Book News   |   About C/Oasis   |   Poetry Submissions   |   Sunoasis Jobs   |   Classifieds   |   Writer's Notebook   |   The Digital Writer  


Strange Lands And People

By Martha Nemes Fried

     The streets were democratic. They provided equal space to scholars, missionaries, coolies, bankers, racketeers, beggars, fruit peddlers, confidence men, prostitutes, housewives, black market dealers and naked toddlers. Wearing brown fedoras and Burberry coats, European and white- Russian men carried mysterious looking brief cases, probably filled with American dollars to be sold on the black market. They threw furtive glances at the other passers by as they hurriedly made their way along the street. The comings and goings of this disparate group of pedestrians was accompanied by a cacophony of excited chatter in a dozen different languages and dialects. Children in dirty rags said "hello, hello" with outstretched hands and followed me until they broke down my resistance. I gave them small change and felt guilty for wanting to run for safety.

     Crossing the street crowded with rickshaws, limousines, pedicabs, taxis, trucks, busses, private cars, bicycles and trams required the skills of circus performers and stunt men. The clang-clang, bang-bang and toot-toot of the vehicular traffic was deafening. The figure of a short, skinny coolie carrying two office desks attached to each end of a bamboo pole the center of which rested on his shoulder stunned me. Everything I saw was both frightening and seductive and I immediately fell in love with it.

    It is important to remind the reader that the world, which has become a global village through the miracles of television, satellite dishes, interactive computers, fax machines and the information superhighway, was a different place in 1947. We have become accustomed to a daily diet of horrifying scenes of televised wars, revolutions, terrorist acts and street violence in faraway places. Japanese eat Big Macs and Americans eat Sushi. Let me take you back to the middle years of the last century. New experiences in new places were fresh and stimulating for us and I had a sense of excitement the whole time we were in China.

     I worked as a temporary for a Wall Street law firm for six weeks before my departure for China. As soon as I discovered the firm represented people with corporate and philanthropic interests in China, I asked one of the junior partners to write me a letter of recommendation for a job in Shanghai. He obliged by penning a well crafted missive to one of his old college classmates who was the chief counsel to Standard Oil.

     I had access to the folders containing information about clients and perused them while attending the switchboard when the operator went to lunch. I was reading The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night at home. There were times when the personal lives of clients, specifically detailed in their divorce suits and premarital agreements, could easily be confused with incidents in the lives of Fitzgerald's fictional characters.

     Francie Lanahan, a woman in her early forties, who had prematurely white hair and an alcoholic husband, was the office manager. She took a liking to me, a sentiment I returned, and she told me stories about the 1929 crash when she worked through the night at Milbank Tweed, a prominent law firm at the time. She was childless and appointed herself to be my tutor. Her conversation was peppered with juicy stories about the lives of wealthy clients. I still remember how flabbergasted I was when she related the case of an executive who had a heart attack in his secretary's arms at a Chicago hotel. The law firm bought the silence of the secretary and the hotel clerk, circumvented an autopsy, had the man's body shipped home in a casket, and prevented his wife from ever finding out the truth.

     Francie's and Fitzgerald's revelations about the rich and powerful, whose highjinks scandalized me, melded in my mind. It was easy to see they were not buffeted around by life like ordinary people, but were protected from scandal by high priced attorneys. Considering the lack of any shelter from the invasion of privacy today, I yearn for those times when intimate matters were respected and most newspapers had ethical standards.

    With the junior partner's letter of introduction in hand, I phoned the Standard Oil counsel the day after I arrived in Shanghai to arrange an appointment. I can no longer remember the man's name, but the meeting in his office left an indelible impression. He told me there were seven good jobs available in Shanghai, described the benefits and drawbacks of each one and said the choice was mine.

    I selected China Relief Mission because it promised to be the most interesting assignment. The new organization was to be under the aegis of the American Consulate and was situated on the first floor of the same building, which was one of four major edifices at the intersection of Foochow and Kiangsi Roads; the others were the Metropole Hotel, Hamilton House and the Shanghai Municipal building. The job also came with many of the perquisites consular employees enjoyed. My guardian angel picked up the phone and made an appointment for me with Donald Gilpatric, the chief of mission. The rest was a formality.

