SHANGHAI, CHINA – October 2009

Slow Boat From China

The view from our stateroom onboard Diamond Princess is stunning.

Diamond Princess is approximately 250 metres in length and towers 16 decks into the sky. It houses over 2,800 passengers and 2,000 crew.

Our modest, but cheerful, cabin is positioned on the rear of the vessel overlooking the wake left behind after the mighty ship carves through the ocean. Most of the time, the wake extends in a straight line, from the propeller blades directly below our cabin, all the way to the distant horizon. It’s a majestic sight. On other occasions, when the ship changes course, the wake forms a graceful arc in the sea, tracing the vessel’s course.

Leaving Beijing late in the evening on 4 October – some four hours after our scheduled departure due to over-zealous, H1NI fearful, Chinese immigration agents – Diamond Princess headed out into the Yellow Sea and sailed south towards Shanghai; the People’s Republic of China to our right and the Korean Peninsula to our left. Historic waters indeed.

However, by the time Diamond Princess pulled away from the pier and headed confidently out to sea, our cabin was reverberating with the sound of resonant snoring in two-part harmony. After our night flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, a two-hour drive to Xingang and a four hour wait in the customs hall, followed by a long wait for our bags and the arduous chore of unpacking, we had had quite enough for one day. Diamond Princess would have to set sail without the benefit of our watchful eyes.

The morning saw us much more cheerful and ready to enjoy the perks of two leisurely days at sea. The rhythm of these blue and golden days matches the gentle rocking of the boat on a day of moderate ocean swell: breakfast; trivia quiz with new friends; lunch; rest; an afternoon trivia quiz; more new friends; dinner and bed.

Whilst my day was also punctuated by visits to my laptop to check my office email account, the rhythm was much the same: read an email; type a response; make a cup of coffee whilst the words slowly appeared on the screen; click “send”; type another email; go and sit on the balcony for a while; return to my laptop to find the last three words of my email had not yet materialised; wait with arms crossed for the slovenly  words to appear and click “send”. Needless to say, the seas may be high, but the internet speed is slow.

Dr Ho’s List

After two sublime days at sea, Huckleberry B and I  woke on 8 October as Diamond Princess made its way down the channel to the Port of Shanghai.

The approach to Port was heralded by our entire cabin starting to rattle and roll violently. The Captain explained later that this was caused by the low tide and the relative high speed of the vessel as we tried to make up time. Apparently, there were only three or four metres of water below the keel of the ship!

Before long, however, we were on our shuttle bus making the hour long journey to downtown Shanghai.

Shanghai is known for a number of wonderful sites, including the Bund, the French Concession and the city’s distinctive telecommunications tower. We chose, however, to visit none of them.

Rather, Huckleberry B and I decided to see Shanghai from a different angle. With this objective in mind, we embarked upon a tour of Shanghai’s Jewish Ghetto.

It is, perhaps, a little known fact that Shanghai once boasted a large Jewish population. The first wave arrived in the late 19th Century from Iraq. Then came a large number of Russian Jews in the 1920’s following the surge of anti-semitism that came with the Bolshevic Revolution. Finally, up to thirty thousand Jews sought refuge in Shanghai during the Holocaust.

Our Jewish guide, Dvir, explained to us that Shanghai during the 1930’s and 1940’s was an open port. A Jew – or anybody else – escaping the Nazis could arrive in Shanghai with neither a passport nor a visa and settle in Shanghai; no questions asked. And so they came, either by boat through the Suez Canal and Indian Ocean or by train across Russia.

Of the thirty thousand Jews who sought refuge in Shanghai, approximately twenty thousand came from Austria. The story goes that a kindly Chinese diplomat, named Dr Ho, was based in Vienna. Whilst it is true that a person entering Shanghai required neither passport nor visa, a refugee did require a transit permit in order to leave Europe. Dr Ho is credited to having applied his Chinese chop to approximately twenty thousand transit permits and to have saved the lives of twenty thousand Jews and their descendants.

In recent times, Dr Ho was declared by the State of Israel to be a “Righteous Gentile”. His daughter, who is still alive and lives in California, is yet to agree to sell his story (but may be considering offers).

The Jews who succeeded in settling in Shanghai were not, however, completely free from the evil hand of Hitler’s Gestapo. Learning of the Jewish population in Shanghai, the Nazis sent a Colonel to China to deal with this element of “the Jewish problem”. His aim – with the assistance of his Japanese allies – was to exterminate them. One plan was to entice all the Jews on board a fleet of ships and sink them in the harbour. Another was to take them to Chong Ming Island where gas chambers would be erected.

Contrary to expectation, however, the Japanese did little to assist the Nazis in their madness. The Japanese had no quarrel with the Jews and did not understand the religious hatred which consumed the Germans. A Japanese citizen, after all, could observe both Buddhist and Shinto customs without conflict.

As a compromise, the Japanese occupiers of Shanghai reluctantly agreed to force all the Jews in the city into a small ghetto. Unlike the hellholes in Europe, movement in and out of the ghetto was relatively free, provided one had a work permit. However, it was overcrowded and disease was rampant. It was not a nice place to be.

Touring the ghetto with our guide, I could look around and easily convince myself I was in Berlin or Warsaw during the War. The housing was distinctly Eastern European, with washing hanging from balconies, makeshift clothes lines and even the power cables. However, the faces peering from the windows were Chinese; the Jews of Shanghai have long since left the ghetto.

Whilst our Jewish guide was somewhat bemused by the presence the two Gentiles in his group for the day, B and I enjoyed our glimpse into a little known aspect of Shanghai’s rich history. From time to time, we like to take the touring road less traveled.


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