The Last Rose of Shanghai

Written by Weina Dai Randel
Review by Janice Ottersberg

As borders around the world close to Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, Shanghai becomes their destination. But now the Japanese are occupying Shanghai, and Jewish refugees are housed in a ghetto under appalling conditions. This is the wartime love story of Aiyi Shao and Ernest Reismann. As an older woman in 1980, Aiyi wants a documentarian to tell Ernest’s story and to right a wrong she’s done to him. The mystery remains throughout as to why his story and what the wrong was. Moving back to 1940, Aiyi’s and Ernest’s stories are told in alternating chapters.

Aiyi is a young Chinese woman from a prominent family who has arranged her upcoming marriage to Cheng, a controlling man with traditional values. She defies Chinese customs by owning her own jazz club, One Hundred Joys Nightclub. With Cheng’s opposition and a wartime economy, Aiyi struggles to keep her club from failing. Ernest, a pianist, and his young sister arrive in Shanghai from Berlin, destitute and hungry. With so much antagonism against the refugees, no one will hire a foreigner, let alone a Jew. After Ernest gives Aiyi an audition playing her favorite song, “The Last Rose of Shanghai,” she takes a chance in hiring him, hoping her patrons will overlook who he is and allow his piano to enthrall and entertain. Ernest, after suffering under Nazis in Germany, is subjected to brutality from the club’s patrons, a jealous Cheng, and cruel Japanese soldiers. Ernest and Aiyi find solace and happiness together, but that changes when they are separated after Germany persuades the Japanese to take action against the Jews.

The author has created resilient characters to love and admire along with a compelling story. Readers gain a new perspective of WWII from this narrative of the Japanese occupation in Shanghai. Weina Dai Randel’s novel deserves a place of distinction among WWII fiction.