I’M GRATEFUL FOR THE ARTICLE BUT THE AUTHOR GOT MY AGE WRONG — I’M ONLY A SPARKLING 88 YEARS OLD! A VINTAGE YEAR.
BITTERS\WEET MEMORIES OF SHANGHAI IN THE 1930’S
By Yao Minji | July 31, 2015, Friday | PRINT EDITION
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Patricia Luce Chapman, now 89, records the glamor and then the wartime turbulence growing up in Shanghai.
Patricia Luce Chapman was having tea at the Great Wall in Beijing in 1940 with her family and friends when a Japanese soldier appeared out of nowhere and stole a piece of cake from them.
Her brother started cursing, and the soldier grabbed her. Someone with a gun threatened to shoot the soldier unless he released the young girl.
The incident ended peacefully and decades later provided Chapman with the title of her 2015 book “Tea on the Great Wall: An American Girl in War-Torn China.” The book is a memoir on Chapman’s childhood years in China.
Chapman was born in 1926 and grew up on Amherst Avenue, which is today’s Xinhua Road, in Shanghai.
“My China was wildly funny, witty, courteous, colorful, with noisy opera dances mixed with the classic Chinese dance I was taught by (Peking Opera master) Mei Lanfang,” she says, recalling the 1930s and her lessons with the famous singer.
But the glamor of the 1930s soon darkened as the Japanese invasion brought horror, death and tragedy to Shanghai.
In late 1940, Chapman was evacuated to the United States with her mother, the renowned journalist Edna Lee Booker. Her father, John Potter, who worked for the Bank of China, remained behind and was interned by the Japanese before being reunited with his family in 1943.
Her first husband was Henry Luce III, the elder son of the founder of Time magazine. Chapman had a career as a journalist and songwriter. Now widowed, she has four children.
Chapman never returned to China.
Shanghai Daily interviewed Chapman by Skype and by e-mail to discuss her book, her memories and impressions about China today.
Q: What inspired you to finally write down these memories from childhood?
A: One of my children was urging me for several years to record something about my childhood in China. “How will it be,” she asked, “when your grandchildren ask what happened to Grandma when she was a little girl in China and the Japanese soldiers came? No one will ever know, because you will no longer be there to answer.”
The last years, until November 1940 when we escaped, were so horrible that I couldn’t talk about them, and when I got back to the US, my life had been so different from other children’s that it was hard to share it. So I remained quiet about my past, in effect burying it.
Later, I didn’t want to visit the rigid China that I saw on TV.
Now, when I am emotionally ready and longing to return and very interested and curious to see what has happened to my former world, I am too old to travel. I regret this greatly.
As I got into the writing, I found that it was becoming a real book. I began to introduce Chinese history in fleshing out and explaining some of my experiences. Before I knew it, four years later, after a lot of reading and rewriting, “Tea on the Great Wall” was born.
Q: It seems you remember the events and people very well. Did you keep a diary?
A: I remember all members of our domestic staff very well. I loved them all for 14 years of my life in China and thought of them by name and face in my memory for all my life away from China.
In contrast, I don’t remember the names of any of my schoolteachers. I did keep a diary, from which I was able to extract occasional details. That helped. So did the scrapbook that my father kept for me.
Q: You mentioned in the book visits of Chinese guests to your house, including some celebrities and influential figures. How was the relationship between Chinese and expats at that time?
A: I was not aware of any distinction in the way my parents behaved toward Chinese or expats or Europeans. I was possibly just unaware of undercurrents. But my memory is of an easy mix of various kinds of people, whether Mei Lanfang or Admiral Henry Yarnell, commander-in-chief of the US Navy’s Asiatic fleet. My mother’s friendships with Aileen Pei, architect I.M. Pei’s mother, and Rose Bang How, Avril Tong and Wally Kwok’s wife were close in Shanghai and continued close in New York.
When my father returned from the Japanese prison camp, he went to work again for the Bank of China and Tsu Yi Pei (former governor of the Bank of China under the Nationalists and I.M. Pei’s father). The Chinese respect for my father is reflected by his having been appointed trust officer of the Bank of China in Shanghai. The respect and friendship went both ways.
Q: How did your early years in China influence your later life?
A: My life was heavily influenced by my childhood and early youth in north China as well as in Shanghai.
I learned and value the quality of the courtesies I experienced in China. I can’t stand to see poverty. I hate the smell of burning peanut oil from the peddlers’ carts and love the smell of gunpowder from the strings of little red firecrackers that were everywhere. I can’t stand anything Japanese except for the food and my little Suzuki car.
I can mix easily in any society at any level but am not comfortable with what I guess I’d call snobs, people with pretentions who don’t look below the surface.
I learned to look inside myself, my soul, or whatever one calls it, for beauty and strength when I am in trouble. I learned to masquerade my emotions, to protect myself, not to let others know how I really feel inside.
I learned to care deeply for people in desperate circumstances for no reasons of their own making — whether they were rickshaw coolies or Jewish, Russian or Chinese refugees.
Q: After you left China, was it difficult to acclimatize to the US after growing up in such a different environment?
A: It was very difficult for me to go in a few weeks from a life with 10 live-in servants and handmade dance dresses to having no servants and working in the school office for my scholarship money. I attended New York society balls in dresses bought from resale shops.
I was deeply aware of what was happening in Shanghai and China when I left. I worried about my father and about the household staff and my governess Miss Erik. I couldn’t talk about this. It hurt too much, and then I found it too strange for my classmates to grasp, and I began to hide my childhood.
The overt treatment of me in China as an inferior female child, in contrast to my brother, may have affected my sense of self-worth. I was plagued with insecurity throughout my life regardless of whatever success I achieved.
I have looked for ways to help indigenous peoples whose lands have been taken over by foreign cultures. I know this comes from my anger at the treatment of the Chinese by some foreigners in history.
I spent 20 years running a private nonprofit organization called the Micronesia Institute. Its purpose was to help the people of Pacific islands celebrate their own culture after centuries of subjugation by Spanish, German and Japanese invasions and, I’m sorry to say, arrogance in some cases by the American government.
Q: What do you think about China today?
A: I am thankful for the absence of gaunt, starving, opium-addicted rickshaw coolies.
I am thankful that Shanghai is united under one country’s rule rather than the divisions that I knew.
I have seen photographs of today’s Weihai and regret the gigantic memorials and boulevards that, unless I am mistaken, have destroyed much of the natural beauty of this historic, lovely place.
I have heard about the smog in both Beijing and Shanghai. It prevents some people from visiting now. I hope that strong action will get underway to remove a problem that blights the beauty of China.
I am glad that China has not only regained her pre-Japanese invasion status but also risen far beyond it by lessening the dreadful poverty that I knew. I applaud China for being once again a superstar nation, as she was long ago.
I find it incredible that she went so quickly from destitution to her present important position in the world, and I am very proud of the wisdom and brilliance of the Chinese people in throwing off the chains of the past. I am very glad that she is building defenses against any future invasions ever again.