EPIC Group Travel Writers: Shanghai spirit

British Colonial Building in Shanghai.
British Colonial Building in Shanghai.

This is the ninth in a series of monthly stories by travel writers from EPIC Group Writers, an Edmonds non-profit organization whose mission is to support those who create, communicate and connect through cultural and artistic endeavors, especially the literary arts.

Recently I wondered when the first ghost sighting was recorded, so as anyone would do these days, I Googled it. There was mention of a book, “Ghost Sightings” by Brian Innes, where it is said the oldest written report of a ghost comes from the Bible. Saul goes to a medium (“a woman that hath a familiar spirit”) and asks her to conjure up the deceased Samuel, which she — it says — does by Samuel appearing in the form of “an old man covered with a mantle.”

Whether you believe in the spirit world or not, unexplainable ghostly appearances have been shared for centuries. But we can also sense the “spirit of a place” or the “spirit of a person” if we listen quietly.

While researching information for a book I’m writing about my family, one thing was missing. Reading and watching documentaries from my easy chair was not going to give me the “sense of place” I needed to continue.

With a few small miracles falling into place, I was off to Shanghai, and my cousin, John, and his wife flew in from England to join me. Via email, we hired a private Shanghainese guide, recommended by John’s sister who had hired the same guide two years prior (my grandfather, Sam Sharrock, was their uncle).

While waiting a day for my cousin, I explored the Bund and Nanjing Road solo while discovering I loved the culture shock of experiencing an Asian country for the first time. So many people wore the ‘good luck color’ of red, it was also crowded, and Chinese vendors would follow trying to lure me into an alley to see their wares. It’s also hard not to mention how a father thought it was OK for his young son to urinate on the sidewalk. This was China.

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Exploring the fantastic British colonial buildings, I thought of my mother and grandparents visiting embassies, art deco hotels and even the same department store on Nanjing Road, which still operated as the No. 1 department store. These buildings were part of their lives during the 1920s-40s, when living there was envied as Shanghai was called the “Paris of the East.” It was a wild “free” port of call with immigrants arriving from all over the war-torn world.

Our guide, Henry, picked us up in a large van. Since my grandfather was a British police officer, we began the tour at Jinxing police station in an old Shanghainese neighborhood. It was fortuitous to find a couple of men chatting in front of the station. I photographed the exterior and the people in the neighborhood while listening to Henry speak in rapid-fire Cantonese to the men. I’m not sure if there was a bribe involved, but 15 minutes later a key appeared and we were allowed through the iron gate into the compound.

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Two buildings flanked each side of the wide driveway. One building was well maintained, displaying a historical plaque that mentioned a famous founder of the communist party captured and brought to this police station in the 1920s. The other building was falling down. I had no doubt this dilapidated police station would be on someone’s demolition list.

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Taking in the scene, I noted sagging roof lines, rain gutters hanging by a sliver of bracket and rusted iron bars on the ground-floor windows.

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In the back of the compound I found a collection of clean, brightly flowered enamel chamber pots next to a door, which led me to think someone must be living in this squalor.

I could almost see spectral wafting figures of prisoners being held here before transferring to the goliath Ward Prison nearby. I only knew of Sam from stories shared by my grandmother and mother, the black-and-white photographs, as well as letters he wrote to them. I envisioned him in his crisp, high-collared black police uniform patrolling these same grounds. I was fascinated by what secrets this building held; was this where the bomb went off in his office?

You see, my grandfather was from Wigan, a coal mining, cotton mill area in the north of England. He was improving his lot in life by becoming a Queen’s guard in London and then off to exotic Shanghai as both an officer as well as a special forces detective (the British equivalent of the FBI). He survived an office bomb but was eventually shot and killed in January 1942 (according to the story I was told, it was because he uncovered an opium ring). A couple of months later, my mother — then in her early teens — and 42-year-old grandmother (a white Russian immigrant fleeing the Russian Revolution) were taken to a Japanese prisoner of war camp for the duration of the World War II, because they were considered British.

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Climbing back into the van, we were pensive while chatting about Sam and his tragic end. The driver took us a short distance to the apartment building where the family lived and after exploring the honeycomb of entrances, we found the red door of F01, our family’s apartment. Unfortunately, we were not able to see inside as the tenant was in a rest home, of which the guard informed Henry. This building had a historical plaque and was in good condition, so it was unlikely it would be torn down anytime soon.

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While taking photos of the rose bush in the central garden of the gated complex, I wondered if these roses served as inspiration for my mom’s love of roses. I remembered memories she shared with me of one scene in this driveway. Young military men picked Nona up for dates in their American-issued jeeps and she told me how nervous she felt. I have a photo of one of those times and now I could actually touch the brick on this side of the building.

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Another time of reminiscing, her fond memory was of hopping her bike and riding out the gate full steam ahead. The rickshaw drivers shouted obscenities in Chinese, admonishing her for going too fast as she weaved around them. My mother said she loved the “freedom of flying” with the wind blowing her hair back off her face while she pedaled in pubescent madness. This was a happy time shortly before she would spend four years in a POW camp.

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Now,  75 years later, I jay-walked the busy lanes in front of the imposing brick building and imagined the spirit of a young girl flying down Weihai Road on her bicycle; in my mind’s eye I could see her disappearing in the distance.

My six senses were brought alive by traveling to the city of my mother’s birth, while giving me the “sense of place” I needed to write their story.

— By Vivian C. Murray

As an offshoot of EPIC’s Monday morning writing sessions held at the Edmonds library, the EPIC Group Travel Writers meet at Savvy Traveler once a month. Participants of this fluid group love to travel and write stories about their journeys. You are invited to attend on the second Wednesday of the month from 3:30-5 p.m. Free to members and non-members of EPIC Group Writers. 

  1. What I really like about reading travel blogs from Shanghai is that everyone experiences the city in a different way. I have been living here for about three months now and have to say that I am surprised by how much I can hate it one day and love it the next. Anyway: thanks for an in-depth review about your experience and clear and great pictures.

    Swedish Expat in Shanghai

    1. Thank you, Swedish Expat! I would love to live there for 3 months (as long as it wasn’t in summer!) to explore more of the nooks and crannies of which I saw some. Even in the 10 days I was there, I also experienced a love/hate relationship. At least my visa is good for another 9 years if I decide to go back.
      Best wishes for your experiences in China!

  2. Roses, ghosts, and a bomb! What a wild story your family lived, Vivian! I cannot wait to read your book. Thank you for giving us a glimpse into the shadows of Shanghai past.

    1. And, thank you, Janette! (And, I cannot wait to finish the book!) EPIC Group Writers, of which you have been an integral part of, has given me amazing support and tools for my book writing process. :.)

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