With shopping trips to the Bund, parties at the Cathay Hotel (now the Fairmont Peace Hotel), and swimming at the country club, life for the young daughter of a prominent American family in 1930s occupied Shanghai often appears far removed from the chaotic tragedy ordinarily associated with that era. Even as Hitler drags Germany to the brink and Japanese masts fill the Huangpu River, the most pressing threat to the family is a financial matter, and not the specter of violent conflict. Patricia Luce Chapman readily explores this distance in her engaging memoir Tea on the Great Wall, a wide-eyed retrospective of a luxurious, idyllic childhood that gradually unraveled in the war.
Writing more than seven decades after the fact, Chapman can recognize her sheltered upbringing. She attended a German school, played with the children of her parents’ expat friends, and was spoiled by the household’s extensive Chinese staff, even if they did favor her brother. It wasn’t until the family driver failed to collect the 5-year-old Patty from school that she walked home by herself and saw for the first time coolies pulling rickshaws, their broken frames tugging at only slightly sturdier contraptions.
While the image of those withered men lingers, Chapman’s Shanghai remains one of cozy colonial grace, of her handsome father commanding respect from his office on the Bund, her elegant mother hosting soirées in the International Settlement, even amidst the destruction of the surrounding city. That enclave, which was shielded for some time by international treaties, escaped initial occupation but took in many refugees who hid in the Settlement, dying in large numbers from starvation, cold, and infection. Chapman’s neighborhood saw barbed wire, arbitrary inspections, unending violence, and misery that became normal almost to the point of insignificance.
Chapman cathartically dredges up these long-submerged moments, meaningful in hindsight, but largely unnoted at the time. When Hitler came to power, the German school replaced most of their staff and taught the students patriotic songs and a salute, and still Shanghai was one of the few places in the world that welcomed paperless Jews, including Chapman’s teenage governess. Other recollections never required the wisdom of hindsight but were plainly horrifying as they happened. After a lifetime away from China, those memories remain potent, but are presented through the romanticized lens of a person who mostly saw the best of what this country had to offer.
The unique perspective of an American child who saw so much suffering and injustice in China and then left, never to return, provides insight into an extraordinary time. Stories that would fill the lengths of other books merit only a paragraph or two in Tea on the Great Wall. A memoir so rich with detail and remembrance could easily veer into the sentimental -- on occasion, the optimism does feel almost utopian -- but the distance of time, geography and experience enables Chapman to keep her focus on her exceptional story.
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