Last Boat Out of Shanghai: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Fled Mao’s Revolution – Helen Zia

ShanghaiThroughout history, war and destruction have been constant reminders of the fragility of peace. On September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany’s army invaded its neighbor country Poland and ignited the Second World War, the conflict that changed the world in ways one could have imagined. Adolf Hitler’s (1889-1945) quest for world domination inspired other nations to launch their own offensives. National Fascist Party leader Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) plunged Italy into the conflict and in Japan, Hirohito (Emperor Shōwa)(1901-1989) initiated the Japanese campaign to completely control all of Asia. Prior to the conflict, China found itself the target of Japanese invasion and amid internal civil war between the Chinese Communist Party led by Mao Zedong (1893-1976) and Kuomintang under the control of Chiang Kai-Shek (1887-1975). While Hitler’s army was marching across Europe, death and destruction accelerated across Asia and in China, the horror escalated to unthinkable heights. Chinese who were able to leave, fled their homes in search of a new life. This book is the story of that exodus and four individuals who risked it all for freedom. The lives of Benny Pan, Ho Chow, Bing Woo, and Annuo Liu come into focus as examples of the struggle Chinese faced as they sought to escape China before Mao’s army seized control over the entire country. 

As I read the book, I noticed how the four stories are told in an alternating pattern. The book moves chronologically but the author switches between each story over time. Some readers may find this to be challenging as opposed to one section telling the story from start to finish of one person. However, the format here works because the author does not solely tell their stories but the history of Japanese occupation and the dark reality of life in Shanghai during the war. The story of Shanghai is often neglected but in 1937, the Japanese made it the eye of their rage and when Japan’s army did invade, the misery under which Chinese lived increased exponentially. The atrocities conducted by Japanese units is documented and the story of Nanjing remains one of its darkest parts. However, the Japanese had accomplices and the actions by Chinese doing the bidding of Tokyo will cause readers to shake their heads is disgust or disbelief. For young Benny Pan, the reality of aiding the Japanese hits home when he learns more about his own father. I am sure that what he learned became a heavy burden to carry for years to come.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, Chinese remained loyal to their homeland but had no desire for communist rule and had hope that Chiang Kai-Shek would defeat the communists. Mao proved to be a bigger foe and more popular figure than expected. Annuo Liu is still a young girl when her father answers the call to aid the Nationalists in the fight against the communists. Her mother becomes the backbone of the family, and their story of survival highlights the role thousands of women found themselves in as their husbands were called to fight and defend China from enemies within and abroad. Annuo’s story is nothing short of miraculous. Her father makes appearances throughout the book, but his experiences changed him permanently and his daughter who ages on her own begins to resist his rule as a new life with personal independence becomes possible. The dark reality of Communist rule settles in and for Annuo, the writing is on the wall and America becomes destination number one. While I read her account, I could not help to think how I would have felt to see my father walk out the door to parts unknown while my mother struggles to provide with little to no resources. The human spirit is one of the strongest things I have ever witnessed, and this book is proof.

Chinese who did escape Shanghai faced uncertain futures abroad such as Ho Chow who arrives in America as a student and Bing who is matched with a suitor that facilitates her arrival in America. Each took a different path to the United States, and both faced exile back to their country of birth. However, America is the land of opportunity and through fortune, determination, and sacrifice, they establish permanent homes in the land of the free. Ho Chow’s story became my favorite and his unwavering focus on studies and survival are nothing short inspirational. Of course, there is a dark side to their move to America and that is the prejudice awaiting Chinese immigrants in America. Today it may be hard to imagine but at one time, immigration from China severely restricted or prohibited as shown in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. America was certainly an improvement from Shanghai but far from paradise and the Chinese that did move to the United States faced new battles such as learning English, navigating the immigration system, and combating anti-Asian feelings due to the events of Pearl Harbor and allied efforts to defeat the Japanese military. But they persevered and made America their home. For Benny Pan, leaving China for good came after significant hardship and personal sacrifice after Mao’s Communist Party took over the nation. His struggle exemplifies the fear and paranoia that arrived with the communist regime. The Chinese Communist Party made it clear that opposition was permitted and during Mao’s reign, millions perished through his failed “Great Leap Forward” and “Cultural Revolution”. The invasion of Japanese military units and later oppression by communists, resulted in the separation of families, friends and colleagues, many of whom never saw each other again.

Chiang Kai-Shek fled after suffering defeat and went on to form the nation of Formosa known as Taiwan today. The autonomy of this smaller island nation draws the ire of Beijing which remains determined to force it into submission. And in the process, it reinforces why so many of its people left China more than sixty years ago. But the Generalissimo was not above reproach himself and the author reveals several secrets about the Nationalists that caught my attention. Some Nationalists were not as “patriotic” as they appeared. Dark alliances were formed under the guise of resisting “communist influence”. China became a hotbed of discontent on all sides, and no one was safe. Life became cheap and death a daily reality. Even the suspicion of being a “leftist”, “nationalist” or “Japanese puppet” was enough to induce violence and incarceration. Helen Zia beautifully brings the past alive and shows the panic people faced as everyone worried about making the last boat out of Shanghai. Highly recommended.

“A professor in China told me that, in modern China, everyone’s story is a tragedy. Unfortunately, the same may be said about those from many other regions of the world. My deepest appreciation goes to all who struggle to overcome the scars of exodus; their lives are cautionary tales that show why such tragedies of history must not be repeated.”


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