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Thousands Pay Last Respects to Madame Chiang Kai-Shek - 2003-11-05

Mourners packed a New York church to pay their last respects to Taiwan's former first lady Madame Chiang Kai-shek, once one of the world's most powerful women.

Nearly 2,000 people gathered to remember Madame Chiang, including numerous U.S. and Taiwanese dignitaries and Chinese-American immigrants. Madame Chiang died late last month in her New York apartment at the age of 106.

The service was conducted in English and Mandarin. "Amen. Oh God of praise and glory. We remember before you this day our respected Madame [Chiang] and your beloved daughter, Soong Mayling."

Madame Chiang spent an increasing amount of time in New York after the 1975 death of her husband Chiang Kai-shek, China's president during the Second World War. His government retreated to Taiwan in 1949 following its defeat by Communists in China's civil war.

Madame Chiang was born Soong Mayling in Shanghai, but was educated in the United States and spoke fluent English. She was her husband's most ardent spokesperson, appealing to the American people for support in the fight against Japanese forces occupying China during World War II.

In 1943, Madame Chiang brought her appeal to the U.S. Congress in what became her most famous address.

Critics described her as a conniving power in what was to become a corrupt government in Taiwan. But many supporters viewed her as an elegant mother figure and leader who bridged the cultures of East and West.

In a eulogy, Madame Chiang's friend and aide Cecilia Koo described Madame Chiang as a strong woman who was devoted to Christianty. She recounted the many chapters of the former first lady's life that spanned three centuries.

Lien Chan, chairman of the Nationalist Party in Taipei, said Madame Chiang was a symbol of friendship with the United States and the Chinese nationalist struggle for freedom and democracy.

Madame Chiang, who had no children, founded a school in Nanking in 1930 for orphans of soldiers killed in China's revolution. Elderly alumnae from the school attended the New York memorial service.

Waving a Taiwanese flag, Chinese immigrant Lillian Ma says she remembers hearing stories about Madame Chiang during her youth. She says she sees Madame Chiang as a role model.

"She is a real Christian," she said. "She has no children, she thinks as all the world, all the society as her children."

Veterans of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Army also came out to honor Madame Chiang. Some traveled from Taiwan. A tourist from London, who would not reveal her name, says her father served in China's government under Chiang Kai-Shek. She says she is grateful that she could help honor the last prominent figure from the World War II era.

"It is definitely an end of an era," she said. "In fact, people in the younger generation have already passed on. So this is history." Symbolizing her ties to East and West, a soprano sang the English hymn Amazing Grace in Mandarin at the memorial service. On the altar, a large photograph of a younger Madame Chiang stood next to a cross covered with white and purple flowers.