Remembering Shanghai: A Memoir of Socialites, Scholars and Scoundrels was the First Place overall winner in the non-fiction category of the 2020 IndieReader Discovery Awards, where undiscovered talent meets people with the power to make a difference.
Following find an interview with author Claire Chao.
What was the name of the book and when was it published?
Remembering Shanghai: A Memoir of Socialites, Scholars and Scoundrels, published in May 2018.
What’s the book’s first line?
“The house is solid and dignified, its high gable radiating creamy yellow under a luminous Shanghai sky.”
What’s the book about? Give us the “pitch”.
Remembering Shanghai: A Memoir of Socialites, Scholars and Scoundrels follows five generations of my family over two centuries, from my great-great-grandfather down to me. We’ve traced our story as far back as we could. Our progenitor rose from poverty to become a minister to China’s empress dowager, and built a fortune—hundreds of properties, a bank and a shipping company.
My co-author and the protagonist is my mother Isabel Sun Chao—the third daughter among six siblings growing up in 1930s and ’40s Shanghai, a time and place that has become legendary for its intrigue and glamor. She was everyone’s favorite child, cosseted by servants, wet nurses, cooks, drivers, even a resident tailor.
Soon after Mao came to power in 1949, my teenage mother journeyed to Hong Kong. Clutching a pink suitcase packed with party dresses to wear on her spring holiday, she didn’t realize that she would never see her father, or her grandmother, again. I accompanied her to Shanghai nearly 60 years later to confront her family’s past, one that we would discover was by turns harrowing and heartwarming.
What inspired you to write the book? A particular person? An event?
When I accompanied my mother to Shanghai in 2008, we visited her family home together. For the first time I asked, and she responded to, many questions about our family and her childhood. I soon realized that our stories would provide a unique insider’s look into a Shanghai family.
What’s the most distinctive thing about the main character? Who-real or fictional-would you say the character reminds you of?
The most distinctive thing about Isabel is her positive nature. Living in a time of turbulence in the nation and at home, she’s always looking forward, not back, and enjoying the moment. Her character is real, larger than life and authentic.
What’s the main reason someone should really read this book?
This is not your garden-variety memoir. It’s a fascinating view into a long-gone world, with the twists and turns of our family’s fate making it read like a novel. The events are dramatic and sometimes outrageous by any measure, even if you have little knowledge of China: two brothers who plunder their father’s fortune; a woman ancestor who is unknowingly sold to a stranger while trekking across wartime China; not to mention a kidnapping and a run-in with an underworld boss. In the end—something important to both my mother and me—we want to leave our readers with a strong sense of forgiveness, redemption and optimism.
What’s the best and the hardest part of being an indie?
The best part is the realization of your vision for the book. Our aim is for Remembering Shanghai to immerse you in a strong visual as well as literary experience. In addition to family photographs and historical images, we commissioned original watercolor illustrations by two artists—one younger, to create whimsical little tableaux; the other, more mature, for the more complex scenes. The resulting collection of 160 illustrations is one reason why we self-published: a commercially-minded publishing house is likely to have radically reduced the visuals.
The hardest part? Marketing and distribution. They don’t tell you the fabulous life of a self-published author closely resembles that of a traveling salesman. Normally, I like to travel with only carry-on baggage. Since launching the book, I’ve schlepped three suitcases of clothes, props and books, each packed to optimize 70-lb international airline limits, on multi-city tours! And getting books into bookstores without a major publisher is a painstaking process.
Is there something in particular that motivates you (fame? fortune?)
It sounds corny but in the current world climate, we deeply hope that our book in some small way helps bridge cultural differences, and enhance acceptance and understanding.