An Evening with Liliane Willens, author of Stateless in Shanghai.

This event is cosponsored by the MIT Cub of DC.Drinks and a Chinese dinner made by Chef Chris will begin this program. The cost is $35. Those attendees who wish to do so, may purchase a copy of the book for $20. at the event.

 Menu created by Chef Chris for the event


Mandarin Salad: Baby Greens, Asian cabbage, Red Bell Pepper, Snow Peas, Mandarin Oranges, Toasted Almonds and Fried Won-Ton, Sesame Dressing on side
Pan-Roasted Salmon with Honey Soy-Ginger Glaze
Cashew Chicken with Snow peas and Pepper
Vegetable Lo Mein 
Egg Rolls, with a Hot Mustard for dipping
Vegetable Pot sticker’s Sesame Scallion sauce

Sugar Donuts & Mini Cheesecake’s 

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Stateless in Shanghai is the story of Dr. Liliane Willens' experiences growing up as a "stateless person" in cosmopolitan Shanghai from the late 1920s to the early 1950s. 

Eyewitness Account : Japanese Occupation, Chinese Civil War, and Establishment of the People’s Republic of China                        


Liliane Willens was born of Russian parentage in the former extraterritorial French Concession of Shanghai, China, where she attended a French lycée.  Her parents, she and her siblings – all stateless – experienced World War II under the Japanese military occupation, the bombing by American planes and the return of the Chiang Kai-shek government. Because of difficulties to obtain an immigration visa to the United States, Liliane lived two years under the newly established People’s Republic of China.

            When Liliane immigrated to the United States, she studied at Boston University where she received her undergraduate degree, an M.A. and Ph.D. in French Language and Literature.  She taught these subjects at Boston College and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  While in academia, Dr. Willens published a book on Voltaire and a number of articles on 18th century France.  Later moving to Washington, DC, she worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Peace Corps. 


Following retirement Liliane lectured on history and culture on China and Old Shanghai on cruise ships sailing the world, and presently she gives talks to various organizations in the Washington, DC area, around the country, and overseas. Her book Stateless in Shanghai is in its fifth printing. It is being translated in Chinese.


Synopsis of talk:  Liliane Willens will talk briefly about the life led by her family in Shanghai, then discuss the Chiang Kai-shek regime, the Chinese civil war, the takeover of mainland China by the communists, the arrival in Shanghai of the People’s Liberation Army, and subsequent societal changes. Liliane’s talk (with PowerPoint) will be followed by a Q&A session and the signing of her book Stateless in Shanghai, published by Earnshaw Books (2010) which will be available for purchase at $20..

  Born in Shanghai to Russian parents in 1927, Willens and her family were legally considered “stateless”: People whose home country revoked their citizenship, and who have yet to gain citizenship anywhere else. Beginning with her parents’ emigration to Shanghai from Russia and her subsequent birth, Willens describes in great detail the growing pains her parents experienced as they settled into a life in China as stateless “citizens”. By the time she was born, Willens’ parents had achieved a life of relative privilege in Shanghai. This sense of peace is quickly shattered, however, with the Japanese occupation. Upheaval ensues and the book really takes off.

The author’s descriptions of wartime Shanghai vividly convey the fear and paranoia running rampant throughout the city. She remembers being “ill at ease seeing so many Japanese soldiers carrying guns that seemed oversized in comparison to their generally small stature.” Things don’t improve after the Japanese leave. Willens recalls strict curfews and laws put into effect when the PRC was formed. Stateless, Willens and her family could not leave Shanghai to seek refuge elsewhere, and thus Willens is able to offer a unique, foreign, firsthand perspective on the birth of the PRC.

The book is at its most fascinating when Willens focuses on the newborn republic and the fear residents felt when new regulations were being handed down. These moments, such as when she describes the boring, blue unisex uniforms that all Chinese citizens wore, give readers a sense of the oppression that hung over the city.

But the book isn’t all grim. Willens spends about half the time reminiscing about her idyllic childhood before the war . Readers, especially those with firsthand knowledge of Shanghai, will find the author’s cross-cultural anecdotes charming, such as the time when the young Willens went to the bathroom in her pants because she’d seen Chinese children doing it , not realizing that they had slits in their pants.


Stateless in Shanghai extract

by Liliane Willens

Old Amah and I became inseparable as I was growing up. She took full charge of me (“Leelee”) and of my sister Riva whom she called “Leeva”. She fed, bathed and dressed us in clothes which my mother no longer sewed but now purchased. My father’s income increased substantially at the end of 1927 when he was hired as a sales representative for Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada, a firm headquartered in Montreal. Soon after, we moved to a larger apartment in a small complex of rental buildings on Route Ratard (Julu Lu), where my parents got a private room for Old Amah in the servants’ quarters annex. Socially, our family was moving up — Old Amah, too, in the eyes of her friends.

Old Amah insisted on getting us soft canvas shoes, explaining to my mother that leather shoes were “vely no good” for our feet since the shoelaces would untie quickly and we could fall and hurt ourselves. Thanks to these soft shoes, I easily could outrun Old Amah, who walked with a spring in her gait because her feet were very narrow for her tall build.

My sister Riva hardly ever caused any problems but by the time I was five years old I was terrorizing the little girls with whom I played in the garden, fighting with the little boys living in our complex and sticking out my tongue at the Chinese children in the streets. Old Amah often saved me from yelling and spanking, calming my mother down by saying: “When Missee Leelee big, she good like Leeva.” Although I had already picked up some of the Shanghainese dialect, Old Amah always spoke to me in Pidgin English, for she understood intuitively that my parents and other European parents did not want their children to learn Chinese. There was no need for the foreigners to use it since Chinese servants were obliged to speak a smattering of their masters’ languages, whether it was Pidgin English, French, Russian or German.

