Authors / Features / Interviews / Nonfiction

“We have to learn from history and stop repeating its mistakes”: Q&A with Helen Zia

by Terry Hong

As the child of two Chinese refugees, Helen Zia can personally speak to the effects of displacement, separation, adaptation, and reinvention. In her memorable career as activist/journalist/writer/Asian American icon, Zia turns inward for the first time in her latest title, Last Boat Out of Shanghai: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Fled Mao’s Revolution, in which she melds family experiences with world events to illuminate a relatively unknown but far-reaching moment of world history. Debuting in January 2019 to extensive lauds and select nominations, the paperback edition hit shelves last month.

Once upon a time, Shanghai was the “Paris of the Orient,” China’s most modern, cosmopolitan city. For decades, Shanghai’s pre-Mao international population substantially sheltered the city from the country-wide devastation caused by the Japanese occupation and World War II. And then the Communist Revolution incited unprecedented “panic and terror.” Estimates suggest up to 1.5 million of Shanghai’s 6 million residents abandoned the fabled city in the late 1940s.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgWhere history lacks documentation, Zia presents the first—and only—book in English about “the massive exodus.” “Even today,” she writes, “the People’s Republic of China fails to acknowledge that any exodus took place.” From 100-plus “remarkable individuals” she interviewed, Zia chose “four real people” to begin to fill in “a missing chapter of modern history.” Interweaving the lives of these two women and two men “before, during, and after the Communist victory in Shanghai,” Zia adeptly intermingles the crucial events, political analysis, and international context with specific journeys of escape and relocation. She introduces Benny Pan, the privileged 9-year-old first son of a well-connected family; Ho Chow, the 13-year-old scion of multi-generational landowning gentry; Bing Woo, an 8-year-old given away by her destitute birthfamily; and Annuo Liu, the 2-year-old daughter of a quickly-rising Nationalist leader. Through their stories, Zia records and reclaims a global history almost lost.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgTerry Hong: Because this is Bloom, let’s back up a bit: you were 48-ish when your first book, Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People, hit shelves in 2000. I’ve read in your bio that your career stopovers included two years of med school, construction labor, auto factory work, and community organizing, before you embraced your “life’s work as a writer.” What were some of the highlights from your various stopovers that made you the writer you’ve become?

Helen Zia: I’d say all those things: the med school experience; being one of the core organizers of a big women’s movement in Boston; being accused of being a lesbian when I was in the “questioning phase” in today’s parlance and sitting through my lesbian trial, which I’ve written about in Asian American Dreams; working in construction; moving to Detroit and working in an auto factory for two years before I was permanently laid off like a million other factory workers; being long-term unemployed and waiting all day in endless lines for a measly bimonthly check and having to show that I had looked for work when there wasn’t any. And then I had my light bulb moment: I realized I wanted to write about what I was witnessing and started on the road to journalism with no professional credentials, just the stories in my heart. Those are the things that stay with me about that time. And then, of course, the terrible killing of Vincent Chin during the years of anti-Asian racism.

TH: You’ve always been a groundbreaker: you were one of the founders of the Asian American Students Association, among the first graduating class of women at Princeton, the crucial voice in the coverage of Vincent Chin which many believe was the spark that fueled an activist Asian American community, the first Asian American executive editor of Ms. Magazine, and, with your partner, you were one of the first same-sex couples to marry in California. What gave you the foundation that made you so brave, tenacious, determined?

HZ: I don’t really know. My parents were very brave and my father was outspoken to the point of embarrassment for us kids! Being one of the few Asian American families in our community meant that we always stuck out anyway, so I didn’t fear being visible in that way. I also grew up during the Civil Rights movement and had the example of African Americans standing up for their full and equal humanity. Plus, the anti-war movements and women’s liberation movements were happening, so I had many role models—just no visible APA people. So somewhere along the way, probably in college, I realized that we Asian Americans had to stand up, too—and if we/I didn’t, we would continue to be invisible and stepped on.

TH: As the daughter of Chinese immigrants, you weren’t told your family history growing up. I read in your 2019 New York Times op-ed that your mother was in her 70s by the time she opened up about her past, including “the worst day of [her] life.” That conversation would eventually inspire Last Boat Out of Shanghai. But before any literary plans, how did you react to hearing the experiences she had kept buried for so long?

HZ: After I learned my mom’s story of abandonment by her parents, my grandparents, my head was spinning for some time. It was as if my world, as I had imagined it in the narrative we create for ourselves about our families and how we fit in the universe, had completely changed in ways I couldn’t grasp. Of course, I told my siblings; my sister and I had many conversations just trying to comprehend what any of this meant about our mother, our parents, everything. The revelations also explained a lot about my mother’s reactions to issues over the years. For example, I knew that my mother’s formal education had been limited; after learning that she barely had three years of formal schooling, it completely opened my eyes to how smart and bright she really was, and the sadness that she must have had in not being able to read well, or the embarrassment she must have felt among her more educated peers.

I continued to ask my mother questions about her life, constantly, all the way until she passed and it was so great that she didn’t mind telling me everything. It was as though a dam had burst and she could finally reveal the truth about her life. There was so much pain and shame, not to mention that her Elder Sister, my Auntie Betty, had made her promise that she would never tell. Everything changed for me in my views about my mother, our family, and I had to reexamine all of the ways I remembered.

TH: Did you always know you would include your mother’s story in Last Boat?

