'Still a Stranger in a Strange Land'

I was all at sea when I was given this topic, because the refugee issue seems to be a European one. It doesn't seem to have anything to do with my country, China. Of course, you must have heard about some political dissidents in prison or exile. For example, you may find that the artist Ai Weiwei, who is well-known in Europe, is hardly mentioned or taboo in China. But in fact, like you, from childhood to adulthood I know them by hearsay only. I would like to share some stories that are too political sensitive since what I'm exposed to is relatively detailed and objective information. It revolved around Shanghai in the last century.

Shanghai, known as ‘Oriental Paris’, is a city that has exerted a great influence on modern China. In 1840, the First Opium War broke out between China (the Qing dynasty) and the United Kingdom. Two years later, the Qing government was forced to sign the Treaty of Nanjing (1842) according to which Shanghai and four other ports were opened to foreign trade and occupation. The formation of the settlement was founded on the separation of residence consensus between the Chinese and foreigners.

On November 19, 1845, according to the Shanghai Land Regulations, the British Concession in Shanghai was established. Later, the American Concession (1848) and the French Concession (1849) were set up. On July 1854, Britain, France and the United States established a joint concession but France decided to quit in 1862. On September 20, 1863, the British and American Concession merged into one (Shanghai International Settlement).

Outline Plan of Foreign Settlements in Shanghai(1907)   The French Concession and Shanghai International Settlement occupied 80% of the urban area of Shanghai.

Outline Plan of Foreign Settlements in Shanghai(1907)

The French Concession and Shanghai International Settlement occupied 80% of the urban area of Shanghai.

When the Small Sword Society Uprising broke out in September, 1853, Chinese citizens and foreigners began to mix together in foreign concessions since a large number of Chinese refugees rushed into them. Until the uprising to overturn the Qing Dynasty and reinstate Ming dynasty, which was finally put down by the army of Qing Dynasty backed by Britain, France (direct military intervention) and United States on February, 1855, China (the Qing Dynasty) has almost lost its sovereignty over the concessions which were actually states within a state.

The history of the concessions may help us to understand why Shanghai was the so-called ‘only place’ in the world that did not reject Jewish refugees during the World War II. Yeah, you definitely can see this or” It was a great friendship.” in a Chinese propaganda since China always wants to be seen as helpful and powerful. These arguments are certainly not completely out of the historical facts (compared with the once popular phrase, ‘Jews survive on the pancakes thrown by Chinese people’). But more importantly, what was the life of Jews in Shanghai? Whom (if necessary) should the Jews thank?

The White Horse Café   The White Horse Café was opened by Mr. Rudolph Mossberg, a Jewish refugee who came to Shanghai in 1939. It was an important gathering place for Jewish refugees at that time and reopened in August 2015.

The White Horse Café

The White Horse Café was opened by Mr. Rudolph Mossberg, a Jewish refugee who came to Shanghai in 1939. It was an important gathering place for Jewish refugees at that time and reopened in August 2015.

From 1938 until the outbreak of the Pacific War in December, 1941, about 18,000 Jews from Germany, Austria, Poland and Czechoslovakia have come to Shanghai, the only place in the world demanding neither visa nor financial documentation, to escape Nazi persecution.[1] They lived in Hongkou District (the International Settlement), which was actually controlled by Japanese after the Second Battle of Shanghai (1937). What was the attitude of the Japanese authorities?

During the Russian-Japanese War (1904-1905), Jacob Schiff, an American Jewish financier, lent $200 million to Japan to avenge the anti-Semitic Tsarist regime, which greatly contributed to Japan's success. Together with some disagreements between Japan and Germany, Japan acquiesced in the residence of Jewish refugees rather than finishing them off as its ally wished. From this perspective, the Japanese’s decision at that time ‘saved’ the Jews.

In the Jewish settlement, 307 stores were set up including outdoor cafes, bakeries, restaurants, bars and theatres, making a flourishing business district known as ‘Little Vienna’. Even in times of war, concerts, ball games and religious activities were still held there. Without hostility toward or prejudice against Jews or Judaism, the Chinese, for whom living conditions were often poorer than theirs, accepted them into their lives. In the Jewish Refugees Museum, there are scenes based on the dedications of some Jewish survivors. For example, the Chinese neighbors invited them to celebrate the Spring Festival, or someone sat in their neighbors’ wheelbarrow as a child.

