Book Review: Remembering Shanghai, A Memoir of Socialites, Scholars and Scoundrels

At 88 years, Isabel Sun-Chao steers her walker like a go-kart as her daughter and co-author Claire briskly keeps pace on high heels. We meet for dim sum at the Hong Kong Country Club, Deep Water Bay. What is her secret? Isabel confesses an aversion to workouts, avoids walking, loves fatty ham and enjoys home movies in laid-back comfort. Her most vigorous exercise is swimming mahjong tiles. She disses all keep-fit advice. The lady brims with vim and ready laughter.

Remembering Shanghai is Isabel’s memoir of the 1930s and 40s, a winner of the Outstanding Memoir Award and second-place Non-fiction Book of the Year. She narrates it as episodic family history to Claire, who researched, indexed, added historical notes, and commissioned period sketches, among family photos. The Chinese hold that great wealth lasts three generations. Isabel’s father was the third generation of the extraordinary Sun lineage.

Sun Bosheng was a collector of classical Chinese scroll paintings and scholarly texts. The gentleman-scholar was aloof, cloistered in his library, practicing calligraphy or reading the classics. Sun’s most prized painting was commissioned by Emperor Kangxi from 17th-century artist Wang Hui, and was owned by nine princes before he acquired it.

Patriarch Sun

It all starts with the remarkable Sun Zhutang, who rises to high office in the Qing Court in his 20s – despite being Han Chinese and a commoner. He helps defeat the Taiping rebellion of 14 years. Dowager Empress Cixi bestows on him control of customs in Tianjin, foreign ministership in Beijing and imperial envoy to Jiangxi Province – all of which he executes with distinction.

The Patriarch (great-grandfather to Isabel), retires to squiredom at prosperous Changshu in his 40s. He dies in 1899 as the 19th Century closes. His astute investments cascade across three generations, till the Communist Revolution of 1949.

The Qing dynasty wobbles as the 20th Century opens, after losing two wars to the British, over opium trafficking. The Republican movement implodes feudal rule in 1911 but fails to unify and consolidate. Japan invades in 1937. As WWII ends, Mao’s rural army and Chiang’s nationalist forces grapple for power over half a billion people. Mao triumphs in 1949 and Chiang flees to Taiwan. That is the raging vortex within which the third-generation Sun family fortunes and misfortunes whirl.

Signature tune

In Shanghai of the 1940s, Sun Shuying, Isabel, third daughter of the seriously wealthy Sun family on Lane 668, (Zhenning Road), is a star – at ease with her good looks, class and admirers. 1949 was thrilling for Isabel – she is allowed at 18 to go clubbing with her teenage friends. Home by 11 pm, the teenagers swing to Filipino bands jiving trendy American tunes, dancing with the carefree abandon of youth, living the moment. They are apolitical.

The Airline Club is their favorite. Unlike other more famous nightclubs, it does not hire taxi girls to tycoons and gangsters. Trumpeter Matthew Tayong of the Moro ensemble composes a music score for Isabel. A giddy St John’s boy writes a poem for it. The band would strike up the signature Isabel song whenever her group dropped in. Such was Isabel’s cocoon of privilege and glamor.

Off to Hong Kong

Father Sun Bosheng, with foresight, dispatches Isabel in March 1950 to Hong Kong, where her divorced mother, Fei Baoshu, had relocated. ‘Auntie’ Duan Ayi travels as guardian with a letter from the Jardine Matheson taipan, John Keswick, a close business associate of Mr Sun.

Keswick’s letter whisks the pair from the chaos of desperate mainland refugees throttling the Hong Kong checkpoint into the freedom, order and safety of the British colony. Hong Kong assimilates the sophistication and enterprise of Shanghai as millions of Mao’s class enemies flee. They are allowed to rebuild shattered lives, in peace.

Isabel’s elegance and poise at 21 grace the front cover. That portrait was shot in a Hong Kong studio whose proprietor declines payment. He will use her portrait as window display to draw the custom of other fashionable ladies and parents.

Landlords top hit list

By 1956, the Sun properties are formally confiscated by the state. Landlords top the list of Mao’s despicables. Sun Bosheng is granted a monthly allowance of US$530 to maintain his 14-member household staff and family. His property assets were valued at today’s equivalent of US$12 million, well below prewar estimates. Sun’s woes don’t end there.

Ten years later, a sulking Mao weaponizes children to smash all authority – his revenge on the Party hierarchy – for criticizing the colossal failure and mass starvation, of his 1952 Great Leap Forward. Mao’s 1966 Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution wrecks books, art collections, historical artifacts, temple statues, and symbols of authority, wealth, or learning.

China is gripped by raving school children waving the Little Red Book, outdoing each other in feats of loyalty to the Chairman. That consists mainly of denouncing parents, teachers, bureaucrats, artists, landlords, and party bosses, with ideological fervor. Public ‘struggle sessions’ become a cult ritual. Victims confess to made-up crimes to stop the mindless beatings.

Courteous old gentleman

Mr Sun at 72 years, is fitted with a dunce cap and forced to kneel for ritual abuse, humiliation and beatings by frenzied Red Guards. He is doubly guilty of being a landlord and an intellectual. Because the prisons are full, he is incarcerated at the Public Security Bureau. Sun reads the daily newspapers to his illiterate wardens.

Not given adequate food, the old man is wasting away before their eyes. Rather than have him die there, the Security Bureau returns him to his family home, now occupied by 20 strangers off the street. His duty is to sweep the grounds with a twig broom. They tell him to be grateful he is not assigned to clean toilets. Sun dies in 1969 at the age of 75, recalled by those who knew him there, as the “courteous old gentleman.”

Siblings survive

Isabel’s two younger sisters and brother remain with their father. The sisters avoid detection as children of privilege during the Cultural Revolution to become teachers in Beijing. Elder sister Virginia marries a Chinese-American manager of a US telecommunications company, who is enticed by the party to remain before being sidelined. He dies prematurely of a heart attack. Virginia is allowed to leave for Hong Kong.

Brother Shufen suffers even greater physical abuse by Red Guards, for being defiant and uncooperative. That was his childhood fistfight reflex against schoolmates taunting him for wearing peasant clothes – an odd karmic strategy devised by grandma to shield the male heir from future misfortune.

When the Cultural Revolution expires along with Mao in 1976, Shufen emerges as a respected ‘Old Shanghai’ expert. His first book, Springtime in Suzhou, restores a pre-Mao tradition of storytelling, minus the socialist glorification hype. Readers loved the return to authenticity.

It sold half a million copies in two years.

Shufen went on to become a distinguished literary figure, authoring 55 books over two decades. He dies of lung cancer without marrying or leaving male heirs – despite grandma’s elaborate design to thwart fate.

Classic painting auctioned

Sun’s cherished art collection was trucked off to the Cultural Relics Department. One from his collection turned up at auction. Isabel and Claire traced it on the internet. It traded for RMB24 million (US$4 million then) at the Beijing auction of 2011. Mr Sun Bosheng’s Humble Tranquil Studio authentication was listed in the credentials, for the 17th-century artist Wang Hui’s work.

When Claire chose to major in Chinese Art & History at Princeton three decades ago, she researched Wang Hui for her senior year thesis, selecting him from albums of pictures in the Princeton archives. There was an affinity she felt. Coincidence? Perhaps Sun Bosheng’s spirit guided his granddaughter.