This essay was previously published on The Smart Set
The 1920s in Shanghai enjoyed a period exactly like the hedonistic ’20s in the United States, or so I understand. I wasn’t around at the time, though my mother told me all about it. A Chinese woman with bound feet, she and my Italian-Dutch-Indonesian father foxtrotted and stomped on the Palace Hotel’s fabled floor, a structure braced on springs that tilted this way and that with its cargo, and drank champagne and other imported wines. Actually, all wines had to be imported. And today, despite their industrious bent to beat the West, the Chinese have begun growing grapes for distillation but fail to achieve any kind of quality. My parents’ circle of friends was multinational, typical of Shanghai then. My father, an importer-exporter who owned a freighter, had a lively hobby, a kennel of greyhounds that he raced on the Shanghai Greyhound Race Track. In Macau, the Portuguese territory, he built a dog track.
“Those were the days,” people my parents’ age kept saying.
I had to take their word for it. By the time I was able to appreciate these stories of paradise lost, I was sleeping in a bedroom shared with my parents and my sister Maria. Next door, in a curtained-off section of the dining room, my brother Victor had his bed. My brothers Joe and Leo were married and lived on their own. There was a kitchen, where Ahmah slept at night. Her husband lived in the country and farmed the land on which our house had stood before the Chinese and Japanese armies between them shelled it to splinters. The family story tells that our evacuation had been so hurried and disorganized they left with a few bits of clothing. They could not drive, as the Japanese army had chopped down trees to block the roads, forcing our family to walk on the fields alongside, a 30-mile ordeal over ruts and stones that my mother recalled all the rest of her life as a delirium nightmare. Dancing at the Palace on her bound feet had been a brief romp compared to that trek. Someone — one of my brothers perhaps — carried me in his arms. My sister threw away the clothes in her satchel and replaced them with two cats. She led her beloved German shepherd Carl on a leash.
My father later returned to the country house in hopes of recouping some valuables. He found the safe blasted open and rifled.
That happened in 1937, while Japan and China were having at it and before their conflict exploded into WWII. The family freighter was sunk on the same day as Pearl Harbor: in Shanghai’s dateline, December 8, 1941.
Dad had a plan, indeed he did, to get through the war. He sold our town house and bought a three-story apartment building. We were going to live off the rents from upstairs and downstairs, except for the middle floor, which we needed for ourselves. Our upstairs tenants were refugees from other wars, other miseries: a Polish Jewish couple occupied one room, the other housed a Russian babushka (grandmother) and her two granddaughters. The young women worked a nightclub act. They were strong, muscular females, and they lifted each other and sundry objects in their act, sometimes, we heard, an occasional member of the audience.
Downstairs, the Wong family — parents and daughter — had two whole rooms.
None of them, top floor or bottom, ever paid a yuan in rent.
These were new times, not good old ones. There was no authority in the city governing rent disputes. The municipalities, once so ably managed by the British and French, were gone. China’s defeat in the 1900 Opium War had ceded the foreign victors sections of Shanghai, called French Concession and International Concession, for their own. That is how our family distillery came to be, as my father got out his chemistry book and began concocting alcoholic beverages to eke out a living.
And now I suppose it is time to post my disclaimer about the quality and safety of these beverages. As far as we knew, no one grew ill or died from drinking them.
Where did my father obtain all these ingredients in wartime China? Before the ports closed, down he had a stock of them from his supplier, Bush House of London, and there were local chemists who still had some of what he needed. The alcohol he bought locally, and he always made sure it was NOT wood alcohol, which can kill or cause blindness.
