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.