    This was my introduction to the world of privilege where a single letter and a phone call were enough to get someone not just any job, but a very comfortable position. Having read the stories and novels of Fitzgerald just before leaving for China was fortuitous. I was primed for accepting a way of life that guaranteed some of the luxuries his wealthy fictional characters were accustomed to, but I never took my good fortune for granted.

     I frequently ate lunch at the YMCA coffee shop due to its proximity to the Park Hotel and its passable, inexpensive food. Mr. Arrowshirt came in for lunch a week after we debarked. He greeted me as if we had been great friends and joined me at my table without asking me if he could. I held my curiosity about the fate of the shirts in check, but learned the outcome of his game plan anyway because he was eager to boast of his coup. He got them past customs, kept five of them for himself and sold the remaining seventy at a good profit.

    It was not possible to ignore the polarities of existence between the haves and have-nots in Shanghai. I was acutely aware of them by the end of the first week of my stay. Broken down shanties were right next to luxurious hotels and apartment buildings and people looked for food in garbage bins outside the expensive restaurants we frequented. Perfectly coiffed and manicured women, the wives of Chinese generals and wealthy businessmen, dressed in chi-paos made of the finest silk, their creamy complexions lightly powdered and their lips and nails glossed vivid red, passed down the street in noiseless black limousines. These women, whose primary function was to advertise their husbands' wealth and power, sharply contrasted with their penniless countrymen who sat in the gutter in tatters begging for food, with only runny holes where their eyes had been.

    Raw life was shoved in my face and hit me hard. I knew if I let everything get to me too deeply I would not survive the long stay. I had to place a degree of emotional distance between myself and the wretchedness and corruption around me without becoming entirely indifferent to the sufferings of the poor and the opulence of the rich. Striking that delicate balance was my most difficult task.

    Once my employment was assured, we looked for a small apartment. We quickly found out that a private flat required a bribe, euphemistically referred to as 'key money,' of two to three thousand American dollars. Someone suggested that we rent part of an apartment, a very common practice in Shanghai then. We saw an advertisement in the newspaper placed by Mrs. Hauptmann, the widow of a German businessman. She had a room to let with private bath in her eight-room apartment on the fifth floor of Hanray Mansions at 1162 Rue Joffre, a tree lined avenue in the former French Concession, called Frenchtown by the locals. The apartment building had a lovely garden in the back and was right next to the residence of the American Consul.

    The living and dining rooms, the use of which she promised us for occasional entertainment of guests, had a glass wall leading to a solarium fronting on Rue Joffre. She rented me the library filled with a thousand books, European furniture, Sung vases, Chinese carvings and porcelains and a large Buddha on a black lacquer stand. There was a small round table with two comfortable chairs where I had my afternoon tea and a capacious couch, which was made up as my bed at night.

     My windows opened on Rue Joffre and through them sunshine streamed in affording me an unimpeded view of the great old leafy trees on the avenue. The rent included the services of the amah, who did my laundry, cleaned my room and cooked my food; it did not include the food purchased especially for me. Mrs. Hauptmann presented me with an itemized bill for all expenses incurred on my behalf once a month. I settled in and Mort took off for his field site, Ch'u Hsien in Anhwei province.

     I had two free weeks before starting work on September fifteenth and used some of the time reading the books in my newly acquired library. I took a leisurely walk around the neighborhood each day to familiarize myself with the elegant shops as well as the street vendors who sold everything from fresh flowers to condoms all laid out on the sidewalk on a piece of cloth.

     My constant companion during these explorations was Elise, Mrs. Hauptmann's seven-year-old granddaughter. She informed me with great assurance that Chinese blood was not red, certainly not blue, but green. I was never to trust any Chinese, she cautioned.

