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August 9, 2009

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Pianist prefers her words over a tune

THE Shanghai-born writer Shen Lei is preparing for the second coming of her 10th book which will be launched next weekend to coincide with the start of the annual Shanghai Book Fair.

Better known to hundreds of thousands of Chinese readers as Bei La, the 45-year-old author will introduce the English-language version of "A Jewish Piano" two years after its successful debut in her native language.

Bei La's work has been solidly placed in the neo-romantic genre by Chinese literary circles and mainstream media and she is no stranger to the trappings of fame, having published her first book, "The Night of Tokyo," in 1991 and followed it with a number of best-sellers that have garnered a clutch of Chinese writing awards.

"A Jewish Piano" describes the joy and sorrow associated with the topsy-turvey relationship between a Jewish pianist exiled in Shanghai and an orphan from the Chinese Red Army during World War II in the course of their love affair across Europe and Asia.

A major backdrop to the story is the haven of Shanghai where Jewish refugees were given shelter and comfort away from the persecution of Nazis. It brings into sharp relief the tolerance of Shanghai people and their openness to the fusion of different ideas and cultures.

"I used to write short stories but after the tragedy of September 11 in the United States when my best friend, a finance sector worker, was killed in the towers I started to write novels," she said.

Bei La's pre-tragedy output was three modest books of short stories but she has since written seven novels, all with a tragic theme, including a romantic trilogy around the 9/11 events.

She learned piano at a very young age in Shanghai and Japan where she performed in minor concerts, then emigrated to Canada with her parents and taught piano.

An accomplished pianist for a significant period of her life, Bei La turned her talented fingers to a different keyboard to turn out words rather than tunes.

"Once I started to write books I realized that not everyone could understand the feelings I wanted to convey in the music I played. But by writing a novel I can express more deeply what I want to say to readers and they understand it easier," she said.

Her piano now sits in the background at home in Pudong and she plays for relaxation.

She did two years research into this story at New York's Columbia University Library and the East Asia Library at the University of Toronto, working through many personal papers and biographies about the Jewish in Shanghai. She subsequently met older residents of Shanghai who had experience of Jewish refugees during the era.

She then spent six months writing "A Jewish Piano" using the circumstantial facts as a basis for the fiction.

"I believe this is the first fictional treatment of this topic, not only in China but the wider world. I haven't found another that talks about the Jewish in Shanghai during this period," she said.

The inspiration for the story came from a Canadian merchant friend whose Jewish parents lived in Shanghai in the period covered in the book. The merchant's father had fallen in love as a single man with a beautiful, wealthy Chinese woman.

The mutual passion they shared ultimately went nowhere for a variety of cultural and religious reasons that spiraled into a sad outcome and the man eventually married a Jewish woman.

Bei La was inspired to fashion that core experience into a story that shows love can cross cultures and religion but, in the end, a Jewish man must marry a Jewish woman.

From her point of view love can overcome everything -- age, religion, culture and the rest -- but marriage cannot.

She intends to write a second book on the same period theme and has a patriotic incentive for doing so, to demonstrate that Shanghai is a tolerant city.

"Even in the worst times of World War II when people didn't have a lot to eat they extended the hand of friendship to help foreigners," she said. "Despite having little enough to eat themselves they would share it."

The second reason is that she believes Chinese young people lack strength and character and they can learn from the Jewish experience how to survive in tough times through faith, group spirit and unity.

By learning things from history, such as the Jewish people surviving in Shanghai during the period covered by her writing, they can become a lot stronger, she said.

Bei La is an imposing woman whose writing career has blossomed from the legacy of the terrorist attacks on the twin towers in New York.

"Tragedy has affected me too much and I can not forget it," she admitted, adding that she finds it the best way to express her feelings.

"This is not a happy book and it's got a sad ending. All my books have sad endings," she said.

"People always experience happy things and they cannot remember all of them. But tragedy happens and rather than forget, they should find spirit from it to live on."

Three-thousand copies of the hard-cover, 396-page novel will be distributed free to agents and publishers at the book fair in Shanghai in advance of its formal debut at the book world's supreme marketplace, the Frankfurt Book Fair in October.


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