Crowding all the other furniture in the dining room sat three five-gallon glass demijohns. After dumping in all the ingredients before adding the alcohol, he grasped the neck of the vessel with two hands and whirled and rocked it around. Then came alcohol, measured and poured, and again the contents of the demijohn got a mixing. I helped by tasting the concoctions and commenting on color. These included whiskey and brandy. I knew exactly how much tincture of cochineal — extract of beetle wings — should go into them. I did my homework amid those bottles and once submitted a story about making alcoholic drinks for my homework assignment. Sister Grace Clare was not overly bothered by the topic of my story. After all, her class held a child whose mother was the mistress of a Chinese gangster; another girl lived with her mother in a house of “many pleasures.” If she wrote about her home life, Sister Grace Clare did not share it with us.
We lived in a time capsule, cut off from the rest of the world and its mores. Survival was the only business of interest.
I couldn’t know what the authentic drink was supposed to taste like. Perhaps it was more like chocolate, a treat I hadn’t had but a few times in my life. The coffee ingredient was probably an extract, despite the official recipe’s demand.
One day the Polish gentleman upstairs called on us carrying a large wooden box of tea. A little bit for the rent, he explained apologetically. The box was stored under the dining table. I bruised my toes on it every time I sat down there.
My father mused on how best to use this bounty. Brew a liqueur, Crème de Thé perhaps. He experimented. He boiled quantities, adding the same ingredients as he did for the coffee liqueur. Tasting the result, he emitted a sad “Aaagh!” If the tea had been black and not green, the formula might have worked. Instead, we began packaging the tea to sell.
Our salesman was Nino, a lieutenant commander from the Italian destroyer Lepanto, sunk in Whangpo Harbor by Nino himself to avoid surrendering it to the Japanese. When Japan and Italy fell out with one another in the war, the small Italian force stationed in Shanghai were rounded up and interned in a concentration camp. A few were farmed out on bond to Italian residents in the city. We got Nino. His accommodations in our home were four dining chairs pushed together and padded with quilts.
The war was over for him but forged on unabated all around us.
Almost every day the city sounded its air raid alarm, a rapidly rising and falling scream telling us to get off the streets. Unlike people in London who ran to special shelters, Shanghai residents burrowed under beds and tried to find safety anywhere they could while the Americans flew over and dropped their bombs.
I don’t remember feeling afraid, though I must have at the time; it seemed to me that I worried more about my school closing up and the nuns leaving Shanghai. They were American citizens and had been allowed dispensation by the Japanese occupation army to do their work, but even the stouthearted women who staffed the Loretto School were reaching the end of their endurance.
Actually, he could name his products any way he wished. Perhaps the single word “Gin” appeared unimpressive on the label.
The first bottle of this gin, according to family legend, was easily sold by Nino at the first household whose bell he rang. The man even invited him to drop by again with more. Nino could spot a man desperate in these hard times and promised to come by often.
The second bottle Nino broke over the head of the next householder who had slammed the door on him. He came home with his coat collar torn and a bruise on his cheek. This happened often. My father was not the only one frustrated by life’s events.
It was my job to wash the bottles and label them. There is a trick to using the bottle brush. Always, ALWAYS, remove it from the bottle underwater. You can guess why.
The resulting concoction would be anyone’s guess. In 1942, I imagine there were drinking people desperate enough to try anything. For myself, in adulthood, I found legitimate vodka to be an icy shock to the tonsils and a near-numbness lasting about 30 seconds. Russian people are a hardy race. Their favorite party game is to flourish a tray of at least six shot glasses of vodka in front of a selected victim and chant “piedadnat, piedadnat, piedadnat” while he grimaced and pretended to sweat until he had downed every glass. Through her occasional work as a bookkeeper at the Rose Cottage, a bar that once served American and British servicemen, my sister Maria had a great many Russian friends who comprised a serious segment of Dad’s liquor sales. Sometimes they could not wait to start drinking their vodka purchase and began gulping it before they took the first step down the stairs.
Life had been unkind to these stateless Russians who had fled from their Bolshevik persecutors and straggled across the Siberian tundra by rail or foot or cart to end up in Shanghai. We had a Russian nobleman, Prince Engalichev, who for all we knew was a Romanov (there were so many in the world, I was to learn, claiming that connection). The prince later would be employed as head of the Refugee Relief Organization helping to relocate refugees in other countries.
