*Extermination and the Museum Complex: Jews in Wartime Shanghai

I have just returned from visiting Shanghai’s Jewish Refugees Museum, located in the city’s Hongkou District. The museum, a modest affair, is located on the site of the former Ohel Moshe Synagogue, and it bears witness to the unusual and inspiring history of Shanghai’s Jews. From 1933 to 1941, Shanghai accepted 30,000 Jews while much of Europe quietly went about the business of massacring them and planning for the ‘Final Solution’. Shanghai accepted more Jews in this period than Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and British India put together. (Let me underscore the fact that India was under colonial occupation; pre-colonial India was wonderfully hospitable to the Jews.) As Germany went down to defeat, and, in the years ahead, the state of Israel was born, the Jews who had found shelter in Shanghai left China. Nothing is left of Shanghai’s wartime Jewish community, and in the hour or two I was at the museum there were only three other visitors.

The history of Jews in China does not commence in the years preceding the outbreak of World War II. A Jewish community flourished in Kaifeng during the Song dynasty (908-1279 CE), and its presence over the next several centuries is attested to in various documents. In the nineteenth century, the Sassoon family, originating in Baghdad, relocated to India and in the decades ahead created a worldwide financial empire. Hong Kong and Shanghai were among the principal outposts of that empire. The backbone of the Sephardic Jewish community’s wealth was the hugely exploitive opium trade, but nevertheless the Jewish community appears not to have suffered any distress under the Chinese. The most interesting segment of the history of Jews in China perhaps dates to the 1930s, when Shanghai became a haven for them as they faced persecution and death in Europe. An area surrounding what is now the museum was set up as the “Designated Area for Stateless Refugees”, and a plaque in the nearby Huo Shan Park now marks the wartime Jewish presence in Shanghai. For the ten years during which European Jews sought shelter in Shanghai, they ran schools, synagogues, businesses, and newspapers in English, German, and Yiddish, among them the Shanghai Jewish Chronicle.

Under relentless pressure from the Nazis, the Japanese military commander forced the stateless refugees from Europe into a ghetto, but he resisted calls to the very end to impose the ‘Final Solution’. In nearby Nanking, by contrast, the Japanese had displayed a ravenous appetite for death and destruction. Whatever the reasons that impelled the Japanese commander, who styled himself “King of the Jews”, to disregard the wishes of the Nazi leadership, there is in these circumstances more than a mere hint that even the most autocratic or totalitarian systems are not as closed as one might imagine. Perhaps the Japanese were not moved by considerations of anti-Semitism; perhaps, notwithstanding the alliance with Nazi Germany, they understood that in the Nazi order of things, the Japanese were not unlike the Jews in being far removed from the ideal Teutonic type. Perhaps, too, they were simply moved by the plight of the Jews. However much the inclination to stress the barbarousness of killers, it is their ordinariness that equally compels attention.

Moving as is the museum, it is at the same time a troubling tribute to Jewish history and the resilience of the Jews. In the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, the permanent exhibition on the Holocaust ends with a little exhibit on the Nazi plan to build, after the Final Solution had been implemented, a comprehensive museum of Jewish history and culture. Though the Nazis could not countenance the idea of leaving alive any Jews, they nonetheless had an ardent desire to create a complete archive of Jewish history. The Nazis cannot be described as being alone in displaying this tendency: to match the enormous holocaust perpetrated against the native American population, the United States has now built a gigantic and loving tribute to the native Americans in the shape of the “National Museum of the American Indian” in the nation’s capital. The culture of the other is always a difficult affair, but it can always be celebrated through the museum complex. That has been, to a great extent, the history of the museum in the modern West, and the museum complex’s deep and hidden links to extermination and the annihilationist tendency should not be underestimated.

Designated Areas for Stateless Refugees, Shanghai.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, 2009.

Designated Areas for Stateless Refugees, Shanghai. Photo: Vinay Lal, 2009.

*Construction City: Shanghai and the Race to be ‘World Class’

The Race for World Class:  Shanghai, 2009.  Photo:  Vinay Lal

The Race for World Class: Shanghai, 2009. Photo: Vinay Lal

Construction Cranes and Highrises, Shanghai.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, 2009.

Construction Cranes and Highrises, Shanghai. Photo: Vinay Lal, 2009.

Shanghai and Beijing, it has been said, together account for 75 per cent of the world’s construction cranes. Shanghai alone, I have read somewhere, has something like 50 per cent of the world’s cranes. Perhaps the figures are exaggerated, even grossly so – but if they were, and Shanghai accounted for even a quarter of the world’s cranes, it would still be a remarkable factoid. Some will say that in the frenzy of getting Shanghai ready for Expo 2010, the Chinese authorities have swung into relentless action and many of the cranes will disappear after the Expo is over. First there were the Beijing Olympics, now there is anticipation of the Shanghai Expo. What will feed the adrenalin rush after this? What new achievement of the modern Chinese state remains to be promised to the Chinese people and to the world outside?

