An American Dies in China6 min read

Jay Weston recalls the tumultuous life and times of the man who “chose China”


The email came on Saturday morning…from a young woman named Stella Guo. She informed me that her grandfather, my dear friend Sidney Shapiro, had passed away at the age of 98 in his house in Beijing, China. She said that Sidney had awakened that morning at 8:30, had his breakfast. Usually he would then go to his computer and answer the multitude of emails he received from all over the world but lately he had not been able to do so. This day, she told me, he peacefully closed his eyes and went to sleep forever.

Sidney Shapiro, an American-born (December 23rd, 1915) Jewish lawyer from Brooklyn – graduate of St. John’s University, who has lived in China since 1947, married a famous Chinese actress and activist, became a Chinese citizen named Sha Boli 沙博理 in 1962, traveled frequently to the U.S. in the Seventies, became a trusted advisor to the Chinese Communist government and a translator of classical Chinese literature, author of several books (among them “Jews in Ancient China,” which was translated into Hebrew and published in Israel) …..and an avid emailer who communicated with friends across the world until the very end.

I first met Sidney in 1972, when he came to California after his visit to Brooklyn, where he had been seeing his mother. I was sharing a big house in the Hollywood hills with a fellow Brooklynite named Jerry Mann, a schmata [cheap clothing] manufacturer who was a rugged intellectual. He told me that his childhood friend Sidney Shapiro was coming for a visit…and then described how he and Sidney had ‘rode the rails‘ from New York to L.A. when they were kids.

Sidney was a delight…a round-faced, white-hired jovial fellow who spoke English (and Chinese) with a thick Brooklyn accent (which he had retained all his life.) Sidney told me the story of how he, a 32-year old Brooklyn-born Jewish lawyer, had enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1941 and applied for French Language School….only to be sent to an Army Chinese-language school in San Francisco instead. They were preparing for a possible American landing in Japanese-occupied China.

After the war, he went to further his Chinese-language skills at Columbia and Yale, and then…not wanting to return to practicing law in Brooklyn… boarded a freighter for Shanghai, China. Landing there with $200 in his pocket, he got a job with an American law firm, exactly what he didn’t prefer doing, saying, “I traveled 10,000 miles to avoid this!” He later told me that he had been deputized by the American Consulate to talk Jewish refugees into seeking visas to countries other than the U.S.

But he had also met a lovely Chinese actress, Fengzi 凤子 – Phoenix, and fell in love. They married in 1948. She was an activist in the revolutionary movement, and when the Communists took over the country in 1948 they were smuggled into the capital, Peking. In 1949 the government asked Sidney if he wanted to return to America, but he chose to stay with his then-pregnant wife in the city, now called Beijing. They lived in a small courtyard house in a Beijing hutong. Employed by the Foreign Language Press, he was granted Chinese citizenship in 1963.

Phoenix and Sidney on their wedding day.

In 1968, his Jewish mother from Brooklyn flew to Hong Kong, traveled to the border and told the Chinese guards, “I want to visit my son Sidney in Beijing.” They put her on a train and she met his new family. When President Nixon opened up China with his visit in ‘72, the Chinese government asked Sidney if he wanted to visit his mother in the US. He arrived at the International airport here and the astonished customs people looked at his Chinese passport, which indicated he had been born in Brooklyn.

After visiting his family there, he came to California to stay for a month with Jerry and me. Some friends still remember a lunch we threw for Sidney at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club, for our acquaintances to meet him and hear his story. That was when I urged him to write a book detailing his incredible story, and helped him write what became From Brooklyn to Peking.

When he returned to Beijing, in 1983 he was asked to join the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Council, China’s highest advisory body, and he pulled his book from publication because ‘it was not politically correct.’ Years later, though, he did publish a new, revised version, I Chose China (Hippocrene Books, 2000).

In the 1990’s, Sidney revisited the U.S. with his wife, Phoenix, and they stayed with us in Los Angeles. It was only then that I learned the details of her ten-year confinement while his only daughter was sent away ‘to the country’ during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. And the inside story of why his wife had been so treated: she had been a young actress in China in the 30s with the woman, Jiang Qing, who became Mao’s wife, (one of the notoriously corrupt Gang of Four) and Phoenix knew intimate details about her which she didn’t want known, which resulted in a personal vendetta. Phoenix, who died in 1996, later became the first publisher of a theatrical magazine in China and a prominent drama critic.

Did I mention that Sidney became an actor in many Chinese movies (Airforce 长空雄鹰, etc.), always playing the perfidious American? When my friend, movie producer Ray Stark, was going to visit Beijing, Sidney told me to have him call. “I’m the only Shapiro in the Beijing phone book,” he said.

Sidney playing an American pilot in the 1976 film Airforce

Sidney’s daughter, Sha Yamei 沙亚美, became a Western-style doctor. It was her daughter, Stella Guo, who sent me the sad email. Stella has married a nice American guy, Kevin, and they have a son, William Harper. She emailed me a memory of her grandfather:

Though we are saddened by his passing, please remember Sidney’s life with joy. He lived a long and full life, one filled with love, friendship, and passion for living. As his granddaughter, I am blessed with many memories – his quirky humor, wonderful stories, great taste in music, appreciation of old movies, his American-Jewish heritage, energetic debates, love of new technology and so much more. I miss him.

Yes, we will all miss him. I remember the early days of our friendship, when there were no bagels in China…and sending him endless shipments of them. We exchanged a long and tumultuous dialogue…arguing in print about China’s relationship with Israel, its policies and those of the U.S., so many passionate discussions and exchanges, always ending with a joke.

Someone once said to me, “The best way to portray a cataclysmic event of history is to tell it through the eyes of two people in love, like ‘Dr. Zhivago’ did for the Russian Revolution.” And imagine a movie about the love story of American Sidney and Chinese Phoenix, detailing the story of the Chinese revolution through the eyes of these two people in love. Now that’s a movie I would want to see! ∎

An earlier version of this essay originally appeared on the Huffington Post Los Angeles blog on December 23, 2014, and is posted here with permission of the author.
Sidney Shapiro passed away three years ago this month