Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Remembering Shanghai: A Memoir of Socialites, Scholars and Scoundrels by Isabel Sun Chao and Claire Chao, reviewed by Karen Ervin

Remembering Shanghai is written by a mother/daughter team who take turns telling this story, which is a memoir of (mother) Isabel Sun Chao’s childhood in Shanghai in pre-Communist China. The book is beautifully told through childhood memories and could serve as a crash-course in Chinese history from the Japanese occupation of Shanghai to the Communist uprising of Moa Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, centring on the Sun family over a period of several generations.

 It’s also an introduction to certain some Mandarin words, Confucian principles, cooking techniques, and family life of an upper-class family in Shanghai.

In the book, the mother relates memories of her family, such as her father’s prized collection of Chinese paintings and sculptures, and the daughter follows with explanations to the reader of what became of such treasures after the Communist takeover. I could see similarities between the senseless destruction of art and literature at the hands of Communists and with what happened in Nazi Germany to the many works of art and books that were burned during their reign of terror.

Through tireless research, the daughter was able to track down some pieces of her grandfather’s collection; although no longer in good condition. More importantly, through their research, mother and daughter received validation of the grandfather’s expertise as an art collector and scholar of Chinese art and traditions. 

Because Isabel was educated in English, she was able to immigrate to Hong Kong before the full force of Communism was enacted in 1949. Her father and his art collection remained in Shanghai. The anecdote I found most striking, was of a murder Isabel saw take place outside on a rainy street, while she and her older sister, along with others in a crowded train looked on. She says what struck her most about the incident was witnessing for the first time the cruelty of the city she loved. The cruelty of one man to another becomes that of the entire city of Shanghai.

Isabel was able to leave her beloved city at the age of eighteen. This book traces many of her memories leading up to that point, along with her attempts to return and how much Shanghai had changed when she finally did return many years later. It is full of beautiful photos and illustrations representing a life in retrospect. It is a book where the innocence of childhood gives way to loss, change, and growing understanding, seemingly without regret. A very interesting read!


Karen Ervin has a B.A. degree in English and a Master of Library Science. She taught university students as an adjunct online instructor while working full time as a mental health librarian at a Pennsylvania State Psychiatric Hospital. She has a chapter published in “Cases on Electronic Records and Resource Management...” (IGI Global, 2014) and has served as a judge for the Independent Book Publishers Association Benjamin Franklin Awards.

She retired in 2019, married a Canadian, and currently lives in St. Catharines. Her hobbies include reading and writing poetry, stories, and book reviews.

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