Welcome back to the serialized blog of DOUBLE THUNDER.
Though I promised to introduce a new character in Installment #9, I merely mentioned Vera Polsky and described her as the adoptive mother of Lisa/ Yuebing. Here, in Installment #10, Vera is not only given the lion’s share of text, she is also the intrepid protagonist of Chapter 3, partially included in this installment and rightfully titled VERA.
We ended Installment #9 in the middle of a conversation between Bittersweet and her physician Dr. Hwang about their recollections of Shanghai when the city was known as the “Pearl of the Orient.”
And now, Installment #10.
CHAPTER 2: THE CONFESSION (continued)—1974
Bittersweet’s recollections of the city were far less glamorous and sophisticated than Dr. Hwang’s. Nevertheless, he leaned forward in his chair so as not to miss a word: the shopping sprees with Madeleine to Sincere and Wing On department stores on Nanking Road to buy Western-style jumpers and smocks for her grandchildren; the afternoons spent indulging Madeleine’s sweet tooth at the Chocolate Shop and the wonderful confiseries and patisseries of “Little Vienna” in Hongkew run by Middle European Jews who had fled Hitler and the Second World War in Europe; the evenings she accompanied Youlin and Madeleine to the Park Hotel, at the time the tallest building in the Far East, whose rooftop garden overlooked the racetrack.
“I’m just waiting for the day when the grill room of the Park Hotel has music and dancing at night again.” Dr. Hwang said, animatedly. “Perhaps you cut a rug…”
Bittersweet smiled slightly and shook her head. He lowered his eyes and pressed his lips together. Of course she hadn’t, his gestures seemed to say. He was the bon vivant, not she.
“Perhaps you remember the lobby, with its green and black marble pillars,” he said instead.
She nodded and smiled more broadly.
“It’s as splendid as ever. Well, almost,” he qualified. “And here I thought that nothing in Shanghai’s the same, that everything’s changed. You’re piquing my memory and proving me wrong.”
His boyish enthusiasm acted as a spur to her own memories of Shanghai. But they were family events that she remembered in detail, events that wouldn’t be of interest to a worldly bachelor. Not so much family events as domestic responsibilities, such as buying Western-style furniture for the house off Avenue Haig before Youlin and his new family arrived from the United States; meeting her American daughter-in-law and her two beautiful grandchildren for the first time; worrying about Madeleine, whose waistline was the span of a man’s hand.
“Do you think she might be ill?” Bittersweet had asked her son. “She doesn’t have a very good appetite.”
“Don’t worry about her health,” Youlin assured her. “She doesn’t eat much because she doesn’t want to gain weight. Chinese women might want to be plump, but not Western women. They want to be slim so they’re always dieting. In the West, slender women are considered more feminine and attractive.”
“Is that so?” Bittersweet sniffed. “In China, having a lot to eat signifies good fortune. When we see someone getting plump, we know her luck has changed for the better. When we see a woman getting thin, she’s down on her luck for sure.”
Dr. Hwang threw back his head and laughed—loud enough that an orderly passing by peered inside. Assured that all was well, he continued on his way. All her stories of Shanghai could have happened anywhere in China, Bittersweet realized, in fact anywhere in the world. They weren’t about Shanghai at all but about about her family. She looked down at her lap, at her hands that were clasped there. Her large peasant hands.
“Duibuqi,” she apologized. “I’m afraid I got carried away. Here I am talking about my family, whom you never knew.”
“But now I do. And I’m grateful to you for sharing them with me. I didn’t live with my mother and father, as you know, but with distant relations. And I mean distant in both senses. I envy you your family. You speak of them with such intimacy, such closeness, such love. I envy them for having a mother, a mother-in-law, a grandmother, such as you.”
It was Dr. Hwang’s turn to look down, at his hands cupping his knees. He flexed his fingers, then gripped his knees again. “It was in all the papers, on the radio,” he said, “the news about your granddaughter. Like all Chinese, I was deeply saddened to learn that she was missing.”
