One of the best things about being in California is loading up on food. Chinese food, of course: dim sum and xiaolongbao, Chengdu hot pot and Peking duck. Plus plenty of home-cooked steamed fish.
Then there’s the food for thought that comes with being at home with Mom and Dad. All these years, I’ve been milking my father for stories of Old Shanghai. It only occurred to me on my last trip that I know his history but almost nothing of my mother’s. It’s time to fill that gap.
My mother was born in Hong Kong in 1938. From there, she and her parents moved briefly to Shanghai. Imagine if my parents had crossed paths then! Though my father at age 15 could hardly have been interested in my infant mother.
The shortness of my mother’s stay in Shanghai had everything to do with her father, my wàigōng (外公). The Nationalist government gave him the task during the 2nd Sino-Japanese War to keep Chinese matériel out of Japanese hands. As a result, my mother spent the war years in Kunming.
When the war was over, Japan was required to relinquish the territories annexed from China. My wàigōng was sent to Taiwan, this time was to manage the handover of power stations on the island. He was stationed first in Keelung City, northeast of Taipei (Chinese: 基隆市; pinyin: Jīlóng Shì). Later, circa 1947, wàigōng took control of the power station in Taichung City (Chinese: 臺中市; pinyin: Táizhōng Shì).
Soon thereafter, my mother and grandmother joined wàigōng in Taichung City, though my mother didn’t stay long. There were no schools yet in Taiwan where Mandarin was taught. The primary languages were still Taiwanese and Japanese. So my mom went to live with family in Hong Kong for a year before returning to Taiwan in 1948.
The house in Taichung was large by any standard, certainly for a family of three. My mother had her own suite of rooms with two twin beds in the bedroom so that her best friend Kathryn could always spend the night. There was a veranda where my grandmother played mahjong and a large garden with a big fish pond in the middle. When guests arrived unexpectedly for dinner, the cook would cast a net into the pond and take out a fish for the evening meal.
The Chinese word for fish is yú (鱼). My mother’s cousin Celina is married to a man named Oliver Yu, also pronounced yú but written 于. Two characters pronounced exactly the same yet written differently and with unrelated meanings. Like yŭ for both rain (雨) and language (语). It’s enough to drive an English speaker mad.
The Chinese love their homonyms. They lend themselves for great puns. Sometimes you don’t even need to play with the characters, as in the word for comrade: tóngzhì (同志). Modern wags, particularly in Hong Kong and Taiwan, have turned the word into slang for a member of the LGBTQ community.
Uncle Oliver is quite the wag himself. Always smiling, always ready with a joke. On my last trip to California, I asked him to tell me the story of how he left China.
He said it was the fighting between the Nationalists and the Communists that prompted it all. The Yu family was in Shenyang (Mukden) at the time. According to China historian Frank Dikötter in The Tragedy of Liberation, Shenyang was Manchuria’s stronghold and held one of China’s best arsenals. In the winter of 1947, the Communists cut the railway to Beijing and laid siege to Shenyang. This is how Dikotter describes the situation in Shenyang.
People who were too poor or too sick to leave were soon starving. As early as February, Shenyang was short of food, fuel and ammunition. Vitamin deficiencies caused thousands to go blind, while countless others, many of them children, were wasted by noma, a gangrenous disease that destroyed the face, by pellagra, by scurvy and by other diseases of malnutrition.
Uncle Oliver would have been 10 or 11 years old at the time. He mentioned none of these horrors. Instead, he told me about escaping Shenyang by crawling through a wheat field while bullets whistled overhead. From there, the Yu family headed for Beijing.
on the boat
But Beijing was no safe haven either. Uncle Oliver’s father was a professor of English. Hardly the sort of professional the Communists would welcome. So father Yu applied for permission to bring his family to the province of Shandong, the Yu family’s ancestral home. In Qingdao (Tsingtao), he had the family’s travel papers doctored to change their destination to Shanghai.
They boarded a boat headed south but by the time it arrived in Shanghai, that too had fallen to the Communists. So the Yu’s went on to Guangdong. From there, they fled to Taiwan.
In 2012, my mother took me on a trip to Taiwan. We took in all the famous sites like Taroko Gorge and Anping Fort, the latter a special treat for my Dutch husband. We also visited some of Mom’s old haunts though in truth there was little that she could recall.
Mom only lived in Taiwan for a total of 6 years. She was 16 years old when she left Taiwan for the US. While in Taiwan, she lived the sheltered life of the schoolgirl she was. An exciting day for her might have been an afternoon matinee with her father and maybe some ice cream after that.
Wherever we went in Taiwan, we ate fabulously. Three cup chicken (equal parts rice wine, soy sauce and sesame oil). Wild greens foraged from the mountainside. Clams sauteed in oyster sauce and Thai basil. Fish in every possible form, still glistening from the sea. I can taste it now.
Home again, home again, jiggety-jig.