This influential book by writer and translator Kwan reckons his tumultuous coming-of-age in China during and after World War II. This direct and poetic work clarifies the contradictions of wartime as set through the eyes of a child. Kwan is alienated from his Swiss mother as a young boy and servants take care of him while his father remarries an Englishwoman. Thus, David is emotionally distant from his father who is a wealthy administrator for China's railroads, and a role model to those he interacts with. Kwan's story is as much about his father as it is about him. He explores interesting details on the Chinese family with a British housewife, their interactions with other Westerners, Eurasians, and Chinese folks. Moreover, Kwan has experienced fundamental changes in China which have affected his coming-of-age, his family members and their friends. Kwan is biracial child who doesn’t know his identity at home, within the small Western community, and in Chinese society at large, he presents the contradictions, brutality and ruptures in wartime China with fresh and humane touches.
According to Kwan Michael David, ‘‘a childhood in wartime’’, describes the sheltered and privileged life of David’s childhood. Kwan was born in Japanese occupied Harbin in 1934 as the youngest son to an influential railway administrator who worked underground for the Nationalist government, Kwan’s Swiss biological mother rejected him, and he called his father’s new British wife Ellen as Mother. Additionally, under his father’s tutelage, David together with Anglo-Chinese friends in British Concession in Tienjin developed friendship with a tenant farmer who engaged in guerilla activities in Beidaihe and enjoyed the life of the Western community at the Legation Quarter in Beijing which isolated them from “war, disease, poverty and starvation.” (p. 56)
David was not exempt to the suffering of ordinary Chinese through shared experiences of Japanese bombing, gunfight, and martial law, and interactions through shopping, sightseeing, and vacation breaks. He was tutored by Chinese teachers then attended the International School.
Therefore, David grew up bicultural with the knowledge that his father was serving like a spy for the Nationalist government in Chungking. Furthermore, After the Pearl Harbor Incident, Japanese sealed the Legation Quarter and closed the International School and later invaded China.
According to Kwan Michael David’s, ‘‘a childhood in wartime’’, David attended a Catholic School where education was not quality and teachers humiliated students. Here, he made friends with a Eurasian kid Shao whose soprano voice “was the glory of the choir” (p. 113), and became an altar boy. While still in the Chinese school, David suffered from unending racism and bullying. As a half-caste, Kwan was tormented in school and, without friends, became a silent voyeur of the world around him. David’s source of joy and solace was maybe with his dog, Rex, in his tree house watching the neighbors, gardening with the owner of a local antique shop, catching crickets with his father's tenant farmer or through the rituals he performed as an altar boy.
David’s last stop was in Shanghai China on his way to Hong Kong, here, he witnessed the smartness of streets and its inhabitants, and how inflation and poverty affected people’s lives. His greedy brother Albert and his wife held a boy as a hostage to extort money. The grandmother, who was then a matron of a gentry’s household favored the boy because of his familiarity with Chinese culture. Rescued by his cousin from Albert’s control, David flew to Hong Kong at the age of twelve. David’s memoir, details much on the study of wartime China. It touches racial meanings of being Eurasian – seen as “half-caste” by Europeans, “foreign devil” by Chinese, and “evil imperialists” by a Japanese teacher. It puts to light the human suffering during the wartime by contrasting the earlier privileges of the Western Community in China with their unexpected endings as a result of Japanese invasion. It changes mentality of Chinese history in the 1930s to 1940s from a global perspective, and enlightens on the less known history – the wartime puppet regimes and their collaborators, Japanese discrimination against Westerners, and the brief US military and marine presence on China’s coast before the Communist takeover (Kwan chapter17)
