Shanghai exiles, meeting with Isabel and Raymond

Raymond Chao & friends, Saint John University, late 1940's
Raymond Chao & friends, Saint John University, Shanghai, late 1940’s

This blog has raised in popularity over the years and people from various places have been contacting me about it through the internet. However, one of the recent most interesting encounters was arranged through a friend of a friend. After a 2 hours conversation (originally planned for 1/2 an hour), Claire’s conclusion was “You definitely have to meet my parents. When are you going to Hong Kong?”. We just went to Hong Kong and met her parents. This post is the recollection of our conversation.

Isabel and Raymond were both born in Shanghai, “We both went to Saint John University” said Isabel. “I used to walk every day across Jessfield Park (today Zhongshan Park) to reach to it.” Having been to the old Saint John University (today Shanghai University of Law) only a few days ago, I showed them the pictures that they recognized instantly. “My high school was the Mc Tyeire school (today Shanghai number 3 girl school), on Edinburgh Road (today Jiangsu Lu). Then I went to Saint Mary school for high school. It was near Saint John University and was severely damaged during the Japanese occupation, so class took place in the one of the nearby Saint John University buildings”. As far as I know, the school does not exist anymore in that location, but it is quite vivid in Isabel memory. “We were living in a house on Yu Yuan lu, about half way between the Park and Jing An Temple. I could walk to school and later to University”. Raymond parents also lived in this part of the city, the extra-territorial roads, West of the international Settlement.

Isabelle Chao about the same period
Isabelle Chao about the same period

Isabelle also asked whether we knew about Zhang Ailing’s works. “Zhang Ailing also went to Mc Tyre school, she was about 11 older than me. My life was actually quite similar to hers. My teachers were also her teachers, they also thought I would become a writer, unfortunately it did not happen. Maybe I was a bit more practical than she was”. “Shanghai was a happening city, I used to go to dance halls like to Paramount (corner of Hua Shan Lu and Yu Yuan Lu), or the Ciro’s (today disappeared, was located near people square). I used to go to the movie in the Cathay or the Grand Theater. I liked the Park hotel a lot, when I was in Shanghai I always thought it was so tall then, and now it is so small compared to other buildings.” (Park Hotel was the tallest building in Asia when it opened in 1934. It counts 25 floors. See post Advertising Park Hotel for more details). “I was only 19 when we left Shanghai in 1950 so I did not have so much time to enjoy it. When I was 17 years old, my first boyfriend was driving me around on his Harley-Davidson motorbike. We used to drive down the Bund and a lot of people were looking at us”.  This is strangely echoing driving down today’s restored Bund on my own 1930’s sidecar motorbike. I am still amazed that Harley-Davidson motorbikes were imported then, as they only were imported again in China a couple of years ago. For more information about this, see the specific topic “Harley on the Bund“.

What Jiajia and I gathered is that Raymond and Isabel knew each other in Shanghai, but probably got married in Hong Kong. Coming from the same background, they probably left Shanghai around the same time, recreating their life in similar circles in their new home. Although they both speak Mandarin and Cantonese, they still speak to each other in an old fashion Shanghainese, similar to dialogues in the movie “in the mood for love“. Listening to them is sometimes reviving a past long gone, similar to the meeting with Liliane Willens a few years ago (see “a date with Liliane“). Isabel concluded our meeting with this sentence: “All these memories of the Shanghai I knew I always thought no-one would be telling them again, that they were forgotten forever. It amazing that some people are still interested in them and that they have been preserved.”

Update: I was very sad to learn that Raymond Chao has passed away on 8th May 2012, less than a year after this meeting took place.

Update: Isabel and Claire Chao have written together a book about the family life in Old Shanghai, “Remembering Shanghai”, published in 2017. Please see post for more details.

8 thoughts on “Shanghai exiles, meeting with Isabel and Raymond”

  1. Thank you for reminding me of the most interesting conversation at lunch with you and your French friends in November 2009 at the time I, a Shanghailander was back in Shanghai, to launch my book “Stateless in Shanghai”. The next time I return I hope to ride in one of your sidecars which will enable me to see closely the side streets of “my” city.

  2. 23-8-11
    Bonjour Hugues,
    Merci once again for a trip down memory lane.
    As you know, my family lived in Shanghai for 30 years, & left in 1949, similar to Isabel & Raymond. Father spoke of these same places you mention & conjured up romantic pictures for me as a small child, eventhough as we know it was a hazardous time to live there.So much great architecture has disappeared, but through your generous research & time, they live on in our minds.
    I have a sad task to tell you that father passed away a few weeks ago.
    It is now my journey to write a book about the family life in Shanghai, the ” Paris ” of the East. Thankyou for giving my father beautiful thoughts about his youth, through your site.
    Au revoire for now,

  3. Bonjour Hugues, merci pour ce blog tres emouvant et vivant! A bientot. JLD

  4. Thank you for writing about the things we chatted about during lunch in Hong Kong. I am sure there are a lot of people now scattered all over the world with similar background like ours, who would love to resd about the little incidents that happened in our beloved old Shanghai during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. They, too, must have thought that era have gone without any traces, but, thanks to people like you, there seems to be a renewed interest in that nostalgic period in a unique city. I look forward to reading more about your conversations with Shanghailanders and seeing your wonderful collection of old Shanghaiu photos.

    Best wishes to you and Jiajia, a really beautiful Shanghai girl. Raymond and I hope to see you again soon.

    Fond regards, Isabel

  5. Hi All
    I will be visiting Shanghai shortly and want to find out more about my family and I am contacting you in the hope that perhaps you might recall members of my family.

    My mother was adopted by Mrs Sarita Carter (maiden name Katz) born at Tsinanfu 24th July 1911who was married to an Mr FC Carter, (born 1905 in Leach, Cambridgeshire, UK) a policeman in the Shanghai Municipal Police. Mothers real mother according to the adoption papers was a stateless White Russian born in Siberia – Sonia Krootikova aged 23. Father unknown but thought to be a US Marine.

    My mother Gloria Elizabeth Carter was born on the 14th Dec 1940 at the Saint Marie Hospital in Shanghai. After the Japanese invaded my mother and Sarita spent time in a camp and following liberation went to Australia. They eventually settled in Cambridge in the UK.

    If you could direct me to any useful sites or sources of information I will be very grateful. I am visiting Shanghai next week so any where I can visit that might contain records of Sonia being registered in China, my mothers birth or even Russians leaving China will be very helpful.

    Thank you for any help you can offer

    Kind regards

  6. Hi All,

    What a pleasure to read about Shanghai Exiles today. Although I’ve known Raymond and Isabel for many years in my life, it’s still so fascinating to read about their old time shanghai stories. My very dear uncle Raymond was a true gentleman, with a strong, wise business mind and a very kind, loving heart. I miss him dearly. My aunt Isabel is a classic Shanghainese lady – intelligent, strong (emotionally), funny, sociable and loving. They both hold a very special place in my heart. It is great that this could be shared beyond the family. By reading this article, it brings back a lot of my memories of Shanghai where I lived till 1991.

    Thank you for writing this!

    Warm Regards,

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