – in limited numbers due to anti-Asian immigration restrictions – the United States. The Nationalists destroyed vital records on their way out, ensuring that the Communists would find little evidence of the city’s missing citizens.

Zia spent 12 years, including a Fulbright residency in Shanghai, producing the first book in English about the Shanghai exodus. “Even today,” she explains, “the People’s Republic of China fails to acknowledge that any exodus took place.” After interviewing 100-plus Shanghai escapees, Zia chose four “real people” – one of whom is her own mother, revealed near the book’s end – as her primary eyewitnesses. Extensive black-and-white photos enhance the text. Using the 1937 Japanese attack on Shanghai as a starting point, Zia introduces Benny Pan, the privileged 9-year-old eldest son of a well-connected family; Ho Chow, the 13-year-old son of a landowning family; Bing Woo, an 8-year-old given away by her destitute birth family; and Annuo Liu, the 2-year-old daughter of a rising Nationalist leader.

Benny lives in luxury thanks to his accountant father, who joins the British-controlled Shanghai Municipal Police as an inspector. Benny’s world shatters with his father’s arrest, leaving Benny responsible for his siblings. 

For Ho’s once prosperous family, his education is everything. His singular determination propels him to the US to pursue engineering at the University of Michigan, but the cost to his left-behind family is dire. 

Passed around from her beloved baba to Mama Hsu to a Shanghai mother and daughter, Bing finds salvation in her third family. Elder Sister becomes her protector, maneuvering the family’s escape to San Francisco, where they gained entry despite immigration restrictions.

Annuo’s father, an important Nationalist official, regularly leaves his family in the able care of his doctor-wife. The Communist victory eventually sends the family into exile in Taiwan, where Annuo plans to escape – especially from her abusive father – to the US to continue her education. 

Decades later, New York becomes the foursome’s common ground; two will even cross paths. Blending the personal with pivotal world history, Zia succeeds in creating a universal, timeless story: “Certainly what was true for the refugees and exiles of Shanghai remains true for people fleeing from catastrophe in contemporary times,” she writes. She counters the dismissive narrative of refugees as “freeloaders and parasites” with examples of their global successes. Among the Shanghai diaspora were two future Nobel laureates as well as the founder of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., the world’s largest silicon producer. 

Gathered, analyzed, and distilled with insight and meticulous documentation, Zia’s book gives voice to a history almost lost.

Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

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