In the first weeks of May 1947, American universities mailed their admissions notices to prospective students for the fall. On May 22, Ho received letters of acceptance from both MIT and the University of Michigan for their doctoral mechanical engineering programs. He was ecstatic to be accepted by his top choices, especially knowing that every engineering graduate in China would have applied to both schools. Ho couldn’t decide which school to choose. The University of Michigan would be the less expensive alternative for his family, but MIT had the big name and reputation. As he prepared the documents to apply for his visa, he suddenly noticed that the letter from MIT had no signature. Ho went to the visa authorities to see if the unsigned letter would be accepted. Their answer was an unequivocal no. The hard decision was made for him—he would go to Michigan, home of the American automobile....
After weeks of waiting, Ho received his passport and exit visa on July 19. With his doctoral program beginning in less than two months, he bought a one-way ticket for third-class passage on the American President Lines, the only company carrying passengers across the Pacific to the United States. The cost was 171 U.S. dollars, a large expense already but only a fraction of what his family would have to spend. Those first postwar passenger crossings from Shanghai to San Francisco were made by two converted World War II troop transport ships, among the thousands built by Rosie the Riveters after Pearl Harbor: the USS General M. C. Meigs and USS General Gordon. Ho would sail on the General Gordon, departing August 24. After the sixteen-day voyage, he planned to take a train to Ann Arbor. He’d make it just in time for the start of school on September 13....
THE AMERICAN SHIP OFFERED Ho a first glimpse into his upcoming life in America. To cool off from the heat of the sticky August day, he took a shower—his first experience with such a contraption. Nearby was the water fountain—another first. After a few cautious sips, he quenched his thirst from this amazing device that dispensed a continuous stream of clean water—no boiling necessary. In the third-class dining room, he waited in a long but orderly line for servings of sausages, potatoes, carrots, rice, bread, fruits, tea—and sugar, a precious commodity in Shanghai. The unlimited quantities stunned him, especially the sugar. That night he jotted down a new American phrase: “All you can eat.”
With Ho, more than three hundred of China’s brightest young minds were heading to the United States to continue their educations. Like him, fifty-two were Jiao Tong University graduates, and thirty-three were headed to the University of Michigan. The students held meetings onboard to prepare for life in America, with topics ranging from transportation to their schools to dealing with American culture and cold Michigan winters. Ho attended all the meetings and volunteered to compile a list of everyone’s names to help them stay in touch once they scattered to their respective destinations.
The ocean voyage exposed Ho to another new concept: leisure. He’d brought along some books to study but barely opened them. Instead, he played bridge, watched movies, and spent time with new acquaintances. Most of the students were male, but several were female—including a lady professor. Ho had never gone to school with girls or women—and he was surprised to learn that they had big dreams for their educations too. At some point, Ho realized that he wasn’t practicing much English, in spite of the many American passengers and crew. “I could pass the entire voyage to America speaking only Chinese!” he wrote, resolving to start using more English. It was for this reason that the father of another Shanghai student, Ming Cho Lee, insisted that his son enroll at Occidental College in California—he feared that if his son went to school in the northeastern United States, he would spend his time mostly with other Chinese.
Ho, ever the engineer, eagerly explored the bowels of the ship to understand its mechanics. He admired the genius of a vessel that could cut through the powerful waves as though gliding on ice. The vast beauty of the ocean, with its different hues of blue, gray, and black, mesmerized him.
When they reached the open sea, sick passengers began skipping meals. Ho, too, grew queasy, but he had paid for the meals and was determined to eat them all. He took careful notes on the Americans’ habits. He wondered why people would want to eat bread at every meal but then realized that the rice was just for the many Chinese passengers—it was the only item familiar to most of them. By week’s end, the students grew bored with the bland American food. One of Ho’s cabinmates groaned, “I miss Chinese food more than I miss my wife.”
One thing disturbed Ho: the vast quantities of wasted food. He thought of the starving beggars in Shanghai. “One would exclaim in astonishment at the amount of leftover food at every meal,” Ho wrote in his journal. “The leftovers are all dumped into the ocean, along with countless boxes and bottles.”
