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…

An American in Maoist Fashion

It was exciting to know I had the world of Shanghai  outside the hotel doors. 

There were only four to-do items on my list for the day. Get my hotel room payment straightened out, walk over Garden Bridge (right around the corner), walk down the Bund, find the infamous No. 1 Department Store where Lola, my grandmother, and Nona, my mother, would have shopped in the 30s, and see the Peace Hotel.

To clear up the room payment, my credit union emailed how there should have been no trouble with my card, there were no declined transactions, and to tell the reception desk to get their act together and try to manually enter the card numbers (well, they didn’t actually say this, but I felt like it). The front desk employee ran it through without a problem, and I headed into the dining room for the over-priced, but fabulously opulent and delicious breakfast in the dining room which was the old hotel’s ballroom. Lola must have had cocktails and a dance or two here back in the 30s. Perhaps even my mom  danced here after returning from the Japanese prisoner-of-war camp after WWII in the 40s. She would have been of age by then, just barely eighteen years old.

   

 

To  top off the delicious food and smooth service, a lovely young woman gave me a customer service card to complete a customer service survey along with the gift of a fabric covered and mirrored lipstick box. Nice touch.

   

 

The Garden Bridge is an iconic image from my grandfather’s photos which I have seen all my life and now I was finally able to walk over it taking my own photographs.

  

 The Garden Bridge, also referred to as “Grandmother’s Bridge” because you can stop and gaze at the river.

The Peace Hotel, once called the Cathay, was a place I remembered my mom telling me about. What a beauty.  However, historically,  In 1937, a miscalculated bomb fell on the street right outside the hotel killing a massive amount of innocent strangers who were shopping on Nanjing Road.

      

  

 

  There are four of these large gold relief panels, depicting Shanghai, on the atrium walls of the Peace Hotel.

There were quite a number of people walking and shopping on this Friday, but nothing in comparison to what I would see the following Sunday.

As I wandered  up Nanjing Road, a movement caught my eye so I turned my head to catch a young boy, 2-3 years old, squatting and jiggling as he urinated on the sidewalk. Not even the gutter, just in the middle of the sidewalk. The boy’s father stood, a small distance from the boy, looking up to the sky as if he didn’t know this child nor notice he was behaving in a rather unsightly and inappropriate manner. 

  

Little boy pulling up his britches

A pleasant woman started talking and showing me her brochure of handbags (these are everywhere) and I found her to be an interesting companion for several blocks. We separated when she pointed out her alley with the stalls and I declined to be led down an alley.

   

 

My new friend who wanted me to follow her down the alley to buy handbags

I desperately needed to sit down and have an espresso. Although I try to use other coffee shops whenever I can, I saw the Starbucks and went for it. 

  

After walking through a maze of shopping stalls selling shoes, clothing, jewelry, etc., I found this:

  

Finally the No. 1 Department Store appeared in its grandeur. And, there was another Starbucks sign to investigate.  Resting up with a cappuccino, I tackled the department store.

The first escalator in China was installed in what is now the No. 1 Department Store in the 30s. Once again, this would have been a place my family would have shopped. I rode the elevator to all the floors looking for something rven remotely Asian looking. All I found was this special section dedicated to cheongsams in sizes I haven’t worn since my 30s! 

  

On the top floor finding a movie theater, I was tempted to hang out with Liam Neeson but knew I had other things to do.

 

 In People’s Park, I was asked to take the photo of a young couple. After the photo, he milled around me and she disappeared, which I noted to him. “Hmmm, where is your friend?” I soon realized this was another scam and high-tailed it out of this concrete haven for criminals. (I didn’t like the feeling I was getting from the other characters wandering around.) 

However, thanks to this young man, I learned something about myself. It had been apparent people were looking at me a lot. I thought maybe it was that I was alone and Caucasian. But when someone stared and smiled saying she liked my coat, I was rethinking my position. I was wearing a new London Fog raincoat (great deal from a thrift store back home), and the same beret I have been wearing for years with a couple of small pins on it from places I have traveled. 

This guy pointed out the obviousness of my attire. I looked very militaristic with the coat’s wide lapels, epaulets on the shoulders, and the ‘military green’ color of both my pants and the coat. The young man said, “Ah, military look.” I probably looked like a throwback to the Maoist Era!

