The Object of Your Story

                                                                               

Occasionally it’s mentioned in workshops or books on the craft of writing, how effective a physical object can be when subtly weaving it through your story.  Recently I finished reading the book The Velvet Hours by Alyson Richman which uses a large 19th century portrait of a Parisian courtesan as an occasional object from beginning to end. Even without a picture to physically see, the author showed the reader the gilded frame, the woman’s posture, colors, and fabrics.  It easily came to mind whenever the painting was mentioned at various intervals of the story. It was a familiar object.  And, what I loved about this book was how the author wrote it as a fictionalized account of a newspaper article. It was a story of a family learning about their great-great grandmother’s apartment in Paris which was locked up for over 70 years. When the apartment was opened by family heirs in 2011, it was as if time stood still and they walked into 1940s Paris. I remember reading the newspaper article and posting it on Facebook.  I was fascinated by the story and thrilled someone wrote a book about it.

If you decide you want an object for your story, how do you discover what it will be?

As writers, we understand inspiration arises from unexpected places. You may be in a writers’ group when a new story pops into your head and the first draft is soon underway. Perhaps you are sitting at your desk or on a plane thousands of feet in the air when an idea for a new character is born. You can be anywhere.  That’s the beauty of being a writer.

It wasn’t long ago, as I was housecleaning, when an object in my home reminded me of someone I once loved.   I wiped dust off the Asian antique mirror and remembered a time, 43 years ago, when the man I loved looked at his reflection in this mirror, standing in my mother’s home.  I was across the room watching him when his reflection caught mine and we locked eyes. It was a moment which stood still in time for me. He’s been gone many years, but, oddly, his reflection and the memory of our connection remain embedded in  the wavy glass of this mirror.

My thoughts, as I continued dusting, trailed off to another time I could only conjure up in my imagination. It occurred to me my grandfather may have bought this mirror for my grandmother when they were first married in Shanghai in 1929. The mirror, with its new glass, survived WWII hidden in a Shanghai cellar. It was kept with other curios and precious objects out of sight and protected from the Japanese invasion and ensuing confiscations since these objects were in the cellar of a White Russian friend of my grandmother’s. If a Russian (or any nationality) was married to a citizen of an enemy country, they were sent to Japanese internment camps, which was the case of my grandmother and mother who spent 4 years in a camp because of the marriage between my  Russian grandmother and  a British man.

A couple of years after the war, in 1947, the mirror took a journey by ship to the United States and hung on the wall of my grandmother’s San Francisco flat well into the late 70s.  The mirror had additional journeys over the next 37 years when it lived in my mother’s home in Pleasant Hill, CA; Colorado Springs, CO; then to my home in Seattle, and eventually settling in Edmonds 11 years ago. I imagine one of my children and one of my grandchildren will take it from here.

And so it was a day of simple housecleaning which created my story-object. If I choose to do so,  I can carry this mirror through my book for almost 100 years of my family’s history.  I can write a historical fiction showing the reader many of the faces reflected over time, some known and some imagined; we have so much freedom as writers to create whatever we wish!

Stories and ideas pop up for writers from unexpected places and we are delighted when they pop up at all.

Vivian C. Murray

10/16

 

 

 

 

 

Two Faces of Travel: Traveler and Tourist

During my travels, I tend to seek out less traveled spots, therefore these places are less crowded, which makes me feel less surrounded, and makes traveling feel less stressful, and much more pleasant. But on this Sunday in crowded Shanghai, I understood it was time to surrender to a day of jostling with other tourists to see the sites. And we were paying a pretty penny for the personal tour, so I should try to pay attention.

On Sunday, Henry took John, Denise, and I to a few of the tourist spots around Shanghai. 

 YU GARDEN 

Before entering the Yu Garden, you must negotiate the Yuyuan Bazaar, an example of sprawling commercialism contained in 10 streets. However, shopping was not on our itinerary so we were whisked through the modern-built-flying-eave-structures to the ancient gardens with barely a glance or clear photo. 

The classical Yunduan Garden was completed in 1577 by a government officer of the Ming Dynasty. Pan Yunduan built it for his parents to enjoy a tranquil and happy time in their old age. They lived only a short time after the gardens were finished, since there was a 20 year gap when Pan had to be in Beijing. 

