Memories Of China In The '30s

Posted: October 18, 1990

One by one, the chairs in the conference room at the Mendenhall Hotel in Kennett Township were taken by men and women, most in their early 70s, who had seen one another someplace before.

A cordless microphone was passed around the room for introductions and anecdotes.

When the microphone reached Roger Wolcott - who had flown in from Whittier, Calif., the night before - he told of the times his father shaved. Early most mornings in Shanghai, large groups of Chinese would gather outside the Wolcott bathroom window "watching this strange act of a man scraping his face."

James Lobenstine of Brattleboro, Vt., recalled when his mother went into labor in Shanghai and some hired hands brought a bed to a nearby grand ballroom, placing it upon a stage. His mother was then carried to the bed amid cries of "A-ya! A-ya!" as she gave birth.

Shirley Karns Philips of Sherwood, Md., remembered traveling the Chinese countryside by charcoal-fired bus, trekking through rice paddies, riding camels and drinking olive-pit tea with monks at a rural monastery.

It was the 1930s in Shanghai. And these were children of American diplomats, missionaries, entrepreneurs, military personnel and advisers to the Chinese government. Many were born there, but all attended the Shanghai- American School (SAS).

Sixty-six alumni and faculty of the school gathered in Mendenhall over the weekend to celebrate the 55th anniversary of the graduation of the Class of 1935. They talked over old times until Monday, when they returned to their homes throughout the country.

Founded in 1912 by American missionaries and businessmen in Shanghai, the school was meant to give the children of Americans in China a preparatory education for college and for life in the United States.

Shanghai-American School graduates have gone on to become diplomats and members of the State Department, instrumental figures in America's efforts in World War II, China scholars, industrial bigwigs, teachers and journalists.

Jill Moyer's father was sent to China to start YMCAs all over the country. Moyer, who deals in Asian art and now lives in Chadds Ford, graduated from the school in 1936.

In 1935, U.S. troops were permanently stationed in China, and American businesses were opening up new markets, said Oscar Armstrong, a 1936 graduate of the school, who was an Asia expert for the U.S. State Department from 1946 to 1980.

"This was a time when there was a lot of foreign economic activity in China, much of it viewed by the Chinese as encroaching on their sovereignty," Armstrong said after a luncheon at Longwood Gardens.

Armstrong was Moyer's date to the school's junior and senior proms.

During the early 1930s, when Chiang Kai-shek was establishing his Kuomintang government in China and communist guerrillas were active in the

hills, American parents living and working in remote areas of China sent their children to the Shanghai-American School.

"Every one of us has been a refugee," said Phoebe White Wentworth, Class of 1935, a U.S. military intelligence specialist during World War II who now lives on Mount Desert Island, Maine.

The school functioned normally until 1941, when World War II disrupted classroom activities. The campus was reported to have been used as a prison camp during the war, according to Armstrong.

Until then, the international sectors of Shanghai - where the school was located and most foreign nationals lived - were protected from the fighting between the Chinese and Japanese, according to Charles Bergengren, a humanities professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

In 1937, Bergengren's grandfather, Frank Rawlinson, who was a well-known Baptist missionary, was felled when a stray piece of shrapnel sliced through his chest.

Bergengren said the incident made international headlines and began an exodus of foreigners from the city.

By early 1943, most of the British and Americans who remained in Shanghai were interned. But the school continued educating their children informally during the internment.

The school closed but was reopened late in 1945. It continued to operate until 1949, when the Chinese Communist Party took power and foreigners fled the country or were expelled.

The 1920s and 1930s, said Ruth Rawlinson Bergengren, a Connecticut resident and mother of Charles Bergengren, were times of conflict between various missionary groups in China.

She said that many missionaries had gone to China with the intent of converting the "heathen" Chinese to Christianity. When they arrived, she said, most realized the need was greater for medical, agricultural and sanitation aid and established Western-style institutions later operated by Chinese communists.

Those at the reunion said they had had strong negative reactions to last year's massacre of students in Tiananmen Square by the Chinese government.

"Most (SAS) people were very, very upset," said Wentworth.

"With a touch, perhaps, of personal betrayal," added Armstrong.

A smaller version of the Shanghai-American School was reopened in 1980 under the re-established office of the U.S. consulate-general in Shanghai. The school's old campus is used today by the Chinese as a marine-science academy.

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