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China: My Father's Observations (1923)

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In this post I want us to once again stroll the decks of the Laconia, the ship on which my father was a passenger on its maiden voyage. The year was 1922/1923, and this was the first round-the-world trip by a passenger ship since Magellan. There were many ground-breaking aspects to this incredible voyage, which led the way to opening up the world to travel. It was a life-changing event for its lucky participants because, unlike today, the passengers didn't know what to expect.

I love the old photographs my family has of life aboard this extraordinary ship. On December 6, 1922, a fancy dress ball on the R.M.S. Laconia was held. Everyone was decked out in amazing costumes, and my father - always the comedian--came dressed as a sailor in a wooden barrel. I was able to enlarge the photograph, and my father's smile tells you a lot about his personality. Also, on the back of an incredible breakfast menu from this elegant cruise, is my father's cartoon sketch of his costume. (To view these photos, go to Dr. Helen Davey Facebook page and "like" it.)

Now we'll return to my father's handwritten letters from almost 100 years ago.

Jan. 11/23. In the Yellow Sea. One hundred miles south of Shantung. Bound for Shanghai.

The Laconia had set sail for China from Japan. My father writes, "Yesterday made dock at Tsingtau." Tsingtau is now called "Qingdau." In this very year of 1923, it was given back to China from Japan: the map was constantly changing.

My father continues, "While we were at lunch, we heard American songs being sung outside so we rushed through the meal and onto deck. There was your (this letter was written to my Uncle Paul Davey) old friend Giouque and his school boys. It was really quite thrilling to all on board and very unexpected in this part of the world."

"I hollered 'Hey Chuck' and he turned around mighty quick; nobody had called him 'Chuck' for many years. Of course he didn't know me at first but I wasn't long identifying myself. I might not have known him except for the fact that I knew he was in Tsingtau. He is much heavier now but looks well."

"Mrs. Giouque was down also; she seems to be very nice. They have a boy about four and lost a girl last year about a year and a half old. We had them all, including about twenty school boys come aboard. In the afternoon he went around the city with us and later he and Mrs. Giouque came to the Laconia to dinner with us and stayed to a dance in the evening. Mary and I both like them very much and rather hated to pull out of the harbour leaving two perfectly good Americans so darned far from Broadway. They've been out here six years - oh boy!"

Inside this letter I found an old folded postcard photograph of the American Academy, Tsingtau, China. On it, my father has written, "This is Chuck's School!" It was a large and impressive building, with an American flag waving in front.

My father continues, "Tell Mart (another brother) that I ran across an old friend of his at the reception tendered us by the Chamber of Commerce (Tsingtau). H.H.Kung was in Oberlin at the time he was and now seems to be a man of considerable prominence and influence in China."

"Mr. Lin, a graduate of Yale Forestry School asked me to please convey his profound respect to the honorable Doctor of Trees; he knew Dad by reputation." (This refers to my grandfather John Davey, the "Father of Tree Surgery.") "I was glad to learn that they are beginning to pay some attention to forestry or rather reforestation in China - it is to a great extent a treeless country. It would be a great object lesson to Americans if they could see the Chinese going through the country gathering up every available weed stem or anything that will make sufficient fire to cook a bit of rice; they have no fire for heat."

As a naturalist and tree expert, my father was shocked to observe close up the effect on human beings of the ignorance about the importance of conservation of natural resources.

You can hear his concern when he says, "You may get some idea as to the utter depletion of the soil and the great value of humus when I tell you that there were perhaps 50 or 100 men and boys, along the route of our droskies at Port Arthur, waiting to capture any droppings from the scrawny little ponies. In some instances they hardly permitted it to hit the ground and in some cases nearly fought for it - poor devils! " (Port Arthur, now "Lushunkou District" bounced between Russian and Japanese rule until it was ceded to China after WWII: thus the "droskies", Russian carriages, were common.)

My father worries "In our country we still have such a wealth of humus (comparatively) and some timber still remains. I wonder what the situation will be in a few more generations." I shudder to think what my father and grandfather would think about the state of the planet now.

He continues, "Now that the Chinese are once more in control of Tsingtau, it will be interesting to note the progress made by the young Chinese now that they have been given an opportunity here. Perhaps they could match the competence of the Japanese."

Jan. 16/23. In Formosa Straights - Bound from Keelung (Formosa) to Hong Kong.

Again my father comments on the problem of deforestation around the world: "As we proceeded from Tsingtau to Shanghai we found that the Yellow Sea became more and more yellow and that the East China Sea, which is a continuation of the Yellow Sea, was almost chocolate color. The best part of the continent of Asia is being washed out to sea - America can well take a lesson from what is happening as a result of the destruction of the forests of China."

