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Strange Lands And People

By Martha Nemes Fried

    A group of starving young students from Manchuria assembled during midmorning on Legation Street in Beijing only four days after we arrived for our vacation. They sat quietly and in an orderly fashion. They had sent a representative to petition the mayor for provisions of food. We had front row seats to the event as our compound was across the way from the mayor's residence. The students looked no more than thirteen or fourteen years old. They had no weapons. They just sat on the street waiting for their spokesman to return from the mayor's mansion. The group politely moved aside to make room for me when I went out to shop for antiques that afternoon. Mort and I happened to return from our respective errands at the same time.

    We were about to enter the compound just as Charlotte Horstman was walking down Legation Street with Frank Donaldson, an American friend. They stopped to chat with us as we stood at the gate. The students were still sitting quietly and patiently, despite the fact that the Nationalist Army had brought a huge armored tank to the street. It was outfitted with a large gun aimed directly at them. The Nationalists were losing the civil war and army morale was low. All four of us voiced apprehensions about the potential for violence by dispirited soldiers under the command of disgruntled, low-ranking officers.

     We had been invited to dine at the home of Ted Lake, an official at the British Consulate, and were about to bathe and dress. We said good-bye to our friends and went inside the gate. I had taken off my dress and just started to fill the tub when I heard eardrum-shattering noises. I quickly ran from the bathroom in my slip, and dragged a chair over to one of the high windows of the bedroom. I tried to hoist myself to see what was happening. Mort had been slowly unbuttoning his shirt, but he instantly lunged at me and pulled me down.

"Are you crazy? What do you think you're doing?"

"I want to see what's happening."

"And get your head blown off? The bullets are ricocheting off the walls!"

"I'm perfectly safe."

     By the time I uttered the last word the street was as quiet as a ghost town. When we went out to fetch a pedicab, the pools of blood on the pavement outside the compound shocked us more than anything we had ever seen. The Nationalist soldiers had removed the bodies, but had not yet washed the street clean. Mort ran back into our bedroom, grabbed his camera and took a dozen or so photographs. He engaged a pedicab driver to take us to Ted's house and asked the driver to return for us at eleven-thirty.

    We relayed the events of the day to our friend. He agreed the military's action was atrocious, but not surprising. We proceeded to other topics and after a congenial evening of good food, wine and conversation we went out expecting the driver to be waiting for us. It was pitch black outside. We could not see anything and the driver was nowhere to be found. Ted went back to his house to get a flashlight. He said it was too late to call a taxi and suggested we walk until we found a rickshaw or a pedicab. He was holding the flashlight in his hand as we made our way along the dark hutung. We were suddenly blinded by the blaze of flashlights in our eyes. As soon as the pupils of our eyes adjusted to the glare, we saw that we were surrounded by Nationalist soldiers holding rifles with bayonets attached, aimed directly at us.

     If I had taken one minute to assess the situation realistically I would have died of fright. Fortunately for all three of us, I switched to automatic pilot. I had no awareness of being frightened. The civil war had nothing to do with me and I had nothing to do with it. Besides, I was not just another American, I worked for the United States government and had identification to prove it. My youth and inexperience prompted me to speak with arrogance. They did not have to understand my words; they could hear the impertinence in the tone of my voice.

     I believed at the age of twenty-four that I was never going to die, definitely not by mistake, and certainly not on foreign soil by a foreign soldier's weapon. My every thought was completely irrational. I still believe that my response in the face of sudden, and very possibly fatal confrontation, saved our lives. I asked Mort and Ted, both fluent in Mandarin, to tell the officer in charge that I was an official attached to the American Consulate.

"I demand the use of their telephone to call the American Consul. Tell him that!"

     The officer censured us in harsh tones and told us there was an emergency nine-o'clock curfew. We had broken the law by being out late. He relented after he harangued us for ten minutes or so and let me use the phone. I described our situation to the Vice Consul and asked him to put his chauffeur on the line. One of the young noncommissioned officers explained to him where to pick us up. The telephone was in a wooden kiosk; I asked the officer in charge to let me sit on the bench while we waited and he gave a curt signal of assent.

    When the Vice Consul finally arrived in his limousine, the instructions to the driver were very specific: do not drive faster than ten miles an hour, keep all the windows of the car down, stop at each checkpoint, and do not resist soldiers who want to take a look inside the car. Ted, shaken by the experience, pretended composure and walked back to his house. After we climbed into the limousine, I noticed the Vice Consul's pajama-clad legs under the hem of his raincoat. He seemed thoroughly displeased, mostly with the Nationalist Government's habit of sudden and arbitrary decisions to enforce laws they made up on the spur of the moment. He was clearly annoyed with our escapade, which forced him to wake and leave his bed. He maintained a polite if reserved countenance.

