World War II and The Shanghai American School

U.Mich Peony Garden

Mysterious Builder of Seattle Landmarks at the University of Michigan Peony Garden







     Mike and I traveled  to the impressive University of Michigan in early May to join a reunion of the Shanghai American School (SAS) —  part of the conference, “China Between Two Worlds.”

Hans Pederson died when I was one month old. My mother remarried when I was two. We left Seattle, and so the mystery of the noted builder who was my father grew for the next 70 years. My new “Dad” took us to China where he was an agent for the Standard Oil Company.  As well as Seattle history, the “Mysterious Builder” describes my Far Eastern early childhood in Shanghai, Honolulu, and Manila, along with Dad’s attempts to do business there during the turmoil of the pre and post-war World War II years.

The Michigan conference described “China Between Two Worlds” partly through the memories and photographs of American expatriate families —the missionaries, doctors, and businessmen in China between 1927 and 1949; years that bridged the Chiang Kai Sheck and  Mao Tse Tung regimes withWorld War II in between.  We, the children of these families, had all lived in China. We had lived those photos. We had felt that sense of straddling two cultures.

Such freedom we had. Missionaries upcountry had put their children on the train for Shanghai to board at the Shanghai American School sometimes at the tender age of nine. My husband, a day student at seven, roamed freely around Shanghai with his older brother, jumping over sampans on the Whangpo River. I, however, a five-year old girl, stayed with my amah. Conscious of her bound feet, I never ran away from her, because she never could have caught me.

Most business families were evacuated from Shanghai as we were in 1939, and most expatriates as well by the time the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on  December 7, 1941. The Shanghai American School closed from 1941 to 1946. It was another story for the missionary families in smaller cities upcountry. Some of them were interred in Japanese Prison Camps.

Japanese cruelty towards the Chinese was legendary. Brutality, in fact, was a part of Japanese military training. But one or two people at our reunion had filtered out the cruelty and remembered basically happy childhoods in prison camp, even though they were always hungry.

European and American prisoners organized their camps into rotating teams with specific jobs. With plenty of teachers around, the children had good schooling. They fielded sports teams and put on plays. They always invited their captors to sit in the front row. A few western camps run by Japanese consular officials, were seemingly able to maintain discipline without excessive cruelty.

And so we learned, sometimes there is light within the darkness.

A Pre-World War II Trip from Shanghai to Oz



Wizard of Oz Movie poster Courtesy Wikimedia Commons


We lived in Shanghai before World War II during my early years. My father worked for the Standard Oil which allowed we expats to enjoy 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 light 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 sing-song 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 or 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 by Snow White. I guess my amah took me to these movies. I was terrified. For two months my parents moved my bed to the sleeping porch outside their bedroom.

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




World War II in China

Courtesy Wikimedia commons


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.

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