China Books

Liliane Willens' Stateless in Shanghai


Stateless in Shanghai is the story of Dr. Liliane Willens' experiences growing up as a "stateless person" in cosmopolitan Shanghai from the late 1920s to the early 1950s. Willens was born to Russian Jewish parents, both denationalized by the Soviet Union after fleeing the Bolshevik revolution, hence her "stateless" status refers to her family's inability to flee elsewhere. Willens not only lived through the rise of Japanese power in, and eventual occupation of, Shanghai, but more unique, her nationality status left her stranded in the city through the early years of the People's Republic of China.

The book is available from Earnshaw Books.

Stateless in Shanghai extract

by Liliane Willens

Old Amah and I became inseparable as I was growing up. She took full charge of me (“Leelee”) and of my sister Riva whom she called “Leeva”. She fed, bathed and dressed us in clothes which my mother no longer sewed but now purchased. My father’s income increased substantially at the end of 1927 when he was hired as a sales representative for Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada, a firm headquartered in Montreal. Soon after, we moved to a larger apartment in a small complex of rental buildings on Route Ratard (Julu Lu), where my parents got a private room for Old Amah in the servants’ quarters annex. Socially, our family was moving up — Old Amah, too, in the eyes of her friends.

Old Amah insisted on getting us soft canvas shoes, explaining to my mother that leather shoes were “vely no good” for our feet since the shoelaces would untie quickly and we could fall and hurt ourselves. Thanks to these soft shoes, I easily could outrun Old Amah, who walked with a spring in her gait because her feet were very narrow for her tall build.

My sister Riva hardly ever caused any problems but by the time I was five years old I was terrorizing the little girls with whom I played in the garden, fighting with the little boys living in our complex and sticking out my tongue at the Chinese children in the streets. Old Amah often saved me from yelling and spanking, calming my mother down by saying: “When Missee Leelee big, she good like Leeva.” Although I had already picked up some of the Shanghainese dialect, Old Amah always spoke to me in Pidgin English, for she understood intuitively that my parents and other European parents did not want their children to learn Chinese. There was no need for the foreigners to use it since Chinese servants were obliged to speak a smattering of their masters’ languages, whether it was Pidgin English, French, Russian or German.

When I was about six years old, my mother let me accompany Old Amah on her shopping trips in the streets of “Chinese” Shanghai, a world that I discovered was very different from my own. I was glad to be away from my noisy baby sister Jacqueline, a crying “nuisance” who had come into my life a year earlier. This child, whom all called Jackie, was getting too much attention from my parents and their friends. They could not decide whether she resembled her mother or her father but they agreed that she did not resemble her two older sisters. Riva had my father’s looks and calm disposition, while I resembled my mother in looks and temperament, which meant I was a very active child.

On the way to the market, Old Amah and I walked through several very poor neighborhoods where we would inevitably pass a man slowly pushing a wide wooden cart. He went in and out of the alleys and lanes, where the Chinese lived in tenements and hovels without flush toilets, collecting the buckets of human waste that had accumulated overnight. When this moo dong man announced his arrival women rushed out with wooden buckets, which he emptied with a deft arm movement into large wooden containers securely tied to his cart. When they were filled to the brim he covered them with wooden lids and then slowly pushed his overloaded cart in the direction of the nearby countryside where he sold his morning collection to farmers as fertilizer. During the very humid summer months of July and August, when the thermometer sometimes hovered near 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the putrid smell from these carts hung in the air for the entire morning.

On those trips with Old Amah I watched her bargain endlessly with the food vendors over the price of rice, noodles, vegetables and fruit. She became quite theatrical when a price was quoted — she walked away complaining loudly that the street vendor was trying to rob her. She soon returned, however, and bargained again; then after much sighing she agreed grudgingly to buy the items she had earlier examined. She watched very carefully as the seller weighed her purchases on a scale consisting of a metal tray attached a stick with a movable weight piece. On one of our excursions to the market Old Amah became very angry with me. I did not have time to tell her that I needed to “makee doodoo”, so while she was talking to a friend at the marketplace I squatted on the street and defecated in my pants. I was simply doing what small Chinese children always did when they wanted to “makee doodoo”, except that my pants were not split on the backside. Old Amah began lamenting that “Big Missee get vely, vely angly”, and that Leelee “give me walla, walla (trouble, trouble), ah ya, ah ya”. My proper and demure Old Amah always yanked me away whenever she noticed a man using a wall as an open-air toilet, while I wondered why he did not go home and use his bathroom as we did in our house. In my mind, only small children had the right to relieve themselves in public!

I looked forward to these outings with Old Amah because I knew that whenever she bought cooked meat, fish or baked dough she would bite off a small piece and share it with me. While flies were swarming and buzzing around the open food stalls, I admired the vendors who tried to hit them with the straw fans they used to fan their charcoal stoves. Sometimes, when Old Amah had a few extra copper coins to spare, she bought a piece of tofu fried in sizzling oil which she blew upon before handing it to me. She would also share with me her breakfast food, the small da bing pancake and the you tiao, strings of dough fried in boiling oil and then twirled by the vendor into an elongated shape. These two oily and very hot food items were wrapped in a piece of soiled paper torn from a newspaper. When Old Amah was feeling extra generous she bought and shared with me the pyramid-shaped zongzi filled with glutinous rice and wrapped in palm leaves, which I munched with delight. For dessert, which she bought for me when I nagged her sufficiently, there were the sticky yuan xiao, balls of rice covered with sesame seeds. I especially enjoyed the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival since Old Amah would always buy me a dousha bao, a cake filled with mashed sweet red beans that she knew I preferred to the cakes and sweets we ate at tea time in our home.

Old Amah could never ask to be refunded for the copper coins she spent on me because my parents would not have allowed her to buy me food made in such unsanitary conditions. Of course I did not tell my mother about eating these forbidden delicacies because my trips with Old Amah would have ended. The food I ate in the marketplace was much tastier than the meat, chicken, potatoes, vegetables and soup we ate at home, where I was always told to eat slowly and wipe my mouth with a napkin. My taste for Chinese food may have been enhanced by the fact that Old Amah and I had a secret which we hid from my parents.

Whenever I ate food in the street Old Amah had to shoo away beggar children who had gathered around me watching me intently. I yelled “sheela, sheela” (“go away”) at them, not realizing they were hungry. I thought it was silly of them to stare at me while I was eating and wondered why their mothers did not buy them food. I was annoyed when they surrounded me and I yelled at them in the Shanghai dialect, borrowing the words they used to insult me. The fact that Chinese children swore at me — the yang guizi (foreign devil) with her da bizi (big nose) — did not bother me, for I had already surmised that as a white person I was superior to them. From a very early age my friends and I looked down on the Chinese, whose main function we had observed was to serve us and all other foreigners. Little did I know then we were behaving as colonial racists did in other parts of the world.

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