The Distant Land of My Father

BOOK: The Distant Land of My Father
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the distant land of my father

the distant land of my father

::bo caldwell ::


With a few exceptions, this book uses the Wade-Giles system for spelling Chinese terms and places. This is the system that was used by foreigners living in Shanghai during the time the story takes place. Wade-Giles was in use from the nineteenth century until 1958, when the People’s Republic of China introduced a new system of romanization called Pinyin, which was then adopted by the United Nations as the standard form for spelling Chinese words in 1977. I am grateful to Professor Xiaobin Jian of the College of William and Mary for his generous help with the spelling of the Chinese phrases in these pages.
    I’m also very grateful to Heather Washam, who encouraged me day after day, chapter after chapter, and to my husband, Ron Hansen, who read and reread, giving me hope and inspiration and support of every kind with every reading.

Copyright © 2001 by Bo Caldwell Map illustration copyright © 2001 by Chronicle Books
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without written permission from the publisher.

This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual people, places, or events is entirely coincidental.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data available.

eISBN: 978-0-8118-7521-9

Chronicle Books
85 Second Street
San Francisco, California 94105

For my mother, Hester,
and in memory of my father, John


in Shanghai in the 1930s. Polo ponies, a Sikh chauffeur, a villa on eight acres in Hungjao, in the western part of the city. Nights out with my mother at the Cercle Sportif Français, the Venus Café, the Cathay Hotel, the Del Monte—these were the details of his life. He was also an insurance salesman and a smuggler, an importer-exporter and a prisoner, a borrower and a spender, leading, much of the time, a charmed life, always seeming to play the odds and for a long time coming out on top. On the day he was born, in the province of Shantung, neighbors presented my missionary grandparents, the only Americans for miles, with noodles in great abundance and one hundred chicken eggs, in honor of their son’s birth.

In May of 1961 when he died of cardiac arrest, the task of sorting and dispensing with his by-then modest belongings was left to me. My mother had died six years earlier and I was, as his will stated, his only issue. A week after his death I spent the day cleaning out the small room he had rented in an old Victorian rooming house on Bunker Hill in downtown Los Angeles. I had almost finished when I saw, high on a shelf, a wooden fruit crate that I hadn’t noticed until then. I stood on a chair and tried to pull it down. It was heavy, and I had to work to lift it from the shelf. I carried it carefully to the single bed in the corner of the room and sat down to see what it was.

It was for me; that part was clear immediately. On top of every-thing was an envelope with my name on it in my father’s careful script. I opened the envelope and took out a letter, typed on his old manual typewriter, and for a moment I thought,
I can’t do this. It’s going to hurt too much.
But the fact that it was from him made it feel almost as though he was there with me, and I took a deep breath and began to read.

March 20, 1959

My dear Anna,
    I don’t know when you will read this. I say “when” instead of “if” because I am hopeful that you will read it someday—I just don’t know when. I have just come from your house, where I asked you to do me the diffcult favor of reading my will. As I told you, I have no large estate to leave you. I am simply trying, at this late stage of my life, to do things right, which is also the reason you have never seen where I live. I’m too proud, as I’m sure you will understand why when you eventually do come here, but I won’t worry about that for now.
    You are holding much of my life in your hands: journals that I kept during my years in Shanghai, along with a few books that describe Shanghai as it was when I lived there. From the vantage point of the present, there is not much about that part of my life that I am proud of. But I am, in a strange way, proud of having these journals. I knew when I wrote them that they were for you, one of the rare incidents of foresight in my life, and one for which I am grateful.
    I know you, Anna—you’re wondering why. Why would I tell you this now, and why wouldn’t I talk about it with you face to face? The answer, plain and simple, is that it was just too hard. I could never have explained everything that happened, and I didn’t want my time with you muddied with my failings. So I am depending on these journals to explain what happened so long ago in that place that I loved.
    I’ll start with this: I have made more mistakes in my life than I can number, and I cannot begin to count their cost. I’ve squandered more money than people make in several lifetimes. I’ve betrayed people I loved, and I’ve lied and been negligent and careless. I will not enumerate the particular ways in which I hurt your mother. They are too private, and one of my few good qualities is that I have never been one to display my wounds. I will tell you that I have come to see that your mother was light and map and destination for me. Losing her is the regret of my life.
    But I have done one thing that cancels out all of those huge errors: I have left the world with you. You are my one accomplishment, my one asset, my estate and my bequest, worth far more than all of the millions I lost so long ago. And I guess that’s the reason for all these pages: they’re my attempt to explain, in the hope that you will understand why I did what I did.
    In Shanghai, when your mother and I first arrived, there was a woman at the Cercle Sportif Français that I have never forgotten. The vocalist in the nightclub was singing “Body and Soul,” and I thought it was the right song for this woman. She was sitting alone. No one spoke to her, no one waved to her, no one seemed to know her. She wore an emerald green cheongsam, and her earrings and high heels matched. She sipped a glass of crème de menthe, and she even held a green cigarette. I was awestruck. The next night, your mother and I were at the Del Monte and there she was again, still alone, only this time in red. A few nights after that I saw her at the Tower Restaurant on the roof of the Cathay Hotel. That night she was in blue.
    When I looked at that woman, I thought, She is what Shanghai means. It’s a place where you can be anything you choose. Reinvent yourself every day, if you want, a thousand times, if you want. Anything can happen here. I had never felt like a man with many choices, but at that time in Shanghai, anything seemed possible.
    I have just finished reading through all of this. It has been diffcult to go over the past, after so many years. There is much that I have worked hard to forget, and recalling some of it is painful. But I want you to know of it. Do what you will with these pages after you have read them. They were written with love, for you, Anna, my only child.

