My parents lived together for two years after they were married. Then they did not see each other for the next seven. For some of that time, they couldn’t even write letters. Dad was in America. Mom, my sister and I were in China, and then Hong Kong. Our family was separated by 8,000 miles and the governments of the People’s Republic of China and the United States.
We reunited when I was eight, and our family settled in St. Louis. Every Chinese family we knew had gone through variations of this story: hardship, family separations, and reversals of financial fortunes.
One couple was separated for nearly two decades. A fellow Shanghainese fled to Germany before finding her way to St. Louis. Hence, the name of her son: Johannes. My friend Barbara went to Taiwan at age three on a boat that sank on its very next outing from Shanghai. My mother’s brother and his family ended up in America six years earlier than Mom. Then, there were the Yuans, the Tungs, the Taos, Jim Teng, Jay Ku, everyone. And these were just people I knew in St. Louis.
My mother’s brother, Jerome Shen, was a pediatric resident in St. Louis in 1949. On hearing that the Communists were closing in on Shanghai, he rushed back to China. He managed to find ship passage to San Francisco for himself, his wife and two children one week after Shanghai was taken. Miraculously, he had also wrangled visas for everyone to enter the United States. Thirty years later, he was my son’s pediatrician.
Here is the timeline. When World War II ended in 1945, Mao Zedong’s Communists and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists vied for control of China. The Red Army entered Shanghai, the biggest and richest city in China, on May 25, 1949. Mao consolidated his power and formally established the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949.
Meanwhile, unaware of the political convulsions about to happen in his homeland, my dad arrived in the United States in late 1948. Dad had graduated with an MD from the prestigious Aurora University in Shanghai run by French Jesuits. (So did my mom, but that is a story for later.)
Upon graduation, he and Mom went to work in Hunan Province at an American Catholic missionary hospital. A couple of years later, with the help of the priests and nuns, he secured a position in a hospital in New Jersey to further his studies. My folks planned on being separated for a year or two. It turned out to be seven … and their life would not be in China.
Chinese-American journalist and activist Helen Zia, in her book Last Boat Out of Shanghai: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Fled Mao’s Revolution, gives scope and substance to my family’s experience. According to her, people like my father were among the “three-to-four thousand Chinese professionals on temporary visas [who] were stranded in the United States” by the Revolution. She estimates that the Revolution led a million and a half people to leave China through the port of Shanghai. Many of them, like Dad, were educated and smart, a resource drain that China has yet to acknowledge.
Zia calls the period from 1937, when WWII started in China, to 1949, with the founding of the People’s Republic of China, a “time of war and revolution, sacrifice and betrayal, courage and resilience, when every move could spell doom.” She weaves the stories of four real people into a rich tapestry that illustrates this complex history.
I am most interested in the story of a student called Ho Chow. It has many similarities to my dad’s experience. It gives me an emotional connection to what my father might have been living through. Dad’s seven years without us in America feels like an informational black hole. He was reticent by nature. And, like many people who have lived through extraordinary times, explaining all the circumstances in context was too much of an effort. Besides, our family were the lucky ones. We escaped. We were not complainers.
Like Dad, Ho Chow came to the United States to study, unaware of the looming revolution. He was a PhD Engineering student at the University of Michigan. As his family’s situation deteriorated with the civil war and the new Communist rule, their letters became more and more frantic. And then, more terrifyingly, radio silence. Ho Chow’s anxiety for his mother and sibs skyrocketed. “Should he rejoin his family in Shanghai? At least then, they’d be together in this disastrous time.”
I imagine Dad agonized over this very same question. Like Ho Chow, Dad feared for the welfare of his mother and his brother. But Dad’s chief concern would have been for Mom and his children. He must have felt so helpless. Mom was still in the missionary hospital in Hunan where the fighting was thick.
And how would his family fare under Communist rule? We had two strikes against us. We were well-off and we were Catholic. Dad never talked about what he thought or how he felt as a revolution thousands of miles away changed his life utterly. He saw his brother again in 1978, thirty years after he left home. He never saw his mother again. She had died in 1964.
Ho Chow’s mother wrote him in January, 1949: “Don’t plan to come back.” My mom basically told Dad the same thing, before letters between China and America were cut off. Without any idea of how she could do it, she told him, “We’ll come to you.”
Through the experiences of Ho Chow, Zia gives me a hint as to what Dad’s life in the States might have been like in the early 1950s. The Chinese were looked upon with suspicion by the American government. In their eyes, each was a potential Communist spy.
Ho Chow, and most students like him, had lost all financial support from home. Ho Chow had to work to support himself, but working violated the terms of his student visa. He knew of people who were deported, even arrested, for breaking Immigration and Naturalization Service rules. Immigration of non-whites was, then as now, a contentious issue. Chinese immigration was limited to the miniscule number of 105 persons a year.
In the end, Ho Chow found a job where he was deemed an essential worker. His company petitioned for him: “Our firm has made every effort to acquire … personnel of Mr. Chow’s caliber, but we find that … impossible.”
Dad told me that he came to St. Louis because there were jobs doing pre-op physicals at City Hospital. No doubt my uncle and his family being here was also a draw. Then, he was accepted into the Orthopedic Surgery residency program at St. Louis University, a five-year gig. He made five dollars a month (no lie!), but he lived and ate at the hospital. He didn’t graduate from the program until after we got to America.
I hadn’t considered what his life might have been like until I became a medical resident myself. Every time we’d complain, the teachers would tell us how much harder residents had to work in the old days. Relentless hospital food – enough said.
When I asked Dad about how he was able stay in America, he said that he got help from Missouri Congresswoman Leonor K. Sullivan and Missouri Senator Stuart Symington. Zia said that about a hundred Chinese managed to get “private congressional bills enabling them to remain.” Maybe Dad got one of those.
For me, Helen Zia’s Last Boat Out of Shanghai has filled in historical details of my own life. It has given me a deeper understanding of some of the most intense moments of my parents’ lives. It’s a validation of not just our family’s story, but of all the Chinese families I knew growing up. As crazy as it sounds, my own story had felt like a black and white movie of “the suffering Chinese.” This book has helped me reclaim my history.
I was too young to remember Dad before he left China. So, my first memory of him is sighting him on June 5, 1955 in St. Louis when I was eight. As our TWA plane landed, Mom urged me to run into my dad’s arms. At the bottom of the stairs, I saw three smiling faces on the tarmac. It turned out they were Dad, my uncle and a family friend, Dr. Yuan.
I looked up at Mom and asked, “Which one’s Dad?”
Tell me: Do you have a history book that speaks to your family’s story?