#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** .
those with firsthand
Shanghai, will find
the author’s cross-cultural
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
Yet these accounts
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
**[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/)