Bittersweet managed a gracious smile.
“It’s clear to me why my mother considered you her best friend, why she admired you so. I didn’t know her well. In fact, I hardly knew her at all. But this I do know for a fact: she and you are in no way alike.”
Bittersweet was stunned and at the same time pained to hear the bitterness and reproach in his remark.
“Dr. Hwang, officially you are my doctor, and I am your patient. But in sharing a cup of tea in my home a few days ago and in reminiscing about Shanghai with you just now, I hope I can say that we’ve become friends. It would be a pleasure for me, whose son lives far away in America, if you would consider becoming my honorary son.”
If Bittersweet had been stunned by the doctor’s harsh estimation of his mother, it shocked her that she had extended such an invitation. What had possessed her? What was she thinking? The hospital director placed both his hands on the copy of the I Ching on his desk and closed his eyes for several seconds. He opened them and opened the book to a random page, which he studied momentarily. Then he closed the book and looked deeply into Bittersweet’s eyes. He spoke in a strange voice that seemed to come from far away:
“It would be an honor for me, Li Tai-tai. I hope I may become worthy of that title.”
In her mind’s eye, Bittersweet pictured her dear friend Hwang Tai-tai. Her heart swelled in gratitude to remember how good and loyal and helpful a friend she’d been. If Dr. Hwang only knew! Perhaps, in time and over more cups of tea and shared recollections, he would.
CHAPTER 3: VERA—1974
After she left the hospital and Dr. Hwang’s company, Bittersweet returned home eager to continue reading Hardu’s book, especially now that the chapters were those written by Lisa’s adoptive mother.
Most Honored Madam Li,
My name is Vera Loy née Polsky. I have had the privilege of raising your granddaughter Lisa as my adopted daughter Yuebing almost ever since her disappearance from the Bund in Shanghai. I imagine you will want to know what kind of woman raised your grandchild. Before I tell you about myself, I want to assure you that as of this writing, Yuebing is alive and well and in good health and spirits.
To tell you about myself is, I think, the best way to introduce you to Yuebing herself, to help you understand the upbringing she has had, the life she has lived, the woman she has become. From the time Hardu brought her to me almost twenty-five years ago, Yuebing and I have never been apart except for an involuntary separation during the Cultural Revolution. I don’t think I’m being excessive if I say that no one knows her as well as I do or has been more important in forming her character or been a greater influence.
I was born in Buczacz, Poland, in 1920. My father was a composer and professor of music. He played several instruments, the piano being the primary one. My mother was a costume designer for the theatre and a skilled dressmaker and embroiderer. That they were Jewish did not deter a certain countess with a large fortune, estate, and coterie of influential family and friends from inviting my parents to live and work in residence. My father gave concerts and recitals and played at her many fetes and balls. My mother designed the countess’s wardrobe as well as those of her female relatives and ladies-in-waiting. She also oversaw the seamstresses who sewed and embroidered them.
From time to time, incursions by Russian marauders complicated life on the estate, but nothing was so worrisome—not for the countess and her family but for me and mine—as the news of Hitler’s rise in Germany and that country’s growing anti-Semitism, news that reached us through letters from my parents’ German friends. These letters spoke of mass arrests of Jewish men, of their wives freeing them from prison only if they both promised to leave the country upon their husband’s release. At that time, few countries were willing to issue visas to Jewish refugees. In all the world, there was a single city accepting Jews fleeing Nazi Germany: Shanghai, occupied by the Japanese since 1937, the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War. All a woman needed to get her husband out of prison was proof that they were both leaving Germany upon his release—that is, two boat tickets to Shanghai, a city that required no entry visa, police certificate, or assurance of financial independence—merely customs to clear, which the Chinese authorities usually overlooked.