29 June 2020
From Last Boat Out of Shanghai, by Helen Zia (Ballantine, 2019), Kindle pp. 189-190, 192-193:
28 June 2020
From Last Boat Out of Shanghai, by Helen Zia (Ballantine, 2019), Kindle pp. 215-216:
Her father’s spontaneous parties presented her biggest challenge. She disliked having to sit, prim and proper, sometimes forced to speak to adults who had no interest in her or what she might have to say, all under her father’s critical eye. Not only was she afraid that she’d irritate him, but she also couldn’t fathom why some of the women, as educated as her mother, spoke in little-girl voices like her ten-year-old sister’s. Or why so many of the men puffed themselves up as though they had the answers to everything. Annuo envied her sixteen-year-old brother, a boarder at his middle school, who didn’t have to endure these dinners. She couldn’t wait to be dismissed and sent upstairs to bed, where she could retreat with her books to a fantasy world far away.
BUT THANKS TO A STRANGE new contraption, Annuo’s attitude toward the parties shifted. On one visit, her father brought home a gramophone. After the adults had finished eating and talking, someone mentioned having “itchy feet.” The servants pushed the furniture aside in the parlor, rolled up the carpet, and talced the floor. Her father cranked up the gramophone and put on some popular band music. Then everyone danced. As if possessed by spirits, the properly formal men and women jumped up and moved about while touching one another. The first time Annuo saw the adults dance, her jaw dropped. Opposite sexes touching in public? Stunned to see even her parents embrace as they danced, she found this utterly contrary to everything she had been taught about acceptable Chinese behavior. To Annuo’s great surprise, her father decided that she and Li-Ning should learn to dance, since there were never enough female partners for his friends. Soon Annuo was dancing the fox-trot, tango, and swing to popular Shanghai band music. American tunes like “Tennessee Waltz” got everyone onto the dance floor. Annuo began looking forward to her father’s surprise visits, hoping for the music to start up after dinner. Her feet were itchy—and she was happier.
27 June 2020
From Last Boat Out of Shanghai, by Helen Zia (Ballantine, 2019), Kindle pp. 170-173:
At war’s end, two parallel Jiao Tong universities emerged: the returned students from the makeshift Jiao Da in Free China and Ho’s campus in Shanghai.
Over the weeks and months after the surrender, the split grew wider on every campus. Instead of having a joyful reunion, the students who had lived under enemy occupation were now stung by accusations. Ho and the other “fake” students were being called out as puppets and collaborators. Some accusers were embittered returnees seeking targets to blame for their years of misery, while others saw an opportunity to get revenge or to climb over the disgraced.
Ho’s discomfort turned to alarm and dismay as his own academic record was challenged. Living under the Japanese occupation hadn’t been easy. His family, too, had suffered the privations of war. Now, after all his hard work and his family’s sacrifice, everything he had accomplished was diminished, and his loyalty to China was in question. To make matters worse, the students who stayed in Shanghai were academically much stronger than the students from the interior, who had lacked essential tools for a solid education—and it showed.
In 1946, the returned Nationalist authorities imposed a “reconversion” training program on the teachers and students who had remained in Shanghai. They declared that “fake students” like Ho were “corrupted,” just like the collaborators and traitors. They even called Ho and his cohorts “puppet students” who lacked the political understanding of the “real” Jiao Da students. The new Ministry of Education questioned the validity of the academic records of graduates from colleges and middle schools in occupied Shanghai. It created a special program in Nationalist ideology, requiring all such students to take the course. Students and graduates who failed the exam would be considered corrupted, their reputations tarnished and their diplomas and academic credits rendered worthless. Teachers were also to be tested for their loyalty to and knowledge of Nationalist principles.
Ho was horrified—and indignant. Why should he be stigmatized solely because his family hadn’t joined the difficult exodus to the interior? He had been only thirteen in 1937. Neither his elderly grandmother nor his sick brother could have endured the journey. Everyone had personal reasons for the choices they had to make during the long war. How could all of the thousands of students in Shanghai during the eight years of enemy occupation be corrupt puppets? With such accusations of ideological inferiority, Ho worried that his dream was slipping away, falling like a stone into the filthy Huangpu River.
