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'Old China Hands' Recall Life in Shanghai


China's coastal cities attracted international traders, missionaries and adventurers for 200 years before the communist party took power in 1949. Most Westerners left soon after that, but many retain fond memories of their years in China. They are called Old China Hands.

Several hundred people, many born and raised in China, came together to recall the international settlements they once called home. They shared reminiscences and tested their memory of once-familiar people and places, especially from the international city of Shanghai.

Zoya Shlakis, whose parents were Lithuanian and Russian, grew up in Shanghai. Her father, an engineer, worked in one of the city's landmarks, the central post office. The family had an apartment on the top floor.

"My childhood, my youth was spent in Shanghai," she said. "It's the only city that I ever knew, and I was a very lucky person. We always had a roof over our head and food on our table, and we got along with the Chinese around us very well. And I had a very happy childhood."

Bob Gohstand, 70, comes from a Jewish family that escaped persecution in Russia and settled in China. His parents met and married in the Chinese city of Harbin. He shows a picture of himself, age four, atop his father's shoulders, after the family had moved to Shanghai.

"I've always loved this picture," he said. "This is my father the pharmacist, outside his shop, St. George's Pharmacy in Shanghai on Bubbling Well Road."

What emerges from such pictures is a thriving community that resembles those of America or Europe.

Some residents rarely ventured outside their international enclaves, which included Shanghai's French concession, with its elegant homes and tree-lined boulevards. Harold Giedt went to school in Shanghai's International Settlement, home to many Americans and British. He spent part of the year, however, in the city of Guangzhou to the south, where his family lived.

"When I would go home in the summer, in South China, I would be completely immersed in the situation where there were Chinese that were the only people I would play with," he explained. "I would speak Chinese for hours on end, not even think in English."

Bob Gohstand coordinates the Old China Hands archive at California State University, Northridge, and says relations were often tense between Western nations and the Chinese government, which complained of unequal treaties forced on China. But he says to understand China today, you must first understand China of the past.

"And China yesterday included the presence of many foreigners: teachers, educators, missionaries, commercial people, military people, religious people," he noted. "Every kind of person from every corner of the world came to China.

Some stayed for a few years. Others set down roots and stayed for many generations. The survivors are getting older now, but many continue to hold reunions and share memories of their younger days in China.

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