    I had never heard so many outrageously ignorant and prejudiced words out of the mouth of a child before. She said she was teaching me the facts to save me from dangerous mishaps and warned me about green-blooded white-slave traders. I attempted to rid her of these twisted notions, but as I observed, more often overheard, her treatment at the hands of her mother and grandmother, it became clear that I had tackled the impossible.

    Her mother, who was only three years older than I, had totally abandoned her child. She lived on the premises, but she had cut all emotional ties with Elise. The woman conducted her life as if her daughter did not exist. She was divorced from Elise's father and fully devoted to her plan of catching an American husband in her net. She was either on the telephone arranging a date, painting her nails, fussing with her hair, applying cosmetics to cover the premature lines on her face that revealed her excessive fondness for alcohol, or all dressed up and out the door to meet a new prospect.

    Mrs. Hauptmann, a large-boned woman who wore her hair in a tight bun, was long on greed and short on patience with children. She slapped Elise around, struck her hands with a ruler when she hit the wrong key on the piano during practice and smacked her for the slightest infraction. Elise's feeling of superiority to anyone who was not an Aryan, a notion learned from Mrs. Hauptmann, became her shield against the pain of her daily life. It endowed her with the comforting feeling that there were people in the world more wretched than she was.

    Mort had a letter of introduction from a New York anthropologist to Mark Phillips, head of a British relief agency with offices in Hamilton House. Mark treated Mort to lunch and helped him understand the current economic, military and political situation in China. He displayed considerable expertise and Mort was eager for me to meet him. Shortly before he left for Anhwei Province, he invited Mark to join us for dinner at the Fiacre on Rue Joffre where the Wienerschnitzel was divine. Mark was quite a handsome man who was also blessed with intelligence and dry English humor. A few weeks after Mort left for Ch'u Hsien, Mark asked me to dine with him at Chez Louis where excellent French food was prepared by a Chinese cook. Mark was an interesting, highly literate companion. Our evening at Chez Louis was a welcome change from Elise's company.

    While I was slowly making adjustments and forming new friendships in Shanghai, Mort was cautiously getting his feet wet as a first-time fieldworker. Here is one of his early letters from Ch'u Hsien where he was the house guest of Mr. Bien, the wealthiest merchant in town who adamantly refused to accept payment for food and lodging. Mort solved the problem by constantly giving him expensive presents. A Parker pen, a phonograph, and a portable typewriter, commodities that local people could only have purchased on the black market for an extremely high price. Still, the arrangement caused Mort discomfort. To someone in Mr. Bien's position in the community, giving hospitality to an American scientist meant an enhancement of his reputation. The Chinese call this "face." But his motivations went beyond that as will be seen in a subsequent letter from Mort.

Ch'u Hsien   
September 24, 1947

Dearest Beloved Kedves,      
     A little incident happened today that raised my self esteem.  You know that all efforts to pay were unsuccessful.  I am unable to pay for anything in the house, though now I have moved them to allow me to go about unescorted and I can buy things with my own money.  So far I've managed to spend about 40,000, buying seal and a large watercolor brush.  I seem to keep getting off the track.  As I said I can?t pay for my board or lodging and thus feel a little fifth-wheelish.
     Today I had a nice experience. One of the little boys of Mr. Bien burned his leg rather badly five days ago when a kerosene lamp fell to the floor and spattered him with flaming oil. He is up and around but the filthy rags and unclean Chinese "band aids" were not doing him much good and the wounds became a little bad. So today they asked me to do something and with the first aid kit I went to the rescue. I bathed the wounds with Peroxide and sterile cotton. Then I applied a boric acid anti-burn solution which came with the kit.  I ended with a flourish at a good job of bandaging and throughout took the opportunity of washing my hands a la Dr. Kildare.  I think that the kid will repair rapidly now and I am glad to have done something.
     As I type it is 8:30 and a steaming bowl of noodles has been laid before me, as well as a bowl of meat.  People keep begging me to eat before the stuff stops boiling and I suppose I must to keep the peace.
     Ah, that's better.  It was a tough battle to get them to accept the fact that I only want to eat one bowl of food at a meal.  At first it was four bowls, then three, then two, and now I have my way and eat as I please.  They are still pressing me to eat and I'd better make some motions of compliance to get rid of this mob.  If only I could get used to the "toilet" all would be well, I've adapted to the bed of boards very nicely.

