Port of Last Resort

Last night I watched a documentary about the Jewish refugees to Shanghai during WW II, the whole time thinking about my piano teacher and his wife — Hans and Annaliese Baer. I hoped they would pop up somehow on the films of streets, but no. At one point, though, a young woman mentioned friends who were pianists that she and her fiancé used to visit sometimes and listen to music. Maybe…

The film isn’t narrated by some outside person with a fancy voice, but by survivors who were young adults and teenagers at the time. The narrators had come to the US at the end of the war, so the film is in English.

It wasn’t like China was a big party then. The Japanese had invaded the port cities. Even before that China had been a big mess of warlords, civil wars, deadly struggles for power, famine and disease. One of the narrators explained that they were vaccinated against China while onboard ship — against cholera, typhus (two kinds), small pox some other things. “And not only then,” he said, “but every four months while we were in China.” Still, some of the refugees died of disease — notably dysentery.

This naturally made me think of our current situation, “our” virus, our petty disputes, our resistance to opportunities that those people couldn’t even dream of. So many things and there they all were creating a niche for themselves in a very alien world. “This is what we have to do.” It wasn’t until the war was over that they learned about the Nazi death “factories” (as one of the refugees described it) or the family members they had lost there.

Some of the scenes are beyond harrowing — the Chinese using small brooms to glean stray grains of rice from burlap rice sacks that the Japanese are loading onto a truck, then scrambling the gutters to pick up a rice grain here, a rice grain here. Another scene, a starving Chinese peasant comes toward the camera, breathless, ribs, shoulders and breast bone visible from the open neck of his shirt, but he’s smiling and happy — where had he come from? From which of China’s famine-stricken regions had he come that he was happy to be in Shanghai? One of the Jewish refugees — a teenager at the time — made the determination that school wasn’t the big thing for him right then and there, and he went to work as a day laborer beside the Chinese. He was alone in Shanghai; his family had remained in Germany and his job — as he saw it — was to stay alive.

They talked a bit about Shanghai’s international atmosphere, partly resulting from the foreign territories “won” in the Versaille Conference after WW I. I wish I could have seen Shanghai in those times. My two nights in Shanghai were spent in a run-down but clean Art Deco hotel on Nanking road in which all the furnishings came from the 1930s. Like so many other things in my life, I wish I’d paid attention. As I watched this amazing film, I also wished I’d thought of Mr. Baer when I was in Shanghai.

15 thoughts on “Port of Last Resort

  1. I guess it is the film by Paul Rosdy? I know him personally and in a way I contributed to his film. Paul visited me and I showed him my collection of letters and postcards from that time period in Shanghai. One postcard was extremely moving. The writer (a refugee in Shanghai then) sent a postcard to his family in Wien and asked them to use beautiful stamps when they write to him. He could use these stamps in exchange for a little rice…..

    • Yes, it was Paul Rosdy’s film. How amazing to have letters and postcards from then. I appreciated the film very much. It wasn’t filled with a bunch of commentary from people like me looking at the experience from the outside.

  2. Now that I wrote this I remember a remarkable experience. I was almost blocked from ebay when I offered one of those postcards. The reason? There was a Hitler stamp on the postcard and for me, being Austrian, this is forbidden.

    Another time I was really blocked and my PayPal account frozen was when I sold a couple of semi-antique Persian carpets (1920-30s). You guessed right, Iran sanctions. I hope I will finally retire next year.

    • Wow. I don’t think it’s possible to like Nazis, but history is history. In the US we’re very busy sanitizing it these days even knowing the whole stories. It bothers me a lot because I am a historian and if someone like me wants to look at the 13th century then, OK, there’s just not much to find. But that means everything we CAN find matters, or could matter, to someone down the road who’s looking for a piece to a puzzle. But…I never thought of looking on eBay for artifacts like that. Wow. That is a black hole into which I could fall…

      Back in San Diego in the 80s the ex and I often went to a flea market where I made friends with a bunch Afghani men while the ex wandered around buying other people’s garbage. We had just bought a house, a fixer upper. One of my friends sold us rugs for the house from the back of the school bus he used as a “store.” The rugs were from Iran. I don’t think they were especially antique, but they had come with him from Kabul somehow.

      I hope you can retire, too.

  3. This topic is very complex and sensitive, especially if you live in Germany or Austria. A lot to tell but probably not the right place to do so. Neglecting history or censoring parts is never a good idea – at least I think so.

    When I finally had thought my PayPal account should be ok again it turned out it was not. I had offered (in another shop) an antique lithograph with famous artifacts from different countries. One showed a Persian object, more than 1000 years old….

    And as I already opened that can of worms: PayPal blocked me again for sending some money to a Julian Assange supporting group and they blocked me when I checked my account in China. Communism, you know.

    But we are all free here…….

    • Two years ago when I was writing my little China book, I sent a draft to my editor with the re: line China book. It was flagged in red, and she couldn’t open the files. When I realized what might have been going on, I changed the re: line to Baby Duck. No problem. Freedom — whatever it means — is very problematic.

    • That is the hotel. Wow. Thank you. What a cool band. That was not part of my experience but maybe just because I went to bed early. I wish I’d had more than one full day in Shanghai, still, it was a great day not the least because I showed my Chinese brother I could read a map in Chinese 😀

  4. I shouldn’t even begin to talk about this hotel because it would be an endless story. When I went there for the first time over 30 years ago, it had just reopened after it had been closed during the Cultural Revolution. In a way, it had been a “temple of sin” for the true comrades. In it’s heyday, Zhou Xuan was a regular singer there.

    I don’t know if you know her. She became famous with a film role (Street Angel). She was such a cute thing that took everyone’s hearts by storm. In case you don’t know her: Here’s my Christmas present for you:

    If one doesn’t know her one doesn’t understand an essential part of traditional Shanghai.
    I dug up another clip, “Shanghai Night”. It gives you a good idea how she was performing at the Peace Hotel back then, and this song is still played quite a lot by the band today. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NjXYwDNhMG8&list=PLC037C092BC97CFEB

    After the reopening, the hotel had the charm of a communist party headquarters. It is now a Sino-American joint venture. Communist party headquarters pimped up with Art Nouveau elements so to say.

    Once when I met a nice lady from Shanghai and wanted to take her out, we dined in the hotel’s restaurant. We were pretty much the only guests – all the restaurants in the area were full. Relatively high-priced, food quite good, but no atmosphere. What was interesting for me was that the good lady knew next to nothing about the hotel and even the music was new to her. As I later discovered, she is no exception.

    • I stayed in this hotel in 1983. It was pretty run down and seemed unsure of itself. It felt (to me) as if it had come from another world. I don’t know how long it had been open, but I’m sure it had opened within the previous few years. Hardly anyone was staying there. I knew it was special and expensive because of WHY we were there. I was leaving China and the Heads at my university would not have arranged anything else for us.

      thank you for the story and the links — I’ll come back to look at them when I get done with chores and errands. Sigh. 😀

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