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Monday, July 15, 2013

East Meets West in Shanghai Love

When I read the summary of Shanghai Love by Layne Wang I was interested in the inter-cultural relationship that is the focus of the novel.  It deals with the intersection of two people with very different histories and backgrounds--a Chinese woman and a German Jewish man.  To find out more about this intriguing meeting of East and West, I requested a review copy from The Bookplex. 


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.


  1. You have my attention. I wonder if I would like this book. You say the heroine may come across as weak to American readers. Hm.

  2. Tara, I think that you wouldn't like it. Peilin puts up with abuse from her mother in law because it's her duty, and it would shame her family of origin to leave.