I. Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum
A lot of people know that Schindler risked his life and saved about 1,200 Jews. Not many know that a greater humanitarian effort took place in Shanghai when the then Nationalist government’s diplomats issued visas to Jews fleeing persecution in Europe and enabled them to avoid certain deaths. No one knows for sure the exact number of Jews saved, though recent data pegs it at about 30,000. The Hongkou district of Shanghai was compared to the Noah’s Ark where the refugees settled, lived peacefully with locals, and even conducted small businesses and trades, a feat all the more monumental considering that twenty-three countries at the Évian Conference while acknowledging their plight, signed a treaty to refuse their entry.
It’s a piece of history that offered a rare bright spot in the dark backdrop of mass murder and destruction, and visitors can now get a glimpse of the past visiting the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. Looking at the survivors’ names inscribed on a plaque at the entrance was a solemn experience, and reading their accounts of horror after the Japanese army occupied the city was terrifying. My somber mood however was altered, when the curator before beginning his scheduled 1:15 pm tour asked visitors, including me, this awkward question: “Are you Jewish?” He then went on to explain the three big Jewish influxes to China: the first during the silk road era, the second when the first opium war forced the Imperialist Chinese government to open ports, and the third time between 1910s and 1930s. He was an otherwise competent guide, though I found his statements like “Jews are very good at making money” and “Jews at the time owned the Bund and the Nanking (aka Nanjing, Shanghai’s Fifth Avenue-equivalent) Road” callous and cringe-worthy. Growing up, I knew all along that the wealthiest man in Shanghai in the 1920s was a Jewish immigrant by the name of Hardoon, whose former palatial mansion-turned-exhibition center is across the street from the Portman Ritz-Carlton and visible from the elevated freeway connecting the cities’ two airports, left behind a staggering fortune estimated to be $650 million dollars at his death in 1931, and those who dealt with the Jewish refugee small business people remember them to be cunning and shrewd. However, I don’t think these statements have any place inside or outside of a museum, and feel they reinforce stereotypes when visitors should be moved by the harrowing survival stories and the ultimate triumph of the human spirit.
The museum’s exhibits detail the daily lives of the Jewish refugees settling in the ghetto after the Japanese occupation, and are deeply personal and heart-warming. As someone who is married a man of a different race, I found one story particularly interesting: a Jewish man fell in love with a local Chinese woman, and alas, both families objected. The man’s family was not fond of the idea of his dating a shiksa, and her side wanted her to marry a Chinese man. Eventually, their love prevailed. Despite the happy ending, I found it puzzling why his family, while seeking asylum in Shanghai, would oppose his marrying a woman from the country that provided them shelter and safety. Shouldn’t survival, or love for that matter, have taken precedence over tradition?
II. The Death of Klinghoffer
I missed the Long Beach Opera’s “The Death of Klinghoffer” in the first part of 2014, and when I found out the Metropolitan Opera would stage a production and broadcast it in the fall, I was really looking forward to it. The opera is based on the hijacking of the passenger liner Achille Lauro by the Palestine Liberation Front in 1985, and the hijackers’ murder of wheelchair-bound 69-year-old Jewish-American passenger Leon Klinghoffer. It gives voices, literally, to the terrorists and the victims as both sides sing arias to tell their stories.
During the contentious labor dispute between the Met and its labor unions, the mounting of the production and the immediate controversy it caused was used by the union leaders to argue that the Mr. Peter Gelb, the General Manager lacked leadership. Under pressure from the Jewish community, the Met decided to cancel its HD simulcast overseas. However, the move failed to quiet the falling-out. The firestorm reached its peak before the production premiered in October, when I was in China where major international media sites are blocked and could not access accounts of the latest developments. The timing was particularly inconvenient as the students and citizens in Hong Kong were in the middle of the “Occupy Central with Love” movement calling for free election without China’s influence; and as a result, even innocuous foreign sites were temporarily shut down. The only source of information I could get was the International New York Times from my Western-branded hotels. I am an unabashed advocate for the First Amendment and artistic freedom; I understand why the Jewish community and the Klinghoffer family feel the opera glorifies terrorism and promotes anti- Semitism, which I unequivocally denounce. I find it ironic that the wealthy Jewish community in New York, which considers itself progressive and tolerant, exerted so much pressure on the Met, and even more saddening that one of the most prestigious cultural institutions actually caved and cancelled all the theater and radio broadcasts home and abroad. I am disappointed that the angry detractors succeeded in preventing me from having the chance to see the production for myself and making my own conclusion. This, I am afraid, is in and of itself a tragedy of magnitude.