  Two days after the arrival of Mort's letter I received a cable from my mother informing me that she remarried. I knew she was dating a widower from Michigan before I left New York, but his wife had only died six months before he met my mother. The whirlwind nature of the courtship and quick marriage had me surprised as well as happy. My mother had been alone for twelve years and like many women of her generation she was very unhappy without a man at her side. It was a relief to know that she found another life partner. I immediately sent Mort a letter by K'uai Hsin and received a reply by return mail.

Ch'u Hsien
September 30, 1947

Dearest Kedves:
     I know how excited you must be over the great news from your mother.  We must send her a wedding present that is more pretty and interesting than useful.  Wait until we can select it together.
     Tomorrow is the big day, 'ba yueh jieh', the moon festival.  All week peasants have been streaming into the store, buying and settling accounts for the past six months.  This holiday is the summer counterpart of New Years.
     I had a stomach ache two days ago but now I'm fine.  I do not eat very much, frankly, the food does not appeal to me.  I force down one fifth of what I used to put away at supper when you were cooking and trust that the vitamins and the meals I eat when I visit you will tide me over.


He also wrote a congratulatory message to my mother and her new husband and told them a bit about his situation, presenting a picture of a fairly typical country store in China.

I have just about gotten used to the village.  It is filthy out here, almost beyond imagination.  But my natural sloppiness has made it relatively easy for me to fit in. . . . . I eat only Chinese food and it is a far cry from Chinese food in a New York restaurant.  The tea one gets here is seldom more than hot water with a few leaves in it.  The dishes we eat are beef (we are about the only people in the village rich enough to eat beef), eggs, pork, duck, chicken and rice. . . .  The store in which I live is one of the biggest in town.  Among other things that are sold here: kerosene, heating oil, matches, cakes and cookies, wine, festival papers, incense, canned Chinese groceries and powdered milk.  Things are weighed on a hand balance scale and sharp eyes watch the transaction, each party trying to skin the other.
I announced my mother's marriage to my coworkers at the office the next morning only to have the resident wit say, "It's about time!"
     July Woo, Dick Rossi's girlfriend, called to invite me to tea a few weeks after I moved into Hanray Mansions. I was glad to have the opportunity of becoming friends with a young Chinese woman. She was attractive, financially independent, unmarried and spunky. We went to the movies together and she cooked my favorite Chinese dishes for me. She also lived on Rue Joffre, at the corner of Ferguson, some fifteen minutes from my dwelling. Her apartment was modest but comfortable. One Sunday she casually said, "I'd like you to meet my older sister."
     We took a pedicab to a very elegant quarter in Shanghai. I could hardly believe my eyes as they beheld a three-story mansion and became even more dazzled when we walked around the interior of the house. July's sister had just returned from a social engagement and was still wearing her floor-length mink cape. She was much taller and heavier than July and her complexion was flawless. Her hands were smooth, her long red nails were perfectly manicured and her dark hair was tightly drawn into a bun over the nape of her neck. She wore a huge diamond on her left hand and a jade ring equal in size on her right. Her ears were adorned with diamond and jade earrings. She was the traditional upper-class Chinese woman of leisure whose every whim was indulged by an army of servants.
     There were several formal reception rooms in the mansion, each filled with priceless porcelains. Cloisonné, oxblood, carved jade and rose quartz figurines and boxes, and a variety of screens inlaid with different shades of coral and jade endowed the house with a rich ambiance. July's sister said she preferred her own private quarters, a suite of rooms on the second floor. She entertained us in her drawing room warmed by a fire in the marble fireplace. July served as interpreter as her sister spoke no English. While she gave orders to her amah, July whispered in my ear that her brother-in-law was a general, one of Chiang Kai-shek's favorites. She also told me that this was only one of two houses her sister and brother-in-law had in Shanghai in addition to a great mansion in Nanking, where they spent most of their time.
     The amah served green tea in delicate porcelain cups, then laid a repast of many dishes before us. We ate off sterling silver plates with ivory chopsticks. Ivory is very slippery and I was careful not to drop food on the floor or in my lap. July told her sister about Mort's work and location in Anhwei Province. She took in the information, bestowed a gracious smile upon me and issued a standing invitation to her home in Nanking. I never took her up on it. The two sisters spoke little after that. The formality of their deportment had a mysterious quality. I felt confident July would tell me more about herself with the passage of time, although I was content to enjoy our friendship on her limited terms for the time being. We were served another cup of tea, then July and I thanked her sister for her hospitality and returned home.
     Phil Foise and I spent a few days exploring the city. Shanghai, located in Kiangsu Province on the West bank of the Whangpoo River, was the leading seaport of China and one of the largest cities in the world. It boasted major universities, hospitals, theaters, restaurants, movie houses and supper clubs. Phil and I went on guided tours arranged by the YMCA. They took us to a silk factory where women sat at long narrow tables picking silk worms out of troughs filled with boiling water. A little girl stood next to each woman to work as her assistant. The skin on the fingers of the women and children was wrinkled and discolored. We were told that by the end of a fourteen to sixteen hour day some of it had slipped off. They had to put their injured fingers back into the boiling water the next day before scar tissue could fully develop. I received a smile whenever my eyes met the gaze of a woman or child. The workers looked emaciated and I felt it was obscene for us to tour the facility with our well-fed bodies clad in expensive clothes.
     After the silk factory our guide showed us the living quarters of the workers. They were tiny mud huts with hardly enough room inside to turn around and no space between the hut of one family and the ones that surrounded it. The spirit displayed by the workers in the silk factory was to be repeated by other workers in other circumstances throughout my stay. The weather turned bitterly cold in the winter of 1947-48. While I shivered in my fur coat and suede shoes, I saw barefooted rickshaw coolies gathered around noodle stands on the street heartily laughing at each other's jokes.

