When Dad was a kid in Shanghai, he listened to music all the time. A British marching band used to practice up on Jessfield Road. Downstairs were his sister and her piano teacher, a White Russian princess who smelled like cats. Dad sprawled on the floor of his father’s study to listen to records on the gramophone. Dad and his sister sometimes attended live concerts at the Lyceum Theater. And then, of course, there was church.

Back in the day, there were dozens of churches in Shanghai. Apparently, Dad went to each one to appraise their musical quality. He joined the Presbyterian congregation. He said they had the best choir in town.

My friend Martha tells me that Presbyterian missionaries swarmed China at one time, though most were concentrated around Beijing. There were turf battles with the enemy, the Catholics. When Dad lived in Shanghai, the Presbyterians had founded at least three churches. Which one was Dad’s?

Pure Heart

The First Presbyterian Church of Shanghai was founded in 1860 by a group of American missionaries. Two of the founders, John and Mary Farnham, later created an institution to house and educate children displaced by war as well as serve the local Christian community. They named their institute Xingqin Shuyuan or Pure Heart Academy. The First Presbyterian Church was absorbed into the academy, becoming the Pure Heart Church.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Matthew 5:8

The year Dad was born, in 1923, the church and academy moved to their current location at 30 Dachang Road in Huangpu District. From Dad’s home on Avenue Haig, that would have been almost a 2 hour walk. I suppose Dad could have taken his bicycle or a tram. Even asked his mother to borrow her private rickshaw and driver. But all that seems unlikely for a sheltered boy at a time when kidnapping was rife in Shanghai.

Hongde Church, Shanghai
Image source: Wikimedia

Pure Heart Church has two daughter churches. Hongde Church was founded in 1928. It’s the only church in Shanghai with Chinese architecture. Hongde is located on 59 Duolan Lu in Hongkou District. That’s north of Suzhou Creek and would have been an even further stretch for Dad. The same goes for the other daughter church at 340 Baotang Road in Zhabei District.

But distance would not have been the greatest barrier for Dad. The Japanese heavily bombed Zhabei in 1932 and again in 1937. Hongkou is where the Japanese created the Shanghai Ghetto in 1941 to house Shanghai’s Jews. The mother church, Pure Heart, was located close to the Little East Gate, the stomping grounds of the Green Gang. All of these parts of Shanghai were occupied by the Japanese from 1937 to 1945.

So I don’t see Dad going to any of these places. Even if he had wanted to venture into these danger zones, I doubt that his parents would have allowed it. Dad must have gone to church elsewhere. But now that he’s not around for me to ask anymore, I guess I’ll never know.

Hedging Bets

When I was a kid in Los Angeles, I don’t think Dad ever went to church, other than for an event that involved my brothers or me. Mom was the one who took us to church every Sunday. She raised us Catholic. I attended Catholic primary school, Catholic high school and a law school founded by the Jesuits.

For some of my family, religion is a transactional affair. You pray when you want something. But in China, the gods are unreliable. They may be out to eat or to play mahjong. The gods sleep a lot. You never can tell if your prayers are being heard.

To hedge her bets with the gods, my maternal grandmother organized two funerals for her husband. One was in the Buddhist tradition with incense and gongs and chanting. The other was an ecumenical Christian service. My grandmother didn’t want to anger either the Catholic God or the Protestant God by choosing one over the other.

Dad at the Southern Baptist Student Retreat 1951
Dad at the Southern Baptist Student Retreat 1951

I think Dad’s bonds with the Presbyterian Church broke when he left Shanghai. While he was a student in Knoxville, Tennessee, he might have attended Baptist services. There’s some serious music being made in those churches. I found a group photo with Dad dead-center from the summer of 1951, when he attended the Southern Baptist Student Retreat in Black Mountain, North Carolina. I guess Dad would do pretty much anything for some good music.

He had nothing to gain by attending mass at our local Miraculous Medal Church in Montebello, California. This was the hideous age of guitar masses and Kumbaya.

Hillside Chapel

There won’t be a religious component to Dad’s funeral. Neither Protestant nor Catholic, Buddhist or non-denominational. I’m told that the chapel is in a hilltop arbor. It’s supposed to be quiet and peaceful up there.

Dad circa 1970
Dad circa 1970

It was hard to choose the music for Dad’s memorial. There are so many musical memories to sort through. When my brothers and I were little, Dad used to wake us up on the weekends by blasting John Philip Sousa marches on the stereo. He loved Harry Belafonte and Frank Sinatra. Later in life, Dad returned to the classics.

My brothers and I go through all Dad’s CDs in search of some appropriate music for the funeral. We find Madame Butterfly, Rigoletto and La Boheme. Dad loved Maria Callas but somehow even one of her arias doesn’t strike the right note.

Then we remember Louis Armstrong. He was all the rage in 1930s Shanghai and in 1950s Los Angeles. I don’t know whether Dad ever saw Armstrong perform there but he loved King Louis’ swing.

Ain’t Misbehavin’ is what we choose. In two words, the story of Dad’s life.