The boat in the title of Helen Zia’s book, Last Boat Out of Shanghai, is not a literal boat. It stands for the desperate rush of millions of people fleeing the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949. These people feared the new regime because they were well-to-do or well-educated, had connections with Westerners, had ties with the overturned Chiang Kai-shek government, or were Christian.
Well, my mom missed that boat. And with her, me and my baby sister.
Mom was right to be worried. She checked four of those five boxes. She was from a prominent Shanghai mercantile family. She was a medical graduate of the French Jesuit Aurora University. She was a seventh-generation Catholic.
How she managed to spirit us – and her elderly father, too – out of China, three years after the last boat left, speaks to her grit and grace under pressure.
As important as it was for her to leave China to secure our future, Mom had a compelling reason to go to America. Dad was there. He had gone to the United States to further his medical studies a year before the Revolution. He was stranded there when the Bamboo Curtain slammed shut.
Mom and Dad had been doctors at an American missionary hospital in Hunan Province for two years when Dad got the chance to study in America. Mom and I would stay in Hunan. Mom would continue to deliver babies and head the nursing school until Dad returned in a year or two. To help, Bishop O’Gara, who oversaw the mission, raised her salary as she would be the family’s sole bread winner.
Of course, my parents knew that Mao’s Communists and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists were fighting for control of China. But, as Zia noted in The Last Boat Out of Shanghai, war had been going on in China since the Japanese invasion in 1937. The Chinese civil war picked up right as WWII ended. War had been the backdrop of everyone’s life for over a decade.
But soon after Dad left, events overtook Mom. She found out she was pregnant again. As 1948 drew to a close, fighting intensified. American hospital staff, many of them nuns, fled. Six weeks after giving birth, Mom bundled up her children on a harrowing trip back to her hometown of Shanghai. (Read about this in The Big Deal.)
Mom moved back into her widowed father’s three-story villa in the tony French Concession area of Shanghai. Her brother and his family lived there too. I played in the garden with my cousins, kept silkworms as pets, and made my first Communion.
But there were big changes. Mom donned a uniform to her jobs at a women’s clinic and at a cigarette factory. At mandatory political meetings, Mom kept her head down and her eyes shielded, like she was having a migraine. I feared that I might inadvertently betray my family. Rumors abounded about children denouncing their parents.
By 1952, three years into the new regime, Mom had devised a plan. She would need an exit visa. As a doctor, she was a valuable asset. The government would not let her go easily.
She would need an entry visa to Hong Kong, then a British colony. Hong Kong was bursting with refugees; its population had quadrupled in the five years since the end of WWII. By then, the border was tighter than ever.
Mom wrangled a visa for her father to visit his dying sister in Hong Kong. She produced a letter from her aunt begging her brother to come. He received permission to go for a month. Then, she convinced the authorities that her father was too frail to make the trip alone. She suggested that she, a doctor, should attend him.
A week later, she brought my sister and me to the same office. She instructed us to cry. She got a five-year-old and a three-year-old to cry on cue. She told the officer that we had been crying piteously all week. Couldn’t she take us with her? He relented.
She asked her aunt in Hong Kong to seek an entry permit for us using the same reason. Mom waited and waited for that letter. It never came. The window to leave was closing. She had to act quickly – even without the letter that guaranteed her entry.
She planned her escape in secret. She trusted a family servant with money to care for the family dog. A colleague agreed to cover her shift. As befit a short trip, she packed a light suitcase. To deceive the inspectors, she hid jewelry in the bottom of a satchel with shoulder strap. I carried that.
For three days and two nights, the train rumbled on from Shanghai to Hong Kong. Mom strolled up and down the train – casual, smiling – just chatting with the other passengers. All the while, she was furiously trying to find someone who could help get her family into Hong Kong.
She asked innocuous questions. “Where are you getting off?” If they answered, Guangzhou, that is, before the border, she moved on. If they said, “Hong Kong,” she asked if they had entry permits. If they said yes, she ended that conversation too.
Finally, she met a man who admitted that he was getting smuggled into Hong Kong. Somehow, Mom persuaded him to agree to help us. Did she say, “Can we come too?” I don’t know.
We left the luggage behind on the hope that it would be forwarded. (It was.) We and our new friend left the train one stop before the border check. It was hilly, rugged countryside. On and on we trudged. My valise banged my hip and grew heavier with each step. Mom quieted us so that our Shanghai accent didn’t give us away. I held my grandpa’s hand.
