Cover image for Things that must not be forgotten : a childhood in wartime China
Things that must not be forgotten : a childhood in wartime China
Kwan, Michael David, 1934-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Soho, [2000]

Physical Description:
x, 244 pages ; 24 cm
General Note:
Originally published: Toronto : Macfarlane Walter & Ross, 2000.
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DS777.5195.K9 A3 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Young David, son of his father's Swiss second wife, has been brought up first by servants and then by an English step-mother. The Japanese invasion destroys the Eurasian world of privilege in which he lives. His father serves in the pro-Japanese government while secretly, perilously, working for the Resistance. David, sent away to school, is taunted as a half-caste by the now openly xenophobic Chinese. After Japan's surrender, his father is imprisoned and reviled, in scenes foreshadowing those of Mao's Cultural Revolution, until he can clear himself. As the clash between Communists and Nationalists threatens to engulf China, twelve-year-old David is spirited out of the country alone, not knowing if he will ever see his family again.

Like J. G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun, this is an account of war's perils and life's betrayals, seen through the eyes of a bewildered youth.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

It's almost easy to call this kind of memoir "searing," and so it is; but Kwan has a tender and unflinching eye, and he cares very much about what he writes. And he writes of being a small child with a Caucasian mother and a Chinese father, isolated from other boys by his heritage and his family's sense of dignity. His father's secret work just before and during World War II protected their existence somewhat--they never suffered real privation--but when his father was arrested as the Communists came to power, the fragility of their lives became clear. Kwan limns emotional resonances brilliantly: his love for his Chinese nanny, his hatred of his brutal schoolmasters, and his ambivalence about Catholic ritual. He describes the repressed and cultured lives of his wealthy and influential family members while trying to untangle all the undercurrents of race, war, resistance, gender, and sex that flowed among them. Some of this has the same hallucinatory power as J. G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun. A mesmerizing read. --GraceAnne A. DeCandido

