Being Chinese History Non-Fiction

Civilians in Wartime: a Family Story

“We fed thousands of people. They kept coming, running from the Japanese soldiers. We had to find food for them.” My uncle Zachary Luh (陆德林), Dad’s older brother, spoke with animation, his words expressing excitement, fear, and also resolve and courage. 

The plight and flight of Ukrainians being terrorized by Russian soldiers, tanks, and rockets have triggered in me the fear and desperation of millions of Chinese attacked by Japanese guns, bayonets, artillery and aerial bombardment in WWII. As Russian bombs and rockets fell on apartments, hospitals, and movie theaters, and other civilian targets, I wondered: Are they allowed to do that? 

Uncle told me an extraordinary story of his part to aid refugees in his hometown of Shanghai decades after the events. He spoke in Shanghainese, our ancestral dialect. I didn’t understand everything because I left Shanghai when I was five. 

Also, I lacked context. World War II in China lasted for eight years (1937-1945), much longer than in the United States. Shanghai, an international city, was a magnet for refugees. Was Uncle referring to any specific incident? 

Uncle said that he got involved because a European priest asked him to help. This made sense to me because of the high respect my family held for the Catholic clergy. But, if Westerners had a hand in saving thousands of people, why didn’t that make it into the history books? 

“Chinese refugees fleeing the battles, crossing the Garden Bridge [in Shanghai].” Oriental Affairs (Sept. 1937)

The Luhs were prosperous businessmen. I know my dad’s oldest brother owned a construction company.  The family also owned a celebrated candy emporium, called “Heaven Knows” (天晓得), with all the shades of meaning that that phrase has in English. Dad took advantage of the store’s stock of candies, nuts, dried fruits and snacks when he was courting Mom. 

Why didn’t I ask my dad about Uncle’s story? I wish I had! But it’s possible Dad didn’t even know. He was seven years younger than Uncle, who was born in 1913. Besides, Uncle might not have told the family of his activities. My grandmother would not have approved of her well-off son risking encounters with either Chinese or Japanese soldiers. A Chinese saying goes like this: You don’t use good iron for nails. You don’t let good men become soldiers. 

The Luh family compound sat on the southern edge of the French Concession, a colonial-era political entity of French control in the heart of Shanghai. The British and Americans had their own extra-territorial area called the International Settlement. Especially because my father’s family, like my mother’s, was Catholic, their sons attended the prestigious Aurora University run by French Jesuits. 

Uncle probably held me when I was a toddler, but I didn’t remember him. For me, we met when I was nearly 30. I was the first in my St. Louis family to visit China after Nixon’s 1972 trip. The “Iron Curtain” had separated us for over two decades.

By the time I met him, he was already in late middle age. He was like a darker-hued version of my dad. They had similar hand gestures! Like Dad, Uncle was quiet, unassuming, and yet carried a sense of gravitas. He was not prone to chatter or excitement. 

In the late ‘80s, he came to St. Louis and lived with my parents. By then, he was a widower. The hope was that when he became a citizen, he could sponsor his adult kids to come to America. I was too busy raising a son and starting a medical practice to spend much time with him. And there was the language issue. It was a lonely time for him, and in the end, he returned to Shanghai.

Uncle and Dad 1980s in St. Louis
Marcia R. Ristaino (Facebook)

My heightened attention to World War II and curiosity about my uncle’s story led me to the book The Jacquinot Safe Zone: Wartime Refugees in Shanghai, published in 2008 Its author is Marcia R. Ristaino, a China expert at the Library of Congress. Her story of Father Jacquinot, a French Jesuit, and his founding of the Shanghai Safe Zone during World War II, fits all the aspects of Uncle’s story. 

Father Robert Jacquinot de Besange was a French Jesuit priest who lived in Shanghai from 1913 to 1940, teaching at Aurora University. He adopted the Chinese name Rao Jia-ju (饶家驹.) In addition to French, he spoke English and both Mandarin and Shanghai Chinese. Uncle attended Aurora during his tenure. They could communicate in French and Shanghai Chinese. 

Father Robert Jacquinot de Besange

In addition to teaching and pastoral duties, Father Jacquinot was an energetic participant in civic organizations, such as the Shanghai Volunteer Corps and the Shanghai General Hospital. When situations arose, he took it upon himself to establish shelters for people in need: civilians caught in civil warfare, people driven from their homes by Yangzi River floods, and thousands caught in the first Japanese attack on Shanghai in 1932. He was very successful!

One person who felt Jacquinot was too enthusiastic in his pursuit of non-clerical and teaching duties was Father Georges Germain, the rector of Aurora. It pleased me no end to read about him because my parents (Aurora, Medical Class of 1946) often, and fondly, spoke about “Pere Germain” (Father Germain) when I was growing up. 

The Aurora University Campus where Fr. Jacquinot taught. He also served at St. Peter’s Church (the big round window at left of photo.) My parents married in that church. Photo from virtualshanghai

With the full-scale Japanese invasion in 1937, hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians pushed their way into the French Concession and International Settlement for refuge. Through intensive “shuttle diplomacy” among the Chinese, Japanese, and Europeans and between the Red Cross and the YMCA, Jacquinot carved out a strictly non-political “safety zone.” 

One more point of congruence between Uncle’s story and Father Jacquinot’s activities is that the Shanghai Safe Zone abutted the southern border of the French Concession. It was within shouting distance of the Luh family home.

Ristaino writes: “… Jacquinot’s development … of the international safe zone was his seminal contribution to refugee work.” She goes on, “The Shanghai Safety Zone… brought security to 250,000-360,000 Chinese.” In talking about the logistics of such an undertaking, Ristaino spoke of volunteers. I think Uncle was one such volunteer.

How might Uncle have felt?  He was not a tall, white-bearded European. He was a slight, young Chinese male, to be alternately scorned and feared by the occupying Japanese soldiers. Like Russian soldiers in Ukraine, the Japanese were not scrupulous about their treatment of civilians. 

I’m not aware of Uncle’s specific duties. He was shy. It would have been hard for him to hustle for donations. Getting around with supplies was arduous. The chaotic streets were full of people on the move. His heart must have been pounding, and the experience etched into his memory.  

History seems to have forgotten Father Jacquinot. Even Ristaino is surprised at Jacquinot’s current obscurity, given the scope of his work, the many honors he received, such as the French Legion of Honor, and his contacts, including meeting with Franklin Roosevelt. Moreover, the Jacquinot Zone is cited by name in the 1949 Geneva Conventions as “a successful example of wartime [civilian] protection.” 

So, I found my answer. It’s in the Geneva Conventions. You aren’t allowed to target civilians. Yet, the slaughter continues. And Jacquinot is a reluctant prophet: “in my opinion, the problem of affording relief to the civilian refugees is the most important problem facing the world today.”

Tell me: Who is an unlikely hero in your family?

Uncle holding my son Alex on my second trip to China in 1980

By Cathy Luh

I am a doctor, a writer and Grammy to Edin and Caleb. I live in St. Louis with husband Bill.

2 replies on “Civilians in Wartime: a Family Story”

Such an interesting story Cathy. There are so many questions I wish I had asked my elders…

Lucy Nonnenkamp Sent from my iPhone


Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s