Finding traces of a Shanghai girlhood

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 December, 2009, 12:00am

The ageing terraced house in Shanghai's former French Concession is filled with memories for Dr Liliane Willens, as fresh as when she left her family home nearly 60 years ago. Here is where the telephone hung on the wall at the bottom of the stairs. She raced to answer it when friends called to say soldiers of the victorious Communist army were sleeping on the pavement after entering the city in 1949. Here is the upstairs balcony, where she once found pieces of shrapnel embedded in the wall from US planes targeting Japanese-occupied Shanghai towards the end of the second world war.

Here is the area of the garden where her older sister, Riva, used to flirt with an officer in the French colonial army when Shanghai was still divided up among foreign powers.

The house on Route Delastre, now Taiyuan Road, is one of the small corners of the city of her birth she still recognises despite having spent the first 25 years of her life in Shanghai. 'To me, this was my home. Being stateless, I wanted to belong to something. I belonged to the French Concession. It was my city,' she said.

She was a 'stateless person', born to Russian Jewish parents who fled the Bolshevik revolution and took refuge in Shanghai around 1920. The creation of the Soviet Union left Russians like her parents without a country.

Nevertheless, the family lived a comfortable middle-class existence, especially in the 1930s because of the benefits of 'extraterritoriality', under which foreigners governed their own affairs and reaped prosperity from trade.

'It was a beautiful life, of course, in the '30s,' she said. Her father was a successful agent for Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada. He owned a Morris Minor car and the family employed a maid, a cook and a tailor.

Lily grew up speaking French at school, pidgin English in the streets and formal English with other foreign residents. She heard Russian spoken by her parents and learned words in Chinese and the Shanghai dialect from servants. Her father tried to distance himself from his background. He claimed Romanian nationality and changed the family name to Willens from Vilensky. The family only attended synagogue twice a year for Jewish holidays. 'He wanted to erase his past. He paid a high price later on for it.'

Being stateless, her family didn't rule the top of the social stratum in Shanghai, domain of the British, Americans and French. Still, she had little contact with Chinese people and now regrets the discrimination that existed. 'They [Chinese] were invisible. We were little racists without realising it.'

Time and the experience of seeing Hong Kong under British rule and Japan under US occupation in the 1950s helped change her attitude. 'I asked myself: 'Who do you think you are to consider yourself superior?' I started changing.'

Shanghai has changed as well. On a recent trip, Lily, 82, spent days revisiting old haunts in an attempt to find landmarks she knew as a child. But the changes go beyond the architecture. China is a global power, not a country divided by foreign powers. Goods are produced for the world, in contrast to an industrial base that was devastated when she left. The bodies she saw on the streets have disappeared, though poverty remains.

'People are no more in rags. They were kept down by everyone, by the Westerners. It is one of the powers now,' she said.

Her recent return to Shanghai coincided with the release of a book about her experiences, which took her five years to complete. Despite living in Shanghai for a quarter of a century, she never went across the river to Pudong, except for one failed attempt to visit a Japanese internment camp. 'When I look at it [Pudong], it is not real. It is a backdrop. I cannot believe it exists,' she said of the financial district.

Her old family home is now packed with three families. Jiang Jinyi, daughter of the banker who took ownership for US$2,000, still lives in the master bedroom. Two other families moved in during the Cultural Revolution, one in the living room and another in the bedroom Lily shared with her two sisters.

Her parents' bed has survived with a coat of new paint, as has a closet the three sisters used to fight over. The families used other furniture until it fell apart, Jiang said.

Somewhat disappointed by the shabby condition of her former home, Lily still felt a link to the past: 'It was emotional to speak to someone.'

An earlier family home, the old Savoy apartment building on Changshu Road, has fared better. Workers are painting it and installing a metro stop across the street, ready for the World Expo next year.

The number of her old flat, 15, is the same and the original door still has a mail slot marked 'letters' in English, though it is no longer in use. Inside, three generations are living in a renovated flat. The matriarch, Sun Yuying, moved in around 1957.

The balcony from which Lily famously poured water on to the head of a high official of the French Concession still exists. She maintains to this day that it was an accident (she was watering flowers), but eviction followed. The gossip was that the official used the mischief as an excuse, since he was looking for a love nest for his White Russian mistress.

Lily's former school, the College Municipal Francais, is almost like a museum. The grand staircase and stained-glass windows all remain, but the clock is missing from the tower. The building on the former Route Vallon, now Nanchang Road, belongs to the Shanghai Science and Technology Association.

The assembly hall where students once received prizes at an annual ceremony flaunts a banner for a government meeting on agricultural machinery. She recalled teachers criticising her class for being 'dumb as donkeys' and being sent outside to lean against a wall for punishment.

'It was French education. They made a little French person out of me,' she said. Classmates became life-long friends whom she still meets in France for reunions.

Life changed with Japanese military intrusions in the 1930s, climaxing when the army marched into the French Concession on December 8, 1941, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbour. It was the first of three armies Lily would encounter over the next eight years, altering her life forever.

'When the Japanese walked into Shanghai, they were shouting and brutal and they had guns with bayonets ... they scowled all the time. Any minute they could suddenly decide: 'Let's put these people in camps,'' she said.

Her family avoided confinement to the so-called 'designated area', widely referred to as a ghetto, for European Jews, since her parents arrived before a cut-off date of 1937. Russian Jews were exempt from virtual imprisonment in the poor conditions of Hongkou district.

The end of the war brought the 'gum-chewing' Americans, which coincided with her development into a young woman and dating. 'When the Americans came, they were all so handsome and smiling. They were very nice to us.'

She caught her first glimpse of 'red soldiers' when they entered Shanghai in May 1949 in their greenish-yellow uniforms, canvas shoes and caps adorned with red stars. 'You could see the startled faces of the young soldiers when they came by my residence, gaping because they had never seen such buildings.'

At first she welcomed the arrival of the Communists, disgusted by financial mismanagement under the Kuomintang. The mood quickly changed. A wall went up around her house to allow a watchman to record her comings and goings. The family maid reported on their activities. 'By the end of 1949 ... the honeymoon was over.'

Her older sister had already left China after marriage to a US naval officer. Her mother and younger sister departed for the United States as well, under a quota for Russians. But her father and Lily were stranded in Shanghai. 'I used to see these little squirrels in cages. I felt like one of them. I was stuck. I was stateless. There was no hope.'

A job in Japan allowed her to leave in 1951, two years after the establishment of the People's Republic. Her father wouldn't leave until 1952, reuniting the whole family in the United States.

Now a US citizen, Lily taught at a university and worked for US government agencies before her retirement. She still feels some bitterness over leaving Shanghai, her home, where she had expected to remain her whole life.

'That was our life. Why would we go to America?' she said.

Stateless in Shanghai by Liliane Willens has just been published by China Economic Review Publishing for Earnshaw Books