My journey has begun. After a lifetime of hearing the stories of my grandparent's exciting, happy and tragic years living in China, I am about to embark on the task of telling the story.
My fascination with China has been there all my life. Our house has always been filled with 'things from China'. Many were wedding presents, poignant reminders of the short five year marriage of my Grandmother - Gladys Houston, to my Grandfather - Oliver Clark. The intricately carved ebony potstand still sits in pride of place as you walk through my mother's front door. The hand painted and handmade (unthrown) fine as egg shell porcelain tea set, each piece with its own unique pictures painted by some unknown artist nearly a hundred years ago. The silver salt and pepper shakers, the cloisonne snuff boxes, the exquisitely painted little porcelain bottles, the stunning hand hammered silver vase, and most beautiful of all - my mother's jade and gold pendant. When I was a child I used to stare for ages at these objects through the glass of my mother's china cabinet conjuring up, with my child's imaginative but unworldly mind, the mystical place called China and what it must have been like. The china cabinet was the place all the 'precious' things were housed. (Was it just a coincidence that the 'stuff from China' was housed in a china cabinet?) On Christmas holidays, I would volunteer to use the Brasso and Silvo to polish these relics until they shone like new.
But the best, and most cherished, possession that my Nana brought back from China was an old, twine covered photo album. There were photos in there of she and her handsome husband Oliver playing tennis with another couple. The other couple was Anne Houston, Nana's older sister, and her husband Jack Gorman. There were many photos of the two happy couples who lived the comfortable life of expatriates in an exotic place. But there was something even more precious than the photos. My Nana had pressed two flowers inside the pages of the photo album. I can still feel their delicate dried petals as I caressed them with my child's fingers. They were, I knew even as a child, my Nana's tangible memory of the place where she had found the love of her life, and then lost him so soon. The place where he still lies, buried beneath the bustling city of Shanghai. Now that the innocence of my childhood years are long gone, my heart aches when I think of my Nana picking those flowers (maybe they were from Oliver's graveside?) and placing them in the album. How sad she must have been.
The story of the lives of the two couples - Gladys and Oliver, and Anne and Jack - is one that is brimming with happiness, and is tragic almost beyond belief. The setting is exotic, exciting and fascinating. The story deserves to be told, not just for the memory of these four special people, but because it is a really good yarn. It is full of courage, pathos, emotion and is set against the backdrop of violent and crime-ridden China in the years when the rest of the world was in the chaos of the First World War. A time when China was being infiltrated and exploited by Japan, Germany, Russia, France and Britain to the extent that civil war and a fight by the Chinese to regain ownership of it's own country made it a dangerous place to be.
There are several good books set in this turbulent time of China's history. One notable one is 'The China Saga' by C.Y. Lee which takes the reader through the various wars, battles and invasions that have plagued China from ancient times until its leap into Communism in 1949. China is widely recognised as the world's oldest continuous civilisation and many relics there pre-date the Pyramids. It is a fascinating country with a rich culture.
The story I am going to write will be about four people whose lives were changed forever in the years from June 1914 until March 1929 whilst living in China.
Visiting China in October 2009 was like a pilgrimage. I could feel my grandparents spirits there with me. I was able to walk the streets of Yichang - the riverside town where they were married. I drove down the road from the town to the wharf at the mighty Yangtze River which had not changed much since the days that Gladys and Oliver would have travelled it to catch their boat back to Shanghai. I gazed at the impressive edifice of the old colonial Customs House on the Bund in Shanghai where my grandfather and Uncle Jack were employed. I stood on the ground where the old British Concession once stood, the place they would have called home.
In this blog, I want to share with readers the process of writing this story, to join with me in the journey I will take through research, speaking to my Mother who is almost 92 and also to my Aunty Mary (94) who were both born in China, and who are the wonderful gifts that Gladys and Oliver, and Anne and Jack, left to us.
I have posted the memoirs of these two wonderful ladies in previous posts.
I hope to share this journey with you.