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.
Xiao Mei entered my life in 1940 when I was six years old and Shanghai was occupied by the Japanese. World War Two meant less to me than the invasion of my life by this young girl, barely twice my age.
“So, are you planning to write about that slave of yours?” asked Phyllis. I was visiting her in the late ’80s at her home in Guelph, a Canadian town. I distinctly remember sitting down suddenly. “I forgot all about her,” I mumbled. I had buried that time deep in my memory, but at that moment, my mind flashed back to my childhood. “Well she spent at least three or four years with you,” Phyllis continued relentlessly, “how could you forget that poor girl?” Vivid images came back to me as she talked. I see myself, up a tree, demanding my breakfast. I see her expressionless face as she awkwardly climbs up the tree and hands me the tray. That image, which I suppressed for years, cuts across my vision like it just happened; the day, the sun, the tree, being alone, hating my life, hating my parents for forcing on me this ugly, dull, sad, pockmarked girl. All I can think to do is punish her for being alive. Just as I took the puppy I vehemently didn’t want and threw it down the stairs and ran into my room and screamed and screamed and screamed.
“Well, you needed a friend,” my exasperated mother said, “and Xiao Mei’s parents were glad to let us take her.” I wanted a dog, too. I had cut out photos of some big dogs to show my parents, but I was given a handbag size pup, who yapped non stop. “It’s the perfect size dog for you. You won’t have to take it for walks; you can run around the garden with it.” My mother, again, settling the issue without any chance of rebuttal. “You are not capable of managing a big dog.” Eventually I got fond of Blondie, who survived her fall, but she was never the dog I wanted. Xiao Mei was definitely not the friend I wanted.
At that age I began to shut myself in my room to have tantrums. Neither my father or my mother ever presented themselves at these events. In that big house with its solid walls and doors, I could hear my screams being absorbed and gradually sounding hoarse, pitiful and finally tiny. Xiao Mei’s job was to enter my room and try to deal with my rage. She would come in timidly, and I would stare at her through my tears. She stared back at me silently. I didn’t want her more than I didn’t want anyone or anything in my life. When I think of her now, I imagine she just made herself blank. How could she ever understand being off loaded by her family at the age of 12, and tasked to spend the rest of her childhood as my servant?
She would quietly put away the toys I had thrown around the room. She had a way of shuffling as she walked; she always moved very slowly. “How can we play badminton or ping pong; she’s hopeless!” Of course, she was illiterate. Even her spoken Chinese was not the Shanghai dialect I knew. Hong said contemptuously “the family are immigrants from the country. They have to sell their kids to survive!” His young sidekick Xiao Liu sneered “She’s ugly and dumb and her nose is always snotty.” But she was always ready to care for the chauffeur’s baby.
I can’t recall when I decided to scale back my tantrums; probably when I became friends with Raya, a girl I met in the garden behind my house where we used to play after school. Xiao Mei was gradually shifted to kitchen duties when it became obvious we were never going to bond.
My mother’s mother, Mary, had had a history of acquiring unwanted girls, training them in household duties and using their services until they reached a marriageable age. That would be sixteen or so. My mother decided to follow suit with Xiao Mei when she reached sixteen. My mother picked out some serviceable clothing, a pair of gold earrings, an umbrella, and sturdy shoes. A husband was selected, and my mother, Xiao Mei and I set out one afternoon with a canvas dowry bag. Just a few blocks away, we turned into a side street, really a narrow alley, and my mother led us to a decrepit gate, and confidently pushed it open. “This is where we got her originally,” my mother explained. Inside was a tamped earth area, a kind of courtyard. Someone was washing clothes in a basin, and something was being pounded in a bucket by another person. A few dirty children with requisite snotty noses were crawling around, the backs of their smocks open, exposing their buttocks so they could urinate and defecate at will. Judging from the stink in the area, they did just that. A man smoking a cigarette squatted silently in front of the house in the background. It spread across the lot, a long front punctuated by doorways but no apparent doors. Xiao Mei just walked over to the house and went inside. “Well, that’s that,” said my mother, ” For all my efforts! You never appreciated anything.” I looked around at the scene; I saw poor people living their lives, seeming neither happy nor unhappy. Xiao Mei emerged with an older woman and the two of them chatted briefly with my mother, who handed over the bag and a few banknotes. “Where’s the husband?” I asked. My mother shrugged. “Hopefully working. He gets the money I brought, not that he earned it. It’s Xiao Mei’s years of pocket money.” We left shortly afterwards, no tea being offered. It felt a bit of an anticlimax, a letdown after years of barely communicating with a being given to me “As your slave!” my aunt Phyllis would repeat, “That poor, poor child!” They didn’t respect her in the kitchen, either. It was so easy for me to forget my callous behavior towards Xiao Mei; to forget her entirely, to not even remember her face or anything distinct about her. Only years later did my memory dredge her up together with a sadness, a nebulous regret. I never saw her again. I never went down that alley again, nor did she ever wander along my boulevard either.