Bygone an idyllic lifestyle of rare privilege and luxury: Adopted, the Chinese Way
By Jackie Bong-Wright
From within the gated Greenspring retirement complex in Springfield, Virginia, an 80-year old Chinese-American reminisces about her privileged early life in Peking, China, where she was born and raised. Marguerite Chien-Church remembers vividly the enclosed house with its multiple courtyards that she occupied during her youth with her British-born American mother, and her adoptive Chinese father, who was in fact her uncle. Whether her flashbacks are clear or dim, she describes meticulously her opulent life in the China of the 1930s and the hardships she and her family underwent during the Japanese Occupation and their war-time exodus to America.
The author of Adopted, the Chinese Way, says in the Foreword, “My children are as American as any white Anglo-Saxon American descended from the early settlers of this country.” She wrote her book to show “how different my life in China is from the lives of my children, grand-children and other second- and third-generation Chinese-Americans.” She wants them “to know more about the country and culture of their heritage, to open another world for her two adopted grand-children so they understand another system of adoption.”
Contrary to the stigma that in past years was often attached to children adopted from outside the family, who suffer in trying to learn their own identity as well as that of their biological parents, Ms. Chien-Church has always known exactly who she was. “I am the natural daughter of my father’s younger brother.” Helen, her American aunt, became her mother. Fang-Shi, her third Chinese uncle, became her father. Her birth father, Fang Ling, number four in the Chien family, became her uncle. And her own mother became her aunt. Her seven biological brothers and sisters were regarded as cousins.
Her adoption required no legal documentation. The transfer from one branch of the family to another, blood-related line were recorded in the Chien family records. No blood tests, no background check. Family wealth and heritage stayed within the family. It was as simple and satisfying as that. A “sane and sensible solution to childlessness,” Marguerite herself exclaims.
Within the confines of Greenspring, Marguerite is one of the almost 2,000 residents age 62 and older who choose to live in the largest retirement village of Northern Virginia.
Marguerite is used to living with many people. The saying, “The more children, the merrier and the more prosperous” was true for both rich and poor in the China of Confucius’ time. In her book, Marguerite’s father explains, “Without a son, my line of the Chien family will die with me.” So he and Helen adopted Richard, a son from his second brother, and Luther, another from his fourth brother. Besides Marguerite, they also adopted two other girls, Lois and Jeannie, from outside the family. Helen happily took care of all the adopted children, loved them, and brought them up as her own.
Four boys of the Chien family completed the cycle: all had their own male children to carry on the family blood lines and high status, to the satisfaction of Grandfather Chien. He had passed the arduous Ching dynasty’s exams at the highest level, became the first chancellor of Nankai University, and was later appointed Ambassador with responsibility for establishing the borders between Russia and China. He also accumulated wealth, with wise investments in textile mills, a general store, and properties, which he left to his descendants.
A scholar and a person of vision, Grandfather Chien sent his oldest boy to England, his second to Germany, his third, Marguerite’s father, to the United States to study at Harvard, and the fourth to France. Following that tradition, Marguerite’s two boys and one girl went to outstanding schools. She herself studied at St John’s University in Shanghai, and later secured a scholarship from prestigious Smith College when she moved to the U.S. at the age of 20.
Himself a business graduate from Harvard, Marguerite’s father returned to China in 1912, the year after it became a Republic. His high education and upper-class status assured him many prominent positions, including officer of the Bank of China, chief of the Central Salt Gabelle, Vice-Minister of Finance and head of the Opium Suppression Commission.
A Role Model
An avid gardener, Marguerite and her second husband John enjoy the ten-square-foot garden plot provided to residents at Greenspring. They like the many activities their retirement home offers – concerts, movies, lectures, and discussion groups on every conceivable subject. A singer since she was a child, Marguerite, armed with a guitar, leads a monthly sing-along group of 50 people. She also conducts a weekly sing-along for the patients in the nursing home.
A model student, she excelled in her studies and in extra-curricular activities at Ming Ming, a private Chinese elementary school, then at the Peking American School. As an active teenager, she took part in plays, ballet, painting and singing in the school glee club and the church choir. Now, at Greenspring, she has tried to make use of her talents.
Marguerite entertains people as she had been entertained in China, especially at Mrs. Chien’s GuestHouse, a former prince’s palace that her mother rented, and together with three other houses on the same street, turned into a five-star mini hotel complex. The western comfort and cleanliness of the rooms and food combined with oriental traditions and devoted service were the dream of any tourist who wanted a unique experience in a real Chinese home.
