Layne Wong writes in her author’s note that a novel dealing with a Jewish refugee from Hitler’s Germany in Shanghai deals with an obscure topic. It’s not as obscure as it was once. Prominent mystery writer S.J. Rozan’s Shanghai Moon , published in 2009, brings her Chinese-American detective Lydia Chin to Shanghai to investigate a case involving Jews in Shanghai during World War II. Many readers became aware of World War II Jewish refugees in Shanghai as a result of reading Shanghai Moon.
What I valued most about Shanghai Love was the female central character, Peilin. She might seem weak to many American readers, but she comes from the Chinese cultural matrix where duty to your family comes first. She would not be an authentic character if she simply threw her traditions aside. I also loved the role played by Chinese herbalism and Taoist ritual in this novel.
I wondered why the German Jewish male protagonist’s name used the French spelling, Henri. A German version of the name would be Heinrich. A possible explanation could be that his family originally came from Alsace which was part of Germany until it was annexed by France in the 18th century. It’s also possible that his original name was Herschel which is Yiddish, and a more likely name for someone of his background. He could have changed it because Herschel would have been associated with ghettoized Jews. A French name like Henri would have sounded more sophisticated.
Henri is in some ways fairly typical of his culture of origin. Many German Jews were assimilated, and only loosely affiliated with the Jewish community during this period. Yet I didn’t find him as interesting as Peilin. I respected his dedication as a physician. His openness to Chinese culture was unusual as is shown by the insularity of other Jewish refugees in Shanghai Love. On the other hand, he exhibited a pattern of terrible insensitivity in his personal relationships, beginning with his first love in Germany, that bothered me. I think that the events of the novel forced him to mature eventually, but I would have found Henri more likeable if he had become more empathic earlier.
The resolution was satisfying. It allowed Peilin to feel that she was still behaving correctly by Chinese standards even though she was following her personal inclinations in the Western manner.
It occurred to me, however, that Henri's idea that he and Peilin would face less prejudice in the United States is untrue. Many states prohibited marriages between Caucasians and Asians as "miscegenation" until anti-miscegenation laws were ruled unconstitutional in 1967. See Anti-Miscegenation Laws on Wikipedia . So Peilin and Henri would probably not have had a happily ever after ending in America at that time in history.