'Tomorrow we would be starting a new life in a strange city, in an unfamiliar country with an unfamiliar language, climate and people, where we would be safe and free’, said Evelyn Pike Rubin, the former Jewish refugee in Shanghai.

After the outbreak of the Pacific War, life for Jews in Shanghai became more and more difficult since assistance from all quarters decreased. With the new anti-Semitism policy, on February 18 (until May 15th), 1943, the Japanese army resettled 17,000 Jews into an isolation area called Stateless Refugee Settlement in Tilan Bridge, Hongkou District. Over the next two years, the Jews and about 100,000 Chinese living close by suffered from famine, hard winter and air strikes.

Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum   The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum was renovated in 2007. It consists of the former Ohel Moishe Synagogue, an important place for Jewish religious activities in Shanghai at that time, and two exhibition halls.

Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum

The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum was renovated in 2007. It consists of the former Ohel Moishe Synagogue, an important place for Jewish religious activities in Shanghai at that time, and two exhibition halls.

Finally, after September 3, 1945, when Shanghai was liberated, the Jewish refugees returned to Europe or to North America, Australia and South America with the help of their relatives and friends. By 1950, almost all Jewish refugees had left Shanghai.

There were two Chinese officials who risked their lives and careers to give the Jews hope for living. Ho Feng-Shan, Consul-General of China in Vienna (1938-1940) at that time issued visas to Shanghai to at least 3,000 Jews. Wang Ti-fu, then Board Member of the Puppet Manchukuo[2] Embassy in Berlin, issued nearly 5,000 passports to Jews. However, for the nature of Manchukuo he worked for, Wang was regarded as a trailer and rarely mentioned in China. In 2000, the Israeli organization Yad Vashemin awarded the late diplomat Ho Feng-Shan the title ‘Righteous Among the Nations’. Wang Ti-fu, a linguistic and diplomatic genius, the man who saved the most Jews in the world, died an unknown in 13th July 2001.

I share this piece of history to re-examine and explore the city where I lived for four years as an undergraduate student. And I find that neither at home nor abroad do many people know the connection between Shanghai and Jews. To cut a long story short, we can see that the truth may not be ‘great’. And compromise and survival are the only facts in turbulent times.

My relationship with Shanghai goes beyond the last four years. When our group of the ‘Mixed up, but in a good way…’ project decided to include the topics of immigration, home, belonging and so on, in addition to refugees, I had a strong desire for telling another story about Shanghai and mu grandfather.

My grandfather was born in April, 1939 on Ninghai East Road in Shanghai French Concession, near the famous entertainment venue Da Shijie (the Big World). He graduated from Shanghai Institute of Mechanical Engineering in 1961, and was assigned a job in Shanghai Institute of Process Automation Instrumentation. Under the planned economy system, all jobs were allocated according to national planning indicators. His life was very ordinary until 1965 when he and 159 colleagues were told to answer the Party's call to go to Chongqing, Sichuan province (southwestern China) and make contributions to The Third-Front Construction.

We believe that the Party's call is always correct and we should obey it.’ Of course, if they didn’t they would lose their jobs.

On March 22, 1966, the 160 young people arrived in Beibei, Chongqing and found that the place the leaders claimed to be ‘wonderful’ was actually almost a rural area. ‘My heart sank’. From then on, they started a life completely different from that in prosperous Shanghai.

Geographic division in The Third-Front Construction (from The Third Front Construction Museum in Panzhihua)   Blue represents the first front regions; green represents the second and orange represents the third ones.

Geographic division in The Third-Front Construction (from The Third Front Construction Museum in Panzhihua)

Blue represents the first front regions; green represents the second and orange represents the third ones.

From 1964 to 1980, China spent 205 billion yuan, moving a large number of factories (especially of heavy industry and military industry) and talents from the first and second front regions (the coastal provinces and comparatively developed areas)to the third front region (the backward western mountainous area). Getting Prepared against War and Natural Disasters has been revealed as the official motto. Despite of the background including notable deterioration in Sino-US relation (due to escalation of Vietnam War) and the Sino-Soviet split in 1958, the profound cause was the preparedness of Taiwan's counterattack (If it happened, it would probably turn into World War III).

How was their life going in Chongqing? They lived in a small, closed community next to their work unit where clinics, kindergarten, primary school, canteens and dormitories were all available. This place was remote, lack of materials and cooperation units. Employees were idle sometimes just because the work was hard to be carried out effectively.