Marguerite, at seven, found it enthralling to sit, inside the compound of the GuestHouse, with the guests and their children and watch the shadow-play shows, the puppeteers, the itinerant entertainers with their orchestras, and the magicians and their tricks. Her mother also arranged for vendors of costume jewelry, arts and crafts to display their wares in the main courtyard for guests to admire. Did all this exposure in her tender years inspire Marguerite take at Greenspring potting classes in her late seventies and make vases and bowls from scratch? She is proud of her most recent creation, an assortment of Chinese dimsum made of clay.
The luxurious life of the Chien family and that of a “coddled and pampered child of the Imperial City” came to a halt with the Japanese occupation in 1937. When Americns entered the war at the end of 1941, the series of guesthouses dwindled to a single house. To make ends meet, her mother had to rent out rooms to long-term guests and sell her antique collection and other belongings.
War took its toll. As an American and an enemy of the Japanese, the family home was confiscated, and her mother was the target of harassment and persecution, with late-night interrogations and physical abuse – at the end of the war she weighed only 86 pounds, down from her normal weight of 135. Fortunately, she was exempted from concentration camp because she had minor Chinese children. Her husband had gone to the “interior” of China, Richard, her oldest brother, to Scotland, and Luther, her other brother, to the United States. Remaining were the women, who were reduced to eating corn kernels, porridge, cabbage, and tofu. Flour, rice, and other staples were rationed.
Undaunted, Marguerite, at 18, moved to Shanghai to attend St. John’s University, and had the chance to develop a rapport with her own biological parents and siblings. She didn’t live with them and was reluctant to have them lay a claim to her, but instead stayed in a tiny room at Second Uncle’s apartment in the French Concession area. Although she didn’t complain, many a night, she suffered from mosquitoes and bedbugs, and had no hot running water to bathe.
In this atmosphere, family secrets started to roll out. Her brother’s questionable origins, her father’s extra life, the inter-generational relationships of her grandfather’s concubine, all come to light during the time Marguerite is in contact with her birth family. What a web of intrigues.
Family problems also surfaced during difficult times of extreme misery and poverty. Her absent father incurred huge debts with his prodigal expenses, leaving her lonely mother struggling to pay back as much as she could. At the same time, quarrels erupted between her mother and Lois, her elder sister, a single mother, who spent most of her time reading romantic novels and going out with men. Lois also resented Marguerite for being the “favored daughter, for doing everything dear to her mother’s heart, and for having everything that she had not.”
Standing firm on her two feet, Marguerite, like her mother, always managed to cope when facing adversity. She earned her own money by teaching English during the war and by knitting sweaters and argyle socks at Smith College.
A New Life
After eight long years of fighting, the war was over in 1945. U.S naval ships evacuated all American nationals, including Marguerite’s mother, Marguerite and her little sister Jeannie. Her father missed them by one day, and joined them two years later at her graduation from Smith College – “a full ten years since they had last been together.” He stayed awhile with them in Cambridge before returning to China where he remained for another ten years, caught up in the Communist takeover. He finally returned after twenty years of separation and died a few months after her mother passed away at the age of 85. Helen had been a dominant force in Marguerite’s life and her only parent for much of her life.
Marguerite sailed through the scattered storms in her life with flying colors. She was naturalized at 29, dispelled her guilt for changing her nationality and turned her back on the repressive Communist regime. Her first husband died when she was forty-four. She bravely raised three children, went back to work, and started a business enterprise. She was happily married again and now spends her golden years at Greenspring. “America was good to me. Life was full.”
In her retirement years, Marguerite and her husband traveled extensively and took part in many scientific research expeditions. They now get together frequently with her children, grand-children and friends. She also finds time to play tennis and guitar and to work out at Greenspring’s well equipped fitness center.
Apart from the many other activities at Greenspring, Marguerite has really enjoyed getting to know the other Asian residents, who come from China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia and more. At the monthly meetings of the Asian Group, she has learned much about each of those countries and has particularly enjoyed the occasional pot luck gatherings, where each person contributes a dish from his native country.
To come to closure with her once-upon-a-time China past – in her words, “A world of rare privilege and an idyllic lifestyle of ease and luxury,” Marguerite went back to her country of birth with all her immediate family members to visit. Though impressed by most of the improvements she saw, she was discouraged by the state of her old homes.
Marguerite ends her book with this note, “I could not forget the dilapidated conditions of houses that had once been beautiful, the courtyards that had shrunk to narrow passage-ways, and the shoddy brick and boards that had filled them. I was glad to be going home to America. I had seen the home of my childhood. It was no longer home to me.”