White Russian Refugees
I enjoyed listening to the many stories Katarina had to tell. She told how her mother, three aunts, and grandparents escaped from Russia and fled to Manchuria in 1915. They had a small family farm in Harbin, Manchuria. They left Manchuria around 1930 and leased the farm to another White Russian family.
The family traveled from Harbin to Shanghai aboard a coastal steamship. She was eight years old at the time.
“Why did you leave Manchuria?” I asked. “A farm doesn’t sound too bad.”
“The farm was not like your American farms. We had three or four milk cows, chickens and ducks, but no crops. Why did we leave? The Japanese had Manchuria then.”
She told how they were little more than prisoners under the Japanese, and she had horror stories about how the Japanese conducted human experiments on the Russians living there. I asked about her father; he had died in the revolution. In Shanghai her mother met a China Marine and they married in 1931. The following year she gave birth to a son at St. Mary’s Catholic Hospital. Until Pearl Harbor, the family lived together in a three-bedroom apartment. “It was a quite huge apartment in the French Concession, at Route Vallon, a block off Avenue Joffre,” Katarina said. “They called them ‘key’ apartments. A person put up a large amount of cash as a down payment and made a lease for ten years. But we never had ten years.”
Despite her stepfather being an American, Shanghai for expatriate White Russians was not easy. Life for them was uncertain. Her aunts worked in candy stores, bakeries and small upscale clothing and fur stores. “We called the clothing shops salons. Many White Russian women were seamstresses and hairdressers.”
“What happened then?” I asked.
“The Marines left Shanghai before Pearl Harbor. They knew something was coming. There was tension and a lot of Japanese army on the streets. My mother and stepfather were married but their marriage was unauthorized. They kept the apartment but he bad to live at the Marine barracks. One night my stepfather and two Marines stopped by, and they spent all night burning papers in the fireplace. When Pearl Harbor broke out the Japanese confiscated all radios and the British and American men and women were sent to camps at Pootung and Lungbwa. My mother and brother were able to flee on an American ship. Wives of American Servicemen and their dependents who were caught, with the help of the Red Cross, were detained in a camp. The camp, since it was all wives and small children, was not all that bad as compared to the camps that the British and American civilians were in.”
Katarina spoke about her aunts with great affection. “They were very beautiful women. At the time of our arrival in Shanghai they were in their late twenties or very early thirties. They were very kind to their mother and to each other and to me and my little brother, as well as their elderly grandparents. Their warmth, I believe, came from their joining each other for survival; being stateless is very frightening. Before the war my middle aunt saw quite often a very successful film producer who asked her to marry him and go to the United States. She did not even consider this possibility as she had fallen very much in love with an American sailor. The film producer left for America after asking again and receiving another refusal. The sailor did not return. My aunt believes he did not survive the war, but of course it could be that he just chose to not return.”
She told me about her other aunts. “My oldest aunt fell in love and went steadily with an officer in the Flying Tigers, however, he left for home and left her due to the fact that he had a wife at home. Both my aunts are still in Shanghai. They said they would stay even if the Communists take over. They are tired of running. My grandma just went back to Manchuria to try to locate her sons who went from Manchuria to fight the Germans. She feels with her age that she will be safe. But we haven’t heard. I came to Peking to further my studies. I want to be more than a seamstress.”
It was understandable why I had a warm feeling for Katarina. When you got to know the White Russians you felt sorry for them. I recall one Sunday afternoon visiting the Thieves Market near Hattaman Street. I was at one street-side shop studying the vast assortment of pocket watches the shopkeeper had. I was contemplating buying one that gave not only the time of day but the phases of the moon as well, when a voice in English came from behind. “Sir, sir,” it said. “Can you help?” I knew immediately it was not an Asian voice. I turned to see towering over me a giant of a man, perhaps six five or six. It was cold and he wore a long tattered military overcoat. I first noticed his hands, swathed in dirty bandages. I raised my eyes and there stood a White Russian man whom I would guess was in his early thirties. His eyes were the bluest eyes I had ever seen. His hair was blonde and long and shabby. I then saw it, the left side of his face. I stood back aghast, dumfounded. The flesh on the side of his face was eaten with leprosy. My first reaction was to mutter some stupid words. “No thank you,” I said and turned to my pocket watches. But the sight of that face remained, and when I turned he was vanishing in the crowd down an alley. China had millions of lepers. They were everywhere. Just before I saw the White Russian I saw another man, Chinese, in rags being led by a boy holding on to a stick. His face was completely gone, and his teeth showed like that of a skeleton. He was eating rice that some charitable person had placed in his bowl, and be was using his hand to hold the rice in his mouth. His hand was lacking fingers. It was a terrible sight, but what I had just experienced with the White Russian was far more moving. I questioned my own thoughts. Was not a leper, a leper? Did it matter who it was? I suddenly realized we were foreigners in an alien land. It bothered us to see other foreigners suffering and helpless. We foreigners could never be Chinese. We would always remain white people to them and to each other. I could understand my empathy now towards Katarina. I did like Ming-Lee, very much, but it was Katarina that I felt sorry for. Was this being prejudiced? I hardly knew the meaning of the word, but I was aware that the feeling I had for Katarina was different. Suddenly I couldn’t wait until I saw Ming-Lee again. What was taking her so long to arrange her trip to Peking?