A debut memoir of a childhood in Shanghai before the Communist revolution.
In this detailed reminiscence, the author recounts her experiences growing up as a child of privilege in Shanghai’s International Settlement in the 1930s and ’40s. The author’s affection for her birthplace is evident in her lush descriptions of the Bund, the Whangpoo River and other local landmarks, as well as in her depictions of the many Britons, Greeks, Russians and Chinese who passed through her family’s life. The book opens with a brief, informative history of European settlement in Shanghai before World War II, which provides crucial background for average, unversed readers. The author’s family history is a similar web of nationalities: Her father’s Greek parents were expelled from Asia Minor during World War I, and her mother’s Russian family fled to China as the Bolsheviks came to power. The author’s parents rose above the previous generation’s hardships, raising their own children in comfort while sharing their home with several relatives. The author acknowledges her own rarefied upbringing (“I always knew I was a privileged child, never lacking in food, clothing, or gifts”), although she never explores the meaning of that privilege as a foreigner in China. Her portrayal of China during the World War II years, and the Communist rise to power after the war, adds some moments of conflict and personal risk, but the book’s merits lie less in the story it tells than in the long-gone world it conjures. The author brings a wealth of details to life: amahs looking after children who aren’t allowed to explore the city alone, ethnic enclaves within the European community and even the joy of discovering cheese after the end of wartime rationing. Although there are occasional minor errors—including identifying Madame Chiang Kai-Shek’s college as Wesleyan rather than Wellesley and unnecessary capitalization and italics—the book remains engaging throughout.
An intriguing tribute to a family and a community likely well outside most readers’ experiences.