On February 2nd, during a professional development day at our school, I signed up for a session given by the co-author of a book called ¨Shanghai boy – Shanghai girl¨. When I went to the auditorium I was delighted to meet a lovely 75 years-old lady with a lot of energy, Mrs. Betty Barr. She was born in Shanghai and she graduated from Shanghai American School –SAS, my school- in May 28, 1949.
She is married to Mr. George Wang and this book is about their lives. Both of them are from Shanghai, they shared the same space, the same period of history, but in two totally different worlds.
The life of George was the life of a Shanghai boy from a poor family, who sees how they have to fight everyday to survive, to cover every basic demand.
The life of Betty, before WWII, is the life of a ¨expat¨ Shanghai girl, being her father a Scottish missionary and her mother a person very interested in the Chinese culture, working for the YWCA.
While Betty was in her childhood enjoying of her own room and a big house with servants, George had to share a little room with the rest of his family members. While George was taken to the police station by a British cop Betty was helped out by one of them. Both of them lost their houses in 1937, bombed by Japanese planes. George´s family had to leave Shanghai to refuge in the countryside at the beginning of the Japanese occupation. Betty´s family was in an internment camp ruled by the Japs for the last two and a half years before the end of WWII. The same history told from two different points of view.
So far I have read several books about the 30´s in Shanghai based mainly in the French and International Concessions. All of them reflect the Western side of the story, the luxury and glamour of that decade in the Paris of the East, the whore of the Orient, the Sin City. This book is totally different and gives you a whole new perspective of those years.
George and Betty are now happily married, but they didn´t know each other from those times that I mentioned before. They met in the 50´s through George´s wife at that time, who unexpectedly died in 1983. After that is when they united their lives, until today.
After hearing Betty´s stories at that conference I was dying to read the book. Two weeks later my Chinese friend Yvonne Zhu gave it to me. And it is a great book.
On May 30 2009 around 160 seniors will graduate from SAS, Puxi Campus. 60 years before was Betty´s graduation from SAS. It was 1949. WWII was over, but China was the scenery of the civil war between the Koumintang and the Communist Party. The soldiers of the People´s Liberation Army were taking Shanghai during that time. I extract a whole page from the book…
¨It was only in my senior year, 1948-49, that the events going on around us in China impinged directly on us students. There were more and more rumors about the imminent arrival of the Communists. Some of the boarders, whose parents were in the interior of China, received letters telling them to leave on the American ships, which had arrived to repatriate all who wanted to go. During the bulk of that school year, there were about 500 students, but by May 1949, that number was drastically reduced. It was difficult to concentrate on our studies and to keep up our former extra-curricular activities, but somehow we managed. We even produced a yearbook, the Columbian, in May 1949.
On the evening of May 24, we heard some gunfire in the distance. The following morning, when I looked out the window of the Administration Building facing the road, I saw my first Communist, a soldier of the People´s Liberation Army (PLA). He was dressed in a faded yellow uniform and rubber-soled shoes and was carrying a rifle. Unfortunately, we still had one final exam to go, Chemistry, and our teachers insisted on our taking it –in the middle of the Revolution. After the exam, I phoned my parents in Hongkew to tell them that we had seen a PLA man.
The first time my parents dared to leave their house, after the few days of fighting in the middle of the city, was to come to my graduation on May 28, 1949. As it was raining, the ceremony was held in the Auditorium; there were only eleven of us, out of twenty-nine names on the program, and out of the fifty who had begun the school year in the previous September. I was the only girl who had been at the school more than a year, and the only girl boarder to graduate. It felt like the end of an era…
And it was. ¨
Could any of our seniors imagine a graduation like this, from the same school? Probably not! Well, maybe, they are very smart.
I am looking forward to the day of meeting again Mrs. Betty Barr –and hopefully Mr. George Wang-, and after reading their stories express them my admiration for their lives.
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