BEADED IN THE SWEAT of a balmy September morning, in 1940, the face of 7-year-old Matthew Koo cooled in a gentle Shanghai breeze, as he sat, jostled about on the rickshaw’s leather cushion.
Along Szechuan (old form of Sichuan) Road hastened one of his family’s many servants, gripping the two-wheel cart’s wooden shafts on either side of his waist, as if stuck between two giant chopsticks. Rubber tires rolled and bumped over pockmarked streets that pulsed with the early-morning activity of Occidental expatriates and Oriental natives in the city’s International Settlement.
From his seat, Matthew peered over the armrest, through the spokes of the collapsed hood, and gazed at steam clouds ascending from bubbling pots in food stalls tucked into dingy corners, where rising smells battled with midnight malodor remnants of human filth.
Southerly they rushed, past Foochow (old form of Fuzhou) Road, the Number 4 Road, notorious for its rouge-cheeked sing-song girls and opium dens where dreams drifted from sweat-stained beds into the heavens upon clouds of smoke, in the city renowned as the Whore of Asia.
Across Avenue Edward VII (former name of Yanan Road) into the French Concession jockeyed the servant, a rough-hewn peasant from the countryside who, while sitting at the servants’ table during meals, regaled the other hired domestics with ribald stories, wild tales of seduction that caused Matthew to blush if he happened to be in the kitchen.
Onward continued the steady and gentle pace through crowded streets filled with rickshaws and runners, wooden carts and donkeys, Western fedoras and Chinese gowns, shoeless and well-heeled, until, eventually, the wheels slowed to a stop, at 36 Rue Montauban (former name of Sichuan Road South).
With a push, Matthew slid from the seat, hopped off the footrest and hurried through the French-inspired black, wrought-iron gate surrounded by a cement arch and wall, decorative accoutrements of a welcome and joyful scholarly confinement. Nearby slouched the gatekeeper, a poor old man, always wearing a sad expression as he shuffled to open the portal each morning for the boisterous children to romp onto the church property.
Straight up the sidewalk of rectangular stones stood Saint Joseph Catholic Church, with its three neo-gothic spires. Atop the middle and largest of the architectural trinity rose a wrought-iron cross, slightly askew, with its transept tipped with arrows. The top one pointed heavenward.
To the left, the gray-brick rectory, home to the Society of Jesus missionaries and mission superior, who had bid adieu to families and homes in France to sow the spiritual seeds of Christ in China’s fields.
Headed for the three-story Saint Aloysius Primary School, Matthew walked past a single strand of heavy chain that drooped symmetrically between the looped-through, knee-high, black metal poles. An all-boys parochial school, girls attended classes across the street, at 37 Rue Montauban, where nuns of the Convent of the Helpers of the Holy Souls ruled academia and skirt length.
In the center of all stood Brother Chen-Chiu “Stanislaus” Yu (old form of Zhenjiu Yu, 1892-1984, Society of Jesus), a Shanghai native and the school’s assistant director. He greeted and supervised the budding scholars, including Matthew, who ran toward other boys singing a New Year’s song set to the music of the 19th-century American folk ballad “Oh, My Darling, Clementine.”
“Happy New Year! Happy New Year! Happy New Year to you all! We are singing, we are dancing, Happy New Year to you all!”
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THERESA MARIE MOREAU is an award-winning reporter who covers Catholicism and Communism.