These letters from my parents’ friends were as precious as gold, especially after Germany invaded Poland in 1939. My parents hoped to follow in the footsteps of their expatriate friends: a journey that began by train to either Naples or Genoa, where they boarded a luxury liner (with a German crew, no less!) that sailed across the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal, into the Indian Ocean, around the east coast of China, and down the Whangpoo River to dock, finally, in Shanghai, where they set foot on the Bund with one suitcase apiece, the clothes on their backs, and the equivalent of fifteen American dollars per person.
My route to safety was not—as my parents had hoped theirs would be—across the Mediterranean, which was closed to all passenger traffic the summer of 1940 when Italy entered the war as a German ally. I say my, and not our, because my parents did not accompany me. A German commandant and his company of soldiers took up residence on the countess’s estate. Before they were sent to the concentration camp at Tzerecin, my parents were able, with the countess’s help, to smuggle me off the estate with what valuables I could carry via a labyrinth of contacts—ranging from aristocrats to tradespeople to peasants—from Buczacz, Poland, to Vilnius, Lithuania. There I found myself among hundreds of Polish-Lithuanian Jews, some of them yeshiva students, seeking safe haven in Shanghai. From Vilnius, we traveled to Kaunas, Lithuania’s temporary capital, where the Dutch and Japanese consuls issued us visas to the Dutch-owned Caribbean island of Curaçao via a stopover in Kobe, Japan. In other words, the entry visa to Curaçao, an island which didn’t require one, in reality granted us the essential, though illegal, transit visa across Russia to Kobe, Japan—a journey that entailed an interminable trip aboard the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Vladivostok, then a voyage across the Sea of Japan. After spending several months in Kobe, we shipped out to our final destination in 1941. In December of that year, the overland trip by rail through Russia was terminated. All escape routes to Shanghai were now closed. We had made it to safety with only months to spare.
On my journey from Buczacz to Shanghai, to pay for my passage and to survive, I sold or bartered almost the entirety of my parents’ worldly goods that I’d smuggled out of Poland. Thankfully, I had learned dressmaking and embroidery from my mother, and I could play and teach the piano, thanks to my father. I was certain that, with Shanghai’s large European and Jewish community, and being young, resourceful, and hard-working, I would find enough work to keep me alive.
Work. That’s what I had to do, what I wanted to do, what I needed to do, not only for my physical but also my psychological survival. I needed to keep my mind from drifting back time and again to the life I had lost, to my parents whom I knew I would never see again. I was now a stateless orphan living in a single room—shared with a family of three with only walls made of bedsheets for privacy—in the Embankment Building, which was built and donated by the Sir Victor Sassoon, a wealthy, civic-minded Sephardic Jew, to house the growing community of youtairen (Chinese for Jews). As for meals, I was one of some six hundred refugees who ate for free at Beth Aharon, a synagogue that had been transformed into a reception center and kitchen.
Now that my immediate needs were met, I enrolled in one of the refugee schools that Horace Kadoorie, another Sephardic Jew, had established in Shanghai. There I took classes in Mandarin and French. There I taught German and Russian and gave piano lessons. I also took in piecework, altering clothes for the Jewish refugee community, sometimes designing and making new ones that were more suitable for Shanghai’s extreme temperatures: Tiger Heat, hot and humid in summer; frigid and damp in winter; and the occasional Yellow Wind, or sandstorms whipped up from the interior. My free time alternated among the Jewish circulating library, nine Jewish bookstores, and listening to the German-language radio station. I lived, ate, and studied with people just like me—Ashkenazi Jews—so I wasn’t entirely lonely or isolated. But in no way did I feel at home. None of us did.