Publisher's Weekly Review

This powerful memoir by writer and translator Kwan (Broken Portraits) recounts his tumultuous coming-of-age in China during and after WWII. This straightforward and poetic work illuminates the contradictions of wartime as seen through the eyes of a child. Kwan is estranged from his Swiss mother as a young boy and goes from being raised by servants to the Englishwoman his father remarries. Although emotionally distant, Kwan's father, the wealthy administrator for China's railroads, was a model of honor to his family and country, and Kwan's story is as much about his father as it is about himself. After Japan invaded China, Kwan's father took a position in the pro-Japanese government in order to work for the Resistance covertly. As a half-caste, Kwan was tormented in school and, without friends, became a silent voyeur of the world around him. He took solace where he could find it, whether with his dog, Rex, in his tree house watching the neighbors, gardening with the owner of a local antique shop, catching crickets with his father's tenant farmer or through the rituals he performed as an altar boy. After WWII, there followed the battle between Communists and Nationalists, and, caught in the middle, Kwan's father was falsely accused and imprisoned for collaborating with the Japanese. Before Kwan was sent away to safety, his father repeated his guiding tenet: "As long as you are true to yourself, you can't be false to anyone else." This engaging story of family, loyalty, patriotism and war shows how unforeseen events change people and how, in turn, they can reshape those events to survive and retain their imprint. (May 10) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Kwan (Broken Portraits), who was born in China and lived there until he was 12 years old, describes in his memoir the tense urban atmosphere during Chiang Kai-shek's desperate grasp for power. The author, raised in an upper-class family, the son of a multilingual, Oxford-educated father and a Swiss-born mother, tells here of his painful experiences in a society that disparaged his biracial roots. China's political reality during his early years and the dangers his father risked in working for the Resistance became clear to him as an adult, enabling him to authenticate his memory of the character and tone of his youth. Winner of the 2000 Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize for nonfiction, this book is certainly a welcome addition to Chinese memoirs that, in recent years, have focused on the later experiences of Mao Zedong's reign, e.g., Yang Rae's Spider Eaters (LJ 4/15/97), Chen Chen's Come Watch the Sun Go Home (LJ 6/1/98), and Jaia Sun Childers's The White-Haired Girl (LJ 2/15/96). Peggy Spitzer Christoff, Rockville, MD (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One MARIANNE Life was new then. Day was gold and green. Night was black and terrifying. Warmth was a narrow brown face, black sombre eyes, a generous mouth that crooned or scolded, and full round breasts. Shu Ma, my nanny.     Another face loomed large, round, and jolly under a shiny bald dome. Zhang was major-domo in my father's house. No matter how busy he was, Zhang always made time for me, if only for a moment, jabbering in a silly voice to make me laugh. His big calloused hands were surprisingly gentle when he picked me up. I loved to rub his polished head, tweak his nose, wring those jug-handle ears. I could wind Zhang round my little finger, but when the laugh lines smoothed out and his eyes became two black buttons, I knew my wiles would not work. Time to mind my p's and q's.     We lived in a large, three-storey house built in the nineteenth-century-German style. Cold draughts wandered the hallways, shadows crouched menacingly in corners. Disembodied voices and footsteps floated up and down the stairs. It was a spacious, melancholy place that came alive from time to time and buzzed like a hornet's nest. The excitement affected everyone. Footsteps quickened. Usually subdued voices became shrill. At such times Zhang's shiny dome would be seen only briefly. He would gaze down at me from a great height, exchange a few hurried words with Shu Ma, and then disappear, ignoring my demands to be carried. My parents were entertaining.     The top floor of the house was my domain now that my older half-brothers, Albert and Tim, were away at school. Across the hall from my bedroom was a room full of toys. Electric train tracks ran all the way around it, complete with switching signals, water towers, stations, and tunnels. But my favourite toy was a rocking horse with a real mane and tail, more beautiful than any horse that ladies and gentlemen rode on the bridle paths in the park. Hour after hour I sat astride it, rocking, rocking. The rocking horse carried me through the air, far from the four walls that contained me. My squeals of delight would cause Shu Ma to wag a finger.     "Hush! They will hear!"     "They" were my parents, whom I seldom saw. Once in a while I was taken down the stairs to my father. He was the sort of man whose presence is felt even in a crowded room, always impeccably dressed and groomed, always preoccupied. To this day, the smell of a fine cigar evokes memories of my father, for he was seldom without one. Sometimes he gingerly dandled me on his knee, careful not to spoil the perfect crease of his trousers, holding me at arm's length in case my diapers leaked. When he was in a particularly good mood, he took out the pocket watch he wore on a gold chain, holding it close to my ear and making it chime. My father was forty-five when I was born, and I think I was as much a surprise to him as he was to me. Neither of us relished our visits. Yet when they were over, I felt an indescribable loss and buried my head in Shu Ma's ample bosom until she rocked and crooned the pain away.     I was not allowed to venture downstairs alone. Once, when I was two, I crawled down backwards, a step at a time. The floor below mine had many rooms. All the doors were shut except one. It was a gleaming white room. All the furniture, the carpets, and the walls were white. A lady dressed in white was seated on the bed, dabbing at her toenails with a tiny brush, making them the same vibrant red as her mouth and fingernails. She looked at me without interest or surprise. I was fascinated by what she was doing and crept closer to watch. She did not seem to mind. As she bent over to blow on the gleaming nails, I did too. She laughed and extended a languid foot for me, and I blew on her wet nails. She reached over to a tiny bowl of coloured squares on the bedside table and popped one in her mouth. When she picked up her tiny brush again to do the other foot, I too grabbed a square and popped it in my mouth. She whirled on me, shrieking, "Spit it out! Spit it out!" She seized me by the shoulders and shook me. "If you swallow it, you'll die!" She struck me hard across the face. My mouth flew open and the little square, now a sticky lump, dropped onto the carpet.     My screams brought Shu Ma, who swept me up in her arms. An angry tirade followed us up the stairs: "Why did you let the brat come down here?" I have hated chewing gum ever since.     Marianne's terrible joys and sudden rages frightened me. Her face has always been a blur, like a faded photograph, except for the vivid red mouth. She was the daughter of a Swiss railway engineer. My maternal grandfather had been one of the "foreign experts" that flooded China between the two world wars. Disillusioned with Europe, lured by tales of easy fortunes to be made, André Lavelle moved his wife and little girl to China. He soon found himself marooned in the limbo between worlds that was the northeastern city of Harbin.     