Pre-World War II Expatriate Children in Shanghai

Wizard of Oz Movie poster Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Wizard of Oz Movie poster
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons


We lived in Shanghai before World War II, when I was little .  My father worked for the Standard Oil, and we expatriates enjoyed a soon-to-vanish colonial lifestyle. We had eight servants: boy, cook, laundress, chauffeur­–I can’t think who the others were. The servants wore long nightgowns with frog buttons. The men wore black, the women, dark blue.

The most important servant was my amah. She pulled her hair back so tightly behind her head that her forehead appeared to be bald. Mother told me that was the style for amahs.

The chauffeurs would drive us with our amahs to children’s birthday parties. In the old photos, the amahs stood behind us. I listened to them chatter chatter in Chinese—their singsong voices rising and falling as they laughed. Some displayed a gold tooth as a sign of prosperity.

We spent far more time with our amahs than with our parents. While our fathers worked, our mothers enjoyed bridge luncheons, tiffins, and teas. At night our parents dined and danced at the French Club or the various Western hotels.

The Wizard of Oz finally made it over from the U.S. on one of the ocean liners, followed shortly after by Snow White. I guess my amah took me to these movies. I was terrified. For two months my parents had to move my bed to the sleeping porch outside their bedroom.

Weaned on  violent cartoons, these classic tales no longer faze many preschoolers.

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