Port cities around the world were not yet ready for large ships. My father writes, "Because of her size the Laconia could not get clear up to Shanghai. We anchored in the Yangstze off Wosung and went by tender about twelve miles. Shanghai is quite occidental in appearance as you approach and disembark along the Bund."

My father and his first wife Mary were wined and dined by people all around the world. He says, "We have a friend in Sound Beach (Old Greenwich) who is a director of one of the big oil companies and he has advised the branch managers in most of our ports of call that we are aboard the Laconia. They go to great trouble to locate us and to entertain us. Club life seems to be about everything for occidentals out here. Few of them regard the East as their permanent home so they build beautiful clubs and spend most of their time there. We visited the English, French, and Shanghai clubs, all very fine."

My father states that "Shanghai is under international control. The British govern one part of the city and the French another part. I was quite surprised to find big East Indians acting as policemen in the English section."

He continues, "We were taken by auto a considerable distance into the country and were especially impressed by the very large percentage of the land which is devoted to burial mounds. After hundreds of years of planting their dead on their choicest lands it has come to be a serious economic problem. The fields outside Shanghai are absolutely dotted with mounds. They simply set the casket on the ground and pile from five to ten feet of dirt on it. In many instances they leave the casket setting in the open and in other cases they build a little brick vault around it. In any case it is a very serious offense to disturb a grave. In building roads and railroads you can imagine what they are up against."

I remember as a child hearing my father telling of the horrors of Shanghai: "We went down to the native section of Shanghai - I have never seen such filth and human wreckage - nor do I want to see it again. Among other things was a two-year-old dead baby lying in the gutter. It's very disturbing. There's a strong likelihood we won't go to Canton owing to local warfare up there."

My curiosity piqued, I was able to research on the Internet some of the relevant history of Shanghai. It had been administered concurrently by the British, French, and Americans, all independent of Chinese law. Each of these colonial presences brought its own particular culture, architecture, and society. Even though Shanghai had its own walled Chinese city, many native residents chose to live in the foreign settlements. Therefore, this mixing of cultures shaped Shanghai's openness to Western influence. By 1930 (seven years after my father's visit) Shanghai had become an important industrial center and trading port, and was known as "the Paris of the East."

In its heyday, Shanghai was the place to be, with the best art, architecture, and strongest business in Asia. "With dance halls, brothels, glitzy restaurants, international clubs, and even a foreign-run racetrack, Shanghai was a city that catered to every whim of the rich" (Wikipedia). However, dire poverty ran alongside opulence, and it was the cheap labor of the lower-class Chinese that kept the city running. Shanghai became known as a place of vice and indulgence. "Amid this glamour and degradation the Communist Party held its first meeting in 1921" (Wikipedia). It was held two years before my father's visit.

Eventually the Japanese invaded and occupied Shanghai. After the ending of WWII, a three-year civil war broke out with fighting between the Nationalists and Communists for Control of China. The Communists declared victory in 1949 and established the People's Republic of China, with all foreigners leaving the country. "Closed off from the outside world with which it had become so comfortable, Shanghai fell into a deep sleep. Fashion, music, and romance gave way to uniformity and the stark reality of Communism (Wikipedia)." Only in the 1990's did Shanghai wake up once more under Deng Xiaoping's economic redevelopment of the city to become the showpiece of the booming economy of mainland China.

I was also able to check out what the local warfare in Canton was all about that prevented the Laconia from traveling there in 1923. Son Yat-Sen and his close ally Chiang Kai- Shek were involved. In one of those one-degree-of-separation stories that I love, my first cousin Vangie Davey (Smith) attended Wellesley College in the early 1930's. Madame Chiang Kai-Shek often visited Wellesley, her beloved alma mater, and my cousin was able to meet this famous woman whom she greatly admired and often mentioned.

My father's reaction to the horrible scenes in Shanghai was not the end, nor the worst of the scenes my father would see as he traveled around the world. The Pan Am family can certainly attest to the shocking scenes we saw all over the globe, breaking down our sense of naivete and denial. While we experienced an incredible sense of glamour, much of what we saw represented a world full of indescribable trauma. It bonded us in an inexplicable way, just as did the loss of our crews and airplanes in various disasters over the years.

The amazing aspect of working for Pan American World Airways, and one that we can only realize in hindsight, is that we were privileged to be living in a globalized world long before anyone called it that. With its amazing route structure laid down in the 1930's, "Pan Am's World" stretched around the globe into hitherto totally unknown places. We were the beneficiaries of that legacy, just as I was the beneficiary of my father's legacy.

How I love following in my father's footsteps through his letters and sharing with you his impressions of the world so long ago!

To be continued...