Leaving China: An Artist Paints His World War II Childhood

I found this memoir, presented as a book for older children, disappointing, although older adult readers might get more out of it.

Each two-page spread consists of text memories accompanied by a watercolor illustration related to the incidents described. While the misty images might accurately represent the vagaries of memory, they weren’t specific enough for me to get a sense of the place and time from them. They’re stiff and remote, without conveying much emotion to this reader. I’m sure making this art meant a lot to the author, but that meaning isn’t carried through. Several of them, generic in approach, could have been set at any time or place, not specifically World War II China.

For that reason, I found the book better aimed at older readers, those who already have some idea of the time period portrayed. The writing is similarly light on emotion, although full of disturbing events when you stop to think about them. James’ father was British, living in China to run the family’s business. His grandparents, originally missionaries, founded an orphanage for girls who would be otherwise left to die; they became workers producing embroidered goods that the family sold.

No consideration or discussion is given to the geopolitics of Brits coming in and making money off the abandoned girls. A sentence early on talks about how these girls were more desirable as brides than others because they had a valuable skill and could speak English, which I read as an implied justification. James and his family led a privileged life, with servants and a social club, but I wondered how others saw them.

The one page that describes the author’s parents meeting and marrying is full of unexplained questions. His father went to Canada to be a musician, where he married a divorcee who already had two kids, at which point he went back to the family business. I wanted to know about the blended family and how they got along, but the other kids disappear from the book with a brief mention of being sent to study in Canada. I wondered if the father was disappointed by his change in future plans, or if the family accepted this older, divorced woman at a time when that was a scandalous status, but no information is provided there, either.

The main meat of the book begins a third of the way in, as the Japanese army takes over the Chinese town when James is four. The company continues operating with the permission of the occupiers. Four years later, James’ family finally attempts to leave, with the mother and son sailing from Shanghai to the United States before voyaging to Canada. The father joins the British Army. The author doesn’t go into detail, but it’s clear that the mother has a drinking problem, a desire for status she no longer has the money to support, and anxiety over her disarranged life. James goes to school for a while in India, before winding up again in Canada and finally, the US.

I found myself wishing for a differently focused story. The mother strikes me as a more interesting character than the author, but we don’t find out what happened to her or get much insight into her feelings or choices. The author has his struggles — he’s thought effeminate because he’s not good at sports and prefers art — but we don’t get much idea of his emotions either. It’s a surface presentation, with “and then we went here” substituting for insight. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

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4 Responses to “Leaving China: An Artist Paints His World War II Childhood”

  1. Jaylat Says:

    Nice review, and sorry the book wasn’t your thing – it looks fascinating but sounds uninspired from your description.

    As for the justification of the “geopolitics of Brits coming in and making money off the abandoned girls”, you did state that they “would be otherwise left to die.” Isn’t that a pretty good justification? I know the current view is that colonialism is bad, but in this case it was definitely a boon to the girls.

  2. Johanna Says:

    Of course, but for me, it raised a lot of questions. Like, why not try to stop the practice of abandonment, instead of just scooping up the kids for their business? And how welcome were the missionaries in the first place?

  3. Jaylat Says:

    I lived in Hong Kong for a number of years so I have a particular view of colonialism – it’s not an unalloyed evil, and in fact has been a great thing for places like Hong Kong. China is only just starting to catch up to where HK was 20 years ago in terms of their quality of life. This is thanks to capitalism and the rule of law brought by the Brits.

    “Scooping up kids for their business” might otherwise be described as “giving an outcast a chance for a new life.” Unfortunately the problem of unwanted daughters persists in China – only now they are addressing it through abortion.

    Yes, you are correct that in an ideal world they might try to address these issues differently. But it seems they did pretty well with what resources they had to offer.

    Anyway, thanks for an interesting discussion – it sounds like airing these issues might have made the book a bit better?

  4. Johanna Says:

    I’m glad to get your knowledgeable perspective! I wouldn’t even go so far as to say that talking about these issues would have improved the book, because I don’t think that they’re at all part of the author’s story as he sees it. Instead, they’re issues that got in the way of me appreciating the book as intended. I was more interested in the bits about the society than I was in his “poor little well-off boy” story, so I found myself wondering a lot about the bigger context. That it wasn’t addressed to the depth I would have hoped was another factor that made the book feel old-fashioned to me.

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