Just as Ho was beginning to lose hope, he saw that some of his fellow students were fighting against the gross unfairness. Campus activists stood on the steps of buildings, arguing that they should not be treated as though they had supported the Japanese enemy. Ho stopped to listen. They hadn’t joined the Wang Jingwei puppets in Nanjing or aided Pan Da’s puppet police at 76, the students asserted. Didn’t the accusers know that many students and teachers in Shanghai had been arrested and executed for their anti-Japanese resistance? Or that students across Shanghai had refused to study the Japanese language?
The protests against the Nationalist sanctions spread like wildfire. Shanghai’s workers, too, called for relief from the years of hardship and repression. The students and workers combined forces in massive citywide demonstrations that seemed to explode with greater ferocity each day as the postwar unrest spread.
Ho found himself pulled into the groundswell. He agreed with the protest organizers. After all, they had been children during the war. It was unfair and outrageous to condemn them as traitors and ruin their lives. It made sense to Ho that he should stand up for his own future and not depend on others to do that for him. When students in his dormitory asked if he would support them, Ho surprised himself by joining the protests in spite of rumors that some of the students were secret Communists. Ho didn’t care. He had to show everyone that he was a student, not a traitor.
A massive mobilization called on all students to gather at the Shanghai North railway station, the major rail terminus in the former International Settlement. Ho fell in step with throngs of Jiao Tong schoolmates as they marched the five-mile distance. He, too, shouted, “Fair treatment for all students and teachers!” and “Punish the real traitors, not the ordinary people!” Along the way, the ranks swelled with men and women from other campuses: Shanghai University, Tongji, St. John’s, Fudan, Aurora, and the many other schools that were an important part of Shanghai’s intellectual life.
23 June 2020
From Last Boat Out of Shanghai, by Helen Zia (Ballantine, 2019), Kindle pp. 129-132:
Once Britain and the United States declared war against Japan, life for Shanghailanders—the foreigners—swiftly changed. Immediately after December 8, 1941, all Allied nationals aged fourteen and above had to report to the Hamilton House near the Bund to register with Japanese gendarmes and receive ID numbers, as well as the red armbands they would have to wear at all times when in public.
Worse yet, Japan froze all bank accounts belonging to its enemy nationals. They were allowed to withdraw only two thousand yuan each month—a paltry amount for foreigners accustomed to pampered Shanghai lifestyles, effectively reducing them to the same income level as their Chinese servants. Each day, the Japanese military issued new edicts that further restricted where foreign Allied nationals could go, what they were allowed to do, how they conducted their lives.
Faced with bitter austerity, the Allied nationals were in a bind. Many expatriates worked for American telephone, gas, and electric utilities or the British waterworks, police, port, and customs. Now these entities were controlled by Japan, aiding its war effort. If Allied Shanghailanders quit their enemy-supervised jobs, they’d be stuck in China, destitute. Plenty of British bobbies, former coworkers of Pan Da, stayed on as members of the Shanghai Municipal Police—enforcing the will of Japan to crush all resistance. When their fellow Americans and Britons back home learned of their work for the enemy, they angrily denounced them, accusing them of collaboration, even treason....
At the start of the war in Europe in 1939, after Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia and Poland, Denmark had been a neutral country. As a Dane in Shanghai, Kristian Jarldane had expected his Danish passport to shield his family from trouble. Before Pearl Harbor, his household in the French Concession had carried on as if things were normal, in spite of the war outside their home. Bing and Ma watched baby Ole while Elder Sister socialized. Kristian still had his engineering job with the Shanghai Water Conservancy, which paid him in foreign currency—better than gold in the inflationary wartime economy. He joined other Shanghailanders in maintaining the three-hour lunchtime “tiffins,” as well as afternoon high tea. Kristian would return to the apartment promptly at four o’clock for some strong English tea and thick slabs of dark bread from his favorite Russian-Jewish boulangerie, to be served with eel, fish, or some other meat fried in pork fat and onions.
