In the late summer of 1922 my grandfather, U.S. Navy Commander Raymond E. Corcoran, arrived at this little Shandong Peninsula seaport aboard the U.S.S. Black Hawk, a machine shop vessel accompanying a fleet of 18 American destroyers. It was a delicate moment in the tortured history of foreign powers in China. The Germans were being forced off the east coast and the Japanese were moving in. A few months of maneuvers by American vessels was thought advisable.
Three months late, in November, my grandmother arrived here on board an old steamer to join her husband with her sister, Irene, and her three children, my Uncle Jim, 7, my mother, Frances, almost 6, and my Aunt Win, just turned 1 year old. They would stay for a bit less than a year in a small foreign enclave of what was a poverty-stricken and politically chaotic China.
I do not know how much that short stay in China, woven into many stories my grandmother told me, influenced my own interest in China. In college and graduate school I was fascinated by the China of Mao Tse-tung and the Great Leap Forward, a self-confident, revolutionary nation that seemed very different from the place my grandmother described.
Her stories embarrassed me. Men had pulled my mother in a richshaw. A huge household staff of servants tended to the family's every need. A few weeks ago my mother sent me some old photographs taken in Yantai by her Aunt Irene but I hesitated to let my Chinese friends in Peking see them. One showed five Chinese men in simple clothing.
My grandmother had written on the back. "Our men-servants in Chefoo, No. 1 Boy, Cook and Helper, Coolie and 'Washer-boy.'" I had to see Chefoo, the foreigners' name then for Yantai, but I came with an urge to bare my soul at being the progeny of bonafide, albeit goodhearted, imperialists.
I had with me a short memoir by Sam Ginsbourg, a foreigner who came to Yantai shortly after the communist takeover and remembered when "in a small meeting hall transformed into a makeshift courthouse, the drunken driver of an American jeep, a Westerner, was tried and sentenced for running over a Chinese . . . In one stroke an end was put to the extraterritorial rights behind which the most heinous crimes had been perpetrated against the Chinese people by foreigners for near a century."
With that sort of history in mind, I was not prepared for how little the people of this still attractive seaside town seemed to care about all that, now the ghosts of the old foreign robber barons had vanished. There were no museums dedicated to foreign atrocities like those one finds in Peking. Had things changed so much?
Wang Yunqi, once a dime store merchant and now an official of the China Travel Service, was born on the outskirts of Yantai the same year my mother arrived. He and an English-speaking colleague, Li Wei, 22, met my son Joe and me at the railroad station and drove us to the Yantai Hill guest house. I felt a moment of stunned surprise. The view was nearly identical to that in one of the old family photographs.
A long, narrow beach ended at a tree-covered hill, topped by something that looked like a ship's mast but was, I was told, a signal light. Villas dotted the hillside. In my grandmother's day they had been the British and American consulates and homes for foreign missionaries. Wang said they now housed Chinese workers. It seemed to me the only changes in 57 years were a few more buildings opposite the beach road, a new concrete embankment and many, many more people everywhere. In 1923 Yantai had been a town of about 65,000 including 1,500 foreigners. It served as seaport, winery and center for foreign trade, consular and missionary activity. Today the city has 221,359 people in its urban area.
My grandmother, Rebecca Corcoran, was born in 1893, the same year as the man who eventually rescued Yantai from foreign exploitation, Mao Tse-tung. She has out-lived the chairman, however, and although at 87 she can no longer ride her bicycle through the streets of Long Beach, Calif, she still has clear memories of Yantai. When my grandmother married my grandfather in 1914, she was, as she is now, talkative and full of Southern charm, a devout Presbyterian and the daughter of a Norfolk seed merchant.
As she tells it, coming to China seemed as much of an adventure as it did to me six decades later. With three children she had sailed from Japan to Dairen and then "by a very primitive and very dirty boat for the night to Chefoo." She told me in a letter."Your grandfather had met the son of a pioneer missionary at the Englishman's Club (the Englishmen always have a club.) Scott Corbett got us a house and servants. He was going to the States on his vacation so lent us his 'No. 1 Boy,' a 6 foot 4 inch Chinaman with a long pigtail who spoke pidgin English and understood me entirely.