When I was about six years old, my mother let me accompany Old Amah on her shopping trips in the streets of “Chinese” Shanghai, a world that I discovered was very different from my own. I was glad to be away from my noisy baby sister Jacqueline, a crying “nuisance” who had come into my life a year earlier. This child, whom all called Jackie, was getting too much attention from my parents and their friends. They could not decide whether she resembled her mother or her father but they agreed that she did not resemble her two older sisters. Riva had my father’s looks and calm disposition, while I resembled my mother in looks and temperament, which meant I was a very active child.

On the way to the market, Old Amah and I walked through several very poor neighborhoods where we would inevitably pass a man slowly pushing a wide wooden cart. He went in and out of the alleys and lanes, where the Chinese lived in tenements and hovels without flush toilets, collecting the buckets of human waste that had accumulated overnight. When this moo dong man announced his arrival women rushed out with wooden buckets, which he emptied with a deft arm movement into large wooden containers securely tied to his cart. When they were filled to the brim he covered them with wooden lids and then slowly pushed his overloaded cart in the direction of the nearby countryside where he sold his morning collection to farmers as fertilizer. During the very humid summer months of July and August, when the thermometer sometimes hovered near 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the putrid smell from these carts hung in the air for the entire morning.

On those trips with Old Amah I watched her bargain endlessly with the food vendors over the price of rice, noodles, vegetables and fruit. She became quite theatrical when a price was quoted — she walked away complaining loudly that the street vendor was trying to rob her. She soon returned, however, and bargained again; then after much sighing she agreed grudgingly to buy the items she had earlier examined. She watched very carefully as the seller weighed her purchases on a scale consisting of a metal tray attached a stick with a movable weight piece. On one of our excursions to the market Old Amah became very angry with me. I did not have time to tell her that I needed to “makee doodoo”, so while she was talking to a friend at the marketplace I squatted on the street and defecated in my pants. I was simply doing what small Chinese children always did when they wanted to “makee doodoo”, except that my pants were not split on the backside. Old Amah began lamenting that “Big Missee get vely, vely angly”, and that Leelee “give me walla, walla (trouble, trouble), ah ya, ah ya”. My proper and demure Old Amah always yanked me away whenever she noticed a man using a wall as an open-air toilet, while I wondered why he did not go home and use his bathroom as we did in our house. In my mind, only small children had the right to relieve themselves in public!

I looked forward to these outings with Old Amah because I knew that whenever she bought cooked meat, fish or baked dough she would bite off a small piece and share it with me. While flies were swarming and buzzing around the open food stalls, I admired the vendors who tried to hit them with the straw fans they used to fan their charcoal stoves. Sometimes, when Old Amah had a few extra copper coins to spare, she bought a piece of tofu fried in sizzling oil which she blew upon before handing it to me. She would also share with me her breakfast food, the small da bing pancake and the you tiao, strings of dough fried in boiling oil and then twirled by the vendor into an elongated shape. These two oily and very hot food items were wrapped in a piece of soiled paper torn from a newspaper. When Old Amah was feeling extra generous she bought and shared with me the pyramid-shaped zongzi filled with glutinous rice and wrapped in palm leaves, which I munched with delight. For dessert, which she bought for me when I nagged her sufficiently, there were the sticky yuan xiao, balls of rice covered with sesame seeds. I especially enjoyed the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival since Old Amah would always buy me a dousha bao, a cake filled with mashed sweet red beans that she knew I preferred to the cakes and sweets we ate at tea time in our home.

Old Amah could never ask to be refunded for the copper coins she spent on me because my parents would not have allowed her to buy me food made in such unsanitary conditions. Of course I did not tell my mother about eating these forbidden delicacies because my trips with Old Amah would have ended. The food I ate in the marketplace was much tastier than the meat, chicken, potatoes, vegetables and soup we ate at home, where I was always told to eat slowly and wipe my mouth with a napkin. My taste for Chinese food may have been enhanced by the fact that Old Amah and I had a secret which we hid from my parents.

Whenever I ate food in the street Old Amah had to shoo away beggar children who had gathered around me watching me intently. I yelled “sheela, sheela” (“go away”) at them, not realizing they were hungry. I thought it was silly of them to stare at me while I was eating and wondered why their mothers did not buy them food. I was annoyed when they surrounded me and I yelled at them in the Shanghai dialect, borrowing the words they used to insult me. The fact that Chinese children swore at me — the yang guizi(foreign devil) with her da bizi (big nose) — did not bother me, for I had already surmised that as a white person I was superior to them. From a very early age my friends and I looked down on the Chinese, whose main function we had observed was to serve us and all other foreigners. Little did I know then we were behaving as colonial racists did in other parts of the world.Stateless in Shanghai is the story of Dr. Liliane Willens' experiences growing up as a "stateless person" in cosmopolitan Shanghai from the late 1920s to the early 1950s. Willens was born to Russian Jewish parents, both denationalized by the Soviet Union after fleeing the Bolshevik revolution, hence her "stateless" status refers to her family's inability to flee elsewhere. Willens not only lived through the rise of Japanese power in, and eventual occupation of, Shanghai, but more unique, her nationality status left her stranded in the city through the early years of the People's Republic of China.

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