Memories of Old Shanghai – translation of oral history

By Elizabeth Watson, published

I have just completed Memories of Old Shanghai, a collection of oral histories which involved translating from Shanghainese, to Mandarin, and again into English.

Sometimes it strikes me just how much the older generation has seen. Their experiences are so extraordinarily different from my own; luckily I’ve so far escaped the war, famine, poverty which were ubiquitous during the first half of the twentieth century. Shanghai, in particular, changed enormously through the course of the last century – from the days of the Concessions and its reputation as the ‘Whore of the Orient’, to the brutal Japanese invasion; the Communist victory and ‘Liberation’ in 1949, then acting as the headquarters of the Gang of Four. I was curious to know what the people I passed every day had seen: what they had been through. This was why, in May 2008, I decided to write a book about the older generation living in Shanghai.

I interviewed 29 elderly residents of Shanghai, many of whom live in either Jin Yang Old People’s Home or Fahua Homes for the Aged – proceeds from the book will go directly to these two homes. The interview process was full of unexpected surprises. It’s slightly unnerving to find out that your elderly ayi, as a child, saw a man beaten to death by soldiers simply for dancing a traditional folk dance. Or to interview an old man, who looks the same as every other old man on the street, and find out that he once painted Mme Chiang Kai-shek’s portrait.

I worked with a team of students from Shanghai, who enthusiastically took it in turns to accompany me to various houses and old people’s homes, and acted as Shanghainese-Mandarin translators. Although many of the old people spoke Mandarin, I felt they would prefer to speak in Shanghainese, and I wanted to make them as comfortable as possible. The students typed up a transcript of the interview in Mandarin, which I translated into English.

Each of the students had their own preferred method of remembering the conversations, from recording devices (which I initially thought would be invaluable) to note-taking – which worked very well in some cases. They also, quite naturally, transcribed the conversations in their own way, which led to many varied styles being used. It was challenging trying to capture the style of the interviewee as opposed to that of the transcriber – especially as I understand ten percent of Shanghainese at best! For that reason I think my presence in the interview was necessary – as well as prompting questions, I could try to get an understanding of the character of the interviewee.

Minor repetitions – of words or certain phrases – were kept; I think they can emphasize how important something is to the speaker, and can also mirror their natural speaking style. Making sure the English fit their natural speaking style was difficult at times; in English I think language denotes class much more, and Chinese society is structured quite differently. Once it had been translated out of the Shanghai dialect and into ‘standard’ Chinese it lost all peculiarities which can help place a person socially or geographically. I tried to keep the English as neutral, as non-location specific as possible. I thought it was important that the old people retain their ‘Chineseness’, and didn’t sound like they came from London or New York or anywhere else. The English is as neutral and international as British English gets, with as few specifically British words as possible.

When we started interviewing, I wanted the process to be pretty natural and organic. I didn’t really prompt, and gave them free rein to recount their earliest or strongest memories and impressions. By the third or fourth interview session, however, I realised I needed some lighter, funnier memories to balance the dark stories so many of them were telling. So there were a few questions about the games they used to play as children, what they used to get in trouble for, how they met their spouse and so on. (I asked many of them if they used to fight with their siblings – at least in my family, this is the source of many a good story. But every single one I asked said ‘no’, which surprised me – I don’t know if their memories have become more rose-tinted with time; I can hardly believe Chinese children are essentially less quarrelsome.)

I only really edited where absolutely necessary. When people recall the past they tend to skip about a bit, and so I grouped anecdotes of the same time period together (within individual accounts) in order to preserve continuity. However I was very keen to preserve the fragmented nature of the recollections, which can seem illogical to the objective reader. I tried to make sure the Shanghainese-Mandarin translators included every last detail, however mundane it may seem to them, and to avoid summarizing the stories, or putting them in any sort of logical order. Sometimes, in their attempts to be helpful, the translators would insert explanations without indicating that it was their voice speaking, rather than the interviewee’s – but this was really a very minor problem. When my ayi’s lament of the demise of the street stall was interrupted by an explanation saying ‘These street stalls can be unhygienic. The government is trying to protect the people…’ it was pretty easy to spot that this was written by the translator!

I have learnt a lot from the experience of writing this book: living in Shanghai, I thought I was quite familiar with the city and its people, but I realised how much I wasn't aware of. It's incredible how much things have changed, and how deeply these changes have affected ordinary people. I feel very proud to donate proceeds of the sales of my book to the old people's homes, and to have given their residents a voice and a medium with which to share their stories.

Elizabeth Watson has lived in Shanghai for three years working on a variety of teaching and translating jobs, including working as a tour guide at the Beijing Olympics. The book can be ordered from, and is available from December 2008.


# 1.   

Very cool. Off to order a copy.

Micah Sittig, November 25, 2008, 6:12p.m.

# 2.   

Hello Elizabeth, it sounds like a wonderful project. I've just sent you an inquiry about acquiring this book. I've been lucky to have my Mother-in-law regale me with accounts of events like the bombing of the Sincere Co. Department Store from the perspective of a young girl.

Gary Soup, November 25, 2008, 9:15p.m.

# 3.   

How can we get a copy, as I don't see a way to order here or on Amazon, etc.

Steve, December 13, 2008, 9:51p.m.

# 4.   

Steve: Elizabeth says above, "The book can be ordered from".

Nicky Harman, December 15, 2008, 4:43p.m.

# 5.   

Any progress on the book? I am looking forward to reading it!

Micah Sittig, December 20, 2008, 8:21p.m.

# 6.   

Hello Elizabeth,

Came across your website while surfing the web. Thought you might be interested in my book:
Memoirs: From Old Shanghai to the New World which is my father's biography.


Tani Maher

Tani Maher, February 26, 2009, 8:58a.m.

# 7.   

Thanks Tani! - went on your website and it looks very interesting - I'll definitely put it on my to-read list!

From Elizabeth

Elizabeth Watson, February 27, 2009, 7:02p.m.


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