Yu in Chinese means pleasing and satisfying.  The garden has gone through many different phases in 400 years. Some rich merchants bought it in 1760 during the Qing Dynasty and rebuilt the dilapidated buildings but it was severely damaged in the 19th century during the Opium Wars (1839-1842) but in 1956, then had a five year restoration period, and was finally opened to the public in September, 1961. The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) partly destroyed it again but from 1986-1993, the government repaired the garden to what we see today. 

It’s only my assumption that during the time my family, The Sharrocks, lived in Shanghai, 1922 – 1947, it was nothing more than a park for opium addicts much like in the slums of any large city.

The 5 acres of Yu Gardens include 30 pavilions in six separate sections. Vaulted bridges and winding pathways lead the visitor through a world built for Chinese scholars, politicians, and wives with genteel lifestyles (imagine: women in cheongsams drinking tea, discussing politics, and gossiping in one of the gazebo-style structures with pretty birds chirping, water gurgling, and grasses swaying from frogs hopping.).

Hawker making too much noise selling what Henry said was a ‘peep show.’ I think he was being sarcastic…

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New pavilion construction at Yu Gardens entrance.

 

Moon Gate

Moon Gate


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It’s almost easy to forget there are hundreds of other people who have joined you on this contemplative walk.  Note the word “almost.”

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Bridge leading to tea-house

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Ancient and original Yu Gardens Tea-house

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Moon Gate

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“Good old boys club” in a Chinese Tea-house?

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Dragon’s head rising…

Dragon Wall

Dragon’s Body Framing the Top of the Wall….

 

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Meditative pool next to one of the wive’s pavilions

   It was a lovely place to see. Just try to imagine it is just you and a friend taking a Sunday walk.

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SUN YAT-SEN

Onward to Sun Yat-Sen’s former residence. “Sun Yat-Sen set up the Military Government of the Republic of China in Guangzhou and took office as the Generalissimo of the Navy and the Army in 1917.” The house was nice, he was quite a versatile and intelligent man who was not only a politician but also a medical doctor. It was somewhat interesting, but  if I had to choose, I would not have bothered. Unless you are into Chinese politics (he was a revolutionary, the first president and founding father of the Republic of China, and his 2nd wife’s sister, who was one of the 3 Soong sisters, married Chiang Kai-shek) or the fact that this 1924 European cottage style (he died in 1925 so he only lived there a year) was China’s first major government-protected cultural site, you may want to choose a temple or one of many gardens in Shanghai. Dr. Sun Yat-Sen’s former home in Shanghai is located at No. 7 Xiangshan Rd. (FYI: There is also a classical Chinese garden in his name located in Vancouver, B.C. and is purported to be the largest classical Chinese garden outside of Asia.)

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Denise and I found this book display humorous. Dr. Sun Yat-Sen apparently needed some advice in the department of “women managing.”

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Pigeon House in the backyard.

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Dr. Sun Yat-Sen


Another residence we visited was the Shikumen Open House Museum at 25, Lane 181 Taicang Rd, Huangpu District. A Shikumen is the “most representative residential form in Shanghai, had the height of its popularity from late 19th century to the 1930s. The general layout resembles European terrace houses, but with the inside the structures of the residential style of South China.  Such buildings have a stone doorframe, which looks like a ‘Sui Gu’ (stone  hoop) over the dark solid wood door leaf, so it used to be called ShiGuMen (stone-hooped door). Due to the similar pronunciation of ‘Gu’ and ‘Ku’ in Shanghai dialect, it became Shikumen and is still in use today.”

The shikumen seemed to be a comfortable home and this display was nicely decorated for the 30s. It was a bit like visiting my grandmother!

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Not a bad place for ‘grandma’ to sleep.

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OLD NEIGHBORHOOD

When I mentioned to Henry I’d like to see an original neighborhood, I wasn’t prepared for where he took us. The sprawling network of small living quarters and narrow passageways  seemed to be more in line of what was once called a “shantytown.”   Henry seemed  to even forget his manners by walking us through this neighborhood as if it was a living museum. At one point he even walked into someone’s kitchen with the tenant inside washing a pot. She promptly shooed him out of her kitchen and gave us all a look of utter shock and disgust; I didn’t blame her.  Henry was unfazed and carried on with the tour.  I felt uncomfortable and took less photos than I would have if these had been abandoned. It was heartbreaking to see how the people lived, and have lived,  for generations.  I would not be surprised if this neighborhood is slated for demolition very soon.  Many Shanghainese throughout the city have been offered compensation for new living accommodations as the Chinese government turns the country into a sprawl of high-rise and quickly made condos. The deal includes relocation away from Shanghai and into towns built miles away from other family and friends.

