Macau as a refuge for Jews: Paul French novella ‘Strangers on the Praia’

Society & Culture

“Stories on the margins are good,” says bestselling author Paul French. In his latest book, the novella "Strangers on the Praia," he tells the story of young Jewish women who fled Japanese-occupied Shanghai to Portuguese Macau, a city that represented for them one thing: hope.

Shanghai’s history as a refuge for Jews fleeing Nazi Europe is increasingly well known. Much less is known about the young Jewish women who chose to take their chances and leave Japanese-occupied Shanghai for Portuguese Macau. Drawing on historical records, Paul French’s novella, Strangers on the Praia, sheds a light on those who dared to make the journey.

Alex Smith recently interviewed French to ask him about what drew him to this topic, his interest in people on the margins, and China’s position on refugees today. Questions and answers are edited for brevity.

Alex Smith: How did you stumble onto the stories of refugees fleeing Shanghai for Macau, and was there one story in particular that really grabbed your attention?

Paul French: I’ve been writing about foreigners in China forever. And I’ve always done a lot of work on the Jews in Shanghai. That’s my background. But that’s also a part of Shanghai that I lived in for a very long time as well, in the former ghetto area.

I’m working on a bigger book at the moment, which is the next installment of my City of Devils trilogy about gangland Shanghai, and it goes up to the period between the end of the war in 1945 and the revolution in 1949. What really interested me constantly while going through the records for this was looking at where everybody in Shanghai went. Where did these 20,000 Jews and 25 or 30 thousand Russians with no passports all go?

So I started coming across a few people who were recorded as having left Shanghai before December 1941, and they were recorded as going to Macau. And I was also coming across various things that were happening in Macau around Jewish refugees.

There was one German woman, who was living in Macau and working for some company, who married a German Jewish refugee who turned up from Shanghai, obviously from Germany originally. And it was very complicated because, as a Jew, he wasn’t allowed to have a passport, and as a German non-Jew she wasn’t supposed to marry a Jew, except she was living in Portuguese Macau. And there was a letter in the files from the German Nazi consulate in Guangzhou saying, “We’re going to punish your family back in Germany unless you divorce this man.” The Nazis had really tracked it this far!

What also interested me was that there seemed to be a period around the summer and autumn of 1941 when people started to go in slightly larger numbers, and it seemed to be just individuals rather than families. And it was overwhelmingly, 80 to 85 percent, young females under 30, if not under 25. So I was left wondering, why did they go? Why this particular cohort? And what happened to them when they got there?

Also I think Macau was pretty sexy, and I’ve always wanted to do something on Macau.

Q: Why were these young women willing to leave Shanghai and take their chances on Macau?

After the fall of Shanghai in December 1941, the Japanese pushed all of the Jews [some 20,000 people] into what became known as “the ghetto,” or the stateless refugee area. And things were tough, as things were tough for everyone in Shanghai, but you could go in and out of it with a pass, you could run businesses and shops. It wasn’t like a ghetto in Europe, like the Warsaw Ghetto. But my point about this is that if you were there in September 1941, you didn’t know that the Japanese were not going to give you to the Nazis. You did know that the Nazis were asking the Japanese to do that — they were going to put them on old ships, sail them up the Huangpu River out to the South China Sea and sink the ships. That was the Nazi plan. It wasn’t clear what was going to happen to you in Shanghai.

Also if you were a young woman, you were trapped in a kind of petri dish of a highly patriarchal, highly controlling culture, even if you were from a liberal Jewish family — and a lot of them were from quite orthodox families — you had to live with your parents. And in the summer of 1940, there was a tuberculosis epidemic in Shanghai, which took out a load of old people — a lot of the Jews were weak and were living in close confines. A lot of the women that went, we also find that they had just become orphaned. So all of a sudden they no longer had that parental control or someone telling them they couldn’t leave.

It’s not that Macau itself was interesting. In fact, most people that I spoke to had no idea what Macau was apart from the fact that it might be a way, because it was Portuguese, to get to Lisbon. If you could get to Lisbon, then there were boats to America and Britain, and there were embassies in Lisbon that could give you refugee status and passports. I think the idea was that if you could get to Britain or America, you’d be in permanent safety, out of the limbo of Shanghai, and out of the reach of the Nazis.

