ON MAY 25, 1949, the distinct thunderous booming of massive heavy artillery exploding in the outskirts of Shanghai caught Matthew’s ear.
Throughout the day, violent eruptions continued.
Then the next day, nothing.
The raging battle between the Nationalists and the Communists died, replaced with an eerie silence, a creeping rigor mortis that froze the city. With a heightened sense of awareness of impending doom, the entire Koo household, family and servants, remained indoors as no one dared to step outside.
From a second-story window, Matthew stood behind the curtains. Carefully, slowly, he parted the material and peeked out. No one walked on the normally crowded sidewalks. But in front of the China Industrial Bank, on the corner of Museum Road and Peking Road, a man wearing a Chinese gown lay lifeless in the gutter.
That man must have been shot, he thought.
Movement caught his eye. A People’s Liberation Army soldier, with a yellow armband wrapped around his biceps and a gun gripped in his hand, rushed down the street.
Not daring to look out the window any longer, he withdrew.
On May 27, the Communists proved victorious, for when he peeked through the curtains to look out the same window, he saw posters plastered onto the faces of the once-pristine museum and bank. Large Chinese characters, written with jubilant ink strokes.
LONG LIVE CHAIRMAN MAO!
Down Museum Road, a group of exuberant Communist soldiers marched with a joviality, singing with heartfelt enthusiasm, “Today we liberate China! Tomorrow we liberate the world!”
Shanghai had been “liberated” by the Communists.
Earlier that month, with a final we-can-do-it demonstration of strength and resilience, Nationalist Army troops, in an endless line of two by two, had marched through the city streets. Soldiers plodded along, many just teenage peasant boys, outfitted in uniforms with field caps, bursting rucksacks and mud-spattered puttees.
The on-again-off-again Chinese Civil War, which stretched on for decades, had begun with the purge of Communists from the Nationalists, in 1927. Fighting temporarily ceased, in 1937, when the Communists hoodwinked the Nationalists into a temporary truce to join forces in the Second United Front to fight the invaders from the Empire of the Sun in the Second Chinese-Japanese War (1937-45).
Malefactors, the Reds had actually plotted the lull as a ruse to gain more control and power, which they did.
With the end of the war between the Allied Forces and the Axis Powers, on August 15, 1945, the civil war picked up in the countryside where it had left off. For years, the Nationalists – headed by Chiang – and the Communists – dominated by Mao – clashed on the battlefields, and as the fighting destroyed the nation, the Communists continued to gain more ground and more control in the rural areas.
Then the Reds aimed for the cities, coveted war trophies.
On February 3, 1949, victorious troops paraded through the ancient gates and onto the streets of Peking, the North Capital, greeted as heroes, not as conquering enemies.
Two months later, on April 23, they marched triumphantly into Nanking, Chiang’s South Capital in the province of Chiangsu (old form of Jiangsu), ending 22 years of Nationalist rule over the mainland. Defiant but not yet defeated, Chiang fled for Chengtu (old form of Chengdu).
Only 187 miles separated Nanking and Shanghai.
With the enemy that close, panic hit the foreigners, who had made their homes, expanded their families and created their businesses in Shanghai, the city in the East built by the West. Though deeply entrenched and invested emotionally and financially, many Americans and Europeans soon began packing their trunks and valises with whatever necessities they could carry with them to the docks, where they boarded passenger ships, including the USS President Wilson, one in the fleet that made up the American President Lines.
On October 1, 1949, in a final flourish, Mao, who had manipulated his way to the chairmanship of the Communist Party, stood behind a bouquet of microphones atop Peking’s Tiananmen, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, and announced the takeover of the nation’s political seat of power.
“The Central People’s Government Council of the People’s Republic of China took office today in this capital,” he proclaimed.
In Peking, Mao flaunted his victories.
In Chengtu, Chiang continued to hope the winds of war would shift in his favor.
Even after Mao’s pronouncement, Chiang waited until the early-morning hours of December 9, 1949, when he finally, reluctantly boarded the Mei-Ling (old form of Meiling), his plane christened in honor of his wife, Mei-Ling Chiang (née Soong, 1897-2003). With propellers spinning, the Mei-Ling flew for Formosa (Portuguese name of Taiwan), where he would reestablish the capital of the diminishing Republic of China.
On December 10, the Communists claimed Chengtu as their final conquest.
For Matthew, changes were abrupt. Communist authorities shuttered the nearby branch of Saint Francis Xavier College, at 281 Nanzing Road (former name of Nanxu Road), a 10-minute walk north across Chapoo Bridge.
Without a choice, he returned to the campus located on Avenue Foch. Crucifixes in the classrooms were ripped down from their places of honor. In their stead hung posters of those deemed great revolutionaries. Forms of address such as Mister and Miss, considered pollutions from Western Capitalist countries, were replaced with titles of political connotation.
Marxist ideological indoctrination began, and regular political study sessions became mandatory for all students, supplied with textbooks written with a definite atheistic, materialist leaning.
During in-class question-and-answer periods, Political Teacher Yang jotted down notes regarding the students’ answers. Not only in charge of the youths’ thoughts, he was also the cultivator of the school’s branch of the Communist Youth Group.
Between classes, to help with recruiting, members of the Communist Youth Group politely handed out fliers, offering fun and festivities with music, dance, parades and celebrations, an important part of the first phase in the indoctrination process.
“Welcome! Come join our celebration!” one young man encouraged, handing a flier to Matthew.
Taking the announcement from the friendly teen, Matthew briefly considered joining. He liked music. He liked to dance. His school was an all-boys school, and maybe he would be able to talk to a girl. But quickly, he decided against it.
Communism has been described as having three phases: The first phase is bow head (polite); the second phase is shake head (forbid); the third phase is behead (kill).
After the short recruitment drive, the first phase ended and the veneer of the Communist Youth Group peeled away and exposed the true grain of the members, who began to struggle the Catholic students, those in the minority who followed the teachings of the Church.
Bitterness between the two groups accelerated during the campaigning for student council president after each selected its own candidate. On election day, Catholics voted for the Catholic candidate, and non-Catholics voted for the Communist Youth Group candidate, a Communist Party supporter. With the pro-Communist students making up the majority of the school population, they easily won, and in the post-election euphoria, tensions began to twist and strain in what remained of civility and tranquillity in the school’s former scholarly atmosphere.
Immediately, the newly elected council president initiated a political movement. He hounded students and ordered them to sign a patriotic contract that announced: “We support the Communist Party. We support the People’s Republic of China.”
Even though everyone in school was to sign, most Catholics refused, and those who did not sign had their names placed in files.
That included Matthew.