Towards evening, we hailed a pedicab. Mom had her aunt’s address written down, but the pedicab driver couldn’t read. Mom’s Cantonese must have been good enough because we pulled up to a big, metal door. It was late and everything was shut up tight. We pounded on the door. Finally, a smaller door within the big door opened. An old man with missing teeth and a sleeveless undershirt emerged and led us into a large courtyard.
My grandfather’s sister, Sister Agnes de Jesus, came stumping out on her bound feet. Just her wrinkled, brown face with glasses showed behind her wimple. She was a nun. Of course, she was not ill. That was all part of Mom’s plan. We had arrived at the old folks’ home where Sister worked. And they welcomed us.
The Little Sisters of the Poor scrounged up sandwiches for us. Orange sodas for the kids; tea for the grown-ups. They showed us to sparsely-furnished bedrooms that had crucifixes on the wall. The beds had mosquito netting. For me, the best part was lifting the strap over my head and handing my satchel back to Mom. I felt infinitely lighter.
If Mom was amazed that her desperate gambit had actually worked, she didn’t show it. As I drifted off to sleep, I could hear her making small talk with Sister Agnes.
Tell me: What do you admire about your mom?
15 replies on “Frantic Flight”
[…] Yet in some ways, Joan and I have much in common. I am a female, Chinese-American physician, although four decades older. My parents also immigrated from China. […]
Well— I hope you are writing about this.
I concur with everyone that you should write a memoir about your family. I am amazed by your stories.
My parents had an arranged marriage while in the relocation camp in Poston Arizona during WWII, barely knew each other a month and very little one-on-one time together. They left camp right after the wedding to move to Nebraska then Denver. (They were married over 60 years when Mom learned that Dad was a Republican and had been canceling out each other’s votes!) My mom was a housewife, but as the kitchen lady at our temple, she could easily have run a large catering business. She was tough but very kind. Although we clashed during my youth as the only daughter of four, I’m glad that the last big fight was on the eve of my wedding. She said,”He could still change his mind, you know”. My reply, “Not unless he wants to be a dead man.” Our marriage made me an honest woman and Mom was happy about that.
The pictures of people desperately trying to get out of Kabul triggered some of my feelings. I found out very much later that Mom had asked her brother Mark if he would take care of my sister and me if she couldn’t get permission for us to leave. She was prepared to leave without us!
What a fascinating story about your Mom whom I forever admire and love! I heard from your parents about the escape adventure that your Mom, you, and your sister went through. Your story added another layer of detail and background. Great to see your cute childhood photos! Thanks so much for sharing!
Wow! Your mom was really tough.
Thank you for liking my writing style. Means a lot.
The escape of the Shen clan makes for quite a saga and deserves full treatment in a book. I know Jerry has compiled some material and it would be great if you could pull it all together. You have such a felicitous writing style.
You ask what I admire about my mom. While not as dramatic as an escape from Shanghai, we have our own tale from that era. In 1943, my dad enlisted in the Navy but was found to have tuberculosis. There was no accepted tx and he spent a year lying in Arizona sun. We ended up at a TB sanitarium in the Black Hills of South Dakota, where my dad was isolated. I have memories of waving to him through windows of the ward. Mom supported us by working in the cafeteria. We lived in a little house with no indoor toilet. I remember snow higher than my head and a mountain lion paw print on the path to the privy. When I turned 5, mom persuaded the teacher to enroll me as the only first-grader in a one-room school that covered grades 1 through 8. It must have been tremendously lonely and stressful for her, dealing with a husband with an uncertain prognosis and a rambunctious kid, but she never wavered.
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Thank you, Margaret!
We both lucked out!
This is, of course, *fantastic! *And the photos are so good. Really, what a story–love the descriptions of the convent.
This is the core of a book.
I love the stories about your family, particularly about your Mom. She sounds like an amazing woman.
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I agree with blue mast…I hope you write a book about your mom and those times. I read Last Boat out of Shanghai and was captivated my mom was a research scientist..had her own lab and multiple men reported to her. Not a small feat in the 1930’s but your mom WOW..amazing
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Oh Cath – I had settled in to a nice long read but it ended waaaaay too soon. I wish you would write a book about this…
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