Adding to the New Zealand story, Helene Wong

Red Dust Over Shanghai: A Shanghai–New Zealand Memoir 1937–1954
Tyl von Randow
Eunoia Publishing, $38.00,
ISBN 9780994104779

Shanghai has always held an allure for me. Stories about what Westerners got up to in the “Paris of the East” in the early 20th century seemed to depict a China that was not China: romantic intrigue and decadence didn’t chime with the backward-and-teeming-millions version I had grown up with. So my anticipation for Red Dust Over Shanghai, written by a German New Zealander living there in those feverish times, was huge.

So much for intrigue and decadence. Some gossip and a little sexual waywardness, perhaps, but feverish, no. I should have realised: this is a memoir of a later era, and of childhood. The writer, Tyl von Randow, spends his first 14 years growing up, not in the Shanghai of the movies, but in the real world of its International Settlement.

Born in Japan in 1937 while his family is holidaying there, and in the same month Shanghai falls to the Japanese, von Randow is brought home to a city under occupation. His father works at the German consulate in the International Settlement – the latter the outcome of the signing of the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, which forced China to open herself up to foreigners. It’s a memoir that weaves the exterior world of geopolitics with the interior world of a watchful boy exposed to multiple cultural influences.

As Germans, the consulate families are allies of the Japanese; the British and Americans are interned in camps. Von Randow’s mother, Ilse, is allowed to ride her bike to the ghetto to visit her German Jewish friend; the family can still take holidays at Beidaihe on the coast. It’s an unexpected view of Germans in wartime, privileged and insulated, and von Randow is a solemn witness and recorder of the ambivalence aroused by the shifting loyalties.

Hitler dies. Chinese kids abuse them in the street; American pilots move into the house and the family shifts to the attic. The Americans leave, replaced by Russians and Italians. Von Randow and his brother are enrolled at the Shanghai British School and become immersed in a curriculum and school culture not unlike New Zealand’s – the Commonwealth template for education in the colonies. Then comes 1949, and the Communists shell British ships in the Yangtze and take Shanghai. The foreigners begin to talk about exit visas.

Throughout this sequence of upheavals, the multicultural cast of characters which von Randow encounters, and the experiences he has, are shown to gently mould him into the man he will become. Indeed, there is a page in the front of the book with a photograph of him as a baby, and above it Wordsworth’s poem “My Heart Leaps Up”, with its line “The Child is father of the Man”. The first hint of this follows soon after, on his fourth birthday, when we learn the first item on his list of desired presents is “the scissors with the rounded tips”.

Von Randow is an artist in the broadest sense. He can draw, he can sing, he can act and he can write. And, as he puts the scissors with the rounded tips into a compartment in a special box – his father’s present – along with his coloured pencils and rubber, his mother says, “Now you can really get to work.”

Besides parental encouragement, he has a mother who paints, and a community of expats from the Old World with a sophisticated appreciation of art. He has an imagination which is rich but never wild, except perhaps in dreams. And he lives in Shanghai, a showcase of European construction and engineering creativity, the result of an infrastructural boom following the invasion of foreigners. The architecture of the city, the work of professionals such as the Slovak refugee Laszlo Hudec (a 2010 documentary about him is even titled The Man Who Changed Shanghai), is to be influential in the development of the boy’s aesthetic tastes.

Alongside this is the charting of sexual awakenings – things seen and heard and done, inchoate yearnings and the girls who are the objects of that yearning. None of this is overdramatised; it retains a shy tentativeness, while being beautifully and honestly observed.

This observational quality is one of the book’s strengths. Von Randow communicates with a strong visual sense and eye for detail, but with an economy of decoration. Nevertheless, his amassing of moments, impressions, anecdotes and even objects, builds a vivid picture of context and mood. For example, the gift of a storm trooper’s whistle from his father could hardly be more evocative of the times.

His writing is most deft, however, when drawing the reader in by lighting fuses of curiosity to create narrative throughlines. Introducing names and events without explanation, then feeding hints and clues, he can pay a story off with devastating impact. The simplicity and obliqueness with which he describes how he learns his parents’ marriage is over, for instance, is brilliant.

The family’s exit visas bring them to 1950s Auckland. Von Randow’s brother is whisked off to a King Country dairy farm; von Randow and his mother are treated to a breathless Tiki Tour of the city’s shops and landmarks. At Auckland Grammar, he survives the inevitable agony of interrogation about his identity, and turns his observational acuity onto a new set of cultural phenomena.

They unpack China from their trunks, but already von Randow is crossing the threshold into a future founded on his Shanghai experience and permitted to bloom in New Zealand. He chooses to study architecture. His mother becomes a well-known weaver and joins the ranks of European refugees who have contributed so much to this country’s artistic development.

Illustrations sprinkled through the book add engagement and texture, although some of the treasured old documents can be hard to decipher. Italics at the beginning of some paragraphs puzzle at first, until you realise they signify a move into flashback.

But these are niggles. The author calls it “a rattling good yarn”, but it’s more than that. It’s another strand of the New Zealand story of who we are, where we’ve come from, and what we bring with us to give.

Helene Wong is the author of Being Chinese: A New Zealander’s Story (Bridget Williams Books 2016), which was reviewed in our summer 2016 issue.

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Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction and Review
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