Beijing and Shanghai began to refurbish themselves long before their successful bids. China has been enthused with the idea of being ‘world class’ since at least the mid-1980s, and Shanghai is an attempt to showcase a ‘world class’ city without any equal. ‘World class’ is one of those terms has entered into the lexicon without our even being aware of it, and the race to be world class is now in full swing. I have seen all of India wrapped up in the same race. Indian cities are now awash with world class malls, even as the basic infrastructure that makes a city everywhere lies in complete shambles. The government has announced plans to launch world class universities, even as primary education lies in ruins and village schools have been allowed to go to seed. Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai can now proudly claim dozens of world class hospitals – by my own count this last summer, Gurgaon, a satellite city of Delhi, had at least twenty hospitals, at least a handful of them world class – which have transformed India into a mecca of medical tourism, even if the vast majority of India’s own population is without access to basic medical care. In this scheme of things, countries such as India and China do not find it amiss that they are attentive to the rest of the world much before they allowing themselves to worry about the well being of their own people.

The modern world has given birth to many mantras, among them progress, growth, and development. World class is the newest entry in this grammar of despotism. In the name of development, common people could be sent to their graves: if a country had to make progress, and be admitted into the community of civilized nations, it was deemed necessary that some people be called to make the ultimate sacrifice. In its attempt to become world class, Shanghai has razed much of its past: to be sure, parts of the old city remain and, most likely, will not to be obliterated. No modern city can do without some relics of the past: not only do they draw in the tourists and allow the city to make claims to its heritage, they are a pressing reminder to the citizens of everything that has been left behind and the blessings of modern living. In Shanghai, even the word ‘excess’ seems to too tame to convey the enormity of what has been wrought since China adopted a course of economic reforms.

More than anything else, Shanghai can perhaps be termed construction city. The city is, it seems, home to more skyscrapers than any other place in the world, and good parts of the city might well be mistaken for a metropolis in the modern West. One of the city’s tourist brochures proudly declares that the main drag that runs through the French Concession, the Middle Huaihai Road, is comparable to New York’s Fifth Avenue, London’s Kensington High Street, and Paris’s Champs-Elysees. And yet the feeling of drastic incompletion persists, and not merely because the cranes are to be found everywhere. Is anything at all meant to endure? Is modern Shanghai built on the very idea of obsolescence, and if so, will it furnish the notion of world class with a new set of meanings?

*Stones do an Epic Make: Musings on Visiting a Classical Chinese Garden

The Symphony of Stones, Yu Gardens, Shanghai.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, 2009.

The Symphony of Stones, Yu Gardens, Shanghai. Photo: Vinay Lal, 2009.

I heard the eminent Chinese artists, Liu Dan and Liu Sola, talk about ‘stones’ today. Sola has written the music to the ‘Stones Project’, conceived by Liu Dan as something of a testimony to the critical importance of stones in Chinese landscape – and in representations of Chinese landscapes in painting, art and music. Yesterday, on a visit to Yu Gardens, the finest specimen of a classical Chinese garden in Shanghai, I was struck by the placement of stones in the garden landscape, their immense numbers, indeed their grandiosity. Water meanders in and around stones, breathes life into them, and gives shape to them; and yet the stones, standing forth as sentinels, as humans, half-humans, or animals, seemed to have enough of a life of their own. Stones have chiseled out the trajectories of rivers and streams, bending water to their will. Water and stones, together, create a swirling symphony in the classical Chinese garden.

When one writes music for stones, does one do so with the understanding that they are mute? Or perhaps with the awareness, as my friend Teshome Gabriel has written in his moving, lucid and characteristically suggestive meditation on stones [in The Future of Knowledge and Culture: A Dictionary for the Twenty-first Century], that stones speak a language that we do not understand? What kind of continuum is there between stones and humans? The story of Ahalya, first encountered in Valmiki’s Ramayana, comes to mind, though Tulsidas’s Ramacaritmanas is more apposite as a parable about not remaining stone-faced while thinking of stones. Brahma created Ahalya as the most beautiful of women: so beautiful was she that even the gods lusted after her, not least of them Indra. Ahalya is tricked into bedding Indra for the night; in his rage, her husband, Gautama Maharishi, condemns Indra to the woefully embarrassing display of a 1,000 vulvas on his body. (Indra, who could not henceforth venture out into the open, lest he should become the laughing stock of the world, performs severe penances and wins the approbation of Shiva, who agrees to transform the vulvas into eyes. But this is another story, with all the usual variations found in Indian traditions.) As for Ahalya, with Gautama’s curse she is turned into stone. Many years later, it is said, Rama and Lakshmana, as they are wandering around the forest, come by Gautama’s hermitage and are apprised of Ahalya’s story. Rama touches the stone with his feet, Ahalya – now absolved of her sins — springs to life, and Rama blesses her.

Humans work on stones and so make epics. That, at least, is the received narrative, and the Pyramids, Machu Picchu, and the Taj Mahal stand forth as testimony to this view. Human labor is transformative and we have long been accustomed to thinking of stones as inert and inanimate, requiring the labor and love of human beings to tweak some meaning out of them. That stones can move humans is amply clear, and the Kaaba and the Wailing Wall of Jerusalem equally suggest the manner in which stones themselves move through history. Increasingly, then, it seems to me that stones do an epic make. One Palestinian youth throwing a stone would be merely a miscreant; a few hurling stones would be viewed as a social nuisance; a few dozen of them throwing stones are treated as criminal elements, a threat to the social order; and thousands of them flinging stones become a wave that cannot be stopped. Thus was the Intifada of 1987, stones hurling through space and time and creating a revolution. The first lines of W. Hone’s “Canticle of the Stone” (London, 1817), seemed to have been written for the Palestinian Uprising: “O All ye workers of Corruption, bless ye the Stone: praise it, and magnify it as a Bullet for ever.”