     The chauffeur drove at the specified speed. Soldiers stopped us at five-minute intervals. They plunged bayonets through the open windows of the limousine, yelled belligerently at the driver, then let us continue to the next checkpoint. If memory serves me right we were stopped three or four times. We thanked the Vice Consul for his help as soon as we were let off at the gate of the compound and wished him a good night's sleep. He said he was glad to have been of help.

    We read an account of the student demonstration in the English newspaper the next day and did not recognize the events we had witnessed as described in the article. The reporter claimed the students had been armed and the soldiers had no choice in the face of danger but to protect themselves. Charlotte and Frank told us that six of the students had been killed. All four of us had seen the unarmed children, heard the shots, and even photographed the spilled blood of the slaughtered victims. We were sickened by the distortions in the report of the incident and concerned about the fate of our Chinese friends if the Chinese government could violently turn on its own citizens with impunity.

    The atrocity we witnessed occurred in July 1948, three-fourths through our stay in China in the city of Beijing where we vacationed and were housed in the old Netherlands embassy on Legation Street. China Relief Mission had leased the building and the surrounding grounds to accommodate visitors. As an employee of the relief organization I was entitled to stay there and enjoy all the amenities it had to offer.

     I was the first American hired by China Relief Mission in Shanghai in September 1947 so I had better start this account of our life in China from the beginning. Mort had received a grant from the Social Science Research Council in the Spring of 1947 to conduct original field research in China. Fieldwork was a prerequisite for a doctorate in the discipline of anthropology. China was torn by civil war then. The situation was so unstable the State Department refused to issue me a passport unless we could get a resident of Shanghai to guarantee my food and shelter. A friend of Mort's, another graduate student in the Department of Anthropology, had an aunt who lived in Shanghai. Responding to his plea on our behalf, she kindly wrote a letter to the State Department personally assuring the provision of my basic necessities. Mort still insisted on going to China first to make certain my essential needs would be taken care of. He left at the beginning of July by train and boarded the General Gordon in San Francisco.

    I took the train to San Francisco three weeks later. I had flown across the country twice before. Exhilarating as those early flights at an altitude of ten thousand feet had been, travel by air failed to provide a close viewing of the grandeur of America's extraordinary natural beauties I enjoyed through the window of my compartment. I was born and raised in Budapest, Hungary. Any border in my native country could be reached from Budapest in about six or seven hours by train. More than once my grandfather or father traveled to Vienna to have a midday meal with a client and returned home in time for supper. It took four full days to reach the West coast from New York by train then. The sheer size of my adopted country overwhelmed me.

    I sailed across the Pacific on the Marine Adder, a reconverted troop transport just like the General Gordon. The American President Lines had given the old tubs a fresh coat of paint and left everything else the way it had been. Having purchased a first class ticket, I was surprised to find myself in a cabin with eleven other women. The captain assigned us to the quarters of junior naval officers where we slept in bunks. The bathroom we shared had three shower stalls. Two of them were usually out of commission. The three toilets were sometimes all plugged up and overflowing.

    The crossing took seventeen days. The sea was very choppy as we began our journey from San Francisco Bay; many people aboard became seasick. Having crossed the Atlantic in equally rough waters seven years before, I knew that keeping one's stomach full was essential. The only other young woman in the cabin was Nell Maguire, a medical missionary who had served in the European Theater of War. She was on her way to China to work in a hospital in Beijing. We had become very friendly and together we filched the rolls left in the bread baskets on the mess hall table. We went up to the top deck where the sensation of pitching and rolling was minimal and stuffed ourselves with our booty for hours. Neither of us had any idea of the power of the sun in the Pacific and we acquired burns that nearly landed us in the ship's infirmary. For about a week our faces were covered with a hideous ointment to heal our badly damaged complexions.

    For most of the passengers the trip to China was a homecoming. Several hundred missionaries were going back after seven lean years at home. Down below the decks, in steerage, a hundred and fifty to a dormitory, were the exiled Chinese returning to their homeland. There were also a few businessmen on board. One of them carried seventy-five Arrow shirts for sale in Shanghai. He planned to evade paying customs by wearing three or four fresh shirts each day and sneak them in with the rest of his laundry. I still remember his oft repeated pronouncement that a man needed a Japanese wife, Chinese food and Scotch whiskey to have a perfect life.

    The passenger list included Steve Becker, a budding writer who was to achieve a measure of success and fame some years later, and Phil Foise, a journalist of the San Francisco Foise clan. Phil was returning to marry the woman he fell in love with while he was stationed in Shanghai during the war. There were several college students and two or three other non-missionaries. We constituted a tiny minority and stuck to each other like Velcro.

     The ship docked at Honolulu for a day. Nell had a letter of introduction to a Methodist minister and his wife who had invited her to spend the day. I browsed in a nearby book store while she made her call and told them she was with a friend. By the time she relayed their invitation to go sightseeing in their car, I had purchased The Viking Portable Fitzgerald and The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood. I gratefully accepted her friends' offer. The natural beauties of the island were impressive, but our hosts mostly spoke of their mundane chores around the parish, conversation I found of no interest. Nell had a glazed look in her eyes when the afternoon was over. I realized she had found their society just as tiresome as I had and went on to suggest we treat ourselves to an expensive dinner in a good restaurant. Nell quickly accepted my proposal. As soon as we finished our repast of grilled lobster, we hired a limousine to explore the port city after the sun had set.