HZ: No, I didn’t go into the book with any predetermination of what stories would be in there. Because there were no other books about this exodus for me to start with, my first task as a journalist and writer was to find stories of other people and then to see which stories could be fleshed out into a book narrative. As you know, I interviewed more than 100 other survivors of this exodus and everyone had the most extraordinary stories. But in addition to finding people of diverse backgrounds that would give a sense of the breadth of the populace that fled, I had to find people who were willing and able to tell me minute details, to share their emotions. As it turned out, my interviews stretched over a decade of intrusive phone calls and meetings. And it became clear that my mother was one of those people who didn’t mind getting calls from me late at night; her memory was truly remarkable (as were Benny’s, Annuo’s, and Ho’s). So when it came time for me to select the four main “characters,” my mother made the cut (OMG, did I actually say that?).

I should also add that my first concept of the book was NOT to select only a few people. Originally, I was going to have a compilation of many individuals’ stories with the historical context somehow interspersed. Fortunately, I had a wonderful editor, as well as my literary agent, who both convinced me to focus on only a few people. But it took me a long time of writing and rewriting to get to the eventual narrative that I followed.

TH: I’m sure you gathered quite a community of admiring, nurturing elders over the dozen years it took to finish the book. When did you realize it might take that long?

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgHZ: I had no idea that this book would take so long. My original guess was that I’d get the book done in four to five years. Asian American Dreams took about four; the Wen Ho Lee story, My Country Versus Me, took two. I think my agent thought I would never finish, and we had to get a few extensions on my contract.

It was a very disheartening slog at times, especially when people I hadn’t seen in a while asked, “So what are you working on now?” and I had to reply—or mumble—“Same thing I was working on when I last saw you years ago.” Then I would have to remind them what that was. I hated that. Sometimes Lia, my spouse, would warn relatives not to ask me about my book!

I think many writers, even those who write more quickly than I, go through periods of struggle where they wonder if anybody will care about their subject. I wondered, too, but I had to turn off the doubting voice inside and remind myself why this book and these stories were important to tell, plus I felt a responsibility to all the courageous people—my elders—who had bared their hearts to tell me what had happened to them. In many cases, I was the first person they had opened up to, just as my mother had told me her secrets. I’d ask them, “Do your children know this?”—referring to their own gray-haired children. Often they would answer, “No, I don’t think they’d be interested.”

TH: Speaking of “all the courageous people,” your mother didn’t get to read the finished book. What do you think her reaction might have been?

HZ: It was very sad for me that my mom didn’t get to see how moved people have been to know her story and her resilience through so many challenges. But I think she would have been both surprised and, well, happy, to find that her life experiences have touched and inspired so many people. I think this is true for the others I interviewed. I’ve heard from many who have experienced being migrants, exiles, and refugees who are gratified to find some acknowledgment of their extraordinary survival through wrenching and catastrophic times. I like to think this book brings some healing and peace and perhaps joy to my mother, even now.

TH: Since you mentioned your wife Lia Shigemura, who is of Japanese descent … given the horrific periods of Japanese/Chinese history, especially during your mother’s time in China, how do you think she might have reacted to your marriage to a Japanese American?

HZ: Oh, that’s easy. My mother was in two of our three “weddings” (so many because of the political and legal zigzags). She was thrilled for us. Lia’s Japanese heritage wasn’t an issue at all and, as a matter of fact, one of my brothers also married a Japanese American from Hawaii. I did find that my mother, as well as just about all of my interviewees, did not feel animosity to Japanese people, as opposed to the fact that many voiced their anger at the Japanese government for its past and present policies. I also share their outrage that the Japanese government still denies the suffering and atrocities they inflicted on millions of people during WWII. I’ve been to museums in Japan and am appalled by the deliberate amnesia. But every government has their official master narrative—including the U.S., as well as China.

Nevertheless, my mother—and my father, whose family died in the Rape of Nanjing—did not harbor ill feelings for Japanese people. My father died well before my marriage to Lia, but he had no problems with my brother’s marriage. And I should add that my mother was so happy when I married Lia—it also wasn’t an issue to her that Lia is a woman. She even said in an interview on Chinese language television in the U.S. that she was overjoyed to finally see all of her children in happy marriages with families of our own.

TH: And will Last Boat have a Chinese-language edition?

HZ: I wish! I’ve spent the last year approaching publishers in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and now in the U.S., about a Chinese edition. My book is not available for sale in hard copy in the PRC for unstated reasons (though a few bookstores have managed to carry it, hopefully without penalty); fear of China and its wrath actually keep these other publishers from taking it on. Not to mention that the PRC has financial interests in several publishers. Some have suggested that I get the book translated into Japanese first, which would then motivate publishers in Taiwan. That would be a great way to fill in the history gap in Japan too.

All of this speaks to how the volatile period of history in my book is still very sensitive and contested, and how many of today’s geopolitical conflicts have a direct lineage to the mid-20th century events I write about in Last Boat Out of Shanghai.

TH: You’ve had quite an international book tour since Last Boat arrived in January 2019. What were some of your most memorable takeaways from presenting this book to the world?

HZ: I was so gratified to find how eager audiences in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong were to know this history. Also, people in Japan, where I didn’t do a book event yet, but a wonderful bilingual publication, Kyoto Journal, has excerpted a chapter.

It’s also both striking and sad to see how some audiences, in Hong Kong for example, are relating to this exodus as an instructional tale about questions they are facing today—whether to flee or stay, where to go, what to do—which are all part of the detailed calculus that exiles, refugees, and migrants throughout the world go through as they make the agonizing decision to flee from their homes, often along very dangerous routes to places where they are unwelcome. I’ve had so many people who are migrants or refugees from Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, as well as Asia, tell me that they had similar experiences to the people of the Shanghai exodus. And how much empathy and compassion they gained by reading about the hardships and resilience needed to survive in Last Boat.

For me, it’s been heartening that my book may, in some small way, bring people to the conclusion that we have to learn from history and stop repeating its mistakes.

Bloom Post End

Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

Homepage photo credit: Bob Hsiang Photography.

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