DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Her whole life, Helen Zia wondered about why and how her family left China 70 years ago.
HELEN ZIA: I grew up hearing from relatives saying, we came on the last boat out of Shanghai - dot, dot, dot. And the dot, dot, dot was always before the communists. And as a kid, I never knew what that meant. As I grew older, I met so many other people who said, our parents, our family, our uncle was on the last boat out of Shanghai, always with that tone of kind of awe and mystery.
GREENE: It wouldn't be until Zia was an adult in her 50s that her mother, Bing, would finally share the whole story. It's a tumultuous one, much like the story of modern China itself. Born in rural Jiangsu province, Bing was given away by her parents as a child, essentially for being born a girl. She wound up in Shanghai with strangers who would eventually become her family. And together, they endured years of war leading up to the communist takeover of China in 1949. Journalist Helen Zia tells more of her mother's story as part of her new book "Last Boat Out Of Shanghai." Our co-host Steve Inskeep asked her about it.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
So she managed to get through the years of Japanese occupation - 1930s up to 1945 or so. And then World War II ends. The Japanese are defeated. China, among other nations, is triumphant. But only a few years pass, and then the communist revolution comes. The communist armies approach Shanghai. What was that moment like for your mother?
ZIA: Well, those four years after the eight years of war and occupation with Japan, those weren't years of peace either. The ink on the surrender documents wasn't even dry when the civil war between the old regime - the nationalist government - and the communist army just went full bloom and full-bore. And so Shanghai, the gem of China, was under complete occupation and martial law and controlled by the nationalists. That was going to be their stronghold. The one topic of conversation throughout the city of Shanghai was, are you staying or are you fleeing? If we stay, will we survive? If we leave, will we survive? What about our children? And to me, that's really the tipping point of answering the question of, shall we leave or shall we stay?
INSKEEP: So this phrase last boat out of Shanghai, to me, suggests that people are saying, this is not just us fleeing a wartime situation. This is the end of a world. An entire way of living is going away.
ZIA: Absolutely. I think a lot of people, a lot of Americans may not realize that Shanghai was one of the most international cities of the world at the time. It really ranked with New York, London, Paris and Berlin. That was it. There was a large middle class. There was also a wealthy class. And it had a very large working class as well and a huge impoverished population. I mean, it was just so unusual. And it was too Western to be Chinese and too Chinese to be Western.
INSKEEP: What did China lose when it lost these millions of people who became refugees? - a lot of them people of means or of education or with some experience of the world.
ZIA: So the people who left took with them the intellectual capital, the social capital, you know, and not to mention people who had money. The forms of resources, whether it was intellectual, social or, actually, financial, were immense. They lost a great deal of brainpower. So many of the people who fled, wherever they were eventually allowed to stay, became the foundation of industry - just intellectual contributions to wherever they went. I mean, in the United States, we're talking about Maya Lin, I.M. Pei, Amy Tan, Elaine Chao, who is the secretary of transportation.
ZIA: These are the children of the diaspora, of this forgotten exodus.
INSKEEP: You've named these prominent people. Did the flow of refugees from China at that time force Americans to think about China and the Chinese people differently?
ZIA: It was such a mixed reaction on the part of the U.S. On the one hand, policymakers did not want these refugees. They just - they - first of all, they were Chinese, which is part of a very ugly legacy of U.S. attitudes toward people from China and Asia. Yet at the same time, they realized that they had some of these, you know, top thinkers. And it happened to be during the McCarthy period and the Cold War. So there was a question of whether all of these Chinese - many of them were assumed to be communists.
INSKEEP: These are people who fled the communists.
ZIA: That's right.
INSKEEP: But they were suspected of being some kind of false flag operation.
ZIA: Completely - a fifth column in the U.S. And among Chinese-Americans in the U.S., it also introduced a whole new element because Chinatowns had been created as ghettos, as places where Chinese who came over in the 1800s - they were mostly from Southern China from Guangdong province. And these were highly educated, sophisticated people from the city of Shanghai, who spoke a completely different dialect. So within the Chinese-American population of the time, which was quite small, they - there was - there were many culture clashes.
INSKEEP: What does this story that you've uncovered suggest about the way that the United States and China, these two great, global rivals that are increasingly in conflict, have stories that are intertwined?
ZIA: U.S. history and China's history are very, very deeply - and in a complicated way - intertwined with each other over a few hundred years. And so there were times when that relationship was fraught with tension. But there were also times of great friendship. I mean, the United States was seen as a possible savior of China in many different occasions, including as the communist revolution was approaching. And I'm hoping with my book that, as we look toward a world with two superpowers, maybe a little understanding on both parts will really help ease some of that tension and create a world where we can actually grow together in peace.
INSKEEP: Helen Zia is the author of "Last Boat Out Of Shanghai." Thanks for coming.
ZIA: It's been my honor. Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE SHANGHAI RESTORATION PROJECT'S "JESSFIELD PARK")
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