Bernadine’s Shanghai Saloon: The story of the Doyenne of Old China

By Susan Blumberg-Kason

Bernadine Szold Fritz  

In 1929, socialite Bernadine Szold Fritz left America at the age of 33 to move to Shanghai. She stayed there for the better part of the following decade, until war with Japan forced so many to leave. The world Bernadine inhabited and thrived in was alien in many ways, but also surprisingly familiar to anyone who has also made the trek from the West to East Asia in the 21st century.

It was a time of great change, when Shanghai was a cosmopolitan city yet split apart by a complex network of colonial powers. It was the early days of the Republic of China, before the culmination of the second World War and when civil war would force the KMT to flee to Taiwan. The stories and places described in the book Bernardine’s Shanghai Salon: The Story of the Doyenne of Old China are told through the eyes of a remarkable person, who achieved much in a time when women in either China or America had few rights compared to today. Susan Blumberg-Kason, the author of her own memoir Good Chinese Wife about life and marriage in 1990s Hong Kong, did extensive research when writing this biography. It is a deep character study, listing a plethora of facts and figures, but also speculating on the deeper motivations and feelings Bernadine must have felt when going through the various personal challenges of her life abroad.

Bernadine was a journalist, writing most prestigiously for the New Yorker among other outlets, but unfortunately during this era she was forced into marriage as a way to support herself and her daughter. Indeed, she originally moved to Shanghai because of a proposal and often throughout the book she is held back by her marriage to businessman Chester Fritz. (It was her fourth marriage, in fact. Bernadine lived quite the life.) The book is very unromantic. Her husband, and previous ex-husbands, were products of the misogyny of the time, and tried to control and limit her in many ways. Despite that, Bernadine went as far as to help found the International Arts Theatre which produced many successful plays, ballets, and operas. The Soul of the Ch’in was the largest ballet ever performed in Shanghai until then, and the adaptation Lady Precious Stream was ahead of its time by being the first English-language production to have an all Chinese cast, a positive revolutionary moment considering previous versions of the play always utilized white actors in yellowface.

Throughout her years, Bernadine met many other famous writers and artists and the book name-drops an exceptional list of 1930s celebrities. She was good friends with author Lin Yutang, wrote letters to Hollywood actress Anna May Wong, and even knew the politically-connected Soong sisters who had such an impact on the history of China and Taiwan, such as Soong Mei-ling—the future wife of dictator Chiang Kai-shek. With the expat perspective, Western readers who have lived in places like modern Shanghai, Hong Kong, or Taipei will be struck by how similar the sentiment is today. One disgruntled quote from a visiting friend of hers describes it well: “Thirty years—sometimes more—without troubling to learn the language, and these ‘Old China Hands’ pickled in alcohol considered themselves supreme authorities on the country and the people. They prided themselves on never mixing with the ‘natives.’ Was it due to the climate? They were inveterate grumblers.” Personally, I have met many of those exact kinds of people in 2024.

Another interesting aspect of the book is Bernadine’s evolving Jewish identity. Perhaps that was why she felt like an outsider in her own homeland, and was able to move so far away. She says in one discussion, “I don’t know what to think anymore. I’ve gone through all the phases of hating it, of hating all Jews, of being proud of it and hating lots of Jews, of not minding one way or the other and having a few friends who are Jews, or deciding always to take the bull by the horns and in the most obvious way possible tell people right off.” Although she was never religious, as the years went by and horrors of Nazi Germany became more apparent, she participated in Jewish causes in order to aid refugees during the war.

Politics are ever present in the background of the book, but the most fascinating sections are focused on her own private life. Sexuality within her failed marriage is explored, there’s a breast cancer scare, among other issues with her career and family. The saddest aspect of all was her relationship with her daughter Rosemary who she chose to send to boarding school thousands of miles away in America, something hard to understand today, and that story ultimately ends in tragedy. Bernadine Szold Fritz may not be well-known today, but she very much deserved to have a book written about her and Susan Blumberg -Kason is proven to be up to the task. Fans of history and of women’s issues will appreciate this ambitious book which gives a human angle to such a tumultuous time in the world. I certainly learned a lot, and enjoyed the read.

Ray Hecht is an American writer who has lived in Taipei since 2017. Raised in the American midwest, Ray studied film and promptly left the United States to explore Asia and write about his experiences. He also dabbles in the visual arts, and draws the occasional comic detailing the intricacies of life in Taiwan.

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