Attached to the letter was a hand-drawn map of Shanghai, and I read the places my father had marked:
My offce, Broadway Mansions, The Bund, St. Ignatius Cathedral, Hungjao—Home.
I put the letter and map aside and looked inside the box, where I found several accounting ledgers, the kind I remembered my father using for business when I was a child. They were black with the word ledger in red letters on the front cover, and their covers were worn smooth, their once-sharp corners softened. Underneath them were some books:
All About Shanghai—A Standard Guidebook,
published in 1934; histories of the city; and memoirs by people who had lived there when my father did. And I knew what my father was doing: he was, once again, teaching me about Shanghai, something he’d done in my childhood. Only this time he was telling me about himself as well.

I flipped through one of the ledgers and read some lines at random:
At the start, it wasn’t so bad. You wore your armband, you did as you were told, and the Japanese didn’t bother you so long as you kept to yourself.
I flipped forward a few more pages and read of a place called Haiphong Road, and of Bridge House and Fletcher’s tree and a year spent alone. I flipped further and saw Ward Road Jail, interrogations and questionings, demands for a confession. And I saw that I held the missing stories of my father’s life.

In the months that followed, I read and reread my father’s journals. I read the books as well, and others like them that I found at the Pasadena Main Library. For nearly a year, I read about Shanghai as though it could save me. And it probably did, in a way. Thinking about the city my father loved eased the huge ache that his death had caused. And as I read and imagined and began to understand, scenes from my childhood played before me like long-forgotten photographs, and I found myself in the distant land of my father.


, the air hot and muggy. My father stood on the verandah of our home, a villa on Hungjao Road in the western suburbs outside of the International Settlement. His back was to me as he looked out at the expanse of lawn that to me, at six, seemed vast as an ocean. He faced east, toward the Bund and the Whangpoo River, and I thought I smelled the river’s familiar sharpness, a grimy mix of factory smoke and seaweed and fish, though the Whangpoo was some ten miles away.

It was dusk, a word that I understood as “dust,” which made sense to me, one of those few words whose meaning matched its sound. That was how the world seemed at that hour: slightly dusty, softened and dimly covered in some eerie talc, the sharp edges chalk-picture blurry. My father had played polo that afternoon and still wore his riding clothes, off-white jodhpurs and a jersey shirt, the color so creamy it appeared liquid, and black leather boots that I wanted to touch to see if they were real. They seemed somehow conjured up. He, too, seemed conjured up, in that dim light. He leaned on the verandah wall, his drink next to him, a tumbler that held Four Roses, golden, the color of caramel, and it was as though the Scotch softened everything: the night, the stone wall, the leaves of the plane trees just beyond, the sharp edges of the crystal tumbler, my father himself.

My father stood very still, gazing out at a city that he loved. To me, it was simply home, no more, no less. But as I stood in the doorway, watching him, waiting for him to feel my presence, I felt certain inside that I was in exactly the right place: this house, this doorway, this night, this father. I wore a white cotton nightgown that had been sewn by hand. I was clean, just out of the bath, my long brown hair a cool wet trail down my back. Chu Shih, our cook, had given me long-life noodles and jasmine tea for dinner, then helped me get ready for bed so that I could say good night to my parents before they went out.

BOOK: The Distant Land of My Father
7.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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