It is 1949 and the Communist party in China takes over the country, causing Chiang Kai-Shek’s KMT( Kuo Min Tang) Party to flee to Taiwan. Millions of Chinese flee the country to go to places like Taiwan and Hong Kong. While my close family members did not take part in this journey, living in Taiwan helped introduce me to people that were part of this exodus. Curious to know more about their lives, I read Helen Zia’s recent book called the Last Boat Out of Shanghai. Helen Zia does an amazing job in providing a lot of details about the four people, helping readers imagine what life was like in Shanghai leading up to 1949. Although the four people (Bing, Ho, Benny, Annuo) all came from middle to upper-class backgrounds, they still had vastly different lives. By doing so, reading each of their individual stories was refreshing despite sharing the common theme of experiencing wartime troubles and escaping China.
Although the story of leaving China in 1949 is not unusual, Zia makes this particular narrative interesting to read. Whether it was reading about Bing boarding on the last boat or Ho’s decision to study abroad in the U.S., I felt like I was watching a drama unfold in front of my eyes. The four people she chose to feature in her book not only have diverse backgrounds but also have distinct stories with different outcomes as they end up in various locations. Her extensive interviews with the people allowed the book to have vivid imagery, thus providing a sort of energy that I did not find in other biographies.
While the author’s primary purpose is to document the few remaining stories of those who escaped the communist revolution, she does not neglect the importance of providing historical context for the readers. As I read the book, I found it fascinating to pick up important Chinese historical figures such as Wang Jing Wei and key events from the founding of the ROC to World War II. The reading experience not only was captivating but also enriching as I learned interesting facts about Shanghai and China.
Another thing that I liked about this book was that the people’s stories shared similar obstacles that included family separation and loneliness, causing me to empathize with them. One person’s story that stood out to me was Benny’s because of the significant change his family underwent, which reminded me of a tragedy. I will not delve too much into Benny’s story as this will spoil the reader’s experience. I also admired the character’s ability to stay strong and persistent despite the terrible circumstances.
In general, Helen Zia crafts a compelling story that reflects the shared identity of the Chinese: being resilient during difficult times and having the courage to leave their hometown for an unfamiliar place. Her book not only encourages people to learn more about China’s complicated past but also inspires overseas Chinese to be connected with their roots.