"Of the other servants, eight of them spoke no English but 'The Boy' took entire charge, and saw to it that all my wants were carried out. My baby was just 1 1/2 but the 'Boy' was even careful of her too, although she had a nurse. He used to say "This fashion no proper pidgin for baby" when she was not behaving properly.
"The Catholic Church had bought quite a bit of land in the foreign quarter and built large duplex houses for rent. We had large yards in which they had planted fruit trees. We had nectarines. There was a well in the front yard so the coolie kept us in plenty of water. The house had big rooms and on the first floor there was a bathroom with a big wooden tub with a hot water boiler at the end with a spigot into the tub.
"The coolie filled the boiler with water, made a fire under it and then brought in buckets of cold water so we had very good baths. There was a closet with a commode which was emptied each day for $1 per week. You could have a man empty it every other day for only 50 cents! But I was glad I could have the luxury fare."
In our boxy Shanghai sedan, Joe and I searched for some of the buildings that had appeared in the backgrounds of some of Great-Aunt Irene's photos. Were the old Catholic houses still there? We looked around and consulted with local experts, but found nothing that looked similar. The area was now packed with two-and three-story buildings, loaded with Chinese residents, who were barred from the neighborhood when my grandmother was here. "I think all those foreigners' quarters were knocked down after liberation," Wang said. "They were very old."
We looked for the church that appeared in one of the photos, but it could not be found either. Wang said the city planned next year to reopen one of the churches. There were still some Chinese Christians around, but he was not anxious to introduce me to them.
This was the province that nurtured The Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fists, otherwise known as The Boxers, who at the turn of the century had savagely attacked Chinese Christians in Shandong and then marched on Peking. They besieged the foreign legations and forced a major military expedition by Western powers and Japan which eroded further the powers of the Chinese empire. But the Boxers were principally peasants aggrieved at a failed economy and government.
Then and now, the principal Chinese reaction to Christianity -- as it was to most of my questions about Christians here -- seemed to be bewilderment. In a letter, my mother had recalled that "Dad told a story about the consternation it caused when on the first Saturday the servants were told not to come to work on Sunday. They thought they were fixed and were much upset. Dad tried to explain to the number one 'Boy' (whose name, I think, was Liu). He said, 'Liu, you savvy missionary upon hill?'
"'Well, missy allysame missionary.'
"Ah! light dawned. The thing about Sunday was apparently a Western invention."
Perhaps subconsciously, I found myself trying to goad Wang into denouncing some alleged missionary excesses, and let me expiate my guilty conscience. He failed to rise to the bait. He said he did not remember much of the pre-war years, before the Japanese invasion of 1937 and the civil war. The communists liberated Yantai in 1945, lost it to the nationalists in 1948, then recovered it again the next year.
Wang lived with his family in the countryside during the brief nationalist reconquest of the town, then returned to Yantai to stay. In his childhood, he recalls, "most foreign behavior was quite all right. The Chinese people were poor and they believed the foreigners came to help them."
I was not satisfied with that generous appraisal. Joe and I began to walk down the beach embankment, thick with people sitting on benches or standing around enjoying the sea air. I stopped to talk with anyone I found old enough to remember Yantai in the 1920s and 1930s. The first man I found, Xiao Yihai, was a vegetable seller now retired at age 60. He backed up Wang, much to my annoyance. "Most of the foreigners behaved quite well," he said.
As usually happens in China, Joe was drawing a big crowd. Most Chinese have grown accustomed to foreigners walking by, but 7-year-old Americans are still a rarity. The Chinese were curious and kind, asking if Joe could speak Chinese, how old he was, and whether he went to school. This solicitousness formed a major part of my mother's memories of Yantai.
"I remember Win -- about 2, I guess -- ordering Liu around. 'Boy! bring me my chair!' I'm embarrassed by such arrogance at this point, but we thought it was funny then, and Liu spoiled her himself. I remember watching with interest while Liu took my bed apart every morning and sprayed for bedbugs!