Those of us who lacked wealthy relatives or friends abroad who could send money to pay for comfortable accommodations in the International Settlement or the French Concession, or who hadn’t smuggled out gold or valuables from home, were forced to live in the most squalid conditions. This was especially the case when in 1943 the Japanese herded all Jews who had arrived in Shanghai after 1937 into less than a square-mile area in Hongkew overpopulated by working-class Chinese who viewed us with undisguised disdain and hostility as usurpers of what little space, light, and air they had. Like them, we shared cramped, primitive quarters with another family and, instead of a working toilet, a bucket that had to be emptied each morning. The water supply was contaminated. Rotting sewage littered the streets. Malnutrition was rampant, as were epidemics of cholera. Medicine was in short supply. Health care was practically non-existent. When I lived in Buczacz, I’d always loved moonlit nights, but now I dreaded them, since they encouraged midnight bombing raids by the Japanese.
Worse was yet to come. Besides “The Proclamation Concerning Restrictions of Residence and Business of the Stateless Refugees” that forced us to relocate to Hongkew, if we wanted to leave the ghetto, we were obliged to obtain a pass and wear a blue and white badge with the Chinese character for “pass.” These passes were issued at the Stateless Refugees Affairs Bureau for less than two weeks, one month, or three months. I had been giving language and piano lessons privately in addition to those I gave at the refugee school. Because most of my clients lived outside of Hongkew, the passes were my lifeline. But as the war dragged on, my students, or their parents, lost their businesses, their jobs, even their homes. Language and music lessons became frivolous in the face of breadlines and black marketeers. The most basic foods were practically luxuries: $2.50 for a loaf of bread. $10 for a quart of milk. A dollar apiece for eggs. Thankfully, there was a great demand for my dressmaking skills, special alterations in particular, such as letting out coats and jackets and fitting them with a new “money-bags” lining so that their wearers could smuggle wads of bills out of the country without detection.
More to my liking was an unusual and unexpected client—a Catholic priest whose appreciation of and need for my skills in needlework and embroidery for his vestments surpassed even that of the Polish countess for her gowns. He had one flesh-and-blood arm and one wooden arm. With the latter he would hit offensive Japanese soldiers on the head. He sported an enormous beard, and he possessed an imposing stature and a personality to match. It was due to his powers of persuasion and the sheer force of his will that the Japanese and Chinese authorities established a one-square-mile safe haven for Chinese civilians in Nantao named, appropriately, the Jacquinot Zone.
The good Father Jacquinot raised money for food and water, cajoled the French Concession to supply water and electricity, and set up a forty-bed hospital in a new villa abandoned by its owner. Franciscan sisters ministered to patients as best they could with aspirin, iodine, and bandages. I remember one patient who had a serious injury, one that required medical intervention or faced certain death. Since only a dead Chinese was allowed to leave the Zone, she was smuggled out in a coffin riddled with discreet air holes. When asked by the Japanese colonel on patrol where the injured woman had gone, Père Jacquinot answered, his eyes raised to heaven, his hands folded in prayer, “Elle a rejoint le bon Dieu.” Not above telling a white lie to save a human life, he was also unashamed of the delight he took in the luxury of his chasubles, on which I lavished my most opulent embroidery. That I was Jewish only made him all the happier with my needlework.
To add to my income, I went into business with a partner, a White Russian who lived on Avenue Joffre in the French Concession. She was a chemist and, as they say in the perfume business, a “nose.” I’d worked briefly in a shop that sold yahrzeit candles. These were being used on a daily basis, and not only during the usual Jewish holy days, since electricity was rationed at a scant five kilowatt hours a month. The idea of making perfumed candles seemed a logical next step. The streets and alleyways of Hongkew reeked of rotting garbage and rancid cooking oil. Perfumed candles would both illuminate the darkness and mask the stench. From the day we opened our little shop in the French Concession, we couldn’t keep our candles in stock. Shanghailanders were the first to buy them, but even some Shanghainese used to burning incense came to see the light, so to speak. We made our candles in three fragrances—Joy, Shalimar, and Crèpe de Chine. Our business grew and prospered. We made candles in different sizes and more fragrances. Finally I had the money to be able live in a comfortable apartment in the International Settlement or the French Concession. Unfortunately, I did not have the right.