     Honolulu had a strange mixture of lascivious amusement for the entertainment of sailors and the providers of their pleasures, and proselytizing missionaries who preached morality to natives and seamen alike. We boarded the ship at ten, enchanted by the mountains, lakes and waterfalls of Hawaii. We had spent two weeks in Honolulu in twelve hours. Regardless of the island's scenic charms, neither of us had the slightest desire to live there. Old timers told us that if we ever wanted to return to Hawaii we had to throw our leis back into the ocean as the ship left harbor. We both did but mine got stuck on a projection of the ship. I returned to Hawaii twice in the ensuing years; so much for superstition.

    It took three hours from the sapphire blue Pacific to reach Shanghai harbor on the muddy, yellow Whangpoo River crowded with fishing junks and sampans. I had to strain my eyes to glimpse the skyline of the Paris of the Orient. Phil Foise, who stood next to me at the railing, was aquiver with excitement the moment he spotted the Bund. Called Wai Tan by the Chinese, it fronted the river and was crowded with the large modern buildings of the international settlement.

     The Marine Adder docked at four-thirty, but it took me a half hour to catch sight of Mort waiting for me on the pier. The customs officials examined my purse and luggage thoroughly. They took all my vitamins and twelve of my twenty-four pairs of nylons. Mort hired two taxis and with the assistance of two coolies my steamer trunk and other luggage arrived at the Park Hotel when we did.

    Mort had reserved an especially large double room for us appointed with 1930's Art Deco furnishings. Once I placed all our belongings in drawers and hung them in closets, I luxuriated in the porcelain tub of the spacious, white tiled bathroom. I scrubbed myself from head to toe, shampooed my hair, rinsed off in the shower, rubbed myself dry with oversized thirsty white towels and felt clean for the first time in seventeen days. I called room service to order tea, then took a sheet of hotel stationery and wrote to my mother. Here is an excerpt from that letter.

August 25, 1947

Mother Dearest:
     I couldn't help but think of the last time I was on a ship approaching a new continent, entering a life heretofore unknown to me, meeting a new set of circumstances and wondering how I'll adjust, if at all. In short, that three hour ride up the Whangpoo River to enter Shanghai harbor was full of anxious speculation.
     I thought about our first sighting of the Statue of Liberty as the Conte Di Savoia brought us into New York harbor in April 1940 and the rigors we experienced during the first few years in our adopted country. I reminded myself that this time I was not running away from a dictatorship, I came to China to be at my husband's side to share a glorious adventure with him.   

    Mort had met Chuck Branan. Dick Rossi and several other pilots who had flown with General Chennault's Flying Tigers during the crossing of the General Gordon. They were all pilots for China National Aviation Corporation, CNAC for short, and lived in luxurious apartments in Shanghai. Two of them joined us for dinner with their girlfriends our first evening. We ate on the fourteenth floor restaurant of the hotel. It had an electrically operated roof that slid open when the weather was fair and dry.

    The excellent service and the sophisticated atmosphere bore the stamp of European colonists. We dined on shrimp, Tournedos Béarnaise with appropriate garnishes and side dishes, ice cream and coffee. We were entertained by an American style floor show and after dinner we danced to American standards played by the Chinese orchestra. Our first evening out in Shanghai cost one million Chinese dollars. The next evening we all went to the Mayflower, then considered to be the best Chinese restaurant in Shanghai. I had never used chopsticks before, but I was ravenously hungry and eager to learn. The serving dishes were placed in the center of the table and the rest of our company, adept with chopsticks, ate with ease and speed. The waiter, having observed my difficulties, offered me a porcelain spoon. Our dinner companions giggled as he spoke. Mort quickly explained to me that the Chinese called the use of the spoon "the child's way." I was determined not to make a fool of myself, and as the food was vanishing from the serving dishes I realized manual ineptitude was a luxury I could not afford.

    I learned to get around Shanghai with similar speed. Mort and I went to the center of town together a few days after my arrival. He left me off at a major intersection and told me to find my way alone. He assured me it was the quickest road to independence. It struck me that he had borrowed the theory from parents who think the fastest way to teach a child to swim is to throw it into deep water. It's a sure fire prescription for drowning, but Mort must have been confident my pride would keep me afloat.
     The streets were democratic....

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Martha Nemes Fried has published two hardcover books; each came out in paperback. Nineteen of her stories have been published in the following magazines: Ceteris Paribus, Eclectica, Savoy Fiction, Megaera, Dynamic Patterns, Zinos, News of the Brave New World and C/Oasis. She was born in Budapest, Hungary and came to the United States when she was a child.

Contact Martha Nemes Fried at mfried13@rochester.rr.com

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