Memories of a Childhood in Wartime Shanghai

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MEMORIES OF A CHILDHOOD IN SHANGHAI

INTRODUCTION

I remember it well.

It was the morning of July 4th 1946 when a non descript van picked up my grandmother, me, and our worldly possessions, which consisted of two suitcases and a Chinese trunk, and took us to board the troop ship USS General Meigs. The ship was to transport us from Shanghai to San Francisco where we were to begin a new life in the “promised land’, more commonly known as the US of A. There were lots of tears, hugs, and kisses with relatives and friends who came to see us off.

As our van honked and fought its way through the driving rain and heavy morning traffic of rickshaws and pedicabs, I was having second thoughts about my forthcoming adventure.

On one hand, as a ten year old, I was excited about taking a trip across the Pacific Ocean on a troop ship; and anxious to realize the visions I had of a future life in America. Admittedly, my visions were heavily colored by seeing too many Hollywood movies that flooded Shanghai after the war ended. I could see myself as a cowboy riding a bucking bronco in the wild west, much as John Wayne did it on the screen; or possibly join the US Navy and tap dance on the deck of a large aircraft carrier a la Gene Kelly.

On the other hand, I was saddened to be leaving some close family members, good friends, and familiar Shanghai landmarks. However, as a naïve ten year old, I was comforted by the unrealistic expectation that I would soon be reunited in America with the family members and friends who remained in Shanghai.

My childhood in Shanghai was influenced by two phenomena – significant world events that impacted Shanghai; and growing up in a non traditional family.

Because of world events, I experienced three distinctly different phases of Shanghai during the ten years I lived there. There was a Pre-World War II Shanghai; a wartime Shanghai; and a post- World War II Shanghai.

PRE WORLD WAR II SHANGHAI

Pre- World War II Shanghai was a bustling city - one of the world’s great centers for international trade. It was also a city where a majority of native Chinese were dominated and discriminated on by a tiny minority non - Chinese population .

Although I was too young to understand the international economic events and social structure that shaped the Shanghai of that era, I do recall examples of the diversity and vibrancy of the City that reflected its International dimensions. I also witnessed some of the inequities imposed on the approximately two million Chinese majority by some sixty thousand Europeans and other Caucasians who represented the minority in Shanghai’s pre-war population.

One dimension that reflected the international nature of pre war Shanghai was the diversity in the people I would see and hear while walking on the streets. There were the Chinese wearing somewhat drab and shapeless clothing; ruddy faced Brits in tweed suits; Frenchmen with their berets; burly Russians and their fur lined Cossack hats; slender Gypsy women with their veiled faces; and especially distinctive were the Hindus- men with their turbans and beautiful Hindu women wrapped in their saris and beauty spots on their foreheads. These visual signs of diversity were further reinforced by the many different languages I would hear and different customs, such as holiday celebrations, I would see.

Another international dimension, was the variety of architecture in pre-war Shanghai that brought diversity to the city’s landscape. There was the ultra modern western architecture used in the designs of first tier hotels and international bank buildings; the Mediterranean style used in some embassies; the Tudor architecture used in fashionable mansions. These contrasted sharply with the many dirty alley ways with crowded tenements that housed a significant portion of the Chinese population. These alley ways were also used as busy market...
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