Rare Breed: A Chinese Jewish Quest

“The most important thing to the novelist is the preservation of memory,” said John Irving, the quintessential American writer, during his 2012 interview by Benjamin Percy for Time magazine.

“Without memory, we are nothing. No culture, no language, no creativity, all of which is based on what went on before,” responded Anthony B. Chan, professor, writer and filmmaker, commenting on Irvine’s statement.

Yet memory is very malleable, we are told by contemporary scientists who warn us of the danger of assuming that memory is a perfect recording of a past event.*

Warnings notwithstanding, I wish to present and preserve memories. Memories of a familial tale that string together two segments of history that have largely been laid aside by most, namely: the Chinese Jews in Kaifeng, Henan Province, China; and the Jews in Shanghai during World War II.

It is not that there is a lack of publications on either topic. There are, in fact, numerous books and research papers on both. My attempt here is to thread together the two pieces of history with the story of one particular family, a story that spans four generations and offers a slightly different perspective.

The historic element, with a backdrop harking back to the 10th century CE, moves forward to focus on the hundred years or so between the middle of the nineteenth century and the middle of the twentieth. It was a period of conflicts, of unrest and of disasters in China, juxtaposed against internal disintegration and external aggression from Western and Eastern foreign powers.

All historic details are researched and factual. So are cultural customs and traditions. Historic figures are presented as they are generally portrayed in accepted sources.

Two simultaneous plotlines – one from the past and one from the present – intertwine throughout the book. They are based on oral history of incidents that trace the migration trail of four generations of my family that also lends to the structure of the family nucleus. The storylines weave together some of the personal and collective recollections of my father, my stepmother, my aunts / uncle / cousin, my siblings, and myself. There are, however, dramatizations and speculation about details that have no known records.

Characters are based on the family structure but character traits are mostly fictional; any resemblances to real people are purely coincidental. In particular, the concubine, Ying, and the salt merchant, Liang Jialu, are total fabrications. Their portraits help to reflect and emphasize some of the negative realities in the neo-Confucian society of the day. All conversations are invented. The fictional elements help to enhance the flow of the story, to add a degree of richness to the details, and to provide a more readable approach to history.

The opening segment introduces one of the last seven clans of the Kaifeng Chinese Jewry at the point of dissolution. In addition to books, research papers, relevant correspondence of missionaries and scholars that stretch from the fifteenth century to the present, a visit to Kaifeng in 2012, interviews with the remaining Chinese Jews, and discussions with contemporary scholars helped me bring the story up to date.

The Jewish experiences in Shanghai from the early to the mid-twentieth century were approached differently from other existing books. Most publications on the Jews in Shanghai during World War II are made up of recollections of the refugees’ personal experiences – their harrowing accounts of horror, hardship, and helplessness. Not much has been written about the non-refugee Jews in Shanghai during that period. This book offers a Chinese point of view, so to speak. Emphasis is given to the wealthy Sephardic Jews in Shanghai who helped to support the refugees from Europe. It also features some of the Chinese who provided assistance to the wealthy Jews when they had to overcome hurdles during the difficult years from 1942 to 1945.

Bits and pieces of Chinese history, traditions, philosophies, and customs, as well as geographic details are interspersed in the narrative. Similar to a fugue in music, these elements interplay in several thematic lines that converge and diverge as they ride the passage of time into a tale of the universal human experience of migration, integration, and assimilation.

Memory enables the past to serve the present and lead to the future. Learning from the past helps to master the present and propels one to embrace the future. In researching the journeys and experiences of their ancestors, the descendants of this particular family strive to establish their cultural and ethnic identity in their present-day pluralistic environment. The knowledge and understanding of the past enable them to appreciate and to treasure the unique strands of yarn that each person brings to this country to weave into the rich and complex social fabric of Canadian diversity.