THE INTERVIEW: Patricia Luce Chapman – An American Girl in Wartime Shanghai

Patricia Luce Chapman, the author of Tea on the Great Wall: An American Girl in War-Torn China was born in Shanghai in 1926 to a journalist mother and businessman father, and grew up here during a time that was both glamorous and difficult. She lived on Columbia Circle in a house designed by Hudec, went to Victor Sassoon’s fancy dress parties, and summered in Weihaiwei ~ but, as she documents in her memoir, she also grew up with the fear and uncertainty of a changing world, as Nazi flags went up at school, Japanese warships crowded the harbor and emaciated opium addicts crowded the streets. Tea on the Great Wall is available in Shanghai at Garden Books and on Amazon in a Kindle edition.

Tea on the Great Wall-Cover-750

Historic Shanghai: You’ve described your girlhood as “Shirley Temple in Wonderland meets Nazis, Japanese bayonets and Chinese opium addicts”. Your Shanghai was a complicated one! Glamorous dinner parties on the one hand, threatening soldiers on the other. How did you process it all, as a child?

Patricia Luce Chapman: Knowing no other life, it was my normal everyday life, my home. Visiting elsewhere — Europe, or my grandparents’ home in California — seemed foreign to me. There were things that I didn’t like in China, such as the inferior position of girls, the poverty of so many Chinese people around us, the damage caused by the Japanese, the Japanese bayonets, but as there was nothing I could do about them, I accepted them as part of life and sort of worked around them. I was surrounded by so much that was beautiful and good, especially the household staff and my last governess, Erika, and those mattered to me more than the negative experiences. I liked the Chinese courtesy and felt (and often still feel) foreign in the U.S., not knowing what to do or how to respond when an American would flatly contradict or correct me in public, so I just held my tongue and let it be.

We children grew up very quickly in Shanghai, in terms of what we experienced and in what we observed and overheard. We didn’t know that we were mature in language and knowledge in contrast to regular American kids in the U.S. I also feel now that the physical beauty of China to which my parents exposed me to at a very young age balanced the horrors of seeing refugees dying in the streets.

1-Fancy Dress- me as a rose

Patty Potter, dressed up as a rose for one of Sir Victor Sassoon’s children’s fancy dress parties.

HS: Tell us about your parents – how did they come to Shanghai, and what did they do?

PLC: My father had gone to the Philippines in as a Thomasite teacher when he was just 19 years old and established a school in Bacarra, Ilocos Norte. Completing his tour there, he travelled back to the U.S. and onto Europe, finally deciding to move to China. He was in Shanghai before 1917, where he entered the field of business and moved on to become the foremost property appraiser in Shanghai and the Trust Officer of the Bank of China.

My mother came to Shanghai in 1922 to be a teacher at the McTeiyre School but finessed that into working as a journalist at the China Press and then a Foreign Correspondent for the International News Service, becoming an ace war correspondent. J.B. Powell wrote of her as the first woman journalist to interview both Marshalls Wu Pei Fu and Chang Tso Lin. She scooped the world press in covering the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake in Japan before other journalists got there.

My parents were married at the Union Church in Shanghai in 1923.

3- Patty Potter_CS Franklin

Patty Potter, standing outside her neighbour, Judge Cornell Franklin’s Southern-style mansion (designed by Eliot Hazzard).


HS: Your memoir takes place primarily between 1932-1940, when you were ages 5-14. Yet there is so much historical detail and context – was this simply a function of the period, that is, that ‘current events’ were what everyone talked about, so even children knew what was happening? Or was it because of the particular work your parents did?

PLC: A combination of both, I think. At the Kaiser Wilhelm Schule there was an emphasis on international events that affected Germany from kindergarten on. At age five we were drawing maps of Germany and China. Later, around 11, I began to learn about World War II and Hitler and the plans to exterminate the Jews. Also, my parents included by brother and me at the dinner table except when they had formal guests. We learned from their conversations about the events that affected us. Further, I know that I had an interest (that I still have) in the news and a curiosity about how and why things happened; I should have gone seriously into journalism myself as I can’t stay away from the news, wanting to be there where things are happening. I remember asking my father about the Sikh officers on horseback.

On trips to Weihaiwei or Beijing or Shanhaiguan, the history we learned was part of being there on the site. The slashes in the Buddha’s arm, for instance, led to the Boxer Rebellion as did the damage to structures at the beach and Mother took the time to tell us about them.

The other children and I didn’t talk about current events specifically; we were living in them and with them, and so the events simply were, and as such were discussed.

