An interesting and well-written history of the Wartime immigrant experience in Macau
Based on true stories and new research, Paul French weaves together the stories of those Jewish refugees who moved on from wartime Shanghai to seek a possible route to freedom via the Portuguese colony of Macao – “the Casablanca of the Orient”.
The delicately balanced neutral enclave became their wartime home, amid Nazi and Japanese spies, escaped Allied prisoners from Hong Kong, and displaced Chinese.
Strangers on the Praia relates the story of one young woman’s struggle for freedom that would ultimately prove an act of brave resistance.
It should come as no surprise to long-time CR readers that I’m a fan of Paul French’s work. He has carved out a niche for himself as one of the best historians of inter-war China and, in particular, Shanghai. In Strangers on the Praia, he takes a slightly different tack, and gives readers a short, engaging look at the life of refugees in wartime Macao. Well-written, informative, and an excellent read.
Macao has always had an interesting place in the history of Southeast Asia. As French writes early in this book, “Macao has always been there, slightly off-stage,” to his main research focus (the foreign communities in Shanghai and Peking), as well as being another alluring subject ripe for study and examination:
Lacking the aesthetic bohemianism of Peking, the modernity and vibrancy of Shanghai, or the entrepôt dynamism of Hong Kong, Macao sat there in the South China Sea, fanning itself in the heat, accentuating the exotic, a combination of sleepy backwater and nest of criminality. It was also, for a few crucial years, a refuge.
The author provides a brief, clear introduction to the history of Macao in this era in order to situate the reader, before diving into the main story of Strangers on the Praia. Something that has bubbled up during his wider research is the frequent mention of Jewish foreigners in Shanghai, Peking, and also Macao. Who were they, how did they get there, and what happened to them after the Nazi regime gained power in Germany? Information and specifics is not widely available, so French was forced to piece together an overview and also a specific story using fragments — of gossip, official records, passenger manifests, and other written records (memoirs, for example). The author states up front that this makes the book only “a partial tale, a frustratingly limited glimpse at the stories”.
Nevertheless, French is able to cobble together an engaging and also quite moving story of a specific (though unnamed) Jewish woman who found herself stateless, adrift in Macao, and searching for passage to a safe haven. Perhaps the choice of focusing on an unnamed protagonist allows for a more general story to be told. Through her experiences, the author presents an engaging and quite evocative picture of what life was like in Macao for the refugees fleeing Japanese wartime expansion and conquest. (Macao was neutral.) French uses some narrative/literary licence in crafting the woman’s story, but keeps things well-grounded in reality and presents a compelling, believable account of what her experiences could have been. From frustrating attempts to acquire an entry visa for a British territory, to the various machinations that were used to facilitate passage — marriages of convenience, selling of valuables, etc. — we get a sense of the difficulties, tension, and anxiety that must have existed for the many refugees who found themselves in Macao. Some of these difficulties are more general, while others are more specific to the now-stateless Jewish foreign population in the East.
French manages to pack a lot into this slim volume, and it is a story that certainly fires the imagination and enhanced my own interest in the period and region. I was not surprised by this, because each of his books has done a fantastic job of bringing the period, places, and people alive on the page. If you haven’t read any of French’s books yet, then I strongly urge you to do so. Well-researched, well-written, and gripping. Very highly recommended.
Paul French’s Strangers on the Praia is out now, published by Blacksmith Books. The author’s Destination Shanghai and Destination Peking are also published by Blacksmith Books, and are highly recommended.