You can imagine what sort of dream this would be to people, and why for some it was a gamble worth taking.

Someone whose mother made it to England after Macau got in touch with me and said that his mother always said that Macau, for her, was just the word “hope.”

Q: This book and much of your previous work revolves around characters who often exist on the margins of society — people who are stateless, foreign, or involved in underground crime — and in places that are liminal or transitory. What is it about the marginal that draws you in so much?

I think it’s because whenever I’m reading the history that’s done by academics — and I’m not an academic — they have to have all the story — they can’t have patchy histories — and that means that they only tend to write the stories of people who left the big record. Unfortunately that means it tends to be the history of diplomats, businessmen, missionaries. And it tends to be male.

I don’t really like going to church, but I do like going to bars. So I think, Well, why would I write about church? And I like the idea that there’s hidden histories. The Shanghai story is told again and again and again, and everyone talks about all the nightclubs that were there. So I wanted to know their story, and their story is massive. And then the real story of the Russians and the Jews in Shanghai never seems to get told very much.

And I just think stories on the margins are good. I like what James Ellroy does in retelling the history of Los Angeles through corrupt cops and gangsters. If you live in London you grow up knowing about the great men of history, but you also know about the Kray twin gangsters and those sorts of people who had incredible power, influence, and money. In Shanghai, and the histories we tell of China, we don’t really have that. We talk a bit about the Green Gang and Dù Yuèshēng 杜月生 [Shanghai’s most notorious mob boss in the 1920s], but it’s not a very nuanced history. And it’s not necessarily history by the people that really made history, it’s just by the people who got to tell it. I think it’s much more fun to try and dig out the other people. And it’s not actually that difficult. I like going through the old Shanghai municipal police records – it throws out just the greatest stories.

Q: When you visit Shanghai now, you become aware that Shanghai is very proud of its history as a safe haven for refugees. Your blog, China Rhyming, also takes its name from a Mark Twain quote that while history may not repeat itself, it does tend to “rhyme.” The plight of refugees and asylum seekers is a huge issue again today. What is China’s position on refugees now?

Here’s what gets on my nerves with China. I get approached quite often by people who have relatives who were in the Shanghai ghetto and maybe they want to donate something, some money, or they want to donate books, letters, or memories. And the Chinese government, the Shanghai government, is always willing to accept that, and it always comes with that kind of, you know, “Thank you, Shanghai, thank you, China.” And then you always have to step in and be the Grinch on this and point out that it’s nothing to do with China.

It’s actually an anomaly that was colonial or semi-colonial. The Shanghai International Settlement was obtained after the Opium Wars and the equal treaties. And yet this place that was created in violence, bloodshed, and coercion becomes a place of refuge. But no, Nationalist China didn’t accept anyone; the settlement did, begrudgingly.

As for the Chinese officials who were in various countries, like Hé Fèngshān 何凤山 in Vienna, who are now remembered in Israel as the saviors of the Jewish people, you have to remember that all of those people went to Taiwan. Not one of them stayed. So this has nothing to do with the Communist Party, and nothing to do with China, either Nationalist or Communist. It is to do with the anomaly of that history. And that sits slightly uncomfortably with a lot of younger people who, quite rightly, like to say, “But Shanghai was colonial, there can’t be anything good about colonialism.” Well, there wasn’t, but there were loopholes and anomalies within it. The same loopholes that allowed American gangsters to come in and run casinos also allowed those Jews to come in. So if you want to thank anyone, technically I’m afraid you do have to thank the Shanghai international sentiment, which doesn’t exist anymore.

But China is very keen to take the credit for it. As far as I know, China has taken nobody, basically. I think there were three Syrian refugees or something shameful. [Editor’s Note: China took in nine refugees and 26 asylum seekers from Syria.] We all know all the reasons why China isn’t able, politically, socially, or culturally, to accept even North Korean refugees or regional refugees, and certainly not anyone else. It doesn’t want to be part of any international effort to resettle people today.

Strangers on the Praia: A Tale of Refugees and Resistance in Wartime Macau is available from Blacksmith Books, or as a podcast on RTHK.