Kwan’s memoir tells stories of wartime China from the perspective of a Eurasian boy and it reconstructs a lost China where unforeseen wars and revolution, international politics, and economic disorders in the 1930s and 1940s changed people’s life courses as they carried on their patriotic struggle for survival. The 2012 new edition adds a preface by the author’s son on his father’s late years in China since 1980s, which narrates Kwan’s life story in a Chinese emotion yeluo guigen –‘‘ fallen leaves return to the root of the tree’’. After Japan invaded China, Kwan's father took a position in the pro-Japanese government in order to work for the Resistance covertly and when they surrender Kwan’s father is attacked and detained until he can clear himself. Clashes between the Communists and Nationalists threaten to engulf China and David is spirited out of the country alone, not knowing if he will ever see his family again. The Pacific War intensifies and Kwan’s helps wounded resistance fighters, including an American airman Captain Perry. When the Japanese surrendered, the privileged lives of the Kwan are deteriorated. The National army backed by American forces seized property and assets from civilians: took away Maria’s antique store, occupied half of the Kwan’s house, and seized their bank accounts and house in Beijing. The coward Brother Feng and chameleon Mayor Yue became resistance heroes, yet David’s patriotic father was under investigation because of his previous affiliation. Believing in Father’s integrity, the family hired a lawyer Mr. Shi rather than bribe for his freedom. Kwan’s Mother was employed to work as a secretary for US military base was much close in relationship with Captain Perry who was stationed with US marine in Qingdao. A friend of David named Shao lost his voice and developed close relationship with US marine, which brought him humiliation at school. Immediately after Shao’s father was released from imprisonment, they migrated to Brazil. David became Lonely and unpopular, he joined Boy Scouts instead and became cynical and callous. When Civil War broke out in China, Captain Perry withdrew from Qingdao with US Marine, and Maria sailed for New York to be reunited with her son. Mayor Yue who lost his backing was sentenced to death as a corrupt official. As David’s brother Tim who served the China’s National Airline in wartime helped get Father out of prison, a cable from G2 in San Francisco confirmed that Father had been their liaison since the Japanese incursion. The family arranged David to study in Hong Kong 2 before the Communist takeover.
According to schoppa kieth ‘‘the Columbia guide to Chinese history” she outlines the nationalism, democracy and the way the youth lived in china comparing to the modern youth where in this context we Kwan represents a youth at the age of 12 years. In view of the exploitation in china by japan, china serves as a sub colony, a status that is very bad than that of a colonized country. Kwan experience in china indeed shows he had a rough time living in a warzone community area and a country at large during the deadly World War II.
Schoppa describes china as ‘‘slaves without a country’ ’because Japanese invaded their country. He sees the much need to restore the nationalism as a sovereign state which Chinese lost since their invasion and he is quoted saying that ‘‘only when imperialism is eliminated can there be peace for all mankind ’’.
Schoppa’s historical analysis on the nationhood and civil war in china is no different from that of Kwan David as narrated. Chinese people who endured the toughness of the war and the serious hardships were steadfast in determination and these were the many who survived proving to be tough people. They gained express courage in the ordeal of war and continued to be in on the winning side and these went on to stay in china till 1949though not certain of their future there. The Chinese later got challenged by the devastations they and experiences faced in the civil war and by this they created auspicious countries in Taiwan and Hong Kong dominated by Chinese tradition and modernity. Kwan explains in an interview that within that magic circle he was sheltered, to some extent at least, from the violence and the chaos that were going on around him on the streets of China during the Japanese Occupation and the horrible things that he saw like people being killed right in front of you.
Kwan wrote the book ‘A childhood in wartime china’ to be a reminder of the happenings that he saw with his own naked eyes and for things that he will not forget in his lifetime. (pg, 281-284). In an interview with Michael David Kwan by January magazine in the summer of 2000, when he is asked whether working on his book the many years was part of his personal therapy, he says
‘‘No not really. I didn't categorically have things I had to work through as it were. These things occurred to me and I'd taken them in step and moved on. It was trying to tell it in an objective manner’’. Also, he never forget things like walking in the street where he could hear somebody yelling across the street where whenever he looked over he saw a head bouncing across the road towards him, and blood splashing around all over the place. To Kwan, these kind of opposed feelings he says will stay in his mind forever and that it is a sort of reaction to those experiences he has faced. Kwan wrote his book partially for his sons because children never see parents as they are just as he didn’t see his father as he was.
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