Liliane Willens is the author of Stateless in Shanghai, a memoir about growing up in Shanghai, in a family of Russian Jewish origin, during World War II, the Chinese civil war, and the establishment of the People's Republic of China.
Q: Why did you decide to write a memoir about your life in Shanghai, and how did you conduct the research?
A: When friends and acquaintances learned that I was born and raised in Shanghai, China, they inevitably urged me to write my memoir, which I eventually did over a period of five years. First I read extensively about 19th century Chinese history, specifically about the two Opium Wars, i.e. trade wars, when China was defeated by the Western powers and extraterritoriality privileges were imposed on 50 ports and cities in China. Also I did research on Chinese history of the first half of the 20th century. I interviewed family members, China scholars, Shanghailanders (Westerners born/raised in Shanghai) and classmates from our French school in Shanghai.
Q: You experienced World War II, the Chinese civil war, and the establishment of the People's Republic of China, all as a "stateless" person living in China. Was it difficult to relive this history as you wrote the book?
A: No, it was not difficult to write about. However, I realized as I was researching and writing that despite our privileged colonial lifestyle, we lived in a most turbulent and frightening time during the Japanese occupation. At that time I was not aware that my parents worried constantly, since as stateless persons, with no country, our fate was in the hands of the Japanese army occupiers.
The takeover by the communists of mainland China was not surprising, since the Chiang Kai-shek government was corrupt to the core. When the PRC was established I could not get an immigration visa to the U.S. (I had applied five years earlier) because the consulate in Shanghai had closed its doors in April 1950. A year later I went to Japan where I waited another year for my quota number to receive my visa to America.
Q: When you eventually moved to the United States, how hard was it to adapt to your new surroundings?
A: Very easy, since English is my language and this was the first time in my life that I would be living in a democratic country. Opportunities abounded - work, college - eventually teaching at universities and working for the U.S. government.
Q: How big was the Jewish community in Shanghai when you lived there, and were you involved in various activities connected to the community?
A: Before and during World War II, there were 1,000 Sephardic Jews from Iraq and British India, 5,000 Ashkenazi Russian Jews, and 18,000 Central and Eastern Jews who fled in the 1930s from Nazi-occupied countries and came to Shanghai. That city was one of the rare places in the world where no entry visa was required and all these refugees were saved. No, I was not involved in the various activities of this community.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A children's book - where I fictionalize my early years walking the streets of Shanghai with my Amah, my Chinese nanny, with drawings by a famous pre-World War II Shanghai cartoonist. The non-fiction section of this story is in chapter five of my book Stateless in Shanghai.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I give talks on this book in the greater Washington area and out of town.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb