Mother grew up in a foreign section of Shanghai |

Mother grew up in a foreign section of Shanghai

Immigrant Stories
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Jonathan Shamis

Shamis: My mother’s family is from Poland. She was born in Milan, Italy, and then her family moved to Havana and then to Panama City and she was raised in Shanghai. She lived there until the communists came in 1948.

Gallacher: How did she end up living in those different places?

Shamis: The story that we were always told was that my grandfather was trying to escape the Great Depression and so he would hear about possible locations to open a small business and the family ended up traveling from place to place trying to capture an opportunity. I think the choices he made of places to go were intriguing.

Ultimately, they decided to settle in Shanghai, which was a very thriving community at that time. Shanghai had a large foreign section, in fact, as offensive as it is, I recall my mother telling me she saw signs in the parks in her neighborhood saying “no dogs or Chinese allowed.” Apparently, there was a very affluent and elitist community that had established itself there. This probably explains why this same community was so anxious to leave in 1948 when Mao was taking over. I’m sure the Chinese held quite a bit of resentment towards these foreigners living in their city.

Gallacher: Who were these elitists?

Shamis: The Sassoon family had a large presence there. Madeleine Albright had some ties there. Michael Blumenthal, who was Secretary of the Treasury under President Carter, had some roots in Shanghai. It was a very well-established, thriving foreign community.

My mother’s family had established themselves in Shanghai in 1935, so she spent most of her formative years there. She told stories of great parties and social gatherings in those years before World War II. After the war started her family’s house was confiscated, and they were forced to move to a ghetto in Shanghai when the Japanese invaded China. It was a very Spartan existence during that time.

Shortly after the war was over my grandfather died and so it was just my mother, who was 16, and my grandmother. My grandmother never really recovered from the loss of her husband, and she relied more and more on my mother.

At that point, the communists were marching across the country repatriating or whatever it was that Mao was doing to China. The rest of my mother’s family began to scatter. One was able to successfully enter this country. My aunt was able to make her way into Thailand. My other aunt went to Brazil and that is where she lived the rest of her life, in São Paolo.

My mother came to San Francisco with my grandmother. At that time there was no country that would take them. They came here on visitors’ visas and then just stayed. My mother had this undocumented status until she was able to marry my father, who was an American citizen from Brooklyn.

My mother had trained as an opera singer in China so when she came to San Francisco she was able to find some work. I know that at one time she performed at Carnegie Hall. When she met my father she was just doing day singing jobs to pay the rent for her and my grandmother.

Gallacher: Your mother trained as an opera singer in China?

Shamis: Yes, I was fortunate enough to go back to China and visit the school where she trained. When my mother left in ’48 she had never gone back to visit where she had grown up. So for her 65th birthday we decided we wanted to give her the chance to return to where she had come from.

We sent her and my father to China. What my mother didn’t know was that the rest of the family was following close behind. Our plan was to surprise her. My daughter and I were waiting in the lobby of her hotel in Beijing when she got off the tour bus from her day’s journey.

We looked up and said, “Hi, Mom.” She almost had a heart attack, which nearly kept her from getting to Shanghai at all. She was so startled and overwhelmed to see us there. I think she considered that and the rest of the trip one of her great life experiences.

Immigrant Stories runs every Monday in the Post Independent.

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