Excerpts from Spring Flower (3 volumes), by Jean Tren-Hwa Perkins, M.D. Posted April 11, 2023.
Edited by Richard Perkins Hsung, Ph.D. Published by Earnshaw Books, Hong Kong.
Available from online retailers and independent bookstores worldwide.
Spring Flower is the three-volume memoir of my mother, Dr. Jean Tren-Hwa Perkins, who was born into extreme poverty in central China in 1931 during the Yangtze River floods that took the lives of millions. At the age of one, she was adopted by American medical missionaries, Dr. and Mrs. Edward C. Perkins, and brought up to a large extent as American, even going to high school outside of New York City during the years of World War Two. There is an excerpt from Book One in East West Ezine here.
As Book One ended, my grandparents had already fled China during the virulent anti-American years of the Communist takeover. My mother, who missed them dearly, was at the Nanking Train Station (南京火車站), ready to take a train to Canton and swim across Deep Bay (后海湾) to Hong Kong and freedom. But thankfully, her future husband, Paul, stopped her from the suicidal trip. She agreed that by staying alive, she might have a better chance of returning to America and being reunited with my American grandparents. Thus began a twenty-nine-year journey that is told in Books Two and Three.
Book Two focuses on my mother’s years in Shanghai, which was for her an oasis, as she lived and worked in a district that had once been the French Concession. Before leaving China, my American grandparents had reminded my mother that her calling was to serve her country and its people. So, she became determined to shed her American accent and learn more about China’s culture and history. She found loving support from her husband and success as an ophthalmologist. She raised a daughter, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when no one on earth, let alone in China, knew what to do with physically challenged children.
Book Three recalls her struggles through Mao’s Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976). My mother came of age during Mao’s brutal purge, finding the will and the courage to survive despite her American and religious background and the Red Guards imprisoning her husband and burning everything around her. Surviving two heart attacks, she became a highly acclaimed eye surgeon and glaucoma expert.
The three-volume memoir recounts one Chinese woman’s journey from a fairy tale life to nightmarish repression, then back to freedom, spanning half a century on two continents including many rare historical moments, wars, travel, struggles, death, love, and freedom. And throughout these travails, there was always someone to protect her, as though by angelic intervention. While the book reflects the pain of a nation through her story, her retelling gives these brave and kind souls their due.
Following are excerpts from Books Two and Three. The first describes my mother’s arrival in Shanghai to pursue an ophthalmological residency at Shanghai Eye and ENT Infirmary, in awe upon seeing the beautiful boulevards and modern Western-style buildings. The second is set in 1978, when China began to reopen to the West. At an international conference, my mother served as translator for the PRC Chairman, Hua Kuo-Feng (華國鋒), and she spoke with an American for the first time in twenty-seven years.
From Spring Flower, Book Two:
It was August 1955 when I moved to Shanghai. [My husband, Paul, an agronomist,] couldn’t afford to miss work during harvest season. He was collecting experimental data, so one day after he helped me move to Shanghai, he headed back to Hangchow.
I moved into a small, scantly furnished, second-floor apartment in a two-story building on Tung-Ping Road, near a four-way intersection with Fen-Yang, Yüeh-Yang, and T’ao-Chiang Roads, which are among the oldest roads in Shanghai. The Hsü-Chia-Hui (徐家匯) district had many Western-style buildings and homes, and this one was said to have been built by Americans!
I decided to explore the neighborhood. Sycamore trees lined the boulevards, forming a canopy of shade during the hot summer. I felt as though I were walking under the vaulted ceiling of a cathedral. There were palm trees too, planted inside the courtyards of the Western-style homes. A few camphor trees, perhaps a century old, sprawled from the courtyards over brick walls that were unable to confine them. Peeking through the wrought iron fencing, I saw flowers and shrubs just like the ones Mother used to plant in Kiukiang. Thinking about Mother’s gardens, I began to feel homesick. I missed my parents.
The buildings were close to one another, and most had Victorian-style windows and shutters; some even had red roofs. I was aghast and intoxicated at the same time, and I almost tripped on the uneven sidewalk bricks. If you’d add a church or two to the scene, it could have been Yonkers or even Manhattan. I named it my “Little America.”
