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Growing up my sisters and I would always hear our father tell stories about his own childhood. How difficult and miserable it was. How much poverty he suffered before succeeding through hard work and perseverance. You know, the typical Abraham Lincoln fable: He had to walk miles and miles to school, in unbearable heat, without any shoes. He had to scratch, claw and fight for everything.
Of course, in my upper-middle class cocoon, where everything was provided for and more, I dismissed his tales of woe with a roll of the eyes. Sure, sure dad. Whatever. Now let me get back to my GI Joes. How much poverty could my father have really suffered? We were living in an affluent neighborhood, an island that was figuratively and literally shielded from other people’s suffering, misfortune and pain. I figured his stories were tall tales, half truths intended to scare his children into studying more and finishing their homework.
I was wrong.
My father, who was originally born in Wuhan and living there, moved in with his eldest sister and her family in Guangzhou when their mother, my grandmother, committed suicide (another story for another time), leaving him an orphan at age 9 or so.
My aunt and her family lived in a former mansion that used to be the home of a privileged family. Around the time of the Communist takeover, the three-story building had been subdivided, converted into a quasi-apartment building. But conditions were — and still are — hellish. Several families lived in the building, but everyone had to share one bathroom, one shower, one kitchen.
I walked into the building and was shocked at the conditions. It was dark, dank, dismal. The air was stale, putrid. Perhaps that’s why residents were burning incense at the front door and in the main entryway, it was a way to honor the gods and mask the smells
My father lived in the “mansion” until he left for Hong Kong when he was 20. Every night, I’m told, he would stay up until 11 p.m., studying. Eleven p.m. might not sound late, but most people went to bed by 9 p.m. back then. Why? There was no electricity. He studied by candlelight. I can understand his reasoning: he wanted to get the hell out of there.
My aunt lived there for nearly five decades, moving out only six years ago. Her children and some of her grandchildren also called it home. My cousin made an interesting point when we were touring the dilapidated building: Back then it didn’t seem poor or pitiful because nearly everyone lived in similar conditions. Ignorance, as they say, is bliss.
People are still living there, still sharing one bathroom, one shower, one kitchen. Rent is about $50 bucks a month, $600 a year.
There was some one sleeping on the main floor when I visited during midday:
The shared kitchen:
None of the other pictures turned out well; it was pitch black in there because each family had curtained off their own section, blocking the sunlight.
As my cousin and I left, I tried to lessen the impact as much as I could. He had spent a couple years of his childhood there, after all. I told him it was “pretty sad.” He was quick to correct me.
“It’s not just pretty sad,” he said. “It’s utterly pathetic.”
My maternal grandmother is a remarkable woman with a remarkable life story. She was born in Shanghai in 1916 — five years before the Chinese Communist Party was even formed. She’s survived backbreaking labor as a peasant, the Japanese invasion and occupation during World War II and the CCP takeover in 1949.
Still keen and quick-witted, she easily recalls stories and events that happened nearly a century ago. I’ll share an amusing one she told me recently.
One day, when she was around 9 or 10, my grandmother and several of her cousins went to the local beach. It was where all the locals went to wade in the water and escape the oppressive heat of Shanghai.
They were playing on the beach when they noticed a white family, two parents and three of their children, nearby. Perhaps they had come from the French Concession area to enjoy a lazy day by the Huangpu River. Those days, seeing white people was still a rarity for most Chinese people, especially for those from the countryside (the country had been gradually — then forcibly — opened up to the West in the past several decades) Whenever a white person — gwailo — would appear in a village in those days, my grandma says, kids would rush over to sate their curiosity and gawk.
My grandmother and her cousins noticed the parents pulling food out of their backpack. Intrigued, the kids crept closer. They watched the pair take out slices of something starchy, white and flat. They crept closer. They saw the family pull out a jar filled with grape-colored syrup. They crept closer. Then, the family pulled out something brown and creamy. The kids inched even closer, until they were nearly on top of the family. They had no idea what the family was making — they had never seen white bread, nor jam, nor peanut butter.
But it looked delicious. And they wanted some.
They knelt by the family, no more than two feet away, and stared at the family eating their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. My grandmother and her cousins were hoping that the family would share and give them a morsel — just a little bit — of their food.
But the family ignored them. They finished their lunch, packed up and left, without ever acknowledging the handful of children who were ogling their food and licking their lips during the entire meal.
My grandma laughs about it now. Peanut butter and jelly! That’s all it was — but for those kids it was exotic and enchanting. Today, she could have as much peanut butter and jelly as she wants — she did recently when she had an extended stay at the hospital, where they fed her PB&J’s every day, she grumbles — but she dislikes the taste and texture.
She lets out another laugh after finishing her story, shaking her head at the naivete and foolishness of that day like it happened yesterday.