Walking on, and wishing I could be invisible, to save some energy I paid 80 cents to ride the trolley for a bit. 

  

  

                              Statue of The People in People’s Park

After the rain, the temperature was mild and perfect for walking but the humidity made it seem warmer than it was. 

Back on  the Bund, another couple approached me for the photo scam. I felt good being the wiser from my earlier experience. Although, at first I gave them the benefit of the doubt and took their photo. It was obvious when, once again, he was getting chummy. “Where are you going?” he asked in a fake little boy voice. Oh, please, spare me. I had no qualms leaving him in the dust.

I loved Shanghai even with the quirky people. I felt a sense of having been here before and a fond familiarity with the buildings and knowing the history.

Everything on my list was accomplished while walking the  4 mile round-trip stretch.

For the next two days I would be with my cousin and cousin-in-law led about by Henry our personal guide. My other cousin and cousin-in-law hired him two years ago for the same family itinerary. Henry knew what we were looking for, plus we would be traveling in a vehicle saving us both time as well as bodily wear and tear. 

I was more than ready to plunge into the “inner sanctum” of Shanghai.

Genetic Connections or Just Another Pretty ‘Face’

My mother and grandmother arrived in San Francisco via ship from Shanghai in 1947. Almost 70 years later, I sat in San Francisco International Airport waiting for my flight to Shanghai for my very first visit to my mother’s birthplace. What had once been a figment of my imagination when seeing family photos and hearing stories, was soon becoming a reality. Since I was born in San Francisco in 1949, it seemed only fitting to change planes there after my Seattle flight. I purposely chose SF over LA for this familiararity.

The noise in the SF airport was deafening. The international wing of the concourse had mainly  Asian flights arriving and departing and I had a feeling I was experiencing only a small fraction of the chaos, noise, and flurry of activity which will soon overload my senses for the next ten days. Along with primarily Asian families,  there are a few very elderly people who are perhaps finally returning home to China after fleeing so long ago. (My imagination is working overtime again.) And, to make it all a bit more crazy, there was a very large contingent of children on the flight, too. They were elementary students visiting their sister-school in Shanghai, as I find out later. 

So many unknowns are before me; this trip feels very different from other journeys I have taken.  I am glad there is the security knowing I have a hotel room, and am meeting my cousin and cousin-in-law the day after I arrive. Additionally, we have also arranged a guide to show us many of our family landmarks; Mr. Wong showed another cousin the same itinerary 2 years ago. (My grandfather was the uncle of my cousins.) 

Another known fact will be seeing the iconic Shanghai skyline, the church where my grandparents were married, which is the same one where my mother was baptized. The apartment house where they lived is still standing, too. I am not clear if any of the old British and Japanese police stations where my grandfather worked as a policeman, an inspector, and then acting superintendent-in-charge still stand, but that will become clear very soon.

Will I feel a genetic connection or will Shanghai just be another pretty city? I have a very long 12 hour flight ahead of me before I find out. 

View of Leaving the San Francisco, California Coastline Flying to Shanghai (probably over Pacifica in this photo, which is a little south of the City)

 

Time Does Run Out

In the writing group I attend once a week, there is a diminutive woman, quite a bit older than the rest of us, who joins in from time-to-time. This enigmatic 93 year old always has a smile and her eyes still sparkle even though she is somewhat hunched over and may even be in pain. My curiosity is piqued and I want to know what she did during her lifetime.

One day she read a story she wrote during our open writing session and when finished, she commented rather urgently how she needed to publish her work because, she said in an urgent and somewhat raspy voice, “I’m running out of time.” I felt my breath catch as her words hit directly home. Was the Universe trying to remind me?

It was less than a year ago when I began a mental laundry list of things I needed to do, just in case…because I also felt some subliminal nagging voice saying time was short and my list of things to get done was long.

I needed to get my Power of Attorney notarized. I called for an appointment to join The Neptune Society. It was already time to review the will I filed with an attorney 5 years ago. 

At the Neptune Society appointment, I proceeded to buy the ‘deluxe’ plan so they will take care of everything even should I die in another country. This was an awesome option since I am a traveler, it would be a hassle for my kids to ship me home. The Society was also running a special deal eliminating interest charges if I signed up for the payment plan by the end of the year. Such a deal!