 

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Pedicure

Pedicures

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Myna Bird
Hair Salon

Hair Salon

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Life Growing Up
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Each water faucet is metered for the individual families.

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Electrical meters for various families.

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Crossed wires?

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Lilong (alleyway).

Moved, No Forwarding Address

Moved and left no forwarding address…

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Sometimes 4-5 families share one small apartment.

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Shared outdoor sinks.

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Statues for sale. I would have bought one for my garden if I could have fit it in my carry-on.

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Interesting looking little guy.


Shanghai Library

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Henry took us to the library to vouch for me to be approved to carry a Shanghai Readers Library card.  This process involved forms, my passport, computer entries, and finally  my own card. I cannot check out books and physically remove them from the premises but I can read on site. 

From the main library, we were whisked off to the Bibliotheca, a library annex established by Jesuits many moons ago, and where they preserved and archived old newspapers and other historical documents. Taking photos of the outside would help me remember what it looked like when I returned on my own in a couple of days.  This was a very thoughtful thing for Henry to do; he did a similar thing for my other cousin 2 years prior.

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Shanghai Library Bibliotheca Zikawei

Archival Building 

Exterior of the Archives Library

The Tour of the Traditional Tourist was drawing to a close (although the library doesn’t normally qualify as ‘traditionally touristy’) with a whirlwind walk of the Jade Buddha Temple (Yufo Si). This Buddhist Temple was where an enormous and quite beautiful white jade reclining Buddha resides as well as disciples of the Buddhist religion.

The temple was built in 1882 but moved to its present location in 1918. We caught part of a formal ceremony with all of the monks chanting, and which I love to hear. There were many Buddhist devotees lighting bulky wads of incense and praying before several of the Buddha statues in the Pavilion. It was a peaceful place to wander around; I could have easily spent more time finding a quiet bench somewhere. The temple is located at 170 Anyuan Lu, Puto District in the northwest section of Shanghai.

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Prayers to Buddha

To finish the day, we took a quick walk through the pretty and obviously well-used and well-loved  Jing’an Park, which, unfortunately for my family and many others, was once called Bubbling Well Cemetery. My grandfather, Sam Sharrock, had been buried somewhere on these 8.3 acres in January, 1942.  However, in 1955, all burial plots and headstones were allegedly moved to somewhere in the countryside, and maybe to other cemeteries, when the Chinese government decided to make the entire area a public park. The government put out notices to family members but if you weren’t on the list, you weren’t notified. Obviously, neither my mother and grandmother in San Francisco, nor my cousins in Northern England, were on the list. Trying to find my grandfather’s final resting place has been futile thus far. Plus, we are still trying to find written documentation about Sam’s assassination, and why he was killed in action on that fateful day of January 20, 1942, two months after Pearl Harbor. Was the story of my grandfather’s death, which was told to my mother and grandmother, true or was there some even more sinister reason other than the story he had uncovered an opium ring? In case there is something in writing to explain all this, at least now I had my Shanghai Library card to search.

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The former Bubbling Well Cemetery  

 

Family History 101

  

Sam Sharrock, my grand father, who makes a point of writing he had been in uniform for 4 months until now when the photo was taken. The period he was uniformed 24/7 was the 1937 Japanese-Chinese conflict.

My cousin John and his wife Denise arrived in my hotel lobby about 9:20 a.m. And it was wonderful to see them again. This was only the third time we have met since meeting for the first time in Colorado for my mother’s small memorial service in 2012.

John was as interested in his uncle’s life as I was interested in my grandfather’s life. Both men being one and the same: Sam Sharrock. 

 

Henry was our personal guide and hired a driver and van which took us to our family’s places of interest. He done the same thing with another cousin two years prior.

During the day, we explored the back of old police stations where Sam worked from the time he arrived in 1922 to the day he was assassinated in 1942. 

My grandmother saved the old photos Sam had taken during his life in Shanghai. I had seen them many times over the years and  when very young, I would secretly sneak them out of my grandmother’s Chinese carved trunk in her flat in San Francisco. It was always a great treat for me to scour through the photos to see family, most of whom were from England and whom I didn’t know, but also to see the aftermath from bombings by the Japanese in Shanghai. This included dead bodies, an infamous dog who fed off them, and buildings demolished.

