by Barry Primus
The night before I left Shanghai I went down to the waterfront, called the Bund, the stand out spectacle of that city. Part colonial, part futuristic, it is the very heart of the history of Shanghai, running from the opium trade to Mao and to its present image as the Manhattan of the east. As I walked along the promenade the fabulous buildings of the Bund ablaze with light over my shoulder, I kept my eyes on the Huangpu River just below me. It is still a busy port with ships and barges, pushing down the river into China's South Sea or making their way toward the Yangtze River not far away. For all the changes China has gone through Shanghai is still full of mystery. Shanghai is synonymous with trickery and kidnapping and an undesirable verb (to be Shanghai-ed is to be kidnapped or taken advantage of).
As an actor my work brought me to many special locations and experiences, but this journey was unique. I was glad I had said "yes" when Lee Breuer called.
Lee Breuer was the founder and director of the famous New York City experimental theatre, Mabou Minds.
"I'm going to China to put on a play about the Shanghai Jews for the Shanghai International Theatre Festival. It's going to be a cutting edge, cross-cultural piece in the flesh, using both Chinese and American actors, how about coming?" Lee said to me.
Here was chance for me as a Jew and an actor to experience and create an inspiring piece about our history and the co-operation and friendship between two suffering peoples during very hard times.
"Shanghai!" My wife Julie was horrified. "They're having one of the worst heat waves ever. And with the pollution you'll have to wear a mask the entire time, taking it off only to say your lines and eat!"
"At least the food's got to be good!" After all, for a Jew it's always Christmas in Shanghai. "Let's go," I said. Four weeks later I took a leave from teaching at UCLA to work with Lee and start rehearsals in New York.
Shalom Shanghai is written by the Chinese playwright, William Sun with music by Eve Beglarian and video installations created by Eric Marciano. In July 1938 the Evian Conference was held in France to find ways to deal with the Jews fleeing Hitler's persecution, thirty two countries were present (China not included), and typical of the times none of the nations attending agreed to take in any Jewish refugees. This is a story about a father, Yacov and his daughter, Shana who escape Poland before Hitler's invasion to take refuge in Shanghai which at that time was the only port open to them that didn't require visas. Between 1932 and 1941 Shanghai became a modern day Noah's Ark accepting around 18,000 Jews fleeing the Nazis and the Holocaust. The play is performed bilingually with scenes in English and Chinese with subtitles running throughout the evening. Julie Arenal, my wife, would choreograph the piece, using actors and acrobats trained in Chinese Opera. The style of the evening was predicated on creating the surreal atmosphere the refugees and the Chinese must have found themselves in at that time.
Nanking Road 1930's
Using real life situations is always a good way to deepen imaginary relationships of the play and create a deeper bond between actors. So during rehearsals Jessica Weinstein, the young actress playing Shanna and I decided to head down to the Chinese Consulate to get our visas together. The office was crammed and noisy, alive with mostly Chinese people waiting for their visas. It was easy to imagine being in China already and a stimulating place for us to wonder how our characters might have gotten to Shanghai in 1938. Like most Warsaw Jews then, we must have known very well that Hitler's invasion was imminent. I had just finished Isaac Bashevis Singer's book Shosha which painted a very vivid story of the Warsaw Jews on pins and needles as they waited for the Germans. Possibly Yacov and Shanna hooked up with people fleeing from Germany and Austria and like them headed south to Italy then on to China by ship. Soon after Italy would enter the war on the Axis side and the overseas route to Shanghai would be cut off. The only route then would be through the Trans Siberian Railway traveling through North East China to Shanghai.
Lee Breuer and I both felt my part could use a deeper Jewish flavor. Yacov came from pre-Hitler Poland, and we began to pepper the part with Yiddishism. We both knew a lot of the familiar phrases that have become part of New York speech. But a big help to me was using my mother-in-law Rose Arenal's "vert-a-lach," a collection of "sharp sayings" from her hometown of Motziv, Poland (the village was completely destroyed in World War II and no longer exists). My dialogue seemed far more authentic to me now. Calling someone like the Japanese Officer not "a bad guy," but a "farshlepte crank," (meaning a prolonged illness) can make quite a difference. Instead of saying "a difficult situation,"
"se teet zich tish a benk" (which means bedlam) has much a more particular flavor.
"se teet zich tish a benk" (which means bedlam) has much a more particular flavor.
We added a Yiddish style Cabaret act in Yacov's café including a song about a mixed menu that food shortages might have presented.
