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Book Review: Stateless in Shanghai

#Andrea Scarlatelli explores Shanghai’s hidden past with *Stateless in Shanghai* memoirist Liliane Willens

Walk into almost any bookstore these days and you are bound to find stacks of books telling tales of displaced people–those hoping to find something that resembles a home in a country other than the one in which they were born. These are often dramatic tales, full of self-discovery and the constant quest for identity. But few experiences are quite as unique as Liliane Willens’. Born in Shanghai to Russian parents in 1927, **Willens and her family were legally considered “stateless”: People whose home country revoked their citizenship, and who have yet to gain citizenship anywhere else.** Beginning with her parents’ emigration to Shanghai from Russia and her subsequent birth, Willens describes in great detail the growing pains her parents experienced as they settled into a life in China as stateless “citizens”. By the time she was born, Willens’ parents had achieved a life of relative privilege in Shanghai. This sense of peace is quickly shattered, however, with the Japanese occupation. Upheaval ensues and the book really takes off. The author’s descriptions of wartime Shanghai vividly convey the fear and paranoia running rampant throughout the city. She remembers being “ill at ease seeing so many Japanese soldiers carrying guns that seemed oversized in comparison to their generally small stature.” Things don’t improve after the Japanese leave. **Willens recalls strict curfews and laws put into effect when the PRC was formed.** Stateless, Willens and her family could not leave Shanghai to seek refuge elsewhere, and thus Willens is able to offer a unique, foreign, firsthand perspective on the birth of the PRC. The book is at its most fascinating when Willens focuses on the newborn republic and the fear residents felt when new regulations were being handed down. These moments, such as when she describes the boring, blue unisex uniforms that all Chinese citizens wore, give readers a sense of the oppression that hung over the city. But the book isn’t all grim. **Willens spends about half the time reminiscing about her idyllic childhood before the war** . Readers, especially those with firsthand knowledge of Shanghai, will find the author’s cross-cultural anecdotes charming, such as the time when the young Willens went to the bathroom in her pants because she’d seen Chinese children doing it , not realizing that they had slits in their pants. Yet these accounts occasionally bog the book down. While it’s interesting to learn which of the international schools in the former French Concession were the least lenient in accepting mixed-race and Jewish children, it’s not enough to sustain an entire chapter. The book often slows down or speeds up at a disconcerting and seemingly random pace. What the book lacks in pacing, though, it makes up for with **brilliant descriptions of Shanghai life in the midst of revolution**. Willens’ grasp of politics is admirable. She not only describes her own experiences, but also delves into the historical forces at work behind this chaotic period. A memoir that records both everyday details and wartime atrocities, it’s a great book for history buffs and casual readers alike. **[Earnshaw Books](http://www.earnshawbooks.com) for ¥137, ¥140 at [Garden Books](http://www.cityweekend.com.cn/shanghai/listings/shopping/books/has/garden-books/) and [Chaterhouse Books](http://www.cityweekend.com.cn/shanghai/listings/shopping/books/has/chaterhouse-huaihai-zhong-lu/)** ###[Check out our interview with Willens from when she was in town late last year.](http://www.cityweekend.com.cn/shanghai/articles/blogs-shanghai/shanghai-book-club/author-interview-memoirist-dr-liliane-willens-of-stateless-in-shanghai/)

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