Expatriate Life in Old Shanghai




We lived in Shanghai, Honolulu, and Manila prior to World War II. My adopted father traveled the Far East for the Standard Oil Company while my mother stayed home with me, my sister, and assorted amahs and servants. Mom filled her days with luncheons, bridge, and parties.

“Get yourself a dress so we can go dancing on the roof of the French Club,” Dad told Mother.

Some clown had created a sign for the Shanghai tailor:


I.B. Jelly Belly

ladies have fits upstairs

In no time, Jelly Belly made Mother a gown of black panne velvet, a shimmery fabric that draped sinuously over her perfect figure. The bodice alone stopped traffic. Heavy, hand-sewn lace, intricately embroidered with leafy blossoms—any royal would have worn it with pride.

Many an evening Mother kissed us goodnight before she and Dad set off for a night of dining and dancing under the stars at the French Club. Signs of approaching war were everywhere in 1939 as Japanese troops moved from Peking into Shanghai. Chinese refugees streamed into the Shanghai French Concession, considered the safest area of Shanghai at the time. At six years old, I took no notice.

Somehow, I’ve never been able to part with Mother’s dress. In fact, I even bought a store display mannequin to model that gown. We keep it in the corner of our guest room.

When Phoebe, my five-year-old granddaughter, came to spend the night, she stopped before the mannequin to solemnly state, “When I grow up to be a teenager, I will wear that dress to college.” Phoebe, now a teenager, no longer offers to wear that dress.

I guess it’s an heirloom. I hope your family artifacts take up less space than a mannequin that models a79-year old evening gown.

4 responses

  1. I have a few items of my mother’s clothing I can’t part with – some from her younger days in the 1940s – so I understand this… not only the memories of your mother, but it must have emotions attached to it for all sorts of other things.

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