Blinded by their own good fortune and privilege, the children of Shanghai’s elite didn’t notice when their own neighbors couldn’t afford to buy food. Essentials such as rice, cooking oil, medicines, and fuel became scarce at any price. The Japanese military that surrounded Shanghai controlled the flow of goods, seizing whatever it wanted for its war effort or for its comfort. Scarcity drove prices into a dizzying inflationary spiral as hoarders and speculators gorged themselves on the desperation of others—those who couldn’t afford to pay black market prices starved. Without kerosene or coal, the poorest had frozen in the two harsh winters that had come and gone since the start of the war. Bodies of the poor and homeless lay as rotting detritus on the streets and alleys of Shanghai until corpse-removal trucks eventually took them away.
Benny didn’t have to think about the present when his future seemed predetermined and rosy, war or no war. Since he had passed the difficult entrance exam for admission to St. John’s Junior Middle School, his path all the way to its eponymous university was automatic as long as he continued to pass his courses. His parents had no worries for their son when everyone knew that doors opened for St. John’s graduates. They stood out in every crowd, speaking fluent English and carrying themselves as though they were proper English gentlemen and ladies. At both St. John’s and its sister institution, St. Mary’s Hall, classes were taught in English. Thanks to his alumni parents, Benny could already speak English well and would fit right in. So many of China’s most powerful political, business, and intellectual leaders had studied at its schools: T. V. Soong, former finance minister and governor of the Central Bank of China; Wellington Koo, representative to the League of Nations and ambassador to France; Lin Yutang, influential writer and philosopher; and a long list of others. The well-connected were well served. That was the Chinese way.
With his pedigree and school ties, Benny was set. Still, the boy harbored a secret wish for himself. He wanted to chart his own course, the way his father must have when he left accounting to join the police ranks. Benny hoped to pursue medicine when he reached college, for St. John’s had a medical school that was affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania in America.
But there were plenty of pitfalls in the sin city for boys like him. Shanghai was notorious for its spoiled firstborn sons who had nothing better to do than become playboys, squandering their families’ wealth on opium, women, and gambling, bringing shame to their families. Benny’s mother and her friends gossiped about the latest scandals about young men from reputable families during their all-night mah-jongg games. “Pay attention in school, and stay away from those bad boys,” she’d admonish her son afterward.
“Yes, Mother,” he’d reply obediently. Benny had already resolved to stay away from opium. He’d known what the narcotic had done to his grandfather.
Benny could easily have pursued a life of pleasure, as other Shanghai scions did. His family appeared to have unlimited resources. His father was thriving in spite of the war. Or as others might say, because of it.
Just as Benny didn’t see the beggars all around him, he had never thought about the ample food and luxurious goods that his police inspector father managed to bring home at a time when rice riots were breaking out in the city. Benny didn’t wonder how his mother could continue her shopping habits that allowed her to dress in the latest foreign fashions, adorned with ever-fancier jewelry. It was unthinkable for proper Chinese children to question their parents. Even when Benny noticed that some of his father’s associates looked rather tough and unsavory, like the kind of men that his mother warned him to avoid when he rode his bicycle, he would have never thought to ask about them. They were just people that a police inspector needed to know, like the assortment of British, Americans, Russians, Japanese, and other foreigners with whom his father dealt.
18 June 2020
Inside the Bubble, Shanghai, 1939
From Last Boat Out of Shanghai, by Helen Zia (Ballantine, 2019), Kindle pp. 81-82: