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Blair draws readers into a world of political unrest, slashed dreams and persistent hope for peace in the war-torn city of (1930s) Shanghai. …More potent even…is the rendering of Shanghai itself…Serious, informative and graphic…
Kirkus Reviews, kirkusreviews.com
A survivor of World War II internment recalls cosmopolitan, pre-World War II Shanghai and three years as a prisoner of the Japanese army…A well-written, moving perspective on imprisonment, World War II and the history of Shanghai.
Kirkus Reviews, kirkusreviews.com
I was born in 1936 at the Country Hospital in Shanghai, China. There my family was part of a warm expatriate subculture that lasted until I was almost ten. We lived in Shanghai during World War II and were interned by the Japanese. The post-war permanent retreat from China created a life-long feeling of having lost my roots, of being an outside observer of the people around me, and of the place I was in.
At secondary school the subject in which I consistently won prizes was Mathematics. At university I met my husband Ronald (who later joined the faculty of the University of Toronto) studied mainly History and became interested in medieval times and a fan of the exceptional writer William of Malmesbury.
After graduation various opportunities presented themselves: with Britain's longest running daily newspaper, on a librarianship scholarship in London and with a major computer firm in Greenock. As she felt I should live at home until I was older, my mother vetoed these - so for four years I had a thoroughly enjoyable time teaching and running the Arts subjects at a nearby village secondary school.
During that time I joined with a church minister in preventing a striking historical village building from being moved 'to aid the flow of traffic along the village's main street.' It still stands where it has always stood. Ronald and I had three children, now all grown up with three children of their own. We have been fortunate to live most of our lives in Canada a capable, modest and decent country with a distinctive culture, to which Canadians take a restrained approach.
As a young mother, I developed an interest in residents' activism. This led to my serving ten years as president of our association and an enjoyable six years broadening my experience on the City of Toronto's Planning Advisory Committee (described by a councillor as being composed of twelve citizens with a passion for the City).
By the time paid work beckoned again, Social Studies had replaced History in the secondary schools; so I completed another degree (an M.B.A., in Marketing and Applied Statistics) at the University of Toronto. A varied career in Social and Financial marketing research followed, during which I reached the title of vice-president and served as director of publications and national president of the industry's professional association.
The experience in Shanghai before and during World War II was a persistent prowler in the background. Retirement gave me the opportunity to write Gudao, Lone Islet. While reading for Gudao I developed a deep concern about the Chinese Holocaust that I feel still has not received the attention or action internationally it deserves. A second book, Shanghai Scarlet, is now available. Academics in the field, and also (REVIEWS) have praised the quality of the research for these two books.
Lesley Duncan, United Kingdom, The Herald, SHANGHAI RECALLED IN FACT AND FICTION - The author’s second book is an altogether more ambitious undertaking, the result of much intelligent research and thought, as well as imaginative projection. It is equally linked to the author’s fascination with the Shanghai of her formative years. The title is Shanghai Scarlet. It is both a love story and a compelling evocation of Shanghai in the 1930s and early 1940s. The two central characters, Mu Shiying and Qiu Peipei, were real people (their wedding photograph, in western dress, is in Mu’s Wikipedia entry). Mu had achieved literary and social celebrity through his “modernist” short stories, but little is known about his wife Qiu Peipei other than that she was a dance hostess. Margaret Blair brings the two to novel life.They tell their story in alternating sections of the text. Mu’s are marked by the image of a pink rosebud, which was his trademark as he danced his immaculate foxtrot to American popular songs at the Moon Palace and other fashionable night spots. Handsome and arrogant, he had a burning belief in the right of the creative artist to express himself unhindered by external pressures, political or other. That, in a disintegrating China where Chiang Kai-shek’s forces vied with Mao Tse-tung’s Communists, and the Japanese threat loomed over all, was a dangerous - and eventually fatal - ideal.
Qiu Peipei is sympathetically drawn. A cultured Cantonese girl, destined to take over the family business, she was forced to become a courtesan when her debt-ridden father died. To Mu, she represents the modern (modeng) woman, a second muse to rival that of Shanghai itself.
This extraordinary place with its boundless noise and energy and hotchpotch of foreign nationalities - British, French, American, Russian refugees, and the tall, red-turbaned Sikhs who tried vainly to control the anarchic traffic – is masterfully evoked. Against the backdrop of its famed Art Deco buildings, its privileged inhabitants danced their way to tragedy to the strains of Fred Astaire and Ginger Roger musicals and American ballads of the day.
