- - Wednesday, September 9, 2015


By Patricia Luce Chapman

Earnshaw Books/River North, $19.95, 344 pages, illustrated

If Patricia Luce Chapman had not happened upon an advertisement for a luxury hotel in Shanghai, her hometown in the 1930s, we might not have this delightful time-machine trip to a China so very different from today. The daughter of American parents — her father a banker, her mother a journalist — Ms. Chapman grew up in a series of bubble environments as war and terror swirled around her. The family lived in an extraterritorial enclave of Shanghai known as the International Settlement and so even when the Japanese invaded in 1937, it was protected from the violence they could observe happening all around them. The author has no need to revisit today’s China. The country as it was in her childhood is too fixed in her mind and thanks to her, we can find ourselves transported back to that special time and place.

On one level, the author’s life was ordinary — squabbling with her brother, pranks and minor mischief aplenty — on others, she saw the terror felt by the family’s beloved Chinese servants at the brutal conquerors and on occasion would feel their menace directed even at herself as well. Later, after she and her mother had returned to America in 1940, her father would be interned by the Japanese for years before returning home in a prisoner exchange. Decades later, her anger, even hatred at them, are still white-hot.

There are other serpents in her strange Eden as well. A German governess rails against what the American child in her innocence thinks is “Juice” and wonders why she rejoices in its expulsion from Germany. Later, from her Jewish refugee successor, she hears all about Kristallnacht. Closer to home, the German Kaiser Wilhelm School which she adores and where she is nurtured and loved in return suddenly becomes transformed into a Nazi training ground, complete with swastikas in her prize book and Hitler Youth rallies where Jews are beaten up: “The atmosphere had become frightening. What had been an open, innocent, happy school had become a place of whispers and hard eyes.”

Just as well her parents transfer her to the Shanghai American School just as war breaks out in Europe in September 1939.

But magical moments abound as well. She really does have that eponymous tea party, evocatively described: “In August, mother organized a tea party up on Old Dragon’s Head. Our procession of British and American parents, children, nannies and amahs carrying babies, ambled up the beach . We climbed up the side of the wall on a narrow uneven stone stairway the amahs arranged the food and iced tea. Comfortable in a long beach chair, I began to relax into our surroundings. What a totally nice thing to be doing. Tea on the Great Wall the ocean was on three sides of me, on the fourth the Great Wall stretched into the mountains. From the height of the wall, I felt as though I were up on a narrow peninsula, sitting on top of the ocean itself, the waves rolling up towards me.”

But this idyll is soon rudely interrupted by Japanese soldiers distinctly less friendly, let alone respectful, than back in the cocoon of the International Settlement. The party and its centerpiece cake are rudely smashed to bits. Ms. Chapman remembers, “I was shaking. ‘I want to go home,’ I cried. ‘I can’t stay here! I can’t stay here.’ “

No wonder she writes: “My experiences with Japanese men have scarred me forever. World War II did not improve my opinion of them.” Her forthright honesty, now as well as then, shines out incandescently throughout the book, mixing strong emotions into the soft glow of nostalgia.

Not all the remarkable events recounted in this book take place in China. On the voyage home to America via Australia in 1940, the ship stops in Manila, where Ms. Chapman accompanies her mother to interview no less than Gen. Douglas Macarthur, who impassionedly and presciently argues for stepped-up fortification in the Philippines, which he realizes is in Japan’s sights.

Classes for the young are organized. Ms. Chapman writes, “To my surprise and joy, my American History teacher turned out to be Noel Coward. I loved his plays and music. He was sailing to Australia on a Secret Service assignment for England, at war with Germany for over a year . He scolded our government for not taking part in the war . Sorry that Mr. Coward was going to disembark [in Sydney], I made a point of telling him I hoped I’d see him again — playing on the words of his lovely song, ‘I’ll See you Again.’ “

Such is the nature of Ms. Chapman’s life story is that in 1949, she actually does encounter the great man again at a luncheon party given by her step-mother-in-law Clare Boothe Luce at the fabled Colony Restaurant in New York. When she reminds him that she was one of the pupils in his American History class on the USS Monterey, he appears overcome, but as it turns out, all that emotion is not about her: “He dropped his head onto his hands, his raised elbows propped on the table. A spoon fell to the floor. He turned back to his hostess and groaned dramatically. ‘Oh, Clare, how I have aged! How I have aged!’ . I had committed a major faux pas by demonstrating that he (and the rest of us) had grown eight years older since that shipboard experience. They returned to their conversation. Harry Hopkins. Ilka Chase. Salvador Dali.”

What better illustration of the multitude of spheres Patricia Luce Chapman has inhabited — and illuminated for us.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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