From the title, Shanghai Love, we already know that Layne Wong’s story is about love in Shanghai, and it doesn’t take long to discover who the two main characters are.
It is 1938, and in chapter one in China we are introduced to Peilin. In chapter two we meet Henri in Nazi Germany.
The love story isn’t what made this novel worth reading. It was the journey the two characters take to find each other. They are both doctors. Henri is Jewish and trained in western medicine. He has to leave his family behind in Germany and flee to China to avoid Hitler’s Nazis who are hunting for him because he dared to love a woman who was not Jewish.
Peilin was trained by her grandfather in Chinese herbal medicine, and by the time Henri meets her, she has already been married to a ghost.
As a young girl, a marriage was arranged to a boy almost twice Peilin’s age, but when he was a young man—before the marriage—he was killed in combat fighting the Japanese who invaded China in July of 1937. By the time Pearl Harbor is bombed by the Japanese in December 1941, China has already been fighting Japan for more than four years. To give you an idea of how horrible it was, by the end of World War II, China had lost ten to twenty million people (troops and civilians) to the war compared to 418,500 for the United States.
One would think with her fiancé dead, Peilin would be free to move on with her life, but no—because in China at the time it was expected that Peilin must still marry the man’s ghost, stay a virgin for life and live with her in-laws who bought a baby for her to raise as if she was its biological mother and the dead man its father.
In addition, the story is set in an era when both the Chinese and Europeans disapproved of interracial relationships. In Germany, there was racism against the Jews. But in China, there is prejudice from some Chinese because Henri is white. In addition, many of the Jewish refugees look down on the Chinese culture and disapprove of Henri spending time with Peilin. It seems that these two can’t win and are fated to be star-crossed lovers.
I recommend reading this story because it offers a reminder of the horrors of war and racism. During World War II, more than 20,000 European Jews fled to Shanghai, one of the few places in the world that put no limits on the number of Jews it accepted.
Another plot thread that runs through the novel is the focus on Chinese herbal medicine and how different it is from the western concept of medical care. The Chinese were studying advanced medical care long before the West. In fact, Chinese medical tradition is more than 5,000 years old including herbal medicine, acupuncture, massage, exercise and dietary therapy—concepts that the West didn’t pay serious attention to until near the end of the 20th century.
I’m not going to tell you how the love story turns out between Henri and Peilin. You’ll have to buy and read the novel to discover what happens.
Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the unique love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.
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