Harbin is a curious blend of east and west. The Russians settled there in large numbers in the late 1890s, when negotiations were begun to push a rail line through it to Vladivostok. The settlers attempted to create a city reminiscent of St. Petersburg. Wide boulevards lined with shade trees flow into cobbled squares and circuses dominated by statues and fountains. Today monolithic steel and glass towers dwarf the spires and onion-shaped domes that Marianne knew when she was growing up. The mansions of the rich and powerful have been turned into offices of this or that ministry. Some have been restored, but most are tumbled down. Today the city is trapped in a time warp where past and present have been carelessly fused. Dusty chandeliers glimpsed through tall French windows, reminders of a gracious past, hang behind plucked chickens left on the sill.     Marianne walked those streets, peered through those windows. She probably lived in one of the drab granite apartment buildings that line the street facing the station square. These ugly buildings with their curious blend of fin de siècle European architecture and Chinoiserie reflect all the dashed hopes of their inhabitants. Marianne aspired to the tantalizing world she glimpsed through the windows of the great houses, a world beyond her reach.     My father was in his forties and she barely twenty when they married. He was administrator of one of China's major railways, the Bei-Ning, linking Beijing with Liaoning province in the northeast, and he led the Chinese delegation to the International Railway Conference of the League of Nations in Paris. He had been around the world twice; was fluent in a dozen languages; hobnobbed with world leaders, statesmen, scientists, artists, writers, and musicians. He was also a friend of the underprivileged.     Marianne moved into what she thought would be a dream world. Instead she found herself all at sea. She was ill-equipped to manage a household that included two sons from a previous marriage, teenagers not much younger than herself, plus a staff of cooks and maids, chauffeurs and gardeners. Nor did she fit in with the xenophobic Chinese society or the caste-bound expatriate community. In time, even the giddy round of parties, receptions, and balls that was my father's hectic social life came to pall. It was a lonely life, for my father's work frequently took him far from home.     By 1934, the year I was born, China was torn by internal strife and Japanese occupation. In 1928, the Kuomintang Central Government of Chiang Kai-shek had moved its capital from Beijing south to Nanking. It could not have done otherwise, for the rest of the country was in the hands of either the party's splinter groups or local militarists who remained loyal to the central government as long as their personal interests were not affected. Communism was the other burgeoning force to be reckoned with. China was in a state of latent civil war, with hostilities breaking out from time to time. When Japan, whose expansionist schemes for eastern Asia had long been known, attacked Muckden in the resource-rich Liaoning province, Chiang Kai-shek's forces did not resist. Nor did he declare war on Japan. Chiang preferred to complain to the League of Nations in Geneva. Japan quickly occupied the whole of the northeast. In 1932 it created Manchukuo, a puppet kingdom, and placed PuYi, China's last emperor, on its throne. Japanese influence began spreading insidiously across northern China like ink on a blotter.     The stout granite walls of the legation quarter of Beijing, where we lived, enclosed an oasis of safety. For foreigners and the few privileged Chinese who lived there, China's sporadic wars and civil unrest were unpleasant rumours to be ignored. Marianne's existence in this artificial environment was further complicated by her unexpected pregnancy. She threw herself down a flight of stairs trying to miscarry, but I was stubborn even then.     A grandfather clock stood in an alcove at the foot of the main stairs. Its musical chimes could be heard throughout the house. Once a month a Swiss clockmaker came from his shop to clean and wind it. One day he sent his young nephew in his place. Marianne started a harmless flirtation which developed into a love affair. When my father found out, he had the young man fired. That made the lovers desperate. The next time my father left Beijing on business, Marianne gathered up her jewels and all the money she could lay her hands on and ran off to Shanghai. My father divorced her.     For a time Marianne and her lover were happy. When the money and jewels were gone, love soured. Her lover could not find a job, as no one would employ a man who had run off with a prominent official's wife. Marianne wrote piteous letters to my father, begging for help, which went unanswered. As a last resort she threatened to kidnap me. My father bought a huge Great Dane called Rex, who became my companion day and night.     Rex was my only playmate. We must have been a curious sight on our daily excursions to the park. Shu Ma, with my wrist firmly clasped in her big strong hand, took the lead. Zhang followed with Rex's leash in one hand and a bucket in the other, for the dog consumed prodigious amounts of water, especially in warm weather. Sometimes I climbed on Rex's back and rode him, my feet barely touching the ground. Rex grumbled, but he was good-natured and tolerated his little rider.     Children played in an open area at the centre of the park where a statue of Joan of Arc stood, put there by the French. Rex and I romped on the grass, chasing each other and wrestling, always under the watchful eye of the two servants. Other children stayed away, put off by the huge dog.     One cold, blustery winter's day, when the park was almost deserted, we found a woman sitting alone on a bench by the statue. Zhang hurried towards her. Shu Ma clutched me, muttering under her breath. Zhang and the woman spoke in low voices. Finally they both approached. The woman squatted down so our eyes were level. Her face was muffled by a white veil, and the collar of her coat was turned up against the wind. All I could make out was a bright red mouth and the scent of lilacs.     "Do you remember Mummy?"     I shook my head. She brushed aside the fringe of hair that fell into my eyes.     "Will you give Mummy a kiss?"     I shook my head again. When she tried to take me in her arms, I backed away, shrieking for Shu Ma.     "I'll buy you a present," she said. "Anything you like!"     A fire engine roared by, bells clanging. I pointed. "I want that!"     She looked dismayed. "I'll get you one. Tomorrow. Please, can I have my kiss?"     I shook my head. The two servants drew me away. That is the last memory I have of my mother. She didn't come back to the park again, nor did I get a toy fire engine, but the elusive scent of lilacs has never left me. Excerpted from THINGS THAT MUST NOT BE FORGOTTEN by MICHAEL DAVID KWAN. Copyright © 2000 by Michael David Kwan. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

1 Marianne
2 Resistance
3 Half-Caste
4 Peaceful Heaven
5 The Toad
6 The Magic Circle
7 School Days
8 Enemy Aliens
9 Qingdao
10 The Reign of Terror
11 House Guest
12 Marooned
13 A Far, Far Better Thing
14 This Is China
15 Bulldog's Dozen
16 House Arrest
17 Shanghai Epilogue