Equally skilful is Margaret Blair’s portrayal of Mu’s circle of intellectual friends - journalists, editors, poets - with their philosophical conversations, varying ideologies, and ways of coping with the ever deteriorating situation. Journalists in the growing anarchy of the late 1930s and early 1940s were liable to be beheaded by Nationalist or Japanese thugs. Such random terror was symbolic of the appalling sufferings of the Chinese population of the city, massively swollen by refugees.
But it’s the particular story of Mu and Qiu Peipei that gives this novel (an amalgam of fact and fiction) its haunting conclusion. With Mu already assassinated, the final scene shows Qiu Peipei dancing towards her own death in the arms of a sadistic Japanese officer, while her Russian friend sings on, through tear-smudged black and white Pierrot make-up. A coup de theatre that could have come from the Hollywood movies that so beguiled the Shanghai audiences of the 1930s. Theirs was a world that had, like the title of that most popular of western films, gone with the wind.
Kirkus Reviews, kirkusreviews.com - REVIEWS, United States - Two young lovers contend with the political unrest of 1930s Shanghai in this historical novel.
Blair draws readers into a world of political unrest, slashed dreams and persistent hope for peace in the war-torn city of Shanghai. … Serious, informative and graphic, this book expertly plumbs despair.
Dually narrated by Shiying, the dapper, headstrong Chinese writer, and Peipei, a bright, sophisticated courtesan, Blair showcases the challenges the couple faces trying to build a life together in desperate circumstances…
For Shiying, there’s nothing more important than pursuing his writing career, even if it means putting his life on the line. The upright Peipei, on the other hand, fears losing her love in the fight for Chinese freedom. She worries that the Japanese Imperial army will execute Shiying and that they will never start a family together.
Shiying differs from his politically active coterie because he believes that mutual cooperation and understanding between the Chinese and Japanese could bring peace and because he insists that he is an apolitical artist. He contends artists can exist beyond politics.
Unfortunately, this sentiment proves futile; Japanese forces follow him, convinced he’s part of the opposition. The novel skilfully explores the duty of the artist during wartime.
More potent even than the descriptions of Peipei and Shiying is the rendering of Shanghai itself. The narrative exudes an ominousness that saturates the city. The Japanese Sandman, a sinister, foreboding presence, haunts Peipei’s dreams throughout the novel as she tries to convince Shiying to take safety precautions against the Japanese authorities. Readers will clearly see through the foreshadowing to the couple’s future.
Serious, informative and graphic, this book expertly plumbs despair.
Carissa Harwood, United States, The U.S. Review of Books - Richly crafted with nuance, this novel transports the reader inside the life and minds of the characters. You are invited to join a world hidden in mystery and intrigue, from war torn Shanghai’s dance halls and nightclubs, to quiet backroom salons. … Meticulously crafted, the passions of the characters will grab readers by the heart. Complete with playlists – audio and visual suggestions – this novel is an experience worth the journey.
“’You have to have plenty of action,’ said Liu, ‘And lots of conversation, too. Otherwise the reader will put the story down and not read it to the end.’”
Mu Shiying is a young man writing modernist stories in Shanghai, China during the jazz explosion of pre-World War II. Caught in a world where he is torn between traditions, Mu Shiying is swept up by the changes tearing apart his country as he writes underground notes against the Nationalist forces that strive to bring China to its knees and change the country he loves forever. Mu Shiying has a weakness for the modern woman who is the embodiment of the future: educated and independent. Meet Qiu Peipei, who shares with Mu Shiying a love of the culture of the Western world. Both are trapped in their own mazes of danger that together they try to escape, the war that is tearing their lives and their country apart.
This is a work of historical fiction … . It is important to mention that with few exceptions, the names of the characters in Shanghai Scarlet are based on real people …
Katherine Byrnell (Canada), Having read The Great Gatsby a couple of times, my sense is that Shanghai Scarlet is another of such vintage. It’s subtle, it’s atmospheric, unique and evocative. A superb novel. … It’s for an educated, discriminating reader and will remain a remarkably mature and articulate homage to 1930s Shanghai.
Betty Jane Wylie (Canada), award winning author, past chair of the Writers' What a leap Margaret Blair has made from her staggering memoir, about her young life in pre-war and then wartime Shanghai as a prisoner of the Japanese, to the dazzling novel based on pre-revolutionary Shanghai where she was born. The poignant love story stayed in my mind long after I had turned the last page.