But the expanding world war began to disrupt everything. The first shock hit Elder Sister and her husband on April 9, 1940, when Germany invaded Denmark. The Copenhagen government immediately surrendered to the Third Reich, becoming part of the Axis with Germany, Japan, and Italy. The couple wondered if that would be a plus in Japanese-occupied Shanghai. As a Dane, Kristian wasn’t required to wear an armband, nor was he subject to the mortifying financial restrictions confronting other Shanghailanders. He had plenty of company, for the nationals of other Axis-occupied countries were also exempt, as were the stateless White Russians, Ashkenazi Jews, and Indian Sikhs. But then, one week after all Allied nationals had to register, Kristian received orders from the Danish consular staff. He was required to provide them with the names and contact information of all Danish members of his household. Everyone in occupied Shanghai was to be accounted for....
In early 1943, the Japanese issued the order that Shanghailanders had dreaded: All citizens of Allied countries were to be imprisoned. Kristian and Elder Sister watched helplessly as friends and neighbors were loaded onto trucks and shipped to one of the eight crowded and squalid internment camps on the outskirts of the city. Most of them were British and American men, women, and children. Some were forced to walk for miles and carry their own baggage, like coolies. Because the prominent Sassoons, Hardoons, and Kadoories—wealthy Baghdadi Jewish families who had lived in Shanghai for many years—were British citizens, they, too, were subject to internment. About seventy-six hundred Americans, British, Dutch, and other civilians were imprisoned between January and July 1943 to “prevent fifth-column activities and guarantee stabilized livelihood for the enemy nationals,” according to the pro-Japan Shanghai Times. Ironically, this same rationale was being used by the U.S. government to incarcerate 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent in 1942—and duly noted by Japanese propagandists to label critics as hypocrites.
18 June 2020
From Last Boat Out of Shanghai, by Helen Zia (Ballantine, 2019), Kindle pp. 81-82:
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.
11 June 2020
From Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East, by Kim Ghattas (Henry Holt, 2020), Kindle pp. 270-271:
Geopolitics had clearly obliterated all sense of history in Egypt. No one even mentioned Al-Azhar’s own Shia past. The religious institution dated back to the Fatimids, the fourth Islamic caliphate and a Shia dynasty that ruled from the tenth to the twelfth century over a territory extending from the Red Sea to the Atlantic. They were the descendants of Fatima, daughter of the prophet and wife of Ali. This was the only and last time since Ali’s own brief rule in 656 that direct descendants of the prophet had ruled as an Islamic caliphate, and therefore the only time that the caliph and the religious leadership had been one. One of the first universities in the world, Al-Azhar was first built as a center of Shia learning and named in honor of Fatima, who was known as al-Zahraa’, the brilliant. Cairo itself had been built by the Fatimids as their new capital in 970. The Fatimid reign was one of flourishing arts and abundant scholarly works. There were no forced conversions to Shiism, but a tolerance for minorities that left a lasting pluralistic legacy. When Saladin defeated the Fatimids in 1170, Al-Azhar was shut down for over a century and Sunni Islam became the state religion once again. Centuries later, in the land of the pharaohs, Islam still stood at the intersection of Sunnism and Shiism; on a popular level, for centuries, and until the very recent past, there had been no divide between them. But for a few decades now, just as in Pakistan, there had been efforts to curb the mawleds in Egypt, the colorful, exuberant celebrations of the birthdays of saints and the prophet. Some of this was the result of state-led efforts to organize the chaotic festivities, or even of Sufi-led reforms, but many Egyptians attributed the changes to the influence of Saudi puritanism.
09 June 2020
From Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East, by Kim Ghattas (Henry Holt, 2020), Kindle pp. 112-113:
Pakistan was founded in 1947 as a homeland for Muslims on the Indian subcontinent, born out of the partition of India, but it was also a home for many minorities. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the father of the nation, was a secular Shia who nominated other Shias and an Ahmadi Muslim to his cabinet. His first law minister was a Hindu, to make clear that laws were to be written by secular jurists, not clerics and theologians. In his first presidential address marking the birth of the nation, at midnight on August 11, 1947, Jinnah told his new compatriots “you are free to go to your temples, free to go to your mosques, or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or case or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the state.” Jinnah had spelled out a vision for religious pluralism in a secular Muslim-majority democracy, where Muslims and non-Muslims were equal citizens. He did not speak of an Islamic state, not even of an Islamic republic. But his vision for tolerant diversity was never fulfilled. He died a year later, and though his successors tried to uphold this nuanced narrative, they soon fell back on the more straightforward raison d’être of the country: Islam.
