By Deb Silverthorn
A blossomed romance and the story of Jewish refugees from Germany who made their way to Shanghai, China, are the backbone of Weina Dai Randel’s “Last Rose of Shanghai.” At 10 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 3, the 16th Annual Tycher Library Book Club will host a discussion led by Dr. Dennis Kratz. At 7 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 23, Andrea Peskind Katz will share a conversation with the author. The book is this year’s Tycher Library Community Read, which is co-sponsored by the 2022-2023 Aaron Family JCC Margot Rosenberg Pulitzer Dallas Jewish BookFest and the Jewish Book Council. Both events will be held on Zoom.
“This book is written from the perspectives of a Chinese woman and a Jewish man, and I truly honor each of those cultures with my whole heart,” said Randel, who also wrote “The Moon in the Palace” and “The Empress of Bright Moon.” She says she’d wanted to be a storyteller since she was in the third grade.
“As a child in the 1980s in China we had no television, no library, no bookstores that I had access to, so late at night I’d take the books off my older siblings’ nightstands and read them,” said Randel, whose books have been translated into 11 languages. “I’d read with a flashlight under my blanket and then return them before anyone woke up. I loved disappearing into the electrifying, magical and unrealistic worlds the stories would provide.”
Randel’s most recent publication brings two people from different cultures together, to Japanese-occupied Shanghai. Aiyi is a young heiress and owner of a formerly popular and glamorous Shanghai nightclub; Ernest is a penniless Jewish refugee driven out of Germany, an outsider searching for shelter. He loses nearly all hope until he crosses paths with Aiyi, who hires him to play piano at her club. Her defiance of custom causes a sensation and they realize they share more than a passion for jazz. Still, their differences — and personal life circumstances — seem insurmountable. As the war escalates, they are separated, and choices between love and survival grow more desperate, setting off a chain of events that changes their lives forever.
“We’re thrilled to share this wonderful book through the Tycher Library Book Club. We are grateful for the opportunities and technology that allows us to connect,” said Mollye Fleschman, Tycher librarian. “In a book discussion, getting to hear one another’s thoughts and perspectives is wonderful.”
Randel, born near Shanghai, came to the United States — to Flower Mound — after a professional relationship grew into a pen pal friendship and then love. She and her husband dated long distance. She wrote English well, having studied it in college, but her ability to speak the language was not as strong.
After he visited her in China, Randel came to Texas on a visitor’s visa but the two were married after just a month. Randel attended Texas Woman’s University, refining her English skills and earning a master’s degree in English. The couple, who lived close to Congregation Kol Ami, became involved in the synagogue. Her husband reconnected with his religion and their two children grew close to their heritage as well.
“I have such respect and affinity for both of our cultures, which have such reverence of education, of family bonds and honor, of strong morals and values,” said Randel, whose family now lives in Boston. She remains close to their Kol Ami community, which she visited last spring, sharing her book.
“The gut-wrenching characters of this book, and the challenges they face, are so real. This book is a treasure,” said Karen Schlosberg, Center for Jewish Education coordinator of projects and administration. “Weina’s research is so clear and as a reader, you can’t help but learn, through the true backdrop of that time and place, the climate and what the Jewish refugees faced.”
Dr. Dennis Kratz, director of the Center for Asian Studies at UT Dallas and Rockover Professor of Humanities, read the book over a weekend. He says it hits many hot spots and is an intercultural “Romeo and Juliet.”
“The Jewish experience in Shanghai provides so many talking points,” said Kratz. “The themes of interaction of the conquest and the treatment of Jews are deep in content. It’s a well-crafted book and that is very emotional.”
Plano’s own Peskind Katz is excited to interview the author she calls a friend. It was she, after meeting Randel through an online authors’ group and hearing her book idea, who suggested she move forward with it. Three weeks later, Randel presented her with a draft.
“Three weeks. No one writes a book in three weeks, but Weina, who is so incredibly bright, did it and she did an amazing job. I love this book,” said Peskind Katz. She is a book reviewer and also the founder of Great Thoughts Great Readers Facebook book salon, which has more than 6,600 readers and authors.
Randel thanked Peskind Katz in the book’s acknowledgments. “It is fair to say that, without your suggestion, this novel never would have been written. I’m so grateful for our talks and texting and your lavish encouragement and support along the way. You’re a friend a writer can only dream of,” Randel wrote to Peskind Katz in the acknowledgments.
The Tycher Community Read joins this year’s BookFest schedule, which includes a virtual program at 6 p.m. Oct. 20 with Benjamin Netanyahu and his “Bibi: My Story,” and in-person events at the Aaron Family JCC: Oct. 24, Michael Oren and his “Swann’s War”; Nov. 17, Shaunna J. Edwards and Alyson Richman’s “The Thread Collectors”; Dec. 15, Michael Granberry and Burk Murchison’s “Hole in the Roof.”
“We are delighted to welcome Weina for what will be a very interesting evening,” said JCC Director of Israel Engagement and Jewish Living Rachelle Weiss Crane, “and also then for the three more books before the year’s end with our authors in person. We’re absolutely excited to share these books and their amazing authors with our audiences, and we look forward to ‘seeing’ online and seeing in-person our book-loving community.”
For details, or to RSVP for “The Last Rose of Shanghai” Tycher Library Book Club event, visit tinyurl.com/Tycher-October-22-Book-Club; for the Oct. 23 event, and other JCC BookFest events, visit jccdallas.org/special-events/bookfest. To check out a copy of “The Last Rose of Shanghai” or other titles at the Tycher Library, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 214-615-5206.