Lesley Duncan, (United Kingdom) author of A Towering Presence - ... I am full of admiration for your success in pulling together the human story of the doomed lovers with your really admirable overview of the artistic and intellectual ferment and political complexity of those time in the great international city. And random horror too. ... Is there any modern equivalent of Shanghai and its accommodation of so many different cultures? Maybe New York would be the nearest to it. But one feels something immensely human and grand was lost ... .
John Meehan SJ (Canada), professor of history, Campion College, University of Regina, author of Chasing the Dragon in Shanghai - Many thanks for sending me your manuscript, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Your text reminds me of Vicki Baum’s Shanghai ’37. It displays a similar talent for bringing out the role of personality in historical events. You paint an excellent picture of life in Shanghai at the time.
Your depth of character development is indeed impressive. Based on actual historical events – and your own creative abilities – you have brought these characters to life for the reader, presenting them as long neglected personalities of Shanghai’s past. All in all, you tell a wonderful story which makes for compelling reading. I couldn’t put it down and as I read it, I kept thinking it would make an excellent film.
You have really captured the spirit of Shanghai of that time with your references to specific clubs, songs, places, writers, gangsters, HKSB, Kelly & Walsh, Del Monte’s et al. What an intimate knowledge of Shanghai! It is a wonderful evocation of a bygone era, one sure to appeal to many readers. Your understanding of the literary culture of the time is superb and makes me want to include this on the reading list for my Tokyo-Shanghai course. Congratulations on a wonderful manuscript! It is beautifully written.
William Russell (United Kingdom) journalist and film critic - I enjoyed the book immensely, and was most impressed by the research ... the background to the story of Mu Shiying and Qiu Peipei is really fascinating and endlessly illuminating.
Meg Taylor (Canada), editor - Margaret Blair's impressive research brings pre-revolutionary Shanghai to life. After reading Shanghai Scarlet, I felt that I knew Mu Shiying and Qiu Peipei, and had a real sense of the now vanished Shanghai in which they once lived.
Poshek Fu (United States), professor of history, University of Illinois, author of Passivity, Resistance and Collaboration, Intellectual Choices in Occupied Shanghai, 1937-1940 - This impressive historical novel is movingly written and in a style that fits well with the mood and feel of the 1930s and 1940s. I greatly appreciate your focus on Qiu Beibei who, as you say, hasn’t been studied much but the significance of her life and romance with Mu shed important light on the times.
This is a sensitive, thoughtful and poignant story. The ending is very effective. It is hard not to be touched by the heroine’s love of her husband and to worry about her fate in encountering the Japanese monster.
H. F. Thompson (Canada), management consultant, reader - Shanghai Scarlet is a compelling story with marvellous pacing and a terrifying conclusion.
Kirkus Reviews, kirkus reviews.com,
Gudao, Lone Islet -
Born in Shanghai to British expats, Blair (Shanghai Scarlet 2012) spent her early childhood with her brother, parents and Chinese caretakers in the International Settlement, a predominantly British concession within Shanghai. Her memoir opens in 1941, when innocently content 5-year-old Blair is gently woken by Ah Ling, “my nurse, the centre of my life, my Chinese mother.” Readers know Pearl Harbor will be bombed and the world will change, but Blair takes time to paint her life before that in the concession, a “lone islet” or gudao of safety, as well as the bustling “hot din” of Shanghai. As December nears, Blair senses tension, but even after Japanese soldiers seize control of the International Settlement, she fails to comprehend the danger; she writes of Christmas cake and receiving a new doll. Throughout her memoir, Blair maintains this difficult balance of viewpoints. She details historical events (she later studied history at Glasgow University) yet relates her story as a child. In July 1942, Blair’s family is relocated to their first camp where Blair enjoys a “last, perfect summer” of swimming, her father’s prodigious baking and the relative freedom to roam. Soon, rumors circulate of more dire internment camps. Blair’s father is imprisoned, and Ah Ling returns to Canton. Blair, her mother and brother move to a closely guarded, crowded camp and later to a squalid, dilapidated convent. Through a jury-rigged radio disguised as a toy, prisoners keep tabs on the war, while Blair skilfully builds suspense as camp conditions worsen. Yet she remains a child, knitting dolls’ clothes from unraveled sweaters, re-reading Beatrix Potter and daydreaming of summer vacation. Only as her nine-year-old body grows thin, her mother sick and her father’s fate more tenuous do readers glimpse the lasting effects of war. Young Blair swings obsessively on makeshift parallel bars, each swing recalling her father: “Is he safe … Is he safe?”
