Sam Moshinsky, OAM was born and raised in Shanghai. He witnessed four waves of Jewish migration to Shanghai and experienced great political upheavals through that time. He experienced a unique period in Shanghai and of China’s history. Sam wrote a book based on his experiences “Goodbye Shanghai”, which was also made into a short film.
When did you and your family first come to Australia?
Well, I arrived in October 1951 ahead of my family who came six months later in March 1952. There were a number of reasons that I explain in my book why, the family decided to send me as a vanguard here to stay with the relation who sponsored us and I had just turned seventeen. It was really quite a unique experience considering the sort of sheltered life we lived as Europeans in China. So I arrived here and then my family joined later…. in the mean time I was able to prepare as much as possible for them to settle in, in Melbourne.
Where were you born?
I was born in Shanghai.
Why did they come here to Australia?
I was born in 1934 and I lived through all the various periods of Shanghai’s experience and that was in the Concession period and we lived in the French Concession as many of the Russians Jews did live there. And then we were under Japanese Occupation but untouched because of our Russian origin. And during the war after Pearl Harbour when the Japanese took over Shanghai, and then Shanghai lost its special status after the end of the Second World War and the Chinese Nationalists took over and then the civil war started with the Communists and in 1949 the Communists entered Shanghai and after that of course there was a whole new policy regarding foreigners and private ownership. So, in effect, there was really no purpose of staying on, and most foreigners – just about all of them – had left and there was a scramble to find a place to go to because we were stateless. My grandparents had fled the Soviet Revolution from Vladivostok to Shanghai in the late 1920s so we fortunately had a relation living in Melbourne who was prepared to sponsor us and I came and stayed with them until my family arrived and we settled in Melbourne.
Do you have a strong memory of arriving in Australia?
Oh yes. I was 17 at that time, I remember virtually all the details of arriving by ship, from Hong Kong to Sydney where I stayed for a few days. There was already quite a few people from Shanghai who had settled in Sydney already and caught up with them and then went by train to Melbourne and settled in with those relations and then the family came and we started a normal life as newly-immigrants to Australia. I went to Melbourne University and got my education and worked, got married, with family, children and we’ve been here ever since. It’s been really wonderful to us as a country.
Are there any objects from the “old country” which tell a story of your arrival in Australia?
Not really. My mother had some furniture which was distributed among the children. I don’t know if we’ve kept them or not. There wasn’t really much we could take with us because we virtually had to leave most things behind. And I really brought only with me the vestiges of growing up in a very Eastern environment, a unique Eastern environment for Europeans really. But there were no real objects other than pieces of furniture and that sort of thing.
What about photographs?
There are plenty of photographs and many of them are in my book “Goodbye Shanghai” which my Editor selected as being the most interesting. The sort of parties with our amahs when we were very young or in the park, or various aspects of growing up in China from being born until seventeen when I left.
What childhood memories stand out in your mind?
Well many things of course. The main things are the various elements of the political changes that I saw, the cosmopolitan sort of a life in Shanghai; the different schools and how one’s schooling was determined by political changes which governed our lives very much. And of course the brush with a unique Chinese culture and Chinese civilization. We spoke (which I’ve largely forgotten) Shanghainese dialect of Chinese. And the completely different sort of a semi-colonial type of life with servants, compared to particularly in Australia, of the early 1950s which today is even hard to describe to say, our grand children and credibly as to how things have changed in this country. This is where many people found the narrative of the book interesting because it sort of developed a history and a rolling type of scenario of changes as you grew up in a particular environment which will never be repeated again even though Shanghai has now regained its status as a、 leading international commercial city.
How did you learn Shanghainese?
We were raised by nurses which were called amahs. The speaking Chinese was of an everyday nature, rather than a learned discourse type of language; it wasn’t taught in schools because we all went to European schools, and there was of course pre-war and it is now a push for people to speak a foreign language. The Chinese were by nature very good linguists so communication was quite easy because the Chinese invariably spoke a European language, usually the language of their households because before the Communists, there were many, many dialects as there is still now, but they were not standardized into Mandarin as it is now, like in India, many people couldn’t understand each other and most were illiterate so communication by writing wasn’t an option. So the European languages were paramount but the fact is that a number of us were able to communicate in everyday terms with Chinese.
Did you have a Jewish education in Australia?
I had a Jewish education although I did go to a Roman Catholic school which I describe in the book run by the Maris Brothers but I also had a Jewish education. By 17 I had finished my secondary school education but we resumed our contacts with the Jewish community and it wasn’t so much an education as an involvement with the temple, with religious and cultural life. But the education took place in Shanghai, both Catholic as well as Jewish.
Was belonging to a Jewish community important for you and your family?
Yes, well actually most people belonged to a community because the set up there particularly before the war was really there was no central authority as you would have in a normal country and so the whole pre-war and even post-war environment was a series of individual communities, the English kept to themselves and had their own clubs and so on, and so did the French, so did the Russians. And you had different Jewish communities that also revolved around their community cultures because you had a very important Sephardi Jewish community of names like Sasson and Hadoon and Kadoorie who were one of the earlier settlers, then you had the Russian Jews. Then, of course Shanghai is known pre-eminently as a haven for something like 18 to 20,000 German and Austrian Jews who were able to get there, escaping from anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany and that is actually for most people, the main iconic narrative of Shanghai and that is as a haven. Most books and exhibitions about the Jewish aspect of Shanghai deals more with the drama of the larger Jewish immigration there in the late 1930s as an escape from Germany and the other parts where the Nazis were in charge because Shanghai being an international city, you really did not need a visa to get there, you just bought a ticket on a ship, you got there and just walked off and fended for yourself.
What is it about Shanghai daily life from that time that you miss the most?
Like most people coming to a new country, what I came across in Australia was infinitely better than the comforts we left behind. Because there was something quite unnatural about this sort of a semi-colonial type of living there of Europeans surrounded by millions of Chinese, most of whom were desperately poor and you are living at a standard quite unlike them. So, possibly for older people like my parents miss the comfort of living that way, when they came to Australia where you just didn’t have the servants and etcetera that you had there and the way of doing business. But from my point of view the openness of Australia then the food, just the opportunities of life were infinitely better. What we actually missed was that while we grew up we had friendships. When the Europeans started to leave in the wake of the Communist arrival people went to different countries. So your structure of life was just sort of disrupted and we kept together and we still do, those of us who, over the years, we all feel that we lived in a special place in a special point of time. And there are various meetings when we all get together. But I just really never hankered very much to re-create a Shanghai life even if you could. But the Chinese were kind to us, and it was a good life but I think the type of life we were able to enjoy in Australia was infinitely better.
Is being Jewish a strong part of your identity now?
Yes, it has always been so. I have been very involved with various organizations in the Jewish community. As well as through my work which has been with non-Jewish enterprises. I’m a retired chartered accountant and in big firms. And found because of growing up in Shanghai I find myself very fluid in moving in and out of Jewish and non-Jewish social circles. Many friends are non-Jewish. It doesn’t define
my social life but it defines my beliefs so to speak. But it’s still is important, but I have spent quite a bit of time on various causes both within the Jewish community as well as the non-Jewish community for which I received the Order of Australia about ten years ago.