The following is taken from Get Your Wordsworth member Peggy Strait’s memoir Unbound: Memories of an Immigrant Daughter. The book came out of the author’s participation in the Writing from Life Experience group at the Morningside Gardens Cooperative in New York City. It was published by Xlibris and is available at Amazon and Barnes & Nobles.
One day, in 1937, Japanese warplanes flew over China. It was a declaration of war. My father’s reaction was immediate and decisive. He withdrew as much money as he could from his bank, packed it into a suitcase, then hurried home to get his wife and children. We left in the evening for Hong Kong.
We never returned to live in our home in Canton. That day marked the end of the style of life we enjoyed in China.
Refugees in Hong Kong (1937–1939)
The ferryboat ride to Hong Kong was my first venture out of the privileged, secure, and sheltered existence of our upper-class life. The dock was teeming with people. We were literally shoved onto the ferry. We had reserved seats on the upper deck, but it was standing room only elsewhere. Bursting with a sense of adventure, I followed my older brother to explore the lower deck. There, in the midst of a thick crowd of people, vendors were dishing out noodles, congee, and dumplings. The air was humid and heavy with smoke. It was very noisy, very crowded, and the wonderful smell of food mixed with the pungent smell of sweat from the crowd created an exciting sensation.
We moved into a one-room, cold-water flat, without bathtub, shower, or toilet, on the second floor of a storefront building in a busy section of town. Workmen came the next day to put up a partition at one end of the room to create a separate bedroom for my parents. In the remaining space, the five children slept on canvas cots lined up in a row. An area was reserved for a table and chairs for dining; a small, enclosed space was set up with a wood-burning stove for cooking meals.
We children used potties placed in the room where we slept and bathed in a large tin tub near the stove where water was heated. Sometimes our mother would place citrus peelings into the water to create a pleasant scent. We never asked our parents how they handled these functions.
Within the week, all five children developed rashes. We were taken to a doctor, who advised my parents to examine the children’s beds. The mystery of the rashes was solved! Bedbugs lined the crevices at the joints and under the canvas of the children’s cots.
No longer surrounded by servants who did everything for us, my mother now went daily to the open markets to buy groceries and necessities. We delighted in walking with her through the crowded Hong Kong markets. Live fish in tubs of water; live, squawking chickens, quacking ducks, and enormous geese in pens; fresh fruits and vegetables displayed in piles by the farmers; sausages, slabs of meat, and pork belly hanging from hooks and sold by slices to order; vendors selling noodles, congee, dumplings, and deep-fried dough dripping in syrup; exotic aromas, some repellent, others sweet and inviting. Especially thrilling to us children were the sights of giant Sikh policemen, wearing turbans on their heads, chasing thieves down narrow alleys. At dinner, my mother delighted in talking about the bargains of the day. Our meals were simple but delicious. After dinner, we would give the leftovers to the homeless, of which there were many, waiting outside our door. In the evening, the streets were lined with homeless people setting up their sleeping spaces for the night.
More than a year passed, and still the war with Japan had not ended. My parents discussed their options. We could stay in Hong Kong, as all our relatives had decided to do, or—my father suggested—we could consider going to America.
My father had an uncle in America, the younger son of my paternal great-grandfather. This uncle, who lived in Phoenix, Arizona, was still operating the business started by my grandfather and was now a US citizen. My paternal great-grandfather, who was nearly ninety years old, wished to see him again before he died. So a trip was planned. My parents would apply for a visa for all of us to accompany my great-grandfather to America to visit his son, who was an American citizen. This was the rationale given to the US Embassy.
The visa was granted. In the fall of 1939, two years after we left Canton, we boarded the British ship Empress of Asia and sailed to America.