A survivor of World War II internment recalls cosmopolitan, pre–World War II Shanghai and three years as a prisoner of the Japanese army.
Born in Shanghai to British expats, Blair (Shanghai Scarlet, 2012) spent her early childhood with her brother, parents and Chinese caretakers in the International Settlement, a predominantly British concession within Shanghai. Her memoir opens in 1941, when innocently content 5-year-old Blair is gently woken by Ah Ling, “my nurse, the centre of my life, my Chinese mother.” Readers know Pearl Harbor will be bombed and the world will change, but Blair takes time to paint her life before that in the concession, a “lone islet” or gudao of safety, as well as the bustling “hot din” of Shanghai. As December nears, Blair senses tension, but even after Japanese soldiers seize control of the International Settlement, she fails to comprehend the danger; she writes of Christmas cake and receiving a new doll. Throughout her memoir, Blair maintains this difficult balance of viewpoints. She details historical events (she later studied history at Glasgow University) yet relates her story as a child. In July 1942, Blair’s family is relocated to their first camp, where Blair enjoys a “last, perfect summer” of swimming, her father’s prodigious baking and the relative freedom to roam. Soon, rumors circulate of more dire internment camps, Blair’s father is imprisoned, and Ah Ling returns to Canton. Blair, her mother and brother move to a closely guarded, crowded camp and later to a squalid, dilapidated convent. Through a jury-rigged radio disguised as a toy, prisoners keep tabs on the war, while Blair skillfully builds suspense as camp conditions worsen. Yet she remains a child, knitting dolls’ clothes from unraveled sweaters, re-reading Beatrix Potter and daydreaming of summer vacation. Only as her 9-year-old body grows thin, her mother sick and her father’s fate more tenuous do readers glimpse the lasting effects of war. Young Blair swings obsessively on makeshift parallel bars, each swoop recalling her father: “Is he safe…Is he safe?”
A well-written, moving perspective on imprisonment, World War II and the history of Shanghai.