With thanks to Renaissance Books for the review copy.
My final book of 2015 was My Shanghai, 1942-1946 by Keiko Itoh – the title certainly makes it sound more like a biography or a work of memoir – but it is in fact a novel. Based heavily upon the life of the author’s mother – and written in the form of a diary – it is often easy to forget that it is fiction. Keiko Itoh’s mother and father and aunt spent some years in Shanghai at the time of Japanese occupation. I can’t help therefore but see her fictionalised account of life in Shanghai during the same period as being the story of the Itoh family – pictured on the cover.
Eiko Kishimoto a beautiful young Japanese woman comes to Shanghai in early 1942 – her baby son temporarily left behind in Japan while he recovers from an illness. Her businessman husband Hiro, is a little older than her, reserved and a little enigmatic. Eiko is an English educated, Christian woman, her father a well-respected banker in London. She can’t help but be delighted at the adventure ahead of her and particularly at being in the same city as her beloved older sister Tamiko.
“Is this uncontainable sense of liberation improper? But how could I not bask in my good fortune to be in this luxurious hotel, far away from stifling Japan – a country engulfed in a sense of moral superiority ever since Pearl Harbor.”
Eiko doesn’t concern herself too much with politics – she is loyal to her homeland – but she doesn’t ever put herself above the Chinese people she lives amongst. As Eiko begins her diary at the Cathay Hotel in Shanghai in January 1942 – she is an innocent – wide eyed and ready to soak up new experiences, wanting only for her son to be well enough to join her, and to re-connect with her sister. Soon Eiko will have her eyes opened to the realities of war, and of occupation.
The first shock comes in the form of news from her father – who is under house arrest – later he is interned on the Isle of Man, which Eiko finds so hard to fathom – knowing her father to be a good, peaceful man of no threat to the British war effort. She finds it hard to think of Britain as being her enemy. Allegiances become difficult in times of war, but Eiko had been brought up to respect all people – she is unable to think of the people around her in terms of allies and enemies. Shanghai at this time was a very cosmopolitan city – aside from the thousands of Japanese people settled there, there were westerners, Americans, British, German, Jewish refugees and others.
“Unexpectedly, Tamiko walked up to a pretty little brick house further west in the French Concession and said ‘Here we are!’ It turned out that the Quaker Meeting was being held in the home of an elderly Irish lady named Agnes Flynn, a silver haired petite lady with remarkable grace. Her home was equally graceful, a vase of Easter lilies arranged in the entrance hall, but hardly a church-like atmosphere. We were led to the sitting room, where several people were already, including the Leighs.”
Eiko soon comes to build relationships among these people, meeting both Japanese and Chinese people socially – and becoming friends with them and with Quakers and Jewish refugees. She begins to learn Chinese from Shin-tsu a young student, the son of one of the Chinese families she meets socially – the two become friends, and Eiko begins to see some things through his – Chinese eyes. When Shin-tsu disappears – almost certainly to join the communists – Eiko begins to appreciate how it might be to live under occupation, feeling desperately opposed to the regime.
As the war rumbles on, the political relationship between Japan and Germany shifts – leading to the Japanese changing their view of Jewish people – who had previously been fairly ignored under Japanese occupation. Now Jewish people are forced to live in designated areas, and the Quakers too are declared to be enemy aliens. Eiko watches as life for many of her friends becomes much more difficult and uncomfortable. Although she is part of the occupying community – Eiko is a mere civilian – and so she too is conscious of being watched by Japanese policemen when she visits her friends in the designated areas.
In the later years of the war Eiko and her husband and their two young sons, are forced to move several times, as the apartments they are living in are requisitioned by the Japanese military. With the help of two loyal Chinese servants who become very much part of the family, Eiko manages to run each of their homes capably. She is horrified by the news of Kamikaze pilots who are much lauded by the Japanese authorities. Things are changing, and Eiko – loyal to Japan still – is troubled by much of what she sees and hears.
“When I approached the glass door, Kazu, Taka and Amah were standing still, heads turned to the sky rather than the waters. As soon as I set foot outside I, too, could only stare speechless. The sky had turned a strange orange colour, not without beauty, but casting and eerie, unsettling atmosphere.
Uncomfortable, I beckoned everyone inside, and tightly shut the door.”
In time the news from Japan acknowledges the war is going less well – and of course, the atomic bombs are dropped – the war finally shudders to an end – and the fortunes of the occupying community are changed drastically.
This novel – which does read more like a biography – is a fascinating portrait of an element of World War Two that is seldom told. I am much more familiar with the stories of the war in Europe – and so I had my eyes opened to things I didn’t know – and probably hadn’t considered.