Gudao, Lone Islet – The War Years of Shanghai

By Valerie Diefenbaker in Book Reviews

This is a first-person account of life as the child of a British officer in Shanghai in the early 1940s.  It is a Shanghai which can never be revisited, because it is no more. There, reminiscent of the Old South, the families of the British power class tumbled through an endless kaleidoscope of plays, races, teatime and balls.

The author describes the contrast of this coveted existence with the sudden uncertainty and fear as the Japanese soldiers loomed closer.  When it seemed Britain would hurry their subjects safely home, they were told their duty was to stay and hold a British territory. Their superiors then conveniently abandoned them. They were plunged into a nightmare of uncertainty as the Japanese first promised to leave an untouched island of safety (a Gudao) in British Shanghai, but soon forced families into camps, at times separating them.

The author’s father was taken as a political prisoner, and young Margaret was separated from the Chinese caregiver who had been the rock of her childhood.  All foreigners’ homes were confiscated for Japanese soldiers. Eventually the foreigners were sent to camps. The camps grew successively worse as the Japanese saw defeat approaching.  What would the Japanese, who believed suicide preferable to surrender, do to their surviving prisoners?  Annihilation threatened.

Unique to this book are the author’s distinct memories of her questions and fears as a young girl with patchy information. Before the capture, parents force-fed the children a riot of ‘one last’ pleasures as the Japanese approached, until the strange excesses became burdensome.  Later in the camps, it is startling that Blair’s child-self retained good memories alongside the trauma. Memories of drinking melted Jello as a birthday treat and playing pranks on the soldiers and each other. It echoes of the resilience of a child, especially when adults provide such structure as they can.

The book is a memoir, and like reminiscing does, meanders amongst memories in a way that feels rambling at times.  The first three chapters race through a minefield of important, but somewhat cumbersome, political and cultural information.  But the clear recollections of a child, and the little-known information about the Chinese holocaust, is interesting reading.  It will be enjoyed both by readers who tend toward autobiographies, and by historians pondering the various facades of World War 2.