This isn’t morose, it’s life and death and how we get through it. I’m finding myself rather blasé about my own death, actually, as I remember my mom being the same way. Death didn’t bother her because, as she told me, there was so much death which she saw first-hand in China. But, a middle-class American-born girl like myself never had to experience that reality. There were no bodies piling up in the city streets of San Francisco during the 50s and 60s. And to tell the truth, I didn’t handle the deaths of my maternal family members very well. I actually shed an ocean of tears grieving them.

I watched my grandmother and mother live until they reached 91 and 84 years old, respectively. As the only child of my mother’s who had any common sense (not bragging, merely the truth), I became the keeper of our family history. As a first generation American born child in my immediate family, there was always a sense of duty to chronicle their unusual lives and safeguard the troves of documents.

Over the years, I poured over the love letters, legal documents, and photographs my grandfather took when he worked as a police inspector during the wild and exotic Shanghai days in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. These photos are of the arrests, the executions, the Japanese bombers destroying the most cosmopolitan city in China at the time, and of the people in his life whom he loved very much. 

Shanghai was a city teeming with expats from all over the world; Russian dance girls; gangsters; the rich living large. The cost of living was so low that many, including my family, could afford amahs (housekeepers who sometimes also performed nanny duties), cooks, gardeners, and drivers. The expat women wore the latest Paris fashions dressing in silks and brocades while copying designs from magazines.

There were also citizens and immigrants starving during winters, German Jews hiding from Hitler’s spies, bodies piled up alongside the dirt roads frozen to death, and massacres such as the horror in Nanking. 

In the same mixed race neighborhoods could be residents, like my grandfather and grandmother, who were living opulent and sometimes unrealistic lives not knowing that within a short period of 15 years, their lives would break into a thousand different shards of remembered experiences. Assassinations, captures, interrogations, scrounging together what food they could find, and the necessity of wearing armbands to identify their citizenship became the norm. My mother’s safe life in a Hong Kong boarding school would be stripped from her tight little grasp only to find herself skidding down a metaphorical avalanche which really did make her stronger since it couldn’t destroy her. She was forced to become a functioning adult at the age of 13 when she was put in the position of identifying the body of her father since her mother couldn’t bear to do it. How does one maintain strength at that age and still survive a Japanese concentration camp for the next 4 years? The thought humbles me.

After the war, they managed to immigrate to San Francisco to start new lives, while forever intertwined with unwanted memories from their joint experiences. Life continued to be a struggle while attempting to maintain their opulent Shanghai life in a new city laden with refreshed high fashions of the late 40s and into the 50s, in a new cosmopolitan city with more immigrants, as well as military men, home from WWII. Single women magnetized toward these young men especially when they showed promise of climbing the ranks or had already achieved stars on their uniforms. There was an illusion of wealth and culture amidst the Chinese curios which managed to survive the journey from Shanghai, China to San Francisco, California as well as new crystal goblets to begin entertaining new friends in the evenings again.

I hope to chronicle their journey while I upturn the truth of their lives as well as share the many details which they could only gloss over when telling me their stories. Thanks to people writing books and the internet, more details are surfacing. It is overwhelming. Later this month I will visit Shanghai to see for myself where my family lived. 

By visiting Shanghai, I hope the book I have begun writing will convey what I have seen as I try to describe the noises, the disappearing architecture, and the Asian aromas of this 23 million strong city by the river.

My dead family have tales to tell and I hope to do them justice. 

After all, time really is running out…



Roatan, March 2014, Part One

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Roatan, off the coast of Honduras

It was two years ago, for 3 weeks in April-May, when my son, daughter-in-law, then 3  1/2 year old granddaughter, Jordan, and I last travelled, internationally, as a family.  On that adventure we explored the Andulusian region of Spain and a few places in Portugal.  Awesome adventure. Beautiful areas.

And, one year ago in March, I had an extraordinary ‘heritage walk’ in England with new found cousins which, like the trip to Spain and Portugal, is all chronicled in this blog (previously under the blog name: grammietravels).

Now I move on to a new blog heading of Paper, Pen, Journey as Vivian C. Murray while reinventing the site to be all-inclusive of multigenerational travel, my family’s experiences in Shanghai as expats in the 20s, 30s, and 40s, and my own personal explorations.