"The area where we lived must have been all Western-style houses. There was a long beach and we went a long way along it on the road to school -- a French convent. Our father did not believe in spoiling children. We never were escorted by amahs [nannies] as the other Navy kids were, and he did not want us driven in rickshaws like the other Navy children. So Jim and I walked. But when it got very warm, Mom prevailed on him to let her send us in a rickshaw, for awhile, anyway. Then one day, Daddy came along on his way to the ship and found our richshaw, with me still riding, but the man walking along beside and Jim pulling! What fun! But he thereafter decreed that we might as well walk."
We found Hou Yusheng, a slim and h eavily wrinkled man of 79 with a completely bald head. He may have pulled my mother and Uncle Jim on his rickshaw, though he said it was hard to tell foreigners apart. He pulled a rickshaw in Yantai for years, until the communists eliminated what they considered a symbol of shameful exploitation. There are no rickshaws anywhere in China now, but men still pull heavy carts, loaded with bricks and gravel and vegetables instead of American children.
We met Hou on one of Yantai's busiest shopping streets. He still had a cart, but this one carried his popsicle freezer, from which he dispensed the small frozen treats on sticks. If I had hoped to hear from him the outrage of the once oppressed coolie, I was disappointed again. "Most of the foreigners I carried were polite and behaved well," Hou said. He lived with other rickshaw men, making just enough "for our food and clothing, and sometimes we did not get enough for that." I had found a copy of the Japanese Imperial Railways guide to China, dated 1924, that gave the fare for rickshaws in Yantai at that time: 20 cents for one mile.
Here and there in my grandmother's stories appear flashes of the chaos that had engulfed China by 1923. The 1911 revolution killed the Qing dynasty but failed to replace it with anything. World War I did little to rid China of foreign concessions. The Germans were forced to give up their control over Qingdao, the port just around the Shandong Peninsula from Yantai, but the Japanese moved in to take their place.
Yantai's relative prosperity since the 19th century had been the result of the aching poverty of the Shandong countryside -- Yantai made a good place for hundreds of thousands of destitute peasants to catch boats to Manchuria, where they could find work in the underpopulated northeast. My mother said "Those were a lot of servants, apparently glad to have jobs. Mom says it was a bad time for the people there. The cook was paid a small sum, part of which I think went for the marketing he did for the household, and Mom said he grew quite fat while he was with us! She seemed pleased."
More hints of future revolution sometimes appeared. My grandmother remembers that when my Great-Aunt Irene needed an operation at the Temple Hill Hospital -- still operating today -- "the nurses had gone on strike, so they had to get young women from the town to wait on the patients." It was a prelude to the movements which reached Yantai when the communists came in 1945. But even those petered out quickly once the foreigners left.
In the end, after talking to people up and down the beach and exploring some of the shopping streets and hills, I concluded that my grandfather and his 18 destroyers, my mother's rickshaw rides, the missionary work and good deeds, had not left much of an impression. We Americans were second-rate imperialists, at least in this part of the world, and little more than a mild distraction, like the crowd-drawing sight of my son Joe buying a popsicle from a local vendor. The Chinese sensed far more serious things -- famine, war and invasion -- on the horizon. Whatever the outrage Sam Ginsbourg found in Yantai courtroom in 1947, it had dissipated long ago.
One of the people I met on the waterfront, sitting and chatting with some friends of his era, was a retired doctor, Sun Jieshan, 71, who worked in one of the small Chinese hospitals here in the 1920s and 1930s. Sun was a wry and thoughtful old man, blessed with the candor which only old people in China can really enjoy. "At that time, China was very poor and backward and a Chinese had no right to approach a foreigner. I was afraid to," he said with a smile. "Occasionally I would see foreigners kick and beat Chinese people. Someone might not pay the rickshaw man, and kick him instead. But you Americans, well, I must say, you Americans were much better than the Japanese."