Remembering “Shanghai”

My Parents and Shanghai

Circa 1937 to 1939

My mother, Lucia Loh, came to Shanghai from her birthplace in Ningpo, China’s largest fishing seaport in the ‘30s, to find work and escape the clutches of a wealthy landowner who wanted my mother to be one of his mistresses.  She was accompanied by her older sister, whom I call Momo.  Having multiple mistresses was standard practice during the early ‘30s, especially among those who have acquired some wealth.  This did not bode well with my mother; she was a very strong-willed, defiant person and she refused to become someone’s concubine.

Not knowing anyone in Shanghai, my mother and Auntie Momo went door-to-door seeking household work. One day, they came upon my paternal grandmother’s house in the Hungkew district of Shanghai. My father, Carlos, who was visiting his mother and siblings that day, answered the door.  Their friendship started to blossom into romance when he provided them with household work, food, and money.  After a brief courtship, my parents got married in 1937, to the surprise and disappointment of my father’s family, who expected him to marry someone with similar nationality – Portuguese – and cultural background.

My Chinese aunt, Auntie Momo, also disapproved of her sister’s decision to marry a foreigner with such a brief courtship.  This practice was unthinkable and never happened in Ningpo while they were growing up.  Physically, my parents were a mismatch – my father was smaller in stature than my mom.  They both endeavored to adapt to a different culture and food.  I was born in 1939.  Their marriage was on the rocks by the time my younger brother was born in 1941.

My parents soon separated and went on their own ways, leaving us to the care of my mother.  But, in order to make a living, my mother entrusted us to her sister, Auntie Momo.  My mother secretly joined a band of civilian traders traveling by train and on foot into the remote parts of interior China which were not in Japanese control.  There was a scarcity of almost everything, due to a blockade set up by the Japanese military.  Her group carried indigo, a clothing dye, which was essential for material manufacturers.  My mother usually returned to Shanghai once or twice a year to refill or to start a new category of goods to sell, and she told some very interesting stories from her escapades.  One episode is engraved on my mind – she told us how she escaped sudden death.

My mother was the leader of a group of 14 men.  They were gathering around in a circle in a bombed area to have lunch, rest, and discuss their next agenda.  She excused herself, as nature called, and because the place was all leveled, she had to find a place afar for some privacy.  While relieving herself, she heard a loud bang that came from the direction of where she was.  She quickly rushed to the site and found, to her horror, that all her companions that were alive with her a few minutes ago, were all killed by a bomb or a grenade blast.

My mother was now alone.  She contemplated her next move walking along the banks of a nearby river.  Then, some Japanese Zeros came swooping down on her, spraying her with machine gun fire.  She dove and covered her head with her overcoat.  She heard the swooshing of bullets on the water and loud thuds besides her.  The planes were using her for target practice before returning to base!  Luckily she survived that ordeal without injury.

My father told me of another incident.  One Sunday, he took my mother shopping in Shanghai, on the busy Nanking Road, which was near the Shanghai Race Course.  My mother was pregnant with me.  A group of young, drunken Japanese soldiers were coming towards them.  They were unruly and loud.  To avoid confrontation, many pedestrians crossed to the other side of the street.  When my father tried to pull my mother away from potential trouble, my mother refused, insisting that she has the right to walk without fear on a public road.  Before my father could protect her from being accosted, the drunken soldier that was nearest to her lunged forward and grabbed her breasts.  Being a big woman, she was able to ward off her assailant by completely turning 360 degrees.  She followed up with a lightning-fast backhand slap into his face that was so loud, people across the street heard and stopped in their tracks to see what would happen next. My father, of course, froze and turned ashen-white, because he was aware of the consequences when a Chinese national disrespects a Japanese soldier, especially in public.  This incident has never been done in China during the Japanese occupation by a civilian.  My father and the other pedestrians were expecting the worst to happen. Instead, he heard my mother lecturing them aloud, like a mother would, so that they would behave themselves and respect pedestrians’ right of way.  She even threatened to report their behavior to their commanding officer.  Instead of resorting to bloodshed, the perpetrator bowed and apologized for his unruly behavior and begged her not to do anything further.  From that day onwards, as long as the Japanese were in power, my father never took her out for shopping again.

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