 

This year, 2014, we traveled again as a 3 generation family and arrived in Roatan, Honduras on the last day of February, leaving 12 days later.

As in previous travels, we used VRBO (Vacation Rentals By Owner), renting a 3 bedroom house on Tamarind Drive which was closer to West Bay than West End. (And that was a good thing, as far as I’m concerned.)  The house was about 500 feet (down and back up a steep hill) from the beach. Of course this is not far when a person is fit and used to hiking. For moi, it was a bit of a stretch coming back up that hill.

One hot afternoon, a guy rolled past in his golf cart and asked if I needed a ride down the hill. I told him to come back when I needed a ride back up! He laughed while commenting that he could relate. Another day, a young worker at the boutique hotel (Xbalanque Resort) next to the beach called out asking if I needed a ride back up and while catching my breath I declined saying I was almost there. I had pulled something in my left foot and was using a walking stick to help climb back up the hill. I must have been a pitiful sight all sweaty, sandy, huffing and puffing.  I wouldn’t be caught dead looking like this back home.

In our very nice house, the bedrooms and living area had sliding glass doors to the deck where there’s an infinity plunge pool. Is was deep enough to fully submerge, float and Jordan could easily run and canon-barrel into the water.

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Plunge Pool

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The guidebooks and house instructions mention the “pleasant” 45 minute beachwalk from West Bay to West End. Our yellow house-on-stilts is in the middle between those two towns and I was pretty much scratching on death’s door by the time we walked to and from West Bay the first week there. It didn’t help matters to have a bum foot.

What the guidebooks also fail to mention is a high metal bridge over a small waterway near Gambolinda Park. There are many stairs which need to be negotiated as well as a rocky area of about 50 feet which needed careful attention (these rocks have now been removed).

Did I mention the fact that these walks are in 85 degrees with 95% humidity?

The water taxi stops at the comfortable and pricey boutique hotel dock below the house (Xbalanque Resort). Jordan and I paired up as a team to take the taxis on two occasions, once to West End and the other to Infinity Bay at West Bay.

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Riding the water taxi.

 

A couple of things I love about Central America besides the warm temps and warm oceans, are the geckos chirping in the rooms and the occasional colorful bird perched nearby squawking its head off. But, in Roatan I missed the sounds of the howler monkeys which we heard in Costa Rica, as well as toucans, and parrots. We did have the geckos, bats, vultures, crows, and the odd squawking bird here and there.

 

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Two of the dozen bats outside the kitchen window.

 

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This guy was hanging on off our balcony for one evening.

Upside down Roatan bird

Pretty bird with a loud squawk.

 

The Hondurian vendors on beaches are naturally annoying but not as bad as in Mexico. Here, it usually takes one “No gratias” and they go away. In Mexico they nag incessantly.

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Ice cream on the beach

At West Bay there was the ‘Banana Donut Man’ a grizzled old guy with a long white beard, a bit rotund, sweet and kind. He fed the little children left over donuts as well as the fish.  (Sanding in the water when he threw a piece of donut and have the fish swarm around my legs was a very cool sensation.) We bought one from him at West Bay.

The ‘famous’ banana-donut-man fed the fish and the children. Even though I spoke with him a short time, I knew he had a good heart.

Pretending to be a shark and grabbing our legs

This young boy had fun grabbing our ankles as we went into the water.

 

 

There were young Garifuna boys selling conch shells and dried, plasticized seahorses.  It had just been the day before when I talked to ‘the kids’ about how I wondered what ever happened to the beautiful conch shell she had for years, after she passed on.  Naturally I was drawn to purchasing the shell which looked just like the one my mom had. The boy wanted $10, I said $5. He said no. The seahorse he wanted $6 and I said $2. I sat on my beach batik throw from Costa Rica, and just shook my head no. He walked away with his little friend, who was trying to sell me more inferior products for my price, so I went to snorkel to get a break.

When I resurfaced from a wonderful escape with the fish, the boy popped into my face and agreed to my prices.  “OK, it’s a deal.” he said.  He and I laughed over the whole game of it. He was probably no more than 9 years old, just a year older than my grandson in Seattle.

There were also women offering hair braiding and massages, along with an ice cream cart pushed back and forth from a very pleasant local selling a frozen ice cream for $3 but at the end of the day, agreeing to $2.

