News & Reviews

Advanced praise for Last Boat out of Shanghai: The Epic Story of the Chinese who Fled Mao’s Revolution



Kirkus Reviews:

Stories of courage and resilience emerge from decades of oppression.

On May 25, 1949, the People’s Liberation Army marched into Shanghai, completing Mao’s victorious takeover of China. Coinciding with the 70th anniversary of that revolution, Chinese-American journalist Zia (Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People, 2000, etc.), former executive editor of Ms. magazine, vividly chronicles the lives of several individuals caught in the violent “tsunami of revolution” in China’s “biggest, most glamorous, and most notorious city,” the port where throngs of Chinese rushed to escape. In early May 1949, the World War II transport ship General Gordon was the last boat out of Shanghai, culminating an exodus that sent millions of Chinese to seek refuge throughout the world. In a narrative gleaned from more than 100 interviews, Zia focuses on four exiles whose stories represent “the voices, viewpoints, and character of the Shanghai diaspora.” Benny Pan, who grew up in a sheltered enclave and was educated in private schools, had little knowledge of his father’s political and financial machinations as an inspector with the British-controlled Shanghai Municipal Police. Ho Chow’s family were landowning gentry who lived off rent from their tenant farmers. Bing Woo, given away by her poverty-stricken birth family, was adopted by one woman only to be passed on to another family. Annuo Liu was the daughter of an ardent Nationalist whose politics put the family in dire jeopardy. Zia begins her history in 1937, with the Japanese occupation of China that lasted until the end of World War II. While Benny’s father collaborated with the Japanese and their puppet government, others suffered from martial law, strict censorship, and severe rationing of critical resources. After the war, the arrival of American soldiers and the ousting of Japanese soldiers and civilians augured stability, but a civil war between Nationalists and Communists led to more privations, an atmosphere of suspicion, and virulent repression. With captivating detail, the author reconstructs the tense “panic to flee” that engulfed the nation.

An absorbing history of a refugee crisis that mirrors current events.


Lisa See, bestselling novelist of The Tea Girl from Hummingbird Lane:

I have long been an admirer of Helen Zia’s writing and scholarship, but Last Boat Out of Shanghai is at a whole new level.  It’s a true page-turner.  Zia has proven once again that history is something that happens to real people. I stayed up late reading night after night, because I wanted to know what would happen to Benny, Ho, Bing, Annuo, and their friends and families, when an action that on the surface looks good one can send you down a disastrous path, while sometimes a mistake can bring triumph.  These are choices that refugees around the world continue to make, which makes helps to make this book relevant in addition to being such a compelling good read.


James Bradley, bestselling author of Flags of Our Fathers and The China Mirage:

Helen Zia’s new book, Last Boat out of Shanghai is a true tale of wartime savagery and difficult moral choices. Rich in sweep and detail, this compelling saga is a Chinese Dr. Zhivago.  Enjoy a great historical read; take the Last Boat out of Shanghai.


Gish Jen, author of the acclaimed, Girl in the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap:

Gripping, magisterial, ambitious, and intimate, Last Boat Out of Shanghai not only depicts a cataclysmic century as it was lived and felt by four very different people, it keeps you on the edge of your seat the whole way. What a tour de force! I could not put it down.


Elizabeth J. Perry, Harvard University Professor of Government and Director, Harvard-Yenching Institute:

Last Boat Out of Shanghai is an impeccably researched and beautifully crafted account of the dramatic events surrounding the Communist takeover of China’s largest and most cosmopolitan city.  Tracing the fate of four fascinating families, Helen Zia offers a warmly human perspective on one of the most wrenching political transitions of the twentieth century.  This book is a genuine pleasure to read, with much to inform and interest the general public and China specialists alike.


Stella Dong, author of Shanghai: The Rise and Fall of a Decadent City 1842-1949:

Much has been written by and about the diaspora from war-ravaged Europe during World War II to make new lives for themselves far from home, but accounts of those who fled China’s postwar turbulence are rare. Helen Zia remedies this lack in a book that makes the experience of those who fled Asia’s most vibrant city both accessible and emotionally compelling. Last Boat Out of Shanghai deftly weaves together the stories of Chinese displaced by political turmoil into a mosaic that celebrates human determination, resilience and ingenuity.


Amy Tan, bestselling author of The Joy Luck Club and her most recent novel, The Valley of Amazement:

In Last Boat out of Shanghai,  Helen Zia provides the wide lens of history and an intimate focus on four young individuals facing the personal torment of leaving China, as well as family members.  Meticulously researched with a scholar’s acumen, the pages unfold with the harrowing suspense of a novel.  Zia’s portraits are compassionate and heartbreaking, and they are, ultimately, the universal story of many families who leave their homeland as refugees and find less than welcoming circumstances on the other side.  I read with a personal hunger to know the political and personal exigencies that led to those “now or never” decisions, for they mirror the story of my own mother, who left on virtually the last boat out of Shanghai. 


Gordon H. Chang, Professor of History and Olive H. Palmer Professor in Humanities, Stanford University:

War, foreign occupation, revolution, counter-revolution, exile, and new lives:  the worst and best of times of a remarkable population from China.  Helen Zia tells their stories with clarity, understanding and empathy.  Unforgettable and moving!


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