Recently I wondered when the first ghost sighting was recorded, so as anyone would do these days, I Googled it. There was mention of a book, “Ghost Sightings” by Brian Innes, where it is said the oldest written report of a ghost comes from the Bible. Saul goes to a medium (“a woman that hath a familiar spirit”) and asks her to conjure up the deceased Samuel, which she, it says, does by Samuel appearing in the form of “an old man covered with a mantle.”
Whether you believe in the spirit world or not, unexplainable ghostly appearances have been shared for centuries. But we can also sense the ‘spirit of a place’ or the ‘spirit of a person’ if we listen quietly.
While researching information for a book I’m writing about my family, one thing was missing. Reading and watching documentaries from my easy chair was not going to give me the “sense of place” I needed to continue.
With a few small miracles falling into place, I was off to Shanghai and my cousin, John, and his wife flew in from England to join me. Via email, we hired a private Shanghainese guide, recommended by John’s sister who hired the same guide two years prior (my grandfather, Sam Sharrock, was their uncle).
While waiting a day for my cousin, I explored the Bund and Nanjing Road solo while discovering I loved the culture shock of experiencing an Asian country for the first time. So many people wore the ‘good luck color’ of red, it was also crowded, and Chinese vendors would follow trying to lure me into an alley to see their wares. It’s also hard not to mention how a father thought it was ok for his young son to urinate on the sidewalk. This was China.
Exploring the fantastic British colonial buildings, I thought of my mother and grandparents visiting embassies, art deco hotels, and even the same department store on Nanjing Road which still operated as the No. 1 Department Store. These buildings were part of their lives during the 1920s-40s, when living there was envied as Shanghai was called the “Paris of the East.” It was a wild ‘free’ port of call with immigrants arriving from all over the war-torn world.
Our guide, Henry, picked us up in a large van. Since my grandfather was a British police officer, we began the tour at Jinxing police station in an old Shanghainese neighborhood. It was fortuitous to find a couple of men chatting in front of the station. I photographed the exterior and the people in the neighborhood while listening to Henry speak in rapid fire Cantonese to the men. I’m not sure if there was a bribe involved, but 15 minutes later a key appeared and we were allowed through the iron gate into the compound.
Taking in the scene, I noted sagging roof lines, rain gutters hanging by a sliver of bracket, and rusted iron bars on the ground floor windows.
In the back of the compound I found a collection of clean, brightly flowered enamel chamber pots next to a door which led me to think someone must be living in this squalor.
I could almost see spectral wafting figures of prisoners being held here before transferring to the goliath Ward Prison nearby. I only knew of Sam from stories shared by my grandmother and mother, the black and white photographs, as well as letters he wrote to them. I envisioned him in his crisp high collared black police uniform patrolling these same grounds. I was fascinated by what secrets this building held; was this where the bomb went off in his office?
Climbing back into the van, we were pensive while chatting about Sam and his tragic end. The driver took us a short distance to the apartment building where the family lived and after exploring the honeycomb of entrances, we found the red door of F01, our family’s apartment. Unfortunately we were not able to see inside as the tenant was in a rest home, of which the guard informed Henry. This building had a historical plaque and was in good condition, so it was unlikely it would be torn down anytime soon.
While taking photos of the rosebush in the central garden of the gated complex, I wondered if these roses served as inspiration for my mom’s love of roses. I remembered memories she shared with me with one scene in this driveway. Young military men picked Nona up for dates in their American issued jeeps and she told me how nervous she felt. I have a photo of one of those times and now I could actually touch the brick on this side of the building.
Another time of reminiscing, a fond memory my mother shared was of hopping her bike and riding out the gate full steam ahead. The rickshaw drivers shouted obscenities in Chinese admonishing her for going too fast as she weaved around them. My mother said she loved the ‘freedom of flying’ with the wind blowing her hair back off her face while she pedaled in pubescent madness. This was a happy time shortly before she would spend 4 years in a POW camp.
Now, seventy five years later, I jay-walked the busy lanes in front of the imposing brick building and imagined the spirit of a young girl flying down Weihai Road on her bicycle; in my mind’s eye I could see her disappearing in the distance.
My six senses were brought alive by traveling to the city of my mother’s birth while giving me the “sense of place” I needed to write their story.