Monday, July 02, 2007

Shanghai Jewish Ghetto Life

Ok, so, I finally checked out JacketFlap and it's totally eaten my life. Holy Cow. You should check it out too. It'll eat your life as well, but in a good way. Basically, it aggregates all those kidlit blogs out there in one handy place. Holy Cow.

Apparently, Chasing Ray has instigated the first Monday of the month as overlooked book day. I couldn't think of any unblogged overlooked books. It's crunch time with school and my brain, she has stopped working.

So! Instead! I'm blogging about 2 books about an overlooked slice of history, and that is the European Jewish refugee settlement in Shanghai during WWII. Because Shanghai was a free port, you didn't need papers and its doors stayed open long after most of the world stopped accepting Jews trying to escape Hitler. (You did, however, need papers to get out of Europe.)

Ten Green Bottles: The True Story of One Family's Journey from War-torn Austria to the Ghettos of Shanghai by Vivian Jeanette Kaplan is the story of the author's mother's escape from Vienna. Offering stunning portrait of pre-war Vienna, one is struck by how quickly things happened in shutting down Jewish life, and how much of it occurred before Kristelnacht. Once in Shanghai, one is also struck by the sheer poverty of the people--both native and refugee. When you read or think of Shanghai, especially during the 30s and 40s, you have images of swanky nightclubs, Chinese jazz, and communists having secret meetings. (Or, rather, that's what I think of when I think of Shanghai during this time period.)

But the Austrians set up a little Vienna and Nini survives-- even marrying and buying part of a bar. Then the Japanese take control of the city and force all the Jews to the Hongkew ghetto, which they are not allowed to leave. News is scarce and as WWII winds down, rumors of extermination plot are rife. Then, once the war is over and they're free, it's time for the Communist Revolution and once again, the survivors need to find a place to live.

What's most striking about this book is the portrait of Vienna--especially the juxtaposition of Nini's cafe culture and political discussions with her friends and the proper uptightness of the female relatives in her mother's living room.

Nini doesn't interact much with the Chinese people in Shanghai and doesn't speak about them much outside small mentions of her horror at their poverty and the corpses left to rot, or freeze, depending on the season. This is distressing, but understandable as her fight for survival doesn't allow for this interaction. There are also a few minor historical misstatements-- she has Paris falling to the Nazis in May of 1940, when really it was June (ooo! shamless plug for one of my favorite books, Suite Fran├žaise).

The book is written in the first person present tense, which at first seems a really odd choice, but works as the story unfolds, and adds an immediacy to the language in the plot as Nini's world crumbles around her in horror. I highly recommend.

A fictional YA-level account of the same time period is Shanghai Shadows by Lois Ruby. Ilse Shpann is also from Vienna, but the bulk of her story takes place in China, not Austria. Ilse is younger and better-off than Nini and it shows. Nini is almost an adult when she goes to Shanghai--Ilse is, IIRC, twelve. And it shows. Like Esperanza from Esperanza Rising, Ilse is a brat that really grated on me. And she should be a brat--a girl this age who is used to a high end lifestyle and forced to live a very poor lifestyle is going to throw a fit now and then.

This has a more exciting plot than mere survival. Because of Ilse's age, she's not involved in the day-to-day decisions that her parents have to make to survive. Ilse spends a lot more time exploring Shanghai and gets involved in the resistance. There is also more information about the life led by non-Jewish foreigners.

What this book lacks is a strong sense of place, which Ten Green Bottles has in spades. Ruby's Shanghai is generically Chinese--you don't get a solid sense of Shanghai (which has a weird architecture) or the time period. I was confused on how her mother was able to study at Cal Berkeley, because for a long time, American universities had quotas on how many Jewish people they could let in, and I was curious on how that would have affected her chances...

One major bone to pick comes with the language. Some background: Standard Mandarin, or putonghua is based on the Beijing (northern) accent. This involves sticking a lot of "r" sounds on the end of words. Shanghai has its own dialect, Shanghaiese, which is crazy, but counts seperately from Standard Mandarin as one of the most widely spoken languages in the world.

Now, Ilse learns Chinese on the streets from her urchin friend. She would have learned Shanghaiese, so when she utters Xihu zai nar (Where is West Lake?), I cringe. This is perfect textbook Mandarin. Nar doesn't exsist outside northern China except in textbooks. Even non-Shanghaiese general Mandarin woudld be Na li in the South--Xihu zai na li. Gargh.

But all of a sudden, it is July, here's a rundown on the major events of the month in my world:

July 4: Holiday! No work! Final exam due! no fireworks for me :(
July 6: Amazon's projected delivery date for Love Is a Many Trousered Thing!
July 11: Final Project/Presention due! Last day of class! Harry Potter Movie!
July 14-15: See Harry Potter movie!
July 16: First day of class!
July 19: Harry Potter party at work
July 21: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
July 25: Amazon's projected delivery date for Thursday Next: First Among Sequels!
July 27: GOLDEN BIRTHDAY! (For those not from the MidWest, I'm turning 27)

*phew* And then August involves a trip to Wisonsin, and one to Iowa. State Fair, HERE I COME!


Kristin said...

Are you planning on going to the Jasper Fforde signing in DC on July 25?

I'm planning on it.

Jennie said...

Jasper Fforde signing? What now? Crap. I'll be in class that night... it might be worth ditching class though... must look up details!

Kristin said...

From his website:

Wednesday, JULY 25th
Politics & Prose

5015 Connecticut Ave NW
DC 20008
Contact: Mike Giarratano
202-363-7663 direct

Though you've probably found it by now.

Jennie said...

Dude, I'm all over that, methinks.

Anonymous said...

When will you be in WI? We'll be there from really late on the 9th til sometime on the 15th. Maybe we could hook up? We want to do Madison sometime over the 10th or 11th... We've had soem good times there before darling!

Jennie said...

Sorry. I'm there the 3-5, probably. It's a blow in-blow out type deal to go to Emily's wedding and chill with my family. We haven't all been together since my aunt's funeral in January. And even then Will wasn't there. Including him, we haven't all been together since Thanksgivign 2005? Maybe?

Dana Watson said...

Have you read Peony by Pearl S. Buck? It features a Jewish family living in China, too, though I don't remember if it was Shanghai. Anyway, it's a much older novel than either of those, obviously, and uses the fact of the family being Jewish to create (even more) tension for the forbidden love aspect of the Chinese servant falling in love with the son, but also a lot of strife between the parents, because they have to deal with how much they are going to assimilate into Chinese society, with the mother being the main advocate for keeping strong Jewish traditions.

Jennie said...

In Peony they live in Kaifeng, I believe. I haven't read it yet, but it's so high up on my "To Read" list that it's actually checked out from the library. I expect to get to it soon. Actually, it got bumped for a another peony book, Peony in Love by Lisa See. When I put the hold on it, I thought it would take forever to come in, but, no. But I need to read it quick, because there are others behind me in line!

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