FOR DECADES THE MAINLAND had been ravaged by war, about which Matthew knew nothing.
In November 1908, the Middle Kingdom’s royal lineage and ancient traditions cracked after the death of Empress Dowager Tzu-Hsi (old form of Cixi, 1835-1908), followed by the coronation of her named successor, 2-year-old Pu-Yi Aisin-Gioro (1906-67).
Three years later, in 1911, the fissure in Imperial China split wide open with the Double 10 Day (October 10) uprising that completely shattered the Ching (old form of Qing) Dynasty, ending the centuries-long dynastic rule by the Manchus, who had begun their royal reign in 1644.
Following a declaration of the formal establishment of the Republic of China, on January 1, 1912, the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, old form of Guomindang) rose to power after its formation later in the year by the merging of several Republican groups.
Eventually, the Nationalist Party festered after infected with the anti-republic, anti-democratic, pro-revolution, pro-dictatorial Chinese Communists, who had opened their first chapter, in 1921, in Shanghai, 106 Rue Wantz (former name of Xingye Road), with backing from the Communist International, headquartered in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
The ComIntern had dispatched Grigori Voitinsky (1893-1953), a Trotskyite, a devotee of Marxist Leon Trotsky (born Lev Davidovich Bronshtein, 1879-1940), who believed in the theory of Permanent Revolution and strived for the unholy propagation of worldwide Communism.
Because of their sadistic predilections and proclivity for savagery, the Communists were lanced and drained from the putrefied ranks of the Nationalists, in April of 1927, sparking the erratic, decades-long, off-and-on Chinese Civil War that raged between the two.
The leader of the Nationalists, Kai-Shek Chiang (old form of Jieshi Jiang, 1887-1975), was born into a moneyed family of salt merchants, in Hsikou (old form of Xikou), in the province of Chechiang (old form of Zhejiang). As a young man, he attended the Imperial Japanese Army Academy. Upon his return to his homeland, he joined the military ranks and gained fame as one of the founders of the Chinese Nationalist Party.
The head of the Communists, Tse-Tung Mao (old form of Zedong Mao, 1893-1976), was born in Hunan province’s Shaoshan village. The strange ne’er-do-well son of a well-to-do landowner connived his way into the Chinese Communist Party at its founding. After the acrimonious split from the Nationalists, in 1927, he strong-armed his way to omnipotence by seizing a few Red ragtag armies that battled for control of China.
As a testament to its bloody ideology, the Communists left behind body-strewn paths through the mainland, hectare by hectare, village by village, mountain by mountain.
But a third contingent also vied for control of China.
From its realm of the rising sun, the Empire of Japan saw the fractures in its neighbor’s infrastructure as an opportunity to grab land and natural resources. In an attempt to establish their own political and economic domination, in 1931, the Japanese invaded Manchuria, a region in northeast China, where they established the puppet state of Manchukuo, with Pu-Yi, the last emperor of China, as its head.
In 1932’s January Incident, imperial soldiers attacked Shanghai. They marched into and hunkered down in the Hongkew (old form of Hongkou) District, north of Soochow (old form of Suzhou) Creek. Even more of the city fell to the Japanese following the commencement of the Second Chinese-Japanese War, begun on July 7, 1937, commemorated as 7-7-7.
After a few more years, the invaders let little impede their domination in the City Upon the Sea.
One morning, as Matthew passed the Chapoo (old form of Zhapu) Bridge, he noticed uniformed soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army standing at the mouth of the bridge. Some held long guns. Others searched and tore at the clothing and possessions of pedestrians waiting to cross over to the Hongkew District.
Unprecedented, it was the first time that the soldiers stood guard on the International Settlement side of the bridge.
The date: December 8, 1941.
On the previous day, December 7, the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service attacked a military base, belonging to the United States of America, stationed in the sleepy lagoon of Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor. That spark ignited America’s participation in World War II, which had set Europe ablaze since September 1, 1939.
The early-morning surprise assault in the Pacific Ocean was followed by the Japanese invasion into Shanghai’s French Concession and International Settlement, home to many foreign nationals. Those from the countries of the Allied Forces, including many Western priests and religious, were rounded up and forced into the numerous internment camps opened in and around the city.
Not long after the Japanese crossed Soochow Creek, imperial soldiers forced their way into the Koo home, a luxurious three-story structure consisting of two conjoined buildings, at 15 Museum Road (former name of Huqiu Road), which faced the Museum of the Royal Asiatic Society, 20 Museum Road, after which the street was named, in 1886.
The soldiers surrounded and arrested Matthew’s father, Francis Xavier Koo, as he worked in his second-story office with windows that overlooked the busy street below. Authorities escorted him from the premises and stationed sentries at the doors in the front and back of the house, to keep a watch on all who entered and exited.
