Language in Shanghai during World War II and now

« previous post | next post »

Two days ago, I called the attention of friends and colleagues to this recently published book:

Jewish Refugees in Shanghai, 1933-1947: A Selection of Documents (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2018.

At 717 pages and with 184 primary documents in German, English, Yiddish, Hebrew, Chinese, and Russian, this big volume was edited by Irene Eber (1929-2019), who passed away a few days ago.  Here's a short (7:26) video telling how she became a Sinologist.

After receiving my communication, Peter Golden replied:

I knew members not of this community – but from the Russian Jews who went to Harbin and later to Shanghai. A few actually learned Chinese, i.e., had a spoken knowledge of it. I had several classmates from the community. We often joked that they and Sylvia [VHM:  Peter's Shanghainese wife] were probably playing in the park built by Silas Hardoon (1851-1931 [b. Saleh Hardoon סאלח חרדון in Baghdad, Hātóng 哈同), at the same time. Hardoon, as you probably know, was an Iraqi-Jewish business magnate (married to a Eurasian woman – Shanghainese was the language they spoke at home), a major player in Shanghai affairs. The Hardoons adopted orphans and abandoned children of various origins. We knew one some years ago. Physically, she was clearly Russian, but she only spoke Shanghainese (her native tongue – of course), most striking in a tall woman (at least 5’10”) with reddish-blonde hair. I often enjoyed the look of absolute wonder on the faces of Chinese Shanghainese when she spoke. Then, when they realized who she was, those of the older generation thought “oh, yes, of course.”

Shanghai was an amazing city, both good and bad. It is being torn down now (our friend Qin Shao has written about it) and the city is flooded with people from all over China. When I first went there in the late 1980s – it was Sylvia’s first time back since 1949), one heard only Shanghainese spoken in the streets. The last time I was there, I heard only Mandarin on the street. The street on which Sylvia and her extended family lived (her father had four wives – and nine children in toto – at least those that he recognized ) 吴兴[興]路 Wuxing lu was one built by her father and bears his family name 吴 Wu. The street is still there as is the house in which she grew up.

Peter has told me a tremendous amount of other interesting information about his illustrious in-laws, but I will leave that for someone to turn into a fascinating book for all to read.  For the moment, I only wish to confirm from my own experience what Peter says about the dramatic decline of Shanghainese and rapid rise of Mandarin during the last thirty years in that metropolis by the sea (Haishang 海上), known during the 30s as "Nevernight City" (Búyèchéng 不夜城, implying sleepless city).

[h.t. Frank Joseph Shulman]


  1. Coby Lubliner said,

    April 16, 2019 @ 8:06 am

    The comments about Shanghainese in 1930s Shanghai remind me of the multilingual 1998 Canadian movie The Red Violin, which at the time was hailed for its language authenticity, except that the segments taking place in 1930s (and later 1960s) Shanghai were entirely in Mandarin, just as the one taking place in 17th-century Cremona was in standard Italian (not Cremonese), and the one taking place in an 18th-century Austrian orphanage was in standard German (not Austrian).

  2. liuyao said,

    April 16, 2019 @ 11:20 am

    I'd be interested to read such a story, though I don't know a word of Shanghainese.

    It's stretch to say the Wuxing Road is named after the surname Wu. Wuxing is an old name for Huzhou 湖州 of Zhejiang province, not far from Shanghai. (It may have a large Wu population.) Wu of course is also the generic name of the language(s) in this area, of which Shanghainese is one.

  3. Thaomas said,

    April 16, 2019 @ 1:35 pm

    I'm still getting this when I try to "read more."

    This site can’t be reached refused to connect

    What gives? Fortunately I can read by clicking on the comments. :)

  4. Philip Taylor said,

    April 16, 2019 @ 2:09 pm

    The embedded "Read more …" links use the secure HTTP scheme (https); however, the site currently responds only to insecure (http) requests.

  5. peterv said,

    April 17, 2019 @ 1:12 am

    Re Nevernight city:

    The name of Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, is derived from the phrase “haasi kurara” meaning “does not sleep”, in chiShona. The verb “to sleep” is “kurara”.

  6. Frank L Chance said,

    April 17, 2019 @ 9:11 am

    This sentence struck me as odd when I read the article casually: "The Hardoons adopted orphans and abandoned children of various origins." It left me wondering why they abandoned these children, and how they acquired them from various origins only to abandon them. Then I realized that of course they adopted not only orphans, but also children of various origins who had been abandoned.

RSS feed for comments on this post