With 'Shanghai Angel,' Heather Klein Tells a Timely Refugee Tale

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Heather Klein  (Adam Frazier)

Heather Klein couldn’t have predicted the current political climate when she first began work on her new musical performance piece, Shanghai Angel. But somehow, it’s being released into the world -- it premieres at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum on Feb. 23 and 26 -- at what some might say is exactly the right moment.

Shanghai Angel tells the story of Klein's grandmother who fled Nazi-occupied Austria for China, where she boarded a boat to the United States and was summarily detained for nearly two weeks on Angel Island. Her perilous journey contains striking parallels to these perplexing political times of immigration bans and mass confusion.


“I started working on this over a year and a half ago. I never could have imagined that I’d be putting this show on at a time that this is a topic, this is a reality,” says Klein from her home in Las Vegas, where she moved from San Francisco a little over a year ago. “It’s mind-boggling, actually.”

In the musical, Klein performs songs she composed from the perspective of her grandmother. The 45-minute show, featuring nine original songs and live piano and percussion accompaniment by Joshua Horowitz, will be followed by a short discussion with experts from the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation.


Klein is a classically trained soprano who’s traveled the world both as a soloist and with various ensembles, and who is currently cantorial soloist at Temple Sinai in Las Vegas. In the past, she’s performed a modern Yiddish song cycle for Yom HaShoah -- also at the CJM -- as well as the role of Lilith in Lilith the Night Demon by Veretski Pass. She’s also currently working on an opera about Cuba and Jews with Sundance and Music Theater Group. But Shanghai Angel is her first foray into composing music and writing her own show.

The idea for Shanghai Angel came after Klein’s family found the transcribed story of Rosa Ginsberg -- Klein’s paternal grandmother -- written by a volunteer at Angel Island’s immigration station.

Rosa Klein with husband, Herbert, 1945
Rosa Klein with husband, Herbert, 1945. (via J Weekly)

Klein’s father was doing a basic Google search when he happened upon the detainment story. They’d all known bits and pieces of Rosa’s life in Vienna and Shanghai, but the finding revealed much more, says Klein. Grandma Rosa, since deceased, had rarely talked about her past.

They learned how she’d escaped Vienna in December 1938, shortly after Kristallnacht, thanks to Ho Feng-Shan, a man known as the "Chinese Schindler" of Vienna. How she was the sole breadwinner in Shanghai and got a job in a curiosity shop in Tianjin (then known as Tientsin). Lastly, and most integral to Shanghai Angel, they learned how Rosa, at age 18, had been detained upon her solo arrival in San Francisco. She had $2.50 to her name. Klein based her musical on her own understanding of these events and Rosa’s time at Angel Island, trying to imagine what she must have been going through during her journey.

“The show is really about her being trapped at Angel Island during those three weeks and looking back on her journey there from Vienna,” explains Klein. “I can only imagine the dark place she was in, being alone, having left her only family and trying to get to the United States.”

Heather Klein.
Heather Klein. (Betsy Kershner )

Klein says creating the piece was emotional work, but credits help along the way from family and friends -- including her cousin Ben, an actor who helped dramatize the story, and her parents and aunt who provided additional (and sometimes conflicting) stories of her grandmother.

Emotions are also bubbling, Klein says, due to the connections to current U.S. policies. “It’s gotten more emotional as I’ve gotten closer to performing it, because of the news and this horrific reality," she says. "It’s just setting in that it’s happening. It’s almost like ‘Oh my god, it’s happening again.”’

“Every time I hear something about people being detained... I’m just so inside this story right now. It’s very scary," she says.

But there’s also a part of her that sees Shanghai Angel premiering at this time for a reason. “Now I’m even more excited to tell it because I think it needs to be told, people need to hear it," Klein says. She intentionally created a show that’s easy travel with -- just her and her “partner in crime” Horowitz -- with the idea of taking it on the road and performing for as many people as possible.

She hopes attendees will leave the performance spurred to ask their own family members questions about their past, to learn their stories while they’re still around. But in a broader sense, she says she wants Shanghai Angel to encourage understanding of all immigrants and refugees.

“I hope people are more sympathetic and understanding about people who don’t live here and need to get out of another country and need a place that’s safe,” says Klein. “I hope people connect to her story and what she went through, the fears and the harsh reality when you need to escape.”


Heather Klein performs 'Shanghai Angel’ at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco at 6:30pm on Thursday, Feb. 23, and 3pm on Sunday, Feb. 26. Tickets ($15–$20) and more information here.