Until then, my sole impression of Shanghai was of the corpses lying in the street on the day in 1942 that Mother, Day-Day, and I took a bus to the Bund, when we left China with the outbreak of war. Paul and I had come here a few times too and even roamed the Bund. But I’d never noticed the beautiful Western-style buildings or the streets that were built like those in America.
A man’s voice broke my reverie: “Miss, are you looking for something?” I looked down from stretching my neck upward and saw an elderly man selling roasted peanuts.
“Oh, I was just admiring the buildings, not looking for anything in particular,” I told him.
“You must be new to Shanghai, a tourist,” he said, continuing to shout as I approached the corner.
“Not exactly. I’m here to live and work,” I said, hoping to convince him I was not some out-of-towner.
“I can spot a tourist a mile away,” he said. “Tourists are always looking up at the buildings, they’re so different from anything they’re used to.”
As I arrived where he was standing, I murmured, “Oh, I guess so.” His comments were just like Mother’s when she described visitors to New York, who would invariably look up at the beautiful, tall buildings, sometimes unaware even of oncoming traffic.
“Well, it is fascinating,” he affirmed. “These buildings were built by foreigners. It’s hard to find any Chinese-style houses here.”
“Oh, thank you,” I replied, trying not to reveal that I knew a thing or two about America. “How far is it to the Huang- P’u River, Ta-Po (大伯, referring to a man a bit younger than a grandpa)?” I asked.
“The shortest way is about two or three miles south, depending on whether you get lost en route. Or you can take the #40 bus. That takes about twenty minutes, but you’ll still have to walk part of the way, so you might as well walk there.
“There are buses to the Bund and Soochow Creek, too,” he added. “Or to walk there, stay on Huai-Hai Road till it ends and you’ll see the Bund. It is a long walk, though, two or three miles northeast.” I nodded my head and thanked him.
Shanghai had been a backwater fishing village until Westerners saw its potential as a port for trade, similar to the histories of Hong Kong and Singapore. After the Ch’ing Court lost the First Opium War in 1842, China endured a series of humiliating, unequal treaties, and Shanghai was one of the concessions to
Great Britain, the US, and France. The American Settlement (美國租界) dated back to 1844, and the United States’s first Far East diplomatic post was established in Shanghai during the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. By the early twentieth century, Shanghai had become a symbol of China to the West, and one of its most vibrant commercial hubs. People told me that my apartment and the Shanghai Eye and ENT Infirmary (上海五官科醫院) on Fen-Yang Road had belonged to the French Concession (法國租界).
After a long walk in the hot, humid air, I returned to my cozy apartment ready for a bath. My apartment here in my “Little America” had a bathroom with an actual toilet and a porcelain bathtub. At the front entrance of this small two-story building there was a functioning telephone hanging on the wall. With only three families living in the building, it felt like my own personal phone.
A woman in her sixties or seventies lived downstairs. Grandma Liu (劉奶奶) nodded her head with a quick smile when Paul and I were moving my stuff in. The shared kitchen next to her apartment had an oven powered by gas. I joked to Paul that I would make him a cake for his next birthday. He laughed, reminding me how long it had been since I’d stepped into a kitchen, not to mention baked a cake.
A narrow wooden stairway ascended steeply from the kitchen door. The stairs and sculptured railing were painted a deep reddish-brown and led straight to my neighbor’s apartment. She was a retired high school teacher named Cheng (程) and to the best of my recollection was single. I mostly called her Cheng A-yi, a common Chinese way of addressing an elder, meaning Aunt Cheng, but sometimes, when I was more formal, I called her Cheng Lao-Shih (程老師, meaning Teacher Cheng). My door faced hers and was about fifteen feet down a narrow walkway flanked by the same wooden railing. My apartment was above Grandma Liu’s, and my neighbor’s was above the shared kitchen. After the bath, I decided to skip dinner and get a good night’s sleep, to be ready for the big day tomorrow. I figured I’d have plenty of time to get to know my surroundings more, including places to eat.
The next day, I got up early, had two bites of the buns Paul had left for me, and headed to the Infirmary in high spirits. It was a bright, sunny day with a blue sky and fresh morning air. Walking at a quickened pace toward Fen-Yang Road (汾陽路), I noticed once again how the sycamores or London plane trees— later Paul would tell me these had been introduced by the French (法國梧桐树)—were beautifully aligned on both sides of the street, forming a symmetrical canopy of sun-protecting shade. “I’m ready for the next phase of my life, to help my people as I promised Mother and Day-Day,” I said to myself, grinning as I felt so in love with this little piece of Heaven. “It’s easier to serve when you’re living in heaven—wouldn’t you agree with me, Mother?”
