This book is a tour de force. Starting with a single, stunning revelation from her mother, author Helen Zia embarked on years of research, including more than 100 personal talks with survivors and their offspring, interviews with scholars, and deep dives into archives, vintage newspapers, government documents, oral histories, and books, as well as on-the-ground research in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Beijing, and Taiwan.

Yet the result is far from academic. It is a lively, upclose-and-personal account of four very different individuals, two men and two women, who lived through the tumultuous events of Shanghai in the 1930s and 1940s. Starting with their early childhoods, we as readers get to know them as they grow up in extraordinary circumstances in that cosmopolitan Chinese-Western city.  By the time the Red Army is on the outskirts of the city, you won’t be able to put the book down—eager to find out what happens to each of these folks. Without giving away some surprise endings, I can tell you: Not all of them take the last boat out of Shanghai.

This massive exodus of millions of people in 1949, which overwhelmed Taiwan and Hong Kong for years, is considered “ordinary” by many Chinese families—too common to bother retelling. But to readers today, these stories hold many lessons about how different people live through turbulent times when they are forced to leave the country they love.

Warning: Reading this book might give us humility and sympathy for those forced to flee their homelands. Currently, that encompasses more than 25 million people, living in limbo, uncertain of their future. No one becomes a refugee by choice.

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