By Royston Chan
SHANGHAI (Reuters) - The time: World War Two. The place: Shanghai, where more than 30,000 Jews were sheltered by the Chinese during the Japanese occupation -- a saga now dramatized in a play that aims to highlight a little-known episode in history.
The directors of "North Bank Suzhou Creek," which premiered in Shanghai on Thursday prior to heading to New York later this year, said the story of what happened in wartime Shanghai needed to be told.
"This is the Chinese version of 'Schindler's List,'" said Jeffrey Sichel, one of the directors, referring to the Oscar-winning film about a German businessman who saved the lives of more than a thousand Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe.
"In essence (it) is not well known enough that the Chinese gave shelter, that the Chinese really...gave shelter to over 30,000 Jews."
The Jewish refugees established a community with theatres and schools in an impoverished part of Shanghai north of the city's famous riverside Bund before the Japanese heeded ally Nazi Germany's request they be forced to live in a restricted ghetto area.
The play centers on a Jewish-run cafe on the northern bank of Shanghai's Suzhou Creek, where Shana, the daughter of the cafe owner, finds herself pursued by both a Japanese official, Mr. Suzuki, as well as Song Yao, a Chinese resistance fighter.
The six-person cast is divided evenly between Chinese and Western actors, and the play was directed by two Jewish-American directors.
Wang Jiajian, who plays the role of Song Yao, said he felt that the Jewish and Chinese people were united at that time in history because both were struggling with oppressors.
"When I hug Shana, the daughter of the Jewish man, sometimes I feel that I have gone back in time to that period," he said.
"Our hearts understand each other, the way we think and the obstacles we face are very similar."
Emelie Ohana, who plays Shana, said she was moved by her character's plight and the conflicts she faced.
"There's something about this character, about this story, about what it says, that has so much meaning," she said. "It's so powerful."
The play is produced in partnership with the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, Chinese production company Play Play Studio Company, the international NGO, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and the Israeli consulate in Shanghai.
It will run from March 22 to April 1 at the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, then have a two-day run at the Shanghai Theatre Academy, before its New York premiere in May.
(Writing by Elaine Lies, editing by Paul Casciato)