Isabel Sun Chao and Claire Chao
Plum Brook (2018)
Reviewed by Kimberly Luyckx for Reader Views (2/19)
“Remembering Shanghai” is a collection of stories written by mother and daughter, Isabel Sun Chao and Claire Chao. It describes the time leading up to the Communist take-over of China and its subsequent years. Based on Isabel’s young life growing up in the coastal city of Shanghai, the compilation is both personal and historic. While the country’s rebellious changes swirled all around her, the wealth of Isabel’s family and the fortified enclave in which she lived served as a cocoon. The surrounding Shanghai mini metropolis was filled with European and American influences. These manifested in the permissive, western style of Isabel’s mother yet contrasted greatly to the traditional and more austere ways of her Buddhist grandmother.
This book presents a time of turmoil with foreign occupation and warring parties changing the culture of China and the city of Shanghai. The volume has many italicized paragraphs that contain Claire Chao’s commentary on Isabel’s experiences. Her research adds to the depth of the memoir by providing important political and historical background. And yet, it remains the personal account of a family who stayed connected to its roots despite the relocation and detachment of its branches.
There is quite a bit of drama in this book that reminds me of a riveting television series like “Upstairs Downstairs.” Its subtitle, “A Memoir of Socialites, Scholars and Scoundrels,” is justified with thrilling tales involving prominent celebrities and academics, high-ranking government officials and mobsters whose lives and behaviors directly affect the Sun family. At the same time, it highlights the political turmoil that significantly affected the country and Shanghai as a whole.
Representing the perfect combination of historical fiction, memoir and novel, this publication is informative yet personal and filled with wonderful descriptions of cultural dress, attitude, food, art and architecture. It is helpful to have the family tree diagram as a reference. In my opinion, this is the best kind of historical account – one in which the writers have directly experienced – with just the necessary personal photos to complement the piece. Adding great flavor to Isabel’s narrative are the cultural sidebars that present topics such as foot-binding, Chinese letter writing, foreign influences, birth order importance and the art of mahjong to name a few.
I admire the easy transition between the past and current time periods. The seamless segue from Isabel’s memory to the present-day makes for a stimulating read. It demonstrates a perspective and adds depth to the stories. I love the detailed comparisons that point to the degradation of Shanghai’s age of opulence. When Isabel revisits her childhood home, her description confirms the prestige of the building despite the years of deterioration and exploitation incurred.
“Remembering Shanghai” is a book whose composition has been carefully prepared – from its elegant prose to its intricate illustrations and attractive photography. It presents itself like a museum artifact. It is an extraordinary effort to present a significant piece of Chinese history that also tells a captivating personal tale. Its authors, Isabel Sun Chao and Claire Chao, devoted a great deal of time to hone their masterpiece and it shows.