Thursday, July 16, 2009

Growing up in Tientsin - the Ford of Heaven

There are not many "Foreign Devils" left who grew up in 1920s and 1930s Tientsin (now spelled Tianjin) when at one time there must have been several thousand of us whose parents hailed from Britain, America, Russia, France, Germany, Italy - you name it.

Remarkably, we shared an affinity that was the envy of the troubled outside world. We played out our rivalries in games. One year it was the German Eight who took top honours at the regatta on the Hai Ho, next the British, then the Russian. In basketball it was the 15th Infantry Regiment over the Trumpeldors, in soccer the Italian Marines over Tientsin Association Football Club. In baseball the Americans were hard put by a mixed bag of Limeys, Portuguese, Tartars, Greeks.

Never mind our diverse backgrounds, we were equally at home on a rip-roaring Fourth of July, Quatorze Juillet, Queen Victoria's Birthday. And on any day of the week we'd be side by side at the street stalls relishing the irresistible piroshky, jian bing quozi, tang d'er.

On the surface we were pretty staid judging by the well attended churches, synagogues, social clubs. Can any of us forget the spine-tingling choir at the Orthodox church on Easter Morning? Yet not far down the road at Little Club the all black band gave out their explosive red-hot jazz.

Came 1949 that unique world was gone forever, the Old China Hands scattered to the four corners. Fortunately, some wrote about their upbringing. I especially like Dicky Dyott's An Edge in Wordways and Vera Soblin's Please Don't Walk On My Grave (Part 2). But as always the case, others so heavily fictionalized their memoirs that it is difficult to distinguish between truth and fairy tale.

So much of my brother Brian Power's book about his upbringing in Tientsin the Ford of Heaven was fairy tale that I felt obliged to write a commentary replacing his fantasies with fact. You will see this if you go to my June 27 2009 posting and click on the line in the text "Brian's Real Upbringing in the Ford of Heaven" and when the page opens, look down the right hand side to the foot and click again on where it says "Read in classic mode".

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