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Drinking tea on the Great Wall

04-23 17:26 TimeOut Beijing
We were having tea on the Great Wall when a Japanese soldier appeared and stole a piece of cake. My brother started cursing. The soldier grabbed me…

A memoir of '20s China enchants Charlotte Middlehurst

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In her new memoir, author Patricia Luce Chapman tells how her charming childhood growing up in 1920s China was shattered by war. She speaks to Charlotte Middlehurst about her story and her time in China.

Chapman grew up on Shanghai’s Amherst Avenue (now Panyu Lu) in the late 1920s. It was a childhood split between two worlds – one of glamorous high society parties and one of local life, experienced through her servants whom she adored. When war broke out, her charmed life gave way to one of daily horror and personal loss.

Nazi rallies, Japanese warships, death and destruction hit. Chapman recalls the house shaking from the mortar shells and, in one incident, a Jewish boy’s ear being ripped off. On the streets, she remembers the emaciated rickshaw drivers and opium addicts.

In her new book, Tea on the Great Wall, the author shares her extraordinary childhood. Through the eyes of little Patty, we experience the momentous social changes that would give rise to China as we know it today. Blending her own memories, with notes from her journalist mother and scrapbooks from her father, she renders these cataclysmic events through remarkable detail and the voice of innocence.

‘After the invasion of Shanghai, we decided to leave China for good. There were corpses in the street. The stench of death was everywhere. There was a village nearby where people were freezing to death. I couldn’t bear Japanese [occupied] China,’ says Chapman, now 88 years old, on the phone from her home in Rockport, Texas.

The reality of life in Shanghai at the time was brought home to her when the fiancé of the family tailor was butchered by Japanese soldiers days before the wedding. Chapman and her mother, the journalist Edna Lee Booker, were evacuated to the US soon after in November 1940. Her father, John Potter, stayed and was later interned in a Japanese camp after Pearl Harbor. The family was eventually reunited in 1943.

Upon arriving in America, Chapman faced intense culture shock. ‘It’s different when you come from China, only people who’ve lived there know,’ says Chapman. ‘When I came to the US there was a lot that made me feel uncomfortable. I’d learned Chinese manners from my Ama [ayi] and my father. They taught me quiet mutual respect and to never insult someone to their face. ‘It was hard to make small talk with people. The girls at school would say, “My dad’s at the golf club”, and I’d say, “Mine’s in a Japanese prison camp.” It was a bit of a conversation stopper,’ says Chapman, who is strikingly funny.

The writer decided to pen the book when looking at pictures of a pagoda with her daughter, who asked if that’s what buildings in China really looked like. ‘It occurred to me she didn’t know what was second nature to me. When the grandchildren arrived I wanted them to have some idea of what grandma did when she was a little girl. The other half of why is for all the Americans who complain about China. I am so proud of China, of how far it has come,’ she explains.

The memoir weaves a rich history of events most Westerners will have heard of: the Opium Wars, the Boxer Rebellion and the extremes of poverty and riches that characterised post-Imperial China. ‘Anyone with half a brain can see that what China has done is a miracle!’ she adds.

Unlike some expat children of the pre-war generation, her parents actively encouraged her Chinese education and exposure to the local community. Her father worked for the Bank of China, and had the trust of the local Chinese community. Amid war, he was even given power of attorney over the bank’s properties, which he was able to finesse out of Japanese hands. Her mother was a renowned journalist who daringly interviewed the founding father of the Chinese Republic, Sun Yat-sen, while he was hiding on a boat. The story goes that she was almost shot as she steered her boat to Sun’s. ‘She was part of a special generation of women that included Emily Hahn and Pearl Buck,’ says the author. ‘She befriended the wives of the generals. Marshall Wu Peifu’s wife liked her a lot because she was funny and normal. She was the first [foreign] journalist on the scene.’

As for the title of the book, it’s taken from a real life experience. ‘We were having tea on the Great Wall when a Japanese soldier appeared and stole a piece of cake. My brother started cursing. The soldier grabbed me… Someone had a gun and threatened to shoot the soldier if he didn’t let me go. It was soon after that we left China,’ says Chapman. It’s just one of a number of vignettes that place you at the scene of these extraordinary historical events.

Back on American soil, Chapman would find and marry a boy with a similar story to her own. Her first husband, Henry Luce III, was the elder son of the founder and editor-in- chief of Time and grandson of Henry Winters Luce who, with his wife Elizabeth, was an educational missionary in China.

Despite the horrors of her final years in the country, Chapman’s enduring impression of China is of beauty. ‘I loved the Chinese theatre, the bang, bang, bang! The way it contrasted with the quiet stillness,’ she says, citing a favourite memory when the famed Peking opera singer Mei Lanfang taught her to dance.

Patricia Luce Chapman

Tea on the Great Wall is a charming memoir and poignant contrast between childhood innocence and human corruptibility.

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