A well-written, moving perspective on imprisonment, World War II and the history of Shanghai.
The US Review of Books,
Gudao, Lone Islet -
"We were there to act as human shields for neighbouring munitions factories and a hospital housing Japanese military patients, which was next to our new camp."
In hindsight, war can be viewed from a variety of perspectives, but as each spectator's frame of reference differs from another's, no single vantage point can capture the whole picture. The majority of accounts of World War II's battles in the Pacific Theater focus on naval campaigns, atrocities in POW camps, or the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima on the Japanese mainland. Very few, though, describe what happened during the war years in China other than in Nanking, and almost none recount the war experiences of the expatriate communities that had been caught for various reasons behind enemy lines. What makes Blair's retelling of her experiences so important and riveting is that they are the memories not only of a foreign prisoner in Shanghai but also those of a child, giving the reader a viewpoint on the years just prior to and during the war that is both unique and poignant.
Blair was born in Shanghai to British parents and spent most of her early years in a section of the city set apart as the International Settlement. For those who have lived or grown up in developing countries, the author's experiences with being cared for by national workers, visiting area markets, and seeing firsthand the discrepancies between how foreigners and locals live will probably seem familiar. However, while Blair's depiction of the local color in the first part of the book is fascinating, her observations of the rapidly developing fears of the adults around her and then her own slide into hunger and deprivation in the Japanese camps are haunting. Sprinkled with the insights of an adult but realistically recalled through the eyes of a child, this captivating book is a must for anyone wanting a fresh perspective on World War II.
RECOMMENDED by the USReview of Books
John Meehan SJ (Canada) professor of history, Campion College, University of Regina, author Chasing the Dragon in Shanghai - Congratulations on the fascinating, wonderful book.
Katherine Byrnell (Canada), I was variously shocked, amused, moved to tears and finally better educated because of your work. … Both books are classics.
Fred Jones (United Kingdom), Shanghai internee - Thanks very much for writing the book. . in many ways it will be my childhood diary too .. it left me chasing through all the human emotions. Your childhood footsteps echo mine. I am a year older than you, but you triggered so many memories for me! My father and two brothers and I lived in T Camp, in the same alley as the very nice Wilkinsons. Mrs Wilkinson drew the picture of my dad and brother (“What Again”) which is copied into Greg Leck’s book. It was my dad who used the catapult on the bugler’s window.
Ester Shifren (née Benjamin) (United States), Shanghai internee and author of A Cave of Trunks - I am completely touched by your sensitivity and the way you wrote about the incident involving me. I don’t remember that particular one, but there were many, and I have covered the subject quite broadly in my book. I suffered intensely from the racist cruelty of some of the children and was extremely lonely much of the time. Thank you for your lovelydescription of me …
I think what happens to us in childhood leaves indelible marks that we carry for the rest of our lives. I am sure it helps us a lot to share memories of our own unique experience because it was so “foreign”.
Modris Eksteins (Canada), author of the prize-winning Rites of Spring and Walking Since Daybreak: A Story of Eastern Europe, World War II and the Heart of Our Century, and professor of history, University of Toronto - ... “All Things Bright and Beautiful” the children sing as they bury their dead pets in a mass grave off the Bubbling Well Road. They are preparing for their own internment by the Japanese. Like that hymn and that moment, this bittersweet and beautifully crafted memoir of a childhood in old Shanghai during the Second World War stays with you long after you have turned the last page.
Nicola Tyrer (United Kingdom), journalist and author of Stolen Childhoods, The Untold Story of the Children Interned by the Japanese in the Second World War. – Thank you for having written such an excellent book . I have just reread the story of you burying your pets and been reduced to tears by it. … I would very much like to quote extracts of your book in mine. It is beautifully written, very vivid and tragic and uplifting by turns.