"Shanghai Jews have much to offer -
more than Warsaw I'd say
Look moon-cake-pie, how about carp-on-rye
We've got egg-drop-Borscht with Soy
Matzo ball wantons, jellyfish heads - oy!
Just leave your cares behind with hairy crabs so fine
and kugel soaked in brine.
Try our latkes, stir fried tchotchkes,
gefiltefishy dim sum."
At the New York public library I read that most of the Jews arriving in Shanghai moved to Hongkau an area that had been extensively bombed during the Japanese invasion of Shanghai. Hongkau was the heart of the Jewish District, left extremely crowded and very poor by the war. Historically, it had always been the rowdiest part of the city, brimming with bordellos and Opium dens. The majority of refugees were very poor and forced to move into the Heine (home in German). These were community centers supported by donations from wealthier Jews in the city and for a while the American Jewish Distribution Committee. As the refugees moved in they tried to improve their conditions and some even managed to open small restaurants, cafes and shops. They all brought with them the Jewish culture in the form of athletic clubs, newspapers and theater. My character, Yacov runs one of the Viennese type coffee shops that dotted the Jewish Quarter. To keep his shop open, Yacov finds himself in the dangerous situation of maintaining a good relationship with the Japanese Officer in charge who has eyes for Yacov's pretty young daughter, Sharma. What a moral and ethical challenge for Yacov? What compromises would he have to make to stay alive?
By the time we arrived to Shanghai the weather had turned mild, the pollution no worse than it was when I first came to Los Angeles in the 1970's. Thank god, Julie was wrong! My first challenge in China was crossing the street. Cars, motorcycles, bicycles all seem to follow their own rules miraculously never hitting one another but continually driving Julie and me back to the curb. Then we try to negotiate another way across the street. We never did figure it out. This Shanghai was certainly every bit a metropolis with its own particular sense of life and vitality.
Taking a cab we see a remarkable transition from the ultra modern highways and sleek high-rise buildings to the solemnity of the Jewish Refugees Museum in Hongkau. The area is still very poor and a far cry from the new Shanghai. How strange it would have been for Yacov and Sharma and the other refugees to live here with those smells and sounds of China.
The Museum is located inside Ohel Moshe Synagogue that was the spiritual center of Jewish life in the Ghetto in the days of war and the Holocaust. The streets around the museum are teaming with small businesses in tiny spaces. We find a restaurant with one table and three chairs, a stand selling socks and underwear with a tarp to cover the goods, and a man with a sowing machine and stool set up shop on the sidewalk. In the old four story houses they dry clothing on poles instead of lines. We see impossibly small balconies jammed with bicycles, birdcages, plants and packed boxes with god knows what.
After their ordeal in Europe what a blessed relief it must have been for the Jewish people to be with these equally poor Chinese people who opened their port for the refugees. Living in their own desperate poverty the Chinese people gave way to these strangers, showing them absolutely no resentment over sharing what little they had with the newcomers.
China and the Chinese people always held a fascination for me. As a teenager I had a job in lower Manhattan and spent many of my lunch breaks wandering through Chinatown. Now that I was there, I found the Chinese people open and with a certain grace and sweetness in whatever dealings I had with them. And it was endearing to me that they were called the "Jews of the East." Yes, the Chinese people possess an instinct for commerce and business, and we share their strong values of education and family ties. But for me, even more so, I delight in the way they engage each other. Their playfulness and humor creates its own kind of tumult that is reminiscent of my New York background. I also found that many of the Chinese people I met had a strong affinity to Jews. The playwright himself talked about how his strongest mentors for much of his American education were Jewish. As I worked on the play I thought about my family on my grandmothers side in Tarnow, Poland. Like my character Yacov, they owned a restaurant. They did not survive the Holocaust. But what if they had gone to Shanghai? What would life have been like for them?
A terrified baby seen near Nanking Road
The Battle of Shanghai and Japanese Bombing 1942 - 1945
The Japanese army had been brutal toward the Chinese people ultimately slaughtering more than three hundred thousand of them over two weeks during "the Rape of Nanking." But strangely the Japanese were not anxious to persecute the Jews. The Japanese laissez faire policy towards the Jews stayed in place as long as they could envision possible deals with the Jews that might benefit them. But after Pearl Harbor all bets were off. Under increasing pressure from the Nazis and particularly the German Police attaché in Tokyo, Colonel Joseph Meissinger, known as "The Butcher of Warsaw," the Jews were forced into a designated ghetto area.