     I received an encouraging letter from Mort in November.

     I am doing so well here that the last few days have been very pleasurable.  To begin with I have again hit my real stride in living and I eat with the best of them . . .I have even gotten to the stage where I enjoy a breakfast of boiled rice and cold boiled fish left over from the day before.

     Three days a week now I teach English to a petty official while he teaches me Chinese. The man is a veterinarian at the local Govt. experimental cattle farm, he was educated in the Pasteur Institute in Paris and in French Indochina but his French is very hard to understand. Now, as a result, as I walk down the streets of Ch'u Hsien, people ask me to come in and talk to them. I am in an ethnologist's paradise. I cannot imagine that any of my predecessors in the field ever had such an easy setup. Sometimes I feel guilty for having landed such a plush job but then I realize that the study's the thing and not the adventure. 
     I see my plan working and fruits beginning to ripen.  A month ahead of schedule the town is beginning to unfold!

     Two weeks later came another letter from which only the following excerpt is needed to render his mood of the moment.

   Life quietly settles into routine here and I find myself taking to it easily.  I had to master a tremendous fit of depression which overwhelmed me -- because I can't understand Chinese properly.  I can't & that's all there is to it.  My level rises slowly but not fast enough.  Well -- we'll see what happens in about 6 months.

    There were to be many more letters, some euphoric, some indicating frustration and dejection. Mort learned to eat strange foods, many of them not to his liking. The first morning he woke in Mr. Bien's house he was served two raw eggs in a bowl of vinegar. Someone in the household must have mentioned that Americans ate eggs in the morning; unfortunately he did not have an American recipe. Mort learned to live with lice and dysentery in an unheated room in freezing cold weather. I also had many adjustments to make to my job and my new circle of friends in a strange city. That's how we started our first adventure in China and looked forward to many more interesting experiences in other parts of that great and beautiful country.


Please click to continue the story.

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

Return to Oasis