Betty Jane Wylie (Canada), O.C. award-winning author of Beginnings: A Book for Widows, and past chair of the Writers’ Union of Canada - This is one war memoir you have to read. Margaret Blair has achieved an impeccably written, powerful and moving account of a sad chapter in history, told through the eyes of a child but with a discreet adult sensibility supplying the necessary information to understand fully what the child is going through. …
She lives in an incomprehensible present, unable to understand, for example, her increasing lack of energy (as the inmates’ calorie count was cut to 300 a day) but clinging with desperate affection to the stuffed toy she brought with her from her pampered other life. You will be touched, as I was, by the threadbare blue giraffe that becomes the metaphor of her lost childhood.
H.F.Thompson (Canada), management consultant, reader - Margaret Blair wrote this moving chronicle for her family ‘past, present and future’. But while her story of growing up in Shanghai in the 1930s unfolds in the intimate world created by her parents, her brother Gordon and her Amah, it is also rooted within the broader family of the International Community. – it is within this wider orbit that the family’s social life revolves in better times, and it is with them that Margaret’s family endures the years of internment in Japanese camps. So the experiences she relays, while a deeply personal narrative of her childhood years from the later 1930s to the end of World War II, are, in part, also the experiences of a broader community.
The central drama of the book unfolds in a series of ever-grimmer camps situated only miles away from the comfortable domesticity of early childhood spent on Bubbling Well Road in Shanghai. Although the book is organized chronologically, during the internment years as Margaret grows hungrier and weaker, there are flashbacks to the earlier times of comfort, security and plenty.
The book is written from the perspective of Margaret as a young child – the impressions, observations, emotions, and concerns are those of a child. However, the author provides enough historical detail – but not too much – to give context and greater meaning to the young girl’s perceptions. Margaret brings her world to life by sharing details that help us imagine what it was like before the war: the vivid descriptions of street life in Shanghai; the fabric of social life and school days, the affections of her Amah, meals prepared by the Chinese cook. And later, as her story unfolds, we learn the grimmer details of internment life – the ever-diminishing daily food allotment that slowly but surely brings them all to near-starvation; clothes gradually disintegrating into rags; the anguish each Christmas as the family contemplates the father’s heavily censored letter.
Personal losses cast many shadows in Margaret’s story: the separation from her beloved Amah whom she refers to as her ‘Chinese mother’; the years-long separation from her father during the internment; the loss of beloved family pets, and finally, the loss of her beloved City and homeland.
Despite the intimate sorrows and large-scale tragedies, Margaret’s story is one that is relieved by the myriad acts of love and kindness that people show one another. There is also the relief provided by the children’s perspective itself – the father’s political dismissal from his administrative post, for example, means that he is around to prepare delectable meals and lavish much attention on them; moving to the internment camp translates into a steady supply of playmates close by and greater freedom to roam without constant adult supervision. Despite the hardships of internment, adults also manage to preserve many of the structures of childhood – schooling continues, adults took care of the young, gifts and treats were miraculously produced for birthdays.
This book is very hard to put down. It is nicely structured in three parts – Prelude, Captivity, and Release – representing life before, during and after internment. The story moves briskly, the dramatic tension never really lets up, and you can’t wait to see what happens next. Margaret provides a very satisfying conclusion to the book, giving us an update on what happened to the central characters. She also carefully references external sources. Thus, this book will appeal to readers with an interest in the historical setting of Japanese-invaded China, in social history as well as anyone who remembers what it is like to think and feel like a child.
Dr. Greg Leck (United States), author of Captives of Empire, The Japanese Internment of Allied Civilians in China 1941-1945 - Childhood’s joys, wonders and discoveries, along with its fears, frustrations and disappointments, are recounted against a backdrop of growing uncertainty and the upheaval of a world at war in the autobiographical Gudao, Lone Islet. Wrenched from a secure and loving home, and thrust into a wretched existence in which the threat of violence hangs over everyone, Margaret Blair’s tale of physical and emotional survival will serve as a testament to the fortitude of the human spirit, and the resiliency of youth.
Roberta Ward (Australia), daughter of Shanghai internee - Your book answers so many questions that my family and I have had our whole lives! I have just finished reading your book and thoroughly enjoyed it. Thank you so much for sharing your memories. … Your descriptions were so vivid and will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Jennifer Dobbs (United States) - Thank you so much for writing this book. It is an inspiration to me to work on my own China book. My father, who died at the hands of the Japanese, worked at the Salt Gabelle (part of the Department of Finance), and like your father, did not leave his post because of the war as others in the organization did.
Thanks again for all your research and hard work. I am looking forward to the next book.