  

Now I was in the city I had only fantasized about. We were in and out of the  van all day. We went to the apartment house where our family lived and in a childlike prankster mode, we rang different doorbells hoping someone would let us in. There were several ways into the apartment complex and we were looking for a specific apartment. Eventually someone would appear and after Henry explained, in Chinese, why we were showing up uninvited to their homes, we were granted access to the inner courtyard.

  

 

                                             The courtyard on Weihai Road

I tried to picture how the G.I.’s in their jeeps drove in to pick my mother up on dates, as she had told me about. It was only when we got to the final entry point that it all made sense. It was a bit of a disappointment to learn that the current inhabitant of the apartment was in a nursing home. The apartment was shut tight and we couldn’t get in to see the layout. 

  

But how cool it was to be there! After all these years I could actually touch the same brick walls and walk the same ground I had seen only in photos for more than 60 years.   

Henry was a gem for talking rapid fire Chinese to security guards all over Shanghai convincing them to let us into various properties due to his dogged persistence. The only place his tactics didn’t work was at Holy Trinity Church. We couldn’t even get inside the gates to see where my grandparents got married and where my mother was baptized; that particular guard wouldn’t budge. Henry also took the initiative to bang on a back door to the church in the event someone was inside working.  He was well worth his price in gold, as the saying goes.

We saw parts of Shanghai which most people would not be privy to seeing. It was an experience of a lifetime.

One of the most intriguing moments was when one of the workers at a police property beckoned me into the back area of one of the station. Denise followed behind and we were both a bit unnerved by the man showing us the way as if it was something he shouldn’t be doing or leading us to the chopping block. There were old rusty jail cells stacked with old furniture from schools, as it appeared to me, anyway. Chairs, desks, etc. A jumbled cobwebbed jailhouse mess with metal doors and old rusty locks. It looked like a damp nightmare for any prisoner.

  

We were led to a big metal door which he proceeded to unlock and then motioning us to enter. I looked at Denise and we both couldn’t talk as if we might break the spell this man was under to show us a room so secretive in Communist China. And this was done totally unprovoked and out of the blue. 

With a slight bit of trepidation, I started taking photo after photo of all the men’s faces framed and hanging on concrete walls in what may have been an administrative office for the police. Denise asked if she should get John so he could see it too  and I said yes! Unfortunately, the man started getting nervous and told me we had to go. I kept shooting photos as we were led out of what I learned was some sort of a tribute room to the communists who were killed. How/what/why I have no idea. Maybe the Nationalists killed them. All I know is we saw a secret place in Shanghai and I certainly love the idea of secrets as long as no one is murdered for them. By the time John and Henry got to us, we were already walking back into the prison yard so they missed the display.

  

We also went to Ward Prison which was built in the 30s and the largest prison ever built in China. This place was scary. But not content to only take photos of the exterior, I started down a passageway, passed the check-in booth with the guard looking the other way, and into the outer yard while taking photos before I realized the guard was yelling at me. I finally looked into the glassed in booth to see the uniformed guard waving his arms and yelling at me in Chinese to get out. He was probably swearing at me in Chinese, too, I thought it was pretty funny but Henry was not amused. He probably didn’t want one of his “paying guests” to be arrested and detained in a Chinese jail. Imagine all the paperwork that would involve!

  

Racing along, we took a quick peek into the Fashion Mart because I wanted some Chinese clothes, specifically old fashioned wide legged pants which I couldn’t find anywhere. Henry thinks I can get a pair made here. I just wanted a set of outdoor pajamas which so many Chinese used to wear. I was a bit disappointed to see how ‘Westernized’ Shanghai had become.  There was so little of the authentic way of life left to see. But from what I have read in other blogs, it is still feasible to witness Chinese life out in the countryside. It is apparent Shanghai is still a cosmopolitan city, as it always has been, but it is rapidly catching up with the rest of the world’s economic race to the proverbial finish line of wealth. A bit sad to me, but inevitable. 

  

Everywhere, any time, there are women in wedding dresses and formal wear being photographed. What I thought was a wedding photo was most likely a fashionshoot.

After seeing what I witnessed the next day, perhaps progress wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all…