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Rena Krasno writes of a less than glamorous Old Shanghai

From THAT'S SHANGHAI December 2007 Print & Web Edition


By Mina Choi


Born in Shanghai in 1923, Rena Krasno considers herself a true Shanghailander. And like most Shanghlanders she’s rather proud of the fact. Which is somewhat surprising in light of the suffering she endured while a resident of the city. But the 84-year old writer is warm and open-hearted, and this sunny outlook shines through in her recently-published memoir Strangers Always, a book which chronicles the joys and sorrows of a Russian Jewish family living in Shanghai during the Japanese Occupation (1942-1945).

Hardship, it seems was about the only thing the Krasnos had in abundance. They survived the Russian pogroms, the Second World War and landed in Shanghai only to be faced with the persistent struggle to earn a living. Krasno’s father was an idealistic Zionist on his way to Palestine in 1921. He entered China through the back door, through Harbin, and eventually made his way south to Shanghai. An acute attack of appendicitis prevented him continuing his journey; he settled here, married Krasno’s mother and the couple later had two children. Though glad to have escaped from Russia, the Krasnos were stateless Jews, without passports, with only a Jewish document attesting to their births. But because the Krasnos had arrived in Shanghai before 1937, they weren’t restricted to the Jewish ghetto in Hongkou, as were the European Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler. What’s more, because of their stateless status, they escaped internment, the unwelcome fate of many foreigners during the later part of the war.

Of modest means, the Krasnos lived in the French Concession, frequently changing jobs and lodgings as financial circumstances dictated. “We never took a taxi the whole time we lived in Shanghai,” says Rena. Unlike other expats ferried around in rickshaws and cars, they walked, rode bicycles or took one of the city’s many trams.

Rena studied at the French Municipal College where she was the only Jewish student. In her book, she writes that she was awarded an advanced certificate, the Brevet Superieur, but that her French schoolmaster said the award couldn’t be made public because of her Jewish background. For some, that incident might be reason for bitterness, but Rena is anything but bitter. Indeed, her forgiving nature extends to most everyone and everything, with the exception of the Japanese occupiers. In Strangers Always, she reveals her anger with the Japanese bureaucracy, their brutality during the occupation and the slow degradation the city suffered during WWII. NEED AN EXAMPLE FROM THE BOOK OF HER ANGER WITH THE JAPANESE. In another entry she writes, “Since the Japanese occupation, prices have risen. One grape costs 30 cents, one egg 40 cents, one pair of shoes $800-900 and a short rickshaw ride $15.” What’s remarkable (and charming) about Strangers Always is that it is both personal and perceptive. Rena’s observations on Japanese political intentions, the hierarchy among the different foreign residents of Shanghai and the haughty pretensions of some of the French ladies all seem right on the nose. When she writes about the French ladies who purchase silk blouses on Yates Road (now Ruijin Lu/Shimen Lu) for a fraction of what they would have paid in France, one cannot help think that some things haven’t changed after 60 years.

Today, Rena lives in Israel, though it is evident that Shanghai remains dear to her heart. After an absence of more than six decades, she says she wanted to kiss the ground on her arrival here. When asked her opinion of Shanghai today, Rena says she is delighted to see that life is so much better for the Chinese. “They are happy. People are smiling. The streets are clean. There are no beggars on the street.”

That said, Rena would not consider living in Shanghai permanently anymore. “I don’t think I can afford to live here,” she says. With that comment, one can’t help but feel that she is still the same modest girl with an open heart and a convivial outlook portrayed in Strangers Always.

For a complete list of Articles on Books by Mina Choi click HERE