When I reached the front gate of the Infirmary, I saw Shou, who had arrived in Shanghai much earlier to spend some time with her parents. She waved vigorously as she got off her bicycle. We had been through so much together since Gin-Ling Women’s College. She had become my best friend, a sister of sorts. Although a month earlier, I tearfully bade farewell to Hu and Tung, it would have felt much more difficult if Shou was not coming to Shanghai. Seeing her warm and familiar face put me at even greater ease.
We walked up to the second floor of Building #1, where we met with half a dozen other fresh medical school graduates to pursue our residencies. We introduced ourselves to each other and to the Chief Attending Ophthalmologist, Dr. Qian (钱), and the Associate Chief, Dr. Yan (严), a woman in her late thirties or early forties who had a warm and kind face. We shook hands, and not long after I had already forgotten everyone’s name except that of Lian (莲), who was the prettiest of us all. We moved into a small conference room, and Dr. Qian delivered a stern, hour- long talk about professional integrity, the challenges of being an ophthalmologist, and his expectations of us.
He told us that some residents would be transferred as soon as two years from now, and that a residency at this Infirmary was a training stage toward greater independence as a physician. He said that we should treat every assignment, especially surgeries, with the greatest possible care and focus. My focus was already dispersed, as my mind drifted during parts of Dr. Qian’s lecture. I was thinking, “What if I am here for two years, or what if Shou gets transferred before me?” I tried to suppress my sudden sense of panic.
We were split into four teams, more or less two per team,
and we began our first assignment: shadowing either a senior resident or an attending ophthalmologist. Lian and I were assigned to the team shadowing Dr. Yan. Besides the two chiefs we’d already met, there were one other attending ophthalmologist and four residents who had been there for three or more years. Some of these four senior residents, after getting us settled, were themselves preparing to be transferred. There was a shortage of eye and ENT physicians across the country, and this Shanghai Infirmary was one of the main pipelines supplying trained ophthalmologists after 1951.
So here I was at the age of twenty-four, an ophthalmologist at one of the nation’s best hospitals, wearing a brand-new white coat with all the modern gadgets, including a new stethoscope and a retinoscope. How proud Mother and Day-Day would be! It was a wonderful feeling.…
From Spring Flower, Book Three:
In late spring 1978, Superintendent Wen received a call from Lieutenant Governor Peng and Peng Shu-Chi, followed by a personal visit. I was chatting with Jade in her office when I was summoned to Superintendent Wen’s office. As I arrived, Peng Shu-Chi walked toward me with a huge smile and gave me a warm handshake. I asked how her eyes were and how Lieutenant Governor Peng was doing.
Peng Shu-Chi pushed me down onto a chair and said, “This meeting is not about me but about you. I’m here to ask Superintendent Wen’s permission to let you go to Peking for a few weeks. There is going to be this international conference on acupuncture and Chinese traditional medicine. It’s a very important meeting for China and can elevate our status on the international stage, not just for healthcare, but for the country as a whole.”
She was simultaneously serious and excited. I hadn’t seen her since the Gang of Four (四人幫) was arrested in late 1976, and her enthusiasm, optimism, and passion for China hadn’t changed a bit.
“Dr. Pei, I’ve recommended you to the Central Government (中央) and Ministry of Health to be an English translator for a number of high-level officials, including Chairman Hua Kuo-Feng (華國鋒主席), who will be chairing this important event. I hope you will accept this honor and task.”
I was floored. Superintendent Wen added, “This is a great opportunity, Dr. Pei. Please do accept.” I nodded my head and said, “Yes, of course, I would be honored.” Even as I spoke, I was wondering: “Would I, at last, see Americans? Would Americans be interested in Chinese traditional medicine? Day- Day had compared Chinese medicine to the folk medicines of American Indians, but I couldn’t recall Day-Day ever mentioning acupuncture.”
Peng Shu-Chi and I walked out together, and when we reached her jeep, the driver peeked out and smiled and waved at me. That was the same driver the Peng couple had since I first met them in 1969. Peng Shu-Chi shook my hand and said, “So that’s our plan. Please get ready for traveling, Dr. Pei. We are lucky there are people like you available for international relations. Thank you!”
