“The Last Rose of Shanghai” by Weina Dai Randel paints a vivid portrait of life in Shanghai during WWII, during the Japanese occupation both before and after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. It’s an in-depth study of not only the Jewish refugee situation, but also how wealthy Chinese families lived and the rules that they lived by. The story is told from the viewpoints of Aiyi Shao, the youngest daughter of a wealthy Shanghai family; Ernest Reismann, a German refugee who arrived in Shanghai with nothing but a camera and his younger sister; and also from Aiyi Shao’s point of view in 1980 as she is trying to convince a documentarian to research and film a documentary about Ernest’s life during the war.
Randel deftly weaves a fictional tale that is entirely plausible, with sympathetic characters who make mistakes and make decisions that turn out poorly, just as we do in real life. Aiyi Shao is described as an heiress, but as we read the story, we learn that the Japanese had confiscated most of her family’s assets during the occupation. So even though she’d been raised to simply look beautiful and prepare for marriage, she owns a nightclub that she is determined to make a success. And she does. She has business acumen and intelligence, and her nightclub has become very popular with the Chinese.
Ernest and his sister Miriam arrive in Shanghai with the only two exit visas their family had been granted. His parents have trusted him to care for his sister, but upon his arrival, he quickly finds that there are no jobs to be had. Shanghai is overrun with Jewish refugees, and there is not enough employment for everyone. They are given only five days of free housing in the refugee “dorm,” before they must leave and find other accommodations. Ernest is desperate.
He and Aiyi meet by chance at Sir Victor Sassoon’s hotel, the Cathay Hotel, where he tries to protect her from some bigoted white men. At a later meeting, he plays the piano for her. She ends up doing something scandalous—hiring Ernest, a white man, to play in her nightclub. We see how Ernest, offering to shake hands with Aiyi, learns about Chinese customs. She chides him and tells him it’s inappropriate for him to shake a Chinese woman’s hand. “Chinese people consider touching between men and women an intimate action.” When he mentions the European custom of kissing on the cheek, we learn “such intimacy was unthinkable in Shanghai; even married couples refrained from publicly demonstrating intimacy. Certainly not between a Chinese and a foreigner.” Ernest learns to bow instead.
Shortly after she hires Ernest to play piano in her club, he is attacked by a gangster at the club and suffers a serious knife wound to his hand. He can’t play the piano, but insists on showing up at the club and serving drinks and sweeping. It’s shocking for a foreigner to deign to serve Chinese customers, and that act endears him to her customers and to her. But her feelings for Ernest present a problem. Aiyi has been betrothed since she was a toddler to Cheng, a wealthy cousin. Aiyi does not love Cheng, and he is very possessive.
Through Randel’s narration, we see not only how Aiyi and Ernest’s relationship grows from attraction to intimacy, we also see Ernest’s determination to create a good life for Miriam, Aiyi’s relationship with her family, including her oldest brother who has a wife with six children and who also loves an American journalist, Emily. We learn about her mother, a fierce woman who in spite of tradition has left Aiyi an equal share of her wealth, and Aiyi’s father, who was a drug addict and an abusive husband.
One of the most difficult aspects of the story is reading about the Japanese atrocities that were committed during the occupation of Shanghai. Their torture of Chinese people and foreigners, their indifference to suffering, and their casual killings make it very apparent that the Germans did not corner the market on despicable, callous behavior. Some of the torture is painful to absorb.
Randel expertly creates a story that is filled with mystery. While we know Aiyi lives through the war and becomes extremely successful, we don’t know what happens to Ernest. There are clues to a twist at the ending that an astute reader might use to determine the outcome of the novel, but I did not pick up on them until almost the end. And while part of the ending might necessitate a suspension of our disbelief, at that point we don’t especially care. We’ve become a part of this riveting story, living and surviving through wartime Shanghai in spite of the disease, the starvation, the bombings.
I was especially drawn to this story because my son-in-law’s family went to Shanghai as refugees during WWII, and during my travels there, we visited the synagogue and were able to see the Jewish zone. But seeing modern Shanghai didn’t prepare me for the descriptions of wartime China that Randel shares in this story. Even today, though, visiting Shanghai and especially more rural China reveals a culture that is very different from our casual, informal American way of life. A Chinese saying often mentioned in the story is that salt and sugar don’t mix, metaphorically strongly implying that Chinese and foreigners shouldn’t mix, either. But Randel posits that sometimes salt and sugar can make a powerful new mixture that does endure.
Please note: This review is based on the final, paperback book provided by Lake Union Publishing, the publisher, for review purposes.