The nightmare started when the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) broke out in May, 1966. Chongqing was in chaos during the Cultural Revolution. Production at the factories came to a standstill. In this absurd time when social legal system existed in name only, people split up into two factions (conservatives and rebels[3]) and attacked each other, guns and killings and massacres became all too familiar. In July 1967, my grandfather was one of those who managed to flee back to Shanghai. ‘I'd rather be dead than back to Chongqing’. But in October, he was back for the simple reason that he would lose his job and would have been depend on his parents for support if he returned to Shanghai. Moreover, food stamps were not available without a household registration.

My grandfather married a local factory girl, my grandmother in 1970 and later had two kids. The family of four moved to one of the apartments built for married employees. ‘We have leasehold rights, not property rights.’ Children of employees (most were male and married local wives) were born and grew up. They studied in the partner schools, began the same kind of life in the small community. Those born in Shanghai before 1966 have become left-behind children, not usually close to their parents.

The disaster of the Cultural Revolution finally ended after Mao Zedong's death in 1976. In December 1978, China implemented the policy of Reform and Opening up, beginning the transition from a highly centralized planned economy to a market economy. Some enterprises were reconstructed or moved to nearby smaller cities, but many went bankrupt.[4] My grandfather still couldn't go back (to Shanghai). Apart from the fact that some rural road builders at the time receive very little subsidy, there are few compensation policies for The Third-Front Construction contributors. Without the household registration (in Shanghai) qualifying him for the retirement benefits including medical insurance and pension, does not have and cannot afford an apartment, he suddenly finds that he would be in the edge of the city population if he returned to Shanghai.[5]

In 1985, the coupon-based supply system which has lasted for 40 years was cancelled. In 1993, the graduate job assignment system terminated. In 1995, the State Council abolished the welfare housing system and the employees were allowed to buy the apartments at a low price. In 1997, Chongqing was carved out of Sichuan Province into a municipality under the direct administration of central government. It is now an important industrial base, transportation hub and commercial city in China, a thriving megalopolis. Gone are the days when staff members carried bags and bags of chocolates, biscuits, cakes, fashionable leather shoes and tights (all not sold in Chongqing) every time they returned from a family visit (Shanghai).

My grandfather is just one of the tens of millions in the migration during 1964-1980. Most of the people (more than a million) from Shanghai who participated in The Third-Front Construction do not or lack the proper conditions to return in their sunset years. ‘After 53 years, I feel like I’m still a stranger in a strange land.’ They ‘live’ in Shanghai by retaining habits such as cooking Shanghai food, watching Shanghai TV Programmes and chatting with old colleagues in Shanghai dialect.

Searching for the Third-Front Construction on Chinese websites, you can see various descriptions of ‘a significant policy’, ‘the great spirit’, ‘industrialization and urbanization of China’, ‘merits and demerits’, but all I see is an old man who can never return to his hometown.

Night view of The Bund, Shanghai (2019)  The Bund, also called as the world Expo of architectures, used to be split and occupied by the British Concession (then the International Settlement) and the French Concession.

Night view of The Bund, Shanghai (2019)

The Bund, also called as the world Expo of architectures, used to be split and occupied by the British Concession (then the International Settlement) and the French Concession.

The latest story happened in a few years ago, some retired employees once suffered harm because of poor equipment and working conditions wrote a joint letter to claim compensation from the unit. My grandfather was one of them, because he suffered from tremors in both hands after being exposed to mercury vapor for a long time. He almost lost his sight 10 years ago due to optic atrophy. The lines he wrote with great difficulty arced down to the edge of the paper just like rainbows. And I will never ever forget the scene of his writing. Eventually these old people won and my grandfather got 14,000 yuan (£1600) in compensation. It seems to be the same as the youth of an ordinary man, if you'll pardon the expression.

By Kelly Wu

Footnotes

[1] In January 1940, about 17,000 refugees were registered with the Shanghai branch of Assistance of European Jewish Refugees (CFA). In December 1940, the number reached 20,000.

[2] ‘Manchukuo’ (1932.3-1945.7) was a Japanese puppet regime in Northeast China.

[3] The conservative refers to people who support the Party and government cadres accused of “taking the capitalist road” and the rebel refers to those who claimed to break the existing order and grab power as the proletariat.

[4] Relocation in disregard of the actual situation leads to long-term poor operation of many enterprises.

[5] In 2015, Housing Price-to-Income Ratio in Shanghai was 20.8, much higher than the reasonable 4-6.