However, vendors at the West End were another story, especially the ‘masseurs.’ They ganged up on the tourists and had no mercy. Be very careful with these women, unless you want to spend a lot of money for a massage on the beach.

Jordan and I landed at West End on the water taxi and immediately saw this would be a different experience. After running into the Banana-Donut-Man again and buying 3 for the family, we made our way to the first stop for Jordan’s promised ice cream, and then to the beach which was just outside the ice cream shop.  Stopping to ask people on the street where to find ice cream or the main beach is a must-do unless you want to wander aimlessly in the heat.

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Jordan arrives at West End, Roatan

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West End has much more in the way of a “hip scene”

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Note the beer and glass the marlin is holding.

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Half Moon Bay was a calm mass of sparkling turquoise and swimming was great. But we landed very close to the town beach bum whom I didn’t trust because of the grizzled appearance and beer in one brown, leathery hand. He was watching Jordan and I very intently when we were in the water so I opted to go back to our spot to keep an eye on Jordan, our bags, and feel less than relaxed. But the old man was probably not the biggest problem on the beach. At least he eventually climbed into his hammock, strung between two palms behind me and which I swear I didn’t notice when choosing the spot initially, and fell fast asleep.

The massage vendors were beyond annoying and were really a crooked bunch of lovely looking young women led by what appeared to be the older matriarch of all Roatan masseurs. This woman was relentlessly trying to massage my neck while saying ‘just a demo’ and then whispering God-only-knows-what into my ears. I was sufficiently creeped out and finally brushed her away as I would an annoying fly.  I’m a patient person but she was pushing my limits.

Not so lucky for the young couple next to where I sat who fell under the spell of Massage Mama and her ‘little pretties.’ Before I knew it, this couple were laying face down and getting worked on, in more than one way. About 6 women were massaging these unsuspecting two people. They even I clasped the woman’s bikini top.

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Half Moon Bay, West End

 

 

Half Moon Bay, West End, Roatan

Little did we know we were walking into a den of crazed masseuse women.

Boat people were swinging off the mast

There were people swinging on rope from the masts of this boat into the water.

 

While  keeping my eye on the beach scene, still waving to Jordan who was having a blast in the water,  out of my peripheral vision I saw the couple sit up and heard the voices getting louder. The man was saying, “But you said this was a demo! I am only giving you $20, the only cash I brought, exactly in case of a situation like this coming up!” Mama Masseuse is yelling, “No, no Mister! $80 for each half hour massage!” The ‘Mister’ held his ground and the women walked off all clucking like a multi-colored group of disgruntled hens.

The couple and I started chatting. They were from New Orleans and taking a break from the Royal Caribbean cruise they were on. I liked them immediately and we chatted for awhile laughing at the audacity of Mama Masseuse. He was very pissed off and his voice and accent reminded me of Matthew McConaughey. He laughed to tell me while being massaged he overheard me tell Jordan to just “pee in the ocean” after she had run up to me frantic about her need.

He found it funny while I felt a bit embarrassed for about half a second. He also offered to drive us back to the cruise ship, which of course wasn’t necessary since we weren’t on a cruise.  His wife also told me she was pretty uncomfortable about her bikini top being undone by the massage team.

After a bit, Jordan ran up to say she was hungry, a common event on this trip, so we went off in search of a cash machine and a restaurant. My card wouldn’t work in the cash machine, but the Coconut Tree hawker said they accepted credit cards so up the stairs we went.

I had Lionfish fish cakes, presented prettily and tasting especially good. Jordan had cheese quesadillas which she didn’t like and wouldn’t eat. Now I understand why she is so thin. Thrilled to see a tv on in the open aired lounge area, she went to sit and watch Sponge Bob and I had a few minutes to myself. I began watching a bunch of young people swing off the mast of a sailboat into the sea wondering how safe that was but knowing they were having a blast.

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It was an easy decision not to fuss with the water taxi (getting in and out was as challenging as I was afraid it would be) so I hailed a $10 cab ride back to Sienna House. Jordan was totally fine to be taxied by land back to the house, and seemed as relieved as I was. Her parents were out and about so the two of us slipped into easy naps under the ceiling fan in my sea-blue and yellow bedroom.

To be continued…

 

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