Pakistan was born amid horrendous violence and indescribable dislocation—around 6.5 million Muslims moved from India to Pakistan, while 4.7 million Hindus and Sikhs left for India. Activist, revivalist Islam had grown in British India in part as a reaction to colonial rule, but also in opposition to Hindus, the majority. The name Pakistan was an acronym combining the first letters of the different provinces that made up the new country. But in Urdu, the language of the new nation, it also means “the land of the pure,” and there were many who wanted to purify it further. In 1956, Pakistan’s constitution declared the country an Islamic republic and prohibited non-Muslims from holding the office of head of state. In the 1960s, military dictators used religion as a rallying cry against India, feeding further intolerance against Hindus and appeasing Islamists. Social and cultural life continued unperturbed, but some now brandished Pakistan as a citadel of Islam.
The architect of that citadel would be Abu A’la al-Mawdudi, the man who had inspired Qutb in Egypt and Khomeini in Iran. Mawdudi had not always been a religious fundamentalist. Born in 1903 in British India, he was a journalist, a poet, and newspaper editor whose intellectual, mystical, theological journey made him the twentieth century’s greatest revivalist Islamic thinker.
07 June 2020
From Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East, by Kim Ghattas (Henry Holt, 2020), Kindle pp. 2-3:
The year 1979 and the four decades that followed are the story at the heart of this book. The Saudi-Iran rivalry went beyond geopolitics, descending into an ever-greater competition for Islamic legitimacy through religious and cultural domination, changing societies from within—not only in Saudi Arabia and Iran, but throughout the region. While many books explore the Iranian Revolution, few look at how it rippled out, how the Arab and Sunni world reacted and interacted with the momentous event. All the way to Pakistan, the ripples of the rivalry reengineered vibrant, pluralistic countries and unleashed sectarian identities and killings that had never defined us in the past. While Pakistan is geographically located on the Indian subcontinent, its modern history is closely linked to the trends that unfolded in the Middle East, and the country features prominently in this narrative. Across this Greater Middle East, the rise of militancy and the rise of cultural intolerance happened in parallel and often fed into each other.
Everywhere I went to conduct interviews for this book, from Cairo to Baghdad, from Tehran to Islamabad, I was met with a flood of emotions when I asked people about the impact the year 1979 had on their lives. I felt I was conducting national or regional therapy, sitting in people’s living rooms and studies: everyone had a story about how 1979 had wrecked their lives, their marriage, their education, including those born after that year. Although this is neither a work of historical scholarship nor an academic study, it is more than a reported narrative: I dug deep into archives, pored over thousands of newspapers, interviewed dozens of people, and built a virtual library of the history of those four decades. The result is a new reading of known events, some forgotten, some overlooked, most heretofore seen in isolation. Brought together, spanning four decades of history and seven countries, they shatter many accepted truths about the region and shed an unprecedented light on how the Saudi-Iran rivalry evolved and mutated over time, with consequences no one could have foreseen in 1979.
Although geopolitical events provide the backdrop and stage for Black Wave, this is not a book about terrorism or al-Qaeda or even ISIS, nor is it about the Sunni-Shia split or the dangers that violent fundamentalists pose for the West. This has been the almost obsessive focus of the headlines in the West. Instead, these pages bring the untold story of those—and they are many—who fought and continue to fight against the intellectual and cultural darkness that slowly engulfed their countries in the decades following the fateful year of 1979. Intellectuals, poets, lawyers, television anchors, young clerics, novelists; men and women; Arab, Iranian, and Pakistani; Sunni and Shia; most devout, some secular, but all progressive thinkers who represent the vibrant, pluralistic world that persists beneath the black wave. They are the silenced majority, who have suffered immensely at the hands of those who are relentlessly intolerant of others, whether wielding political power or a gun.