By Joan Klyhn
Joan’s Shanghai is a memoir of a childhood in Shanghai in the ‘30’s and ’40s of the 20th century. I am primarily writing it for myself, extending it to my friends, and now to the many people who have shown themselves fascinated with this period in the past.
Sundays were almost the only time my father, mother and I dined together in the dining room. This was a beautifully furnished room, with an expandable dining table that could hold twelve, a buffet, its drawers lined in felt to protect the silver and the English china, and tablecloths and napkins in the palest green damask. Everything was made to my mother’s exacting orders. Even the floor was perfection, a dark reddish mirror surface, renewed every year or so. All the furniture would be removed, the floor sanded, and several layers of Ningpo varnish applied over a two week period. This varnish contained animal blood, so it gave off a foul odor until it was fully dried. In my memory, the whole room was a burnished perfection; a moment in time when everything matched or blended. Elaborate settings of china and silver and crystal seemed to wait for important dinner parties, or even for our family Sunday dinners. Who could know that one day, all this tasteful luxury would be swept away?
I remember my father, unusually raising his voice, even shouting, over my mother’s hysterics: “Di, let the servants take whatever they want! Let it go! “ Mao’s army was swarming over the City; seats on planes to Hongkong were selling at inflated prices with only hand baggage allowed. My mother could not grasp that every meticulous detail of her lifestyle was about to vanish. She stared at the small suitcases my father had dragged out: one for her and one for me. He was staying behind.
At Sunday lunch, my father stands over the large, steaming tongue on its platter. He holds his special carving knife and pronged fork. He peels off the skin, so elegantly. He is elegant in everything he does. We are so close the few times we are together. I might sit on the edge of his big leather armchair, and he’ll hold out his arm and let me scratch a mosquito bite. I adore him, and he smiles back at me. He adores me, too. He’ll hug me tightly on his way in and on his way out. He will often hand me a wad of banknotes, which I kept in a Tip Top toffee tin. I had no use for money other than a few coppers. I was strictly forbidden to eat street food, such as “cholera melons,” “mangoes where snakes shoot their venom,” “chopped up rats and mice,” and so on my birthday these rules were laid down by my mother, and I believed her. Unlimited sweets of all kinds were only permitted on my birthday, with disastrous results.
So the tongue’s skin is peeled off and discarded, and Dad picks up another set of tools to remove the little bones in the back. He’ll murmur “cooked just right” or “excellent meat!”
My mother grumbles “Hong couldn’t explain the cost of it; we went back and forth till I had to give up! Hans, you have to speak to him about it. He just argues, with that damned cleaver in his hand. He won’t even let me into the kitchen!” She hasn’t stopped, but I’ve stopped listening. I’m rolling my tongue around in my mouth, trying to figure out the structure of it, comparing it to the tongue on the table. My father ignores my mother. We smile at each other. It’s a secret of us against my mother. Eventually she subsides. My father finishes slicing the tongue from the chewy tip back to the tender, meaty part I hope to get some of. We pass our plates, and my mother’s voice rises again. I want to beg her to stop. I want her to disappear. I want to be alone with my Dad. He just continues serving as if he doesn’t hear her. They play their usual parts and I dread the moment he will get up, leave the table, and be gone for the day. That too happens, as if on schedule.
We could be having corned beef and cabbage, or leg of mutton, patiently sliced and served by my father. There might be a salad, with a slight aftertaste of permanganate. This was added to water in which raw greens were soaked. I don’t understand why we always had Western style Sunday lunches. Western snacks were also served when my mother held her bridge and mahjong parties. Delicate cucumber sandwiches on buttered white bread trimmed of their crusts and cut into triangles were stacked attractively on china serving plates. Dainty cakes were provided by Kiessling and Badar, the German pastry shop and café. The Wedgewood service was brought out for tea, offered with milk or lemon, and bowls of rectangular white sugar cubes. My mother had had the foresight to hoard about ten cases of sugar cubes before the war. Housewives were more prescient than their husbands. They sensed bad times approaching, and throughout 1938, they mobbed the shops daily, stockpiling cases of tinned meat and boxes of staples.
The rest of the time, we usually ate Chinese style at home, using bowls and chopsticks. Often I ate alone at the huge dinner table, or in the kitchen. I learned at an early age to love to eat, to love whatever was set in front of me. I would watch Hong chop, slice, sauté, steam and then serve me, with a flourish. I never handled food till I got married at 21. But as soon as I did, I seemed to know what to do. In my mind’s eye, I saw and later could identify the items in the cluttered shelves of condiments, including the big jar of Ve-tsin. Hong put a pinch of this white powder in every dish. Later I found it this was monosodium glutamate. This shock of recognition was mirrored in another later discovery.