Prior to World War II we moved a lot—from Shanghai to Honolulu to Manila and back. My father traveled to Shanghai in 1937 on the ocean liner The Empress of Japan. Like many expatriates, he preferred the clean, efficient, and orderly Japanese to the seemingly chaotic Chinese. The Japanese appeared to be an American ally. They did not censor the mails. As tensions mounted in Europe, Americans avoided European ships.
By the time Dad arrived in Shanghai. the Japanese controlled most of the city, with the exception of the French Concession, an area where westerners were allowed to live. The foreign settlement became a temporary island of safety for Chinese refugees who poured into “Frenchtown,” seeking safety, pushing carts overflowing with their worldly possessions. Dad’s letters note the changes:
“It takes a few days to come to a definite opinion. Sunday I went out to Hongkew Road to the airport. Destruction everywhere and few people around, all very depressing. I have talked to nobody who is optimistic about the future of China or Shanghai. It is the belief that the war will last another year or more. The [foreign] settlements are crowded with refugees. Beggars and dead bodies in the streets. All houses and apartments in Frenchtown are full as it’s the safest place.
The Columbia Club and French Club are as usual. It is a funny thing, business is dead and the outlook bad, but still the clubs, theatres and night joints are chock full. Except for seeing an occasional truck of Japanese soldiers, you wouldn’t know there is a war. But the streets are crowded with Chinese, the paper said 50,000 came today from the country.
I think China and Japan will be fighting for years. Whoever wins the war, business will be bad for the foreigner. I think China is finished as far as foreigners are concerned and I am anxious to get established somewhere else as soon as possible.
Dad was right about business, but wrong about World War II. It lasted another eight years. China became America’s ally, Japan, her enemy.