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'Old China Hands' Celebrate Two Cultures


They are called "old China hands," Westerners who lived in China and often retain strong sentimental attachments to the country. Some have contributed keepsakes to an archive that celebrates a life between two cultures.

The archive at California State University, Northridge, contains a municipal banner from the old international settlement in Shanghai, a boy scout uniform from a Western troop there, photographs and other memorabilia.

Bob Gohstand, an emeritus professor of geography, organized the archive to document a fading part of Chinese history. He notes the foreign territories, abolished in 1949 when the communists took power, had been in place for a century. "Under the treaties that were concluded after the Opium Wars of the 1840s, quite a number of different port cities were opened up for trade by foreigners," he says. "And within some of those cities, foreign nations demanded and extracted concessions from the Chinese government, so they had essentially independent little fiefdoms within those cities in which their own laws operated rather than those of China."

Those foreign concessions, the result of imposed treaties, have always been a sore point for the Chinese. Mr. Gohstand says for many Westerners, however, they offered a refuge from political or religious persecution. "Old China Hands, I suppose, got their start as people who wanted to do business in China or conduct religious activity in China, the missionary group," he says. "But later on, particularly after, say, the Russian revolution, you begin to get waves of different refugee populations coming to China, in some cases because it was the only place that they could escape to."

Many German and Austrian Jews found refuge in Shanghai after no other places would take them. Mr. Gohstand and his family were Russians Jews. His father moved to the Northeastern Chinese of Harbin, and later opened a pharmacy in Shanghai, where the family lived until 1949.

Zoya Shlakis, who was Lithuanian and Russian, also grew up in Shanghai. Her father had fought for the Czarist White Russian army, and fled to China after the Russian communists came to power. Like many Russian migrants, he first moved to Harbin, near the Russian border. Ms. Shlakis says her father worked as a taxi driver, then as a mechanic, moving to a succession of Chinese cities. Among these was Nanjing or Nanking, as it was called then, where her father worked for the post office. The parents left before the brutal Japanese invasion of 1937. "They left Nanking in about 1935, just before the Rape of Nanking, for a bigger job in the Shanghai post office," she says. "And that was a real good break for dad because he was given quarters in the big post office. He was assigned the responsibility of being chief mechanic and also building supervisor. And so for 14 years, I lived there."

Rose Jacob-Horowitz has long roots in China. In the 1850s, her mother's grandfather was the British consul in the city of Chinkiang, a trading center on the Yangtze River. Her first memories of China are of fighting, and like many old China hands, she lived through peaceful times and periods of turmoil. Born in 1924, she was there when the nationalists and communists clashed in 1927, and during a Japanese incursion in 1932. She remained for the Japanese occupation during the World War II.

She taught English during the war to members of rival factions. Some of her students were Chinese communists, some were nationalists, and some were Chinese who supported a Japanese puppet government. "So I was teaching them English. And this was a very exciting thing to do in one sense. I was almost walking a tightrope because the students in the class, I didn't know which was which," she says. "They were either nationalists, communists, or [members of the pro-Japanese faction]. And they always got into arguments in Chinese. And I pretended at that point that I didn't understand the Chinese, though I knew every word that they were saying."

In 1949, the Chinese communist party came to power. The foreign concessions were eliminated and foreigners became unwelcome. The British, French, and others returned to their home countries. Stateless Westerners fled as refugees. These three and others built new lives in America, but Bob Gohstand says China still holds an attraction. "There is a certain magic that creates a tremendous loyalty among old China hands to the culture and civilization of China, and an interest in sharing it. I mean, there's something about old China hands that makes them want to get together," he says. "And they come from different backgrounds, they may have had no connection in China at all, but now they have this community of spirit about being old China hands."

Zoya Shlakis proudly displays photographs of herself as a teenaged girl, posing atop the Shanghai central post office. She recalls that, looking down on the Huangpu (Wong-pu) River, she once dreamed of living abroad, but now treasures return visits to her childhood neighborhood.

Ms. Shlakis laments the fact that many who lived in China's international settlements had little contact with the native culture or language. But others did, and she says they shared a special experience.

Rose Horowitz says she also feels nostalgia for her formative years in China, and some pride at her connections with one of the world's oldest civilizations.

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