The ROCKPORT WRITERS GROUP held a “Roundup” yesterday at the ESTELLE STAIR GALLERY; ten of us read selections rom our writings. Here’s mine from TEA ON THE GREAT WALL:
My brother and I, with Lao Lu at the back, Amah on the left, and friends in our sampan at Wei Hai Wei in 1934. Brother Johnny is standing at the back.
AN UNFRIENDLY ARRIVAL, Summer 1940.
The trip up from Shanghai to our summer resort, Wei Hai Wei, should have been delightful, steaming up the China coast by boat. Nothing to do but bask in the sun, enjoy the light wind, gaze at the horizon and feast on tea and scones rich with currants. But that’s not how it went.
That evening, I saw windows being covered and lights dimed. This was definitely not good. I ran down to my room. A seaman was fussing with the porthole.
“Hey, don’t cover it, please!” But he installed curtains so heavy that no light could get through. Then he bolted the portholes.
What’s going on?” I asked angrily. I loved the ocean air in my room.
“We’re sailing under a British flag, Miss,” he said. “We are vulnerable to German raiders in the area. If they can’t see us, we’ve a better chance of not being torpedoed.”
That silenced me.
Overnight the easy atmosphere on the boat changed. We remembered that Germany was at war with Britain and that we were going to a Japan-occupied part of China where Americans were not protected.
When we arrived at dawn I went on deck to watch our arrival. I was ecstatic to see Wei Hai Wei again. A loving feeling embraced me, as though the harbor were welcoming me as one of its own.
But now Japanese officials boarded the ship. As we waited to disembark our Cook came up to Mother, his face twisted with consternation. “Missie, what thing?” He was wringing his hands. “Jap-man say no Chinese-man can go off boat. What thing can do, Missie?”
Mother went immediately to the ship Captain to insist that our servants be permitted to land. They had had a multitude of shots and Japanese medical approvals and certificates so that this problem would not arise.
“It’s part of the Japanese war of nerves with Britons and Americans,” the Captain told her. “They want to make us feel unwelcome so that we’ll leave China to them.”
“More damned Japanese cheek,” someone muttered.
Mother began arguing with the Japanese officials. Meanwhile, sampans began to surround the steamer to carry passengers and cargo ashore. I saw our boatman.
“Hao, Lao Lu!” I called down. He heard me, looked up and smiled broadly. I noticed that his sampan flew a Japanese flag. They all did. Even here? On the lowly sampans?
We had to leave without our servants, climbing down a swaying ladder, then jumping from it to the sampan bouncing on the waves. Our Chinese servants and those of other families stood forlorn at the ship’s railing, watching us leave, uncertain of their future. We sat, stunned into silence as our boatman steered us through the clutter of boats.
“Lao Lu,” I finally asked, “You boys, they no come helpee you? How fashion?” His sons always came to help with our luggage.
He didn’t answer. Instead, “Where blong Master Johnny (my brother)? He no come?”
Lao Lu was dodging the question. I didn’t pursue it. “Johnny go big school America,” I replied.
“My sorry Johnny no come, he all same one my boy. Too muchee man likee he.” He paused, stroking the yuloh (a Chinese oar) carefully as he skirted around sampan traffic. His body, always taut and muscled, looked too thin, on the edge of emaciation. Then I noticed that his baggy trousers were tied on by a piece of thick rope. He had no belt.
When he’d steered us away from the pack of boats he said quietly, “My lose plenty face, Littie Missie,” Then he looked around to see who might hear him. “My no-good sons go up mountains. Jap dwarf man come, want makee he work, carry stone, my no have sons to send. Ai-yah!” (Alas! or Awful!)
Then he broke up laughing. He was telling me that his sons were soldiers in the guerilla army living in the neighboring hills, and that he was rightly proud of them.
We were nearing the jetty. Suddenly someone cried out, “Oh my God, there are Japanese soldiers with bayonets pointing at us! Let’s go back to the boat!”
But we couldn’t avoid what was ahead. Not just gleaming bayonets. Snarling German Shepherds pulled at their chains, trying to get to us. A less friendly welcome could hardly be imagined.