To leave the ghetto, my Yacov would have to obtain a pass from the highly unpredictable and sometimes sadistic Japanese Officer, Suzuki. Suzuki tries to make a deal whereby we can move outside the ghetto if my daughter lives with him. Yacov tries to flee with Sharma along with Chinese Red Army Guerillas who are fighting the Japanese in the north. He had already escaped a murdering vice admiral in Poland and would not be caught this time. In the end Yacov dies, but his daughter survives.
Although the Japanese army never resorted to "The Final Solution," in China the Jews there felt terribly uncertain as to their fate. They did not know the full extent of the horror that was going on in Europe, perhaps. But the Jews knew enough to fear of the long arm of the Nazi Gestapo. Although I could imagine the constant anxiety the Jews must have felt, I could also add my feelings as a father whose daughter, Raphaela lives far away in Israel. Any unsettling news from the middle east leaves me anxious and on edge.
The theatre where we performed was full of contradictions with plush seats and modern equipment on one end and squat toilets and hazardous backstage conditions on the other. During rehearsals "our hosts" wanted "changes." The Red Army Guerrilla who Sharma falls in love with in the play was to be treated more heroically. A kiss between them became a hug. Lee Breuer's more absurd ending was changed to clarify the Chinese as saviors. Some things in the play were lost in translation, and the subtitles were often not enough to convey the emotion of my performance. My Yiddish jokes at times fell flat, but we decided the cabaret act was a slice of life of the Ghetto and important on that level even if some laughs fell flat.
The play came together, getting tighter and stronger as we performed it. The mix of languages and actors worked well. It was a hot ticket in the festival, and audiences were warm towards it. I had "fleshed" out a lot of my Yacov, and it became satisfying to play him. Most of the crowd by far were Chinese people. And though they had lived in Shanghai and were aware of the Jewish presence there, they weren't knowledgeable about this particular period.
Bad pollution, very aggressive business policies and some corruption were all good reasons for Chinese officials to want such a positive story out in the world. And maybe, as a friend of mine so cynically put it, "... the Jews were important in the building of Shanghai, now they want them back to renovate it." This was a piece about surviving under oppression. The arts are always a place for the unexpressed and forbidden needs and feelings of repressed people to surface, as it were in camouflaged forms. I saw this while working in Argentina, Mexico and Russia in their more oppressive periods. Was this consciously or unconsciously at work here? Whatever the motives this is an important tale of generosity and tolerance during terrible times and a miracle for those few who survived the Holocaust.
Walking that promenade the night before I left Shanghai, I watched the lights of the fantastic city around me and its dark river below. What must it have been like for my Yacov and his daughter, Sharma to first arrive this harbor city and its total strangeness? They had made the decision. This was their home now. The play may have been over, the Hongkau district empty of Jews, but my character was still vividly alive in me, challenging me to constantly evaluate the city, the people and myself.
A few days after arriving back in Los Angeles I met a neighbor of mine. He was excited to hear about my adventure in China. He had a cousin who had been born in Shanghai, during the war to parents who had fled Holocaust Europe. They had settled in New York, and older now they came out to L.A.
"They moved down to Monterrey Park, past downtown," he mentioned.
"Isn't that the Chinese section?" I asked.
"Yes," he answered. "They always liked them. They wanted to be around them again."
A graduate of Bennington College, Barry Primus worked on the New York stage for the first decade of his career including a role in the historic Lincoln Center production of After the Fall by Arthur Miller directed by Elia Kazan. Barry appeared in multiple network television dramatic series and in dozens of major motion pictures. In television, one continuing role as a troubled police detective in the CBS series Cagney and Lacey with Sharon Gless gained him much acclaim. In motion pictures Barry performed for Martin Scorsese's Boxcar Bertha with David Carradine and Barbara Hersey and in Sidney Pollack's Absence of Malice with Paul Newman and Sally Field. Director Mark Rydell called on Barry as his assistant and Second Unit Director on The Rose with Bette Midler. Moving into his own projects, Barry directed and wrote along with John Lawton the dramatic short film, Final Stage with Richard Romanus and John P. Ryan. This led to Barry's first theatrical motion picture, Mistress with Robert DeNiro and Eli Wallach and Martin Landau. Barry is a board member of the Actors Studio in New York and Hollywood. He has taught acting and directing at the American Film Institute, Columbia University, the Lee Strassberg Institute, UCLA, Loyola-Marymount University and the Maine Media Workshops. He and his wife of sixty years, Julie Arenal live in both New York and Hollywood.