Book Review: “Last Boat Out of Shanghai” by Helen Zia

Reviewed by Bev Scott

Helen Zia, author Last Boat Out of Shanghai, Book review

Helen Zia has written a meticulously researched book with colorful and detailed descriptions of Chinese culture, politics and family life. She centers her story on four young people living in the sophisticated, westernized city of Shanghai beginning in the late 1930’s before World War II. Zia uses the lives of these four people to represent life in Shanghai before the exodus. She then follows them as they flee the Communist takeover in 1948. Zia provides intimate details about their choices to leave the tumult in Shanghai. She details the risks they took to seek an uncertain life as refugees in the United States, Taiwan or Hong Kong. And then, she follows their struggles with loneliness and regret as they seek financial stability and professional credibility. 

The daughter of immigrants from China herself, Helen Zia, interviewed scores of members from the last generation to flee before the exit was closed by the Chinese Communists. Through her four representative examples, she provides us with detailed descriptions not only of their lives before their exodus but also where they fled and how they managed to survive. These are four moving stories of strength, persistence and personal triumph. 

Zia is writes masterfully with clarity as well as suspense. She provides the reader with exquisite portraits of life in Shanghai. She takes us through times before and during World War II as well as the tumultuous years before the Communist takeover. We experience the fear, doubt, guilt and anger of the refugees. We are with them as they flee for their lives, risk uncertain futures and search for safety, stability and acceptance. I highly recommend this book.