This would be the first such gathering in China in my lifetime, or perhaps ever, with delegates coming from around the world.
When I told Paul, he was floored; and he had equally good news for me: he had just been nominated (also by Peng Shu-Chi) to be one of a handful of representatives from Chekiang Province to attend a national meeting on science, technology, and agricultural development, also the first meeting of its kind.
The Communist Party Chairman, Hua Kuo-Feng (華國鋒), supported by Mr. Teng Hsiao-Ping (鄧小平), the supreme leader of the People’s Republic of China, pushed hard to focus on economic and technological development. Suddenly, China was trying to dig itself out of the abyss. The slogans had changed from those of the Great Revolution to promoting higher education, research, efficient production, skilled manufacturing, and international relations. Paul’s and my own conferences were set for different times, so we couldn’t meet in Peking, but we could take turns staying with Eddy.
So, I was on the road again! This time it wasn’t a long train trip; I flew for the first time in my life. When I arrived a few days before the conference, the place was already bubbling with energy. There were hundreds of translators of English, the official language for the conference. Most of us stayed in the same hotel, walking distance from the conference site. So I strolled among the crowd in the hotel lobby, thinking I might just see Chum. I thought the chance would be high; she was more qualified than I, or probably anyone here. Unfortunately, I didn’t see her, and we got busy quickly. There was no time for social engagement among the translators.
For the first few days, we were instructed on how to behave and how to interact with foreigners of various cultures. At first, I felt bored, but when I tamped down my arrogance and began to pay attention, some of the information was really useful. Although I had been surrounded by Westerners as a kid and had sailed around the world at fifteen, I’d never been to much of Europe.
My assignment turned out to be complex. No two days on the schedule were the same, and it didn’t say anything about interpreting for high-ranking officials, let alone Party Chairman Hua. I was a little disappointed but tried to keep my spirits up, because my focus was on meeting Americans, or at least spotting them from a distance.
For the opening ceremony, we were divided into smaller groups, each group led by a government official and a uniformed official. There was little opportunity to wander; our movements were closely monitored. My seat was close to the stage, and the translations for Chairman Hua’s opening statement and the words of the other high-ranking officials seemed to have been scripted and translated well before the meeting. Still, the translators did a fantastic job.
Although I was honored to be sitting near the stage wearing a badge on a red string that hung from my neck, the opening statements were, to me, quite boring, and my focus was on the audience, scanning for reincarnations of my dears Day-Day, Mother, and the Aunties. Of course, I didn’t see them, and I realized that I might not even know who was American rather than Canadian, Australian, German, French, or British.
After a standing ovation for the opening speakers, I heard someone say, “Dr. Pei, please come this way.” Our group leader was frantically waving at a few of us, and we quickly followed him, weaving among those who were standing and applauding. Soon we were by the side door, and I noticed Chairman Hua and the other officials walking off the stage. The group leader gestured for me to lead the way, and for five or six others to follow.
“Here is your first assignment,” he said, “and perhaps the most important. Please follow these leaders as they come off the stage, and stay closely behind them—you first, Dr. Pei. We’re heading to the Greeting Hall, where delegate leaders from each country are waiting to meet and shake hands with Chairman Hua. Please do your jobs!”
And off we went, my heart pounding. After a signal from our group leader, an array of armed security guards created a small opening for us to join Chairman Hua. Later I reread the instructions we’d received, and this was all in there. I obviously hadn’t paid attention.
I became more and more anxious, as I was just a few feet behind Chairman Hua. He was taller than I am and walked briskly. I didn’t know where the Greeting Hall was or how far a walk it’d be, I was just trying to keep up with him.
And then, suddenly, the Chairman of the Communist Party for all of China turned around and said, “Oh, I’m sorry, you must be Dr. Pei. Look at my manners! I didn’t even stop to greet you.” I was taken by his down-to-the earth way; after all, he was the leader of a nation, and I replied, simply, “Uh, Sir, Chairman Hua, it’s okay, I’m right behind you.”
He then slowed down to my pace, and said, “I heard you were brought up by Americans?”
I was speechless. He not only knew my name, he knew my history! “Well, um, yes, Chairman Hua, that’s true. My parents were Americans, and I lived in America when I was a child.” I managed to squeeze out actual sentences.
