Isabel’s Shanghai: Seven Decades On

CLAIRE: Guest blogger Amy Sommers is the author of Rumors from Shanghai, her debut novel, which delves into World War II history in China. A Mandarin-speaking American attorney, she lived in Shanghai for over a decade, and often walked or cycled past Isabel’s childhood home on Zhenning Road—although she didn’t know it as such at the time!

AMY: I recently embarked upon Claire Chao’s Remembering Shanghai, a book that has long been on my TBR pile. Chao co-authored this memoir with her mom, Isabel Sun Chao, who grew up in an elite family in pre-Communist Shanghai.

The settings and culture of 1930s and 1940s Shanghai covered so evocatively by various historians like Andrew FieldPaul French, and Historic Shanghai founders Tess Johnston, Tina Kanagaratnam and Patrick Cranley formed the world in which Isabel Sun was raised. That milieu offered sophistication, modern architecture, rich social life, international influences, as well as a happening music and dance scene. Remembering Shanghai gives the reader Isabel Sun Chao’s first-hand insights into what that life was like for a young girl and later, a young woman.

That era is known for glamour, but it was also a period of chaos and suffering. Remembering Shanghai does an excellent job of depicting daily life during the Sino-Japanese War, followed by the Civil War that ended in 1949 with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, and the severing of ties that followed.

Claire Chao has melded the personal incidents from her mother’s growing up with the wider narrative of her ancestors, whose lives took place at key inflection points in China’s mid-19th to mid-20th century history. Isabel Sun’s great-grandfather, a valued military aide in the Qing effort to suppress the Taiping Rebellion of the 1860s, made the family’s fortune. Her grandfather benefited from investments of the family’s wealth in Shanghai’s emerging real estate boom. Her father was able to secure the family’s financial security for decades based on the rents earned from key sites behind the Bund in downtown Shanghai.


Remembering Shanghai weaves between Isabel’s reminiscences and family stories of her ancestors’ (mis)deeds and adventures, as well as the difficulties presented by the divorce of Isabel’s parents—quite rare in that time. In the process, the book paints a compelling picture of what life for one stratum of Shanghai society was like in those turbulent years.

Besides the fascinating narrative, visually, Remembering Shanghai is also a delight. A surprising number of old family photos survived and are included, as are charming drawings illustrating elements of the world in which Isabel lived.

One of the reasons I had wanted to read Remembering Shanghai from when it first was published was because the Sun family home on Zhenning Road was just down Yuyuan Road from where we lived on Wulumuqi North Road in our 1936 Art Deco apartment. I had often walked past the former Sun house, and was curious to learn from an inhabitant what life in the neighborhood had been like in the 1930s. As this Remembering Shanghai blog post reveals, imagining these dilapidated structures in their former glory can be difficult.


When we first bought it in 2005, our place was similarly unappealing, but as these pictures from a Shanghai Daily post-renovation profile show, these old homes could be charming.


I felt a thrill of connection reading about the places Isabel Sun visited in her daily life—places I too had wandered seven decades later, but regardless of whether one has lived in Shanghai, Remembering Shanghai offers a story that is universal in exploring how a young person emerges from familial turmoil, amidst wider social turmoil, and makes her own way in life.

Highly recommend!

Order Amy’s book here