In our kitchen, converted at night into a barroom, Dad served the drinks while our lieutenant commander Nino acted as a bouncer. The men tramped up and down the stairs, laughing raucously and singing. The languages coming through my bedroom door were variously Russian, Italian, German, and, once, Japanese. War or not, my mother commented to my father, men will drink together. Curfew imposed on the city was 10 p.m., and I was warned to stay in my room until they were gone. This was hard because our bathroom was situated by the stairs at the landing. I have only now begun wondering where, then, our poor ahmah bunked until 10 o’clock. Probably under the dining table along with the box of tea leaves.
Sometimes the air raid siren would send up its wail over the city and then no one could leave, which agreed mightily with the drinkers in the kitchen. The American planes roaring overhead rattled the windows while my sister and I hunkered under our bed and felt the building shake when the bombs hit. My father said the targets were the Japanese army outposts, but once an apartment house two streets from us caught a bomb and we heard the screams and watched flames flare high in the night.
Thinking back, I can see that those years were only preparation for more of the same to follow when we were expelled by the Communists and journeyed to Italy with $50 each to start a new life, new hazards, new exploits, new stories.
Who needed grapes for this wine? Once in a while, we had an orange, which was usually reserved for my growing bones. We always had enough to eat, though I couldn’t tell you what the nutritional content was. Ahmah brought home from market whatever we could afford.
At about this time, I think in 1943, my father opened a café, which he named the Imperial Café after the labels on his drinks. I don’t know where he got the money to do it and of course, this was a detail that escaped the attention of a child. Now there is no one in the family left to ask.
The entire family participated in this production. A sibling of a brother’s wife acted as waitress, my sister was the cashier, my mother sewed the frilly apron for the waitress, and my father, of course, manufactured the ersatz coffee and drinks. We had plenty of tea, supplied from the box under our dining table. A Russian refugee worked in the kitchen. A Russian bakery supplied the pastries, and I got to eat the unsold items brought home every night. I remember the ashtrays on the little tables, vivid green ceramic with a white ceramic golf ball on a tee in the center.
The café drew customers, but they were of a type who bought one cup of coffee and made it last all morning or afternoon. The same customers dropped in almost every day — Japanese, Russian, German — who always sat at the corners of the room, never in the middle where they were exposed. They stayed holding up newspapers but appeared to be peering over them at the other patrons. My father joked about changing the name of the place to the Spies Roost, but, after six months of this non-profit business, he closed the Imperial.
And then the Americans liberated Shanghai! They marched down Nanking Road and all of Shanghai waved to them and cheered. Nino and his compatriots repatriated to Italy, and my father began to talk about picking up his export-import business once more.
But four years later the Communists came instead.
This was the basic formula for whisky, which could become Bourbon or Rye depending on what one added.
And here I have, folded in these pages of his recipe book, various labels in the Imperial Brand: for Preservol, a treatment of membranes at water-cleaning plants — I don’t know why he was producing this; Worcestershire Sauce (no danger of being sued for label infringement in China in those years); and Concentrated Lemon Juice — “For Confectioners, Bakers and all Household and Culinary Uses.” The concentrate was almost pure citric acid, a most useful ingredient in some of my father’s concoctions.
There is also a tiny banknote from the Portuguese territory of Macau in the value Um Avo, a few promissory notes in Chinese printed on flimsy paper for amounts as improbable as One Million in the inflated currency and, finally, a note scribbled by a doctor in Italian on a scrap of paper. We were in Catania, Sicily by then, in a refugee camp. It is a diagnosis, dated 30/4/52, of a test performed on that date, and tells of my father’s incipient heart failure.
I keep these relics on a shelf with an assortment of other mementos that have survived dozens of moves throughout the decades. Will my nephew keep them or throw them away? Perhaps the latter, for he will have his own keepsakes to store for his lifetime. •