speaker's guide to life in today's China
Every Two Weeks
The Class of '49
The class of '49 from the Shanghai American School return for a reunion - and find a very different place in a very different time
"I shouldn't have come back," said Teddy Heinrichsohn, as he stood on Changsha's Orange Island. His visit back in 1948 had already convinced him that nothing remained of the house where he once lived with his parents, 27 dogs, and a horse. He knew it as Ox Head Island, a name unknown to the tour guide accompanying him.
Meanwhile, Marybelle McMahon's eyes welled up with tears when she saw the hospital in Hunan's Hengyang city, where her father had been chief of staff from 1936 to 1940. Her guide confirmed that it had been first built in 1902, and she recognized the black brick of the older buildings. "The Japanese sent rats with bubonic plague," recalled McMahon, who was approximately 11 years old at the time. "They used mustard gas that caused the faces of people to fall off."
Heinrichsohn and McMahon, and 18 other former classmates were students at the Shanghai American School (SAS) before Liberation in 1949. As the school's students gathered for a reunion on the site of the new school, reminiscences (some happy, some sad) were thick in the air.
The SAS was founded in 1912 by a group of Christian missionaries, looking for a boarding school where their children could receive a Western education. It was a strict regime, with a demerit system and unquestioned attendance at Sunday church services. The parents of students were missionaries, teachers, journalists, diplomats and business people. Most were Americans. The school closed in 1950, and reopened in 1980.
John Rawlinson took the group to the spot on Shanghai's Xizang Lu near the Nanjing Theater, where a Chinese pilot accidentally dropped a bomb in 1937, killing his father, Frank Rawlinson, one of the founders of the SAS.
For the oldest member of the school reunion, 93-year-old Lois Chapman (class of 1929), this was her first trip back to China in 75 years. Most of the other graduates were in their 70s and 80s; only one, Betty Barr, remained in China after Liberation.
During a question and answer session with on the contemporary SAS campus, students were keen to hear the high school graduates' experiences of settling back in when they moved to the West. For most of the graduates, their childhoods were spent feeling a lack of identity both in China and in the West.
Betty Rugh Elder was brought up the only non-Chinese child in her town in Hunan. She recalls that the first time she felt as though she belonged was when she started classes at the SAS. In her recently published book, The Oriole's Song, she writes that the school was "the place of our full belonging... No longer suspended between two worlds, at SAS I fell into place."
When Betty Barr first entered the SAS at the age of 12, she had just finished spending two years tending goats in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Shanghai. Not surprisingly, for her too, the school felt like a haven, and she wrote about her experiences in her book Shanghai Boy, Shanghai Girl.
Teddy Heinrichsohn's father arrived in China as a missionary from German, and later joined a trading company and married Teddy's mother, a local Chinese woman. When the Nazi government confiscated his German passport due to his mixed parenting (and therefore non-Ayran countenance), Heinrichsohn says the SAS was a haven of acceptance for him.
Heinrichsohn's respite at the SAS was short-lived however. After Liberation, his father's property was confiscated, and the family found themselves penniless, homeless, and stateless. He survived by living in a warehouse belonging to a friend, and selling everything he owned besides his books (which were valueless). Later, he was employed by a trading company in the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank building on Shanghai's Bund, and to this day remembers its room and telephone number. He was separated from his mother in 1946 when the Chinese government deported him to Hong Kong, but refusing travel permission to his mother.
Most of the original buildings of the SAS still stand, with their distinctive New England style architecture standing out on Hengshan Lu; nowadays they house a naval research institute. The group recalled the boys' raids on the girls' dormitories, or visiting the forbidden water tower, where Heinrichsohn carved his initials. And then, there was the night sound-sleeper Ted Stannard's bed was moved out of doors. Another student recalled seeing the armies of both the Communist and Nationalist forces from the school's top floors.
One talked about having to evacuate her home three times for the Northern Expedition, the Japanese invasion, and the advance of the People's Liberation Army. A few questioned the value of the missionary movement that their families were involved in, and admitted to being imperialists. Education in the 1930s and 40s was strictly American, meant to prepare students for US universities; only two said they spoke enough Chinese to get around.
Mostly, though the talk was of favorite teachers, Hunan recipes, and a few sang revolutionary songs.
Said historian Angie Mills, a childhood in China "gave me an international perspective not available to the US-born and schooled. But as a result, I have struggled, like many others, with third-culture syndrome."
Judging by the effusive welcome the current Shanghai American School extended to the visitors, there is a clear desire to cement ties with this segment of living Sino-American history. No direct relationship between the older school that disbanded in 1950 and the newer school that started in 1980 exists except for the name. The older group is well aware that its alumni association could otherwise die with them.
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