“That’s wonderful. They say your English is essentially that of a native speaker, so I asked them to assign you to me for these casual, nonscripted occasions, which are equally if not more important, so that I understand what they’re saying and how I should respond.”
“Oh, thank you. I’m truly honored by this request and opportunity.”
“No, the honor is mine, actually, Dr. Pei. I am fortunate to have a real English-speaking person, let alone native-speaking, translating for me. Your presence may shock them that we have such talent hidden behind our Forbidden City Walls!” And he laughed.
And so, I learned the phrase “behind the Forbidden City Walls” from him, whose equivalent in English might be “in an Ivory Tower.” His warm and casual demeanor put me at ease.
“You’re very kind, Chairman Hua. Thank you!” I smiled nervously while trying to stay a step behind him.
“I’m serious. Thank you for being here to help with this important event. Establishing excellent global relationships will be of the utmost importance for China’s future. It’s a long and challenging rebuilding process, and we can use all the help we can get. And you will be glad to know that we are working hard with America to reach a peaceful and friendly accord that will be mutually beneficial for decades to come.”
With those words, he flashed a wide and genuine smile and then hustled a few feet ahead of me as we were about to reach the Greeting Hall. Two army-uniformed security guards swung the doors wide open, and cameras began to flash. The bright lights covered the entire room and bounced from my face to the ceiling and back as if we were looking straight at the sun. Suddenly I remembered being at a theater in Yonkers, and hearing the words: “Lights, camera, action; it’s showtime!”
English words and accents began swirling around the two of us. Questions were coming at us at blinding speed, and I felt buried under by a language I was so familiar with yet felt so foreign. I had very little if any time to react, think, or form my phrases, except to let it all out, all twenty-seven years of English being my first language, even if long ago.
Regardless of his stature as the nation’s leader, Chairman Hua was one of the kindest human beings I’d ever met. I was grateful for his innate ability to put me at ease. All these years after sitting behind President Chiang and Madame Song Qing- Ling in the Methodist Church on Gu-Lin Mountains, or sitting across the aisle from Eleanor Roosevelt on a Pullman Coach, or staring at a frail and fasting Gandhi in India, or glancing at Chairman Mao when he visited the Yangtze River Valley, I was not just seeing a man of immense historical significance, I had this unique opportunity to translate for the man responsible for changing the fortunes of one billion souls.
The rest of the conference was a blur. I didn’t learn much about Chinese Traditional Medicine or acupuncture. On two other occasions, I translated for Chairman Hua, and we managed to talk about the early 1920s when the entire northern part of China was suffering greatly from warlords, famines, and pandemic disease, and I told him that my American father was a physician helping people in the Shantung area. He was amazed to hear my story.
At the conference, I also translated for quite a few speakers from Europe, but no Americans. I caught myself a few times, especially between presentations, scanning for Americans or hoping someone would hear my American accent and seek me out. But despite my not connecting with a single American, I wasn’t as disappointed as I thought I’d be, because I was absorbed in the present and soaking up all the English I could for the first time in a very long while.
Then, someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around, and a man lowered his head to read my name tag, and then he said, “Ah, Dr. Pei, where did you learn your American English?”
“Oh, uh,” I stammered.
“Oh, I’m sorry. My name is Matthew Anderson.” He extended his hand to shake mine. “I am a pediatrician and I’m very interested in alternative medicines like traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture. I’m from Seattle, in the state of Washington, working at a hospital affiliated with the University of Washington.”
Wow! I was happy as a bird, hearing and seeing an American right in front of me! He looked nothing like Day-Day. He was short and skinny, and had an endearing reddish-brown beard, thick-rimmed eyeglasses, a necktie, and a jacket with square patterns.
I looked around reflexively and saw only foreigners holding coffee cups and teacups chatting loudly among themselves, mostly in English, so I felt a bit safer. Still, I lowered my voice as I quickly gave him a brief history of my life.
“This is amazing,” he said. “I’m going to tell my colleagues when I get home. What a story!” Then he added, “It’s not surprising that there are people like you in China, but meeting someone with a story like yours is quite fantastic. Dr. Pei, your story would make a fantastic book. But I understand this may not be the best time. Perhaps someday, you will seek me out when you visit Seattle and tell me more about it in detail. Here is my business card.”
And just like that, I met my first American in twenty-seven years.