I don’t think that it was primarily because of my parents’ work; things happened that my mother wrote about and I did learn in that way; my father’s work became delicate in wartime when he had to protect other people’s lives and property, and sometimes I heard about those.

2- Patty on bench_Tea on Great Wall

Patty in the garden of her house on Columbia Circle, wearing the uniform of the Kaiser Wilhelm Schule. Circa 1936.

HS: How did your life in Shanghai, at that particular time in history, shape who you are now?

 PLC: It’s been fascinating to me to find, slowly as the book progressed, how much I am still the same person that I was then, only more solidly so. I can’t tolerate rudeness to others. I am color-blind in the sense that I don’t seem to be aware of, or rather am usually drawn to, a different shape of eyes, a different accent, a shade of skin not like mine. Other kinds of people interest me; I want to get to know them and their lives and am not aware that I might be offending others who don’t feel as I do. I tend to look for what is inside, what is not on the surface, of a person. I am comfortable with all kinds of people, wealthy or poor, well educated or not, from whatever country. I have exceptionally warm feelings toward Chinese people, Jewish people, and African-Americans, but not so toward Japan and Japanese and anyone whose purpose appears to be to hurt me or anyone else. Today I would have to add the Taliban-ISIS kind of people that any of us would not want to chum up to.

I do still have to struggle against feelings of uncertainty, of inferiority, because of being a girl and then a woman. I think I should add also because of a very strong mother who corrected me all the time. At that time it didn’t bother me too much because that was just how it was, like turning on a hot water faucet and getting hot water. But it matters now.

I still don’t know how to shop for clothes, or time the elements in cooking a meal, and laundry comes out spotted so I avoid that, too. Growing up with ten live-in servants makes a great difference. I know what I want done but not how to do it. And I don’t want to do it. My entertaining is not frightfully elegant, my dear.

The wars: I know that I am exceptionally skittish around guns of any kind, jump wildly at sudden noises, can’t stand people who want to hurt other people. But I think most of us are like that.

HS: You left China in 1940, and haven’t been back since. What was returning to that long-ago world as you wrote this book like? Would you like to return? Or would you prefer to remember Shanghai the way it was?

PLC: This book was to be only a light summary of my growing-up in China. When [my daughter] Tina B. asked me one day what someone would say when my grandchildren asked what happened to Grandma when the Japanese came into China, no one would be able to answer because no one knew.

I was afraid to open myself up to the memories. I had shut off my China past after coming to America. The memories were too dark. Also, I found that I had little in common with the other American girls in school. Their fathers were playing golf; mine was in a Japanese prison camp. They knew how to shop for clothes; Tailor had made all of mine. There was so much sorrow hidden within me that I couldn’t express to them. I began to create a past that was extremely vague, and that I could manage to live with. I didn’t open up my China life until beginning to write this book, and then I found that Texans had warm welcoming natures. You may not believe me, but Texans are the most courteous people I’ve ever met, next to the Chinese. They are the only people I’ve seen who pull over when they see that the car behind then wants to pass.

I had had two chances to go back to China: once with my son Kit, who wanted to take me with him in the 1980s; I was unwilling to experience a China as rigid as what I’d seen on TV with Nixon’s visit. My China was pre-1937. Also, I was scared to open myself up again to the smells and sights of China. The second time I was on an assignment in Micronesia for the Christian Science Monitor when I could have joined a group of editors taking a boat trip up the Yangzi. I did my job for the CSM instead.

Writing this book was both healing and very painful. I had never really grieved for the loss of my whole life or for the loss of so many tens of thousands of destitute Chinese people who I loved as part of my family. Night after night, after working through a section, I would sob, curled up in an armchair, holding my arms tightly wound around myself, trying to breathe.

The other part of this is that I have found my whole self again that I didn’t really recognize I’d buried. The whole past is now an active living part of me, probably greatly romanticized, but it’s there, and I love it.

Of course I would like to return but I’ve missed my chance. I am not physically or financially able to travel back and forth, and I could not stay because it would be too costly for my children and grandchildren to travel to see me. I could not leave them.

BUT I can Skype you there in Shanghai!


Saturday June 13, 11am

Book Launch: Tea on the Great Wall: An American Girl in War-Torn China

A memoir of old Shanghai 

RMB 100 members, RMB 150/nonmembers / RSVP: info@historic-shanghai.com

Old China Hand Style, 374 Shaanxi Nan Lu/Fuxing Lu

Books will be available at the event.

One response to “THE INTERVIEW: Patricia Luce Chapman – An American Girl in Wartime Shanghai”

  1. […] Personal Look at Shanghai in the 1930s: Patricia Luce Chapman, author, Tea on the Great […]

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