Shanghai As Sanctuary City


When we think of Jews encountering Chinese culture, images of eating Chinese food, playing mah jongg and experimenting with feng shui spring to mind. But that may be about to change, if the producers of a fascinating new Chinese musical, “Shimmer,” about the experience of World War II Jewish refugees in Shanghai, have their way.

At a workshop production of the musical last Tuesday night at the Edison Ballroom in Midtown featuring a mixed Chinese-Israeli cast, many in the audience learned for the first time about a fascinating episode in both Jewish and Chinese history, when 23,000 of Hitler’s potential victims found an Asian haven.

First produced last year at an international arts festival in Shanghai, and later staged in Beijing (it will be performed at Bar-Ilan University in March), “Shimmer” has been called the Chinese version of “Les Misérables” for its epic tale of poor Jews who, taken in by the Chinese in the Hongkew district of Japanese-occupied Shanghai (known as “Little Vienna”), then help their hosts to battle against the oppression of the Japanese.

The book, written by Rong Guangrun in a mix of English and Mandarin, centers on a young Jewish engineer, Frank Stern (Shahar Yishay), who arrives on the last ship to enter the port at Shanghai before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor puts an end to immigration to China. He falls in love with a Chinese girl, Ling Yilan (Pan Qi), and helps her and her people build a machine to sabotage the Japanese armaments that the Jews and Chinese have been forced to build. Peter Pui-Tat Kam’s music is a blend of klezmer and Chinese music, recast in a modern musical theater idiom; Liang Miang’s lyrics are filled with references to the dawning of a new day and other light-filled metaphors.

Among the sponsors of the workshop, which was emceed by the well-known Jewish actor Richard Kind, were Rabbi Arthur Schneier of Park East Synagogue, Phoenix Television Group (which hosts Chinese TV stations worldwide), Hengyuanxiang Drama (which creates original plays and musicals in Shanghainese) and Broadway producer Robert Nederlander, Jr. (The Nederlander Organization has expanded into China in recent years as the global appetite for Broadway-style musicals has risen.)

Rabbi Schneier, whose Appeal for Conscience Organization fights for religious rights of all peoples, has been leading missions to China since 1981. He told The Jewish Week that he raised funds in 2014 to build a memorial to the refugees on the site of the Ohel Moshe Synagogue; the ceremony was attended by the mayor of Shanghai. “The mayor of Auschwitz will always be associated with the tragedy that happened in his city,” Rabbi Schneier said at the dedication. “But the mayor of Shanghai will be forever associated with the humanitarian rescue that happened here.”