The Koo family patriarch, whom his children lovingly called Tia-Tia, was a highly successful self-made, rags-to-riches, import-export businessman. He had worked indefatigably to establish his Chung Hsing (old form of Zhong Xing) Import & Export Company, with a store in the home’s first floor that sold antiques, locally produced silk and lace goods, as well as handmade rosaries and sundry Catholic sacramentals.
The son of a tailor, he was born, in 1889, in the countryside of Pootung (old form of Pudong), a little more than a mile from the village of Changchiang (old form of Zhangjiang).
The local pastor noticed the youth’s intelligence and talents. After recommending that he seek his future in Shanghai, across the Whangpoo (old form of Huangpu) River, the pastor arranged for him to attend Saint Francis Xavier College, a secondary school renowned for its high English standards. Founded by the Society of Jesus, in 1872, the Marist Brothers took over the academic institution, in 1896.
As a young man, he immersed himself in his studies, including English, at which he excelled. Because of his language skills and his likable personality, he easily and quickly made friends with foreigners in the international port city and succeeded as a businessman in the circles of Westerners.
Someone introduced him to Teresa Kung (old form of Gong), also a Catholic and also from the countryside of Pootung. Born in 1900, in Tangmu (old form of Dangmu) Bridge Village, although not educated, she was renowned for her beauty.
Francis Xavier and Teresa married, and, in 1923, they brought into the world their first child, Francesca. Over the next 21 years, the couple welcomed six more: Mary, Dominic, Joseph, Matthew, Agnes and Gertrude.
Tia-Tia lavished his large family with anything and everything his wealth could buy. The children attended the city’s preeminent Catholic schools. Each had their clothing personally tailored and their leather shoes custom made.
Inside the home, three floors filled with luxuries unthinkable for most Chinese. Only the richest of the rich had refrigerators, and the Koo family owned one. Not every house had flush toilets, but the Koo family had three, one on each of the main floors. And because Tia-Tia dealt in antiques, the home’s corners and crannies displayed period pieces of the finest workmanship.
To keep the family comfortable, he staffed the home with several live-in servants, cooks, cleaners, wet nurses, nannies, rickshaw runners and even a chauffeur when he splurged on an automobile. All referred to each of the boys as “Little Master” and to each of the girls as “Miss.”
Through his acquaintances, Tia-Tia developed a taste for some cultural norms of the Western world. He loved puffing on hand-rolled cigars and not the long-stemmed Chinese pipe. He stood tall and straight in his favorite English suit and tie, with the occasional sweater vest, rather than a jacket with Mandarin collar and knotted buttons. And he protected himself against the elements with a European trench coat, instead of a traditional, ankle-length Chinese gown.
But he also embraced traditions of his homeland. Each Lunar New Year, he and Mm-Ma sat on two chairs as the children gathered, very formally. Ceremoniously, each child knelt and bowed once, placed his or her head upon the floor, stood and then received from Tia-Tia a small, red, lucky bag filled with money.
Not only was he extremely wealthy, he was also extremely generous, for he shared what he earned, financially helping his family, his wife’s family and also his employees.
So his wealth was no secret.
After authorities hauled him away, no one dared to leave the house with soldiers watching the exits, but someone needed to tell his only brother, Ching-Sheng Koo (old form of Jingshen Koo), about the arrest.
As soon as Matthew arrived home from school, his sister Mary assigned him with a very important task.
“Go tell Uncle about Tia-Tia. But first, go to church and pray, and then go to Uncle’s home. Hurry!” she instructed.
Matthew ran up the stairs to the third-floor terrace above Museum Road. Without hesitation, he climbed over the common wall, just about his height, and jumped onto the terrace of the next-door neighbor’s, at 9 Museum Road. No one answered when he called out, so he entered the unlocked home, ran downstairs and nonchalantly walked out the backdoor into the alley. When out of eyeshot of the sentries, he raced down Szechuan Road.
Several blocks later, he entered Saint Joseph Church, quickly offered a prayer, ran outside, rushed to the corner, caught a trolley, hopped off at Rue Lafayette (former name of Fuxing Road) and ran to Uncle’s home on the narrow lane of Rue Brenier de Montmorand, (former name of Madang Road), the same block near Avenue Joffre (former name of Huai Hai Road) where Matthew’s family had lived when he was just a baby.
After explaining to Uncle everything that had happened, Matthew returned home. For the rest of the day and into the night, the family fretted and prayed, as Uncle worked with one of Tia-Tia’s friends, an employee for the Japanese, and delivered an irresistible ransom to the arresting soldiers.
The next day, the door opened, and in walked Tia-Tia.
Polish poster of Leon Trotsky, “Bolshevik Freedom.” Translation: “Bolsheviks promised, ‘We will give you room. We will give you freedom. We will give you land, work and bread.’ Abjectly, they unleashed war against Poland. Instead of freedom, they gave fists. Instead of land, requisitions. Instead of work, misery. Instead of bread, hunger.
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!”
THERESA MARIE MOREAU is an award-winning reporter who covers Catholicism and Communism.