Post-Inauguration Reading...for Fun: "Remembering Shanghai"

The celebrations the last time America ousted a disastrous head of state is a fond memory. Michelle Garnaut, inimitable founder of M on the Bund, had agreed to my request to livestream the departure of Bush ll for the new guy, Barack Obama. Because Inauguration Day in America was evening in Asia, it was a night-time affair. Channeling another era of hope, I wore my mother's wedding going-away suit from the Kennedy era early 1960's.

This go-around, I'm living back in the United States, so we watched the events in the morning. But, that did not prevent the opening of a magnum of champagne!


On Inauguration Day 2021 I felt as glee-filled as in 2009...and even more relieved.


Now that doom-scrolling is no longer a thing, reading for pleasure sounds appealing. And, the first book I embarked upon is one that has long been on my 'TBR' pile, Claire Chao's Remembering Shanghai. Chao co-authored this memoir with her mom, Isabel Sun Chao, who grew up in an elite family in pre-Communist Shanghai.


The settings and culture of 1930's and 1940's Shanghai covered so evocatively by various historians like Andrew Field, Paul French, Historic Shanghai founders Tess Johnston, Tina Kanagaratnam and Patrick Cranley formed the world in which Isabel Sun was raised. That milieu offered sophistication, modern architecture, rich social life, international influences, as well as a happening music and dance scene. Remembering Shanghai gives the reader Isabel Sun Chao's first-hand insights into what that life was like for a young girl and later, a young woman.


That era is known for glamour, but it was also a period of chaos and suffering. Remembering Shanghai does an excellent job of depicting daily life during the Sino-Japanese War, followed by the Civil War that ended in 1949 with the establishment of the People's Republic of China, and the severing of ties that followed.


Claire Chao has melded the personal incidents from her mother's growing up with the wider narrative of her ancestors, whose lives took place at key inflection points in China's mid-19th to mid-20th century history. Isabel Sun's great grandfather, a valued military aide in the Qing effort to suppress the Taiping Rebellion of the 1860's, made the family's fortune. Her grandfather benefited from investments of the family's wealth in Shanghai's emerging real estate boom. Her father was able to secure the family's financial security for decades based on the rents earned from key sites behind the Bund in downtown Shanghai.


Remembering Shanghai weaves between Isabel's reminiscences and family stories of her ancestors' (mis)deeds and adventures, as well as the difficulties presented by the divorce of Isabel's parents - quite rare in that time. In the process, the book paints a compelling picture of what life for one stratum of Shanghai society was like in those turbulent years.


Besides the fascinating narrative, visually, Remembering Shanghai is also a delight. A surprising number of old family photos survived and are included, as are charming line drawings illustrating elements of the world in which Isabel lived.





One of the reasons I had wanted to read Remembering Shanghai from when it first was published was because the Sun family home on Zhenning Road was just down Yuyuan Road from where we livedon Wulumuqi North Road in our 1936 Art Deco apartment. I had often walked past the former Sun house, and was curious to learn from an inhabitant what life in the neighborhood had been like in the 1930's. As this Remembering Shanghai blog post reveals, imagining these dilapidated structures in their former glory can be difficult.




When we first bought it in 2005, our place was similarly unappealing, but as these pictures from a Shanghai Daily post-renovation profile show, these old homes could be charming.

I felt a thrill of connection reading about the places Isabel Sun visited in her daily life - places I too had wandered 7 decades later, but regardless of whether one has lived in Shanghai, Remembering Shanghai offers an story that is universal in exploring how a young person emerges from familial turmoil, amidst wider social turmoil, and makes her own way in life.


Highly recommend!




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