A Death in the Family

Last month, my Aunt Ruth died. She was my father’s only sister and his favorite sibling. We called her Guma (姑妈) (father’s sister), just as her children called my father jiujiu (舅舅) (mother’s brother). The Chinese are very particular about family relationships. There are words to distinguish an older brother from a younger one and a maternal grandmother from a paternal one.

Guma was my father’s last living sibling. Dad is the only one left from his generation now.

on avenue haig

Guma was born on 9 September 1922, which makes her a year and three months older than Dad. As babies, they slept in my grandmother’s bed. Later, my father shared a room with my grandfather. In 1932, when the house on Avenue Haig was remodelled, Dad and Guma finally got their own bedrooms.

People often said that Guma and Dad looked alike. Until they were five or six years old, my grandmother would dress them in identical clothing and pass them off as twins. Dad says:

My earliest memory was playing in the garden with Guma. Seems like she was always there wherever and whenever I was.

They attended the same private school, a Christian one founded by a lady Grandma and Grandpa had met while in the States. Dad remembers sitting on the stairs with Guma, awaiting the birth of their newest sibling. They would have been 7 and 8 years old at the time. Dad wanted a little sister and Guma wanted a little brother. Guma won, as she so often did at any game of wits she played with Dad.

false teeth

Green Gang triad leader
Du Yuesheng Image source: ChinaExpat.com

Like many well-to-do families, my grandparents didn’t stay in Shanghai in the summertime. Moganshan was a mountain resort not too far from Shanghai. Created in 1898, foreign businessmen built European-style stone villas while missionaries constructed rustic retreats. The gangster Du Yuesheng and the politicians Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong were among the famous visitors to Moganshan.

Guma and Dad didn’t go on these family holidays. Instead, their Waipo (外婆) babysat them. Waipo literally means outside or foreign mother, the maternal grandmother, which pretty much sums up Chinese attitudes toward mothers-in-law. She came to the house on Avenue Haig and while the cat was away, the mice played.

My Waipo knew a jillion ghost stories. Since it was summertime, we usually sat in the garden in the evenings to catch a breeze. And that’s when she started her ghost stories. And it was really scary by the time we had to go to bed. Our Waipo at the time was only in her early 40’s. But to us she was a real old lady. Maybe partly because she wore a wig and had a full set of dentures (as a result of some illness). The scariest day of my life was the morning after a particularly long ghost story session the night before. I got up and went to look for Guma. On the way I suddenly saw Waipo’s wig and dentures hanging one over the other on her bedroom doorknob. It took a long time before I wanted to hear another one of her tales.

triads and a triangle

Aside from these occasional excursions, the family didn’t go out much. There were sanitation issues but it was the crime that was the real problem. Frederic Wakeman, Jr. notes, in Policing Shanghai 1927-1937, that kidnapping had become commonplace in Shanghai by 1929. Wealthy businessmen and their children were the prime targets. The practice had become so well-established, there was even a protocol in place (p. 80):

In a typical kidnapping, the victim was blindfolded and carried away in an automobile to a prearranged house. In many cases, the servants of the victim were accomplices of the gang. Usually the ransom was paid after the kidnappers informed the victim’s family of the dire consequencies of reporting the crime to the police. The victim, who was generally treated courteously by his captors, would then be released and if necessary fabricate a story of escaping from imprisonment. There seemed to be a rule – or at least the Chinese newspapers claimed so – that once a person had been kidnapped he would not be seized again.

So Grandma and Grandpa brought chefs into their home to cater dinner parties. They entertained quite a lot, though never with drinking or gambling. They socialized with other Westernized Chinese, mostly fellow Ivy League graduates.

The children didn’t venture far from home. Avenue Haig (Huashan Lu) on one side and Avenue Edward VII (Huaihai Road) were their limits. Once, Dad tried to ride his bicycle to the Bund and got his wheels caught in the tram rails. The bike did not survive the trip though he did, hanging from the wooden sides of the tramcar.

cathy theater

Family entertainment
Lobby of the Lyceum Theater Photo credit: Karen Kao

When they got older, their radius of action grew. Guma and Dad saw first-run Hollywood films at the Cathay Theater. They attended classical music concerts at the Lyceum, sometimes together with Grandpa.

Neither Dad nor Guma had a lot of leisure time, though. For Dad, it was a tutor who came to the house in the weekend to teach Chinese classics. For Guma, it was a White Russian princess who came to teach piano. Dad thought the piano teacher smelled of cats, which was enough of a reason for him to stay away.

Then the war came, first against the Japanese and later among the Chinese themselves. And one by one the Kao family left Shanghai and came to America.

family memory

Guma settled in Pottsville, Pennsylvania; my parents went to Los Angeles. Guma was envious of our easy access to Chinese groceries, restaurants and movie theaters. But she was also perfectly happy with her church, gardening and bridge club. To me, Guma’s family were real Americans.

She was a member of one of the first tourist groups to visit China after Nixon had paved the way.  She wasn’t the tour guide, but she knew China and the Chinese language. That thrust her into a frontseat role, something that Guma seemed to have avoided all her life.

Guma told me about the crowds of Chinese who gathered around their tour group, never having seen a Western face before. The big-bosomed women in Guma’s group got the most attention. They had their breasts regularly poked and prodded by the incredulous Chinese.

Some years later, a similar thing happened to my tour group. A member of our group had fallen ill and needed antibiotics. She went to the hospital for the requisite injection. The place was in an uproar when she arrived. Everyone wanted to see for himself whether the poor African-American woman was really black all over.

last time

There were more stories, I’m sure, of Old Shanghai and the new China. Whenever I pressed Dad for more, he always said:

I’m sure I’ve forgotten more than I should. Maybe someday when you get the chance, Guma can fill you in more.

family photo
Guma and Dad July 2008 Photo credit: Frans Verhagen

The last time I saw Guma was at a family reunion. She and Dad were together every day. Always seated next to each other. Giggling like a pair of kids perched on the stairs of their home in Shanghai, just having fun.

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