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Conversation(s) with Editor Peter Chen

In a brief digital exchange concerning the movie Empire of the Sun (1987), Editor Peter Chen mentioned that his grandmother experienced the loss of a child in a mob while fleeing a Japanese bombing attack. What follows is a collected email exchange that occurred over the course of a week’s time and used with permission.

Hiatt: Can you describe how this came up in conversation.

Chen: I was channel surfing when I stumbled upon this movie, at the scene when Jamie was getting separated from his parents at Shanghai. My grandmother said something to the effect of “we went through something just like that. Big mob of people. Once you lose someone you can never find him again.” Then silence. That was probably the first awkward silence I have experienced in my life.

My grandmother has lost at least one son in a mob fleeing Japanese bombing as they tried to move toward Kunming. We don’t know how many children for sure, because she almost never talked about it.

Hiatt: So you were how old when this conversation took place?

Chen: About 11 or 12.

Hiatt: You mentioned that your grandmother lost a son while fleeing a Japanese bombing. Do you know if he survived war?

Chen: He found us around 1989. I think the story was that when communications began to open up between mainland China and Taiwan (where my grandparents moved to in 1949), he posted an ad in a Taiwanese newspaper looking for his parents, not knowing if they were still alive or not. My grandmother did not see the ad, but my grandmother’s younger brother, also a veteran, who my grandmother had no idea that had survived the war, saw the ad and made contact first. My great uncle, with a renewed sense of mission or whatever you may call it, engaged in another round of searching, this time successful. It ended up that they were both in Taiwan for 40 years without knowing that the other had also made it there! Through my great uncle, my lost uncle re-established contact with us. I do recall that my father put me on the phone with my uncle one time, but all I remember now is his “strange” accent. Years later when talking about this topic, my mother recalled that my uncle addressed my grandmother with a form of the word “mother” that was pretty much not used in Taiwan anymore, kind of showing the cultural divide that had developed between mainland China and Taiwan in the 40 years. In any case, for some reason, I recall his conversations with my grandmother feeling more cordial rather than emotional. Looking back, perhaps they just had been separated for too long — 50 years!

What may be interesting for me to add is that my grandmother took in an orphan, also en route to Kunming.

Hiatt: Did your grandparents have the chance to meet the long lost son?

Chen: My grandfather had already passed away by that time, sadly. My grandmother did not travel to mainland China to meet him. My great uncle did, however, but did not have much to report. Again, perhaps it just had been too long. Maybe the memories were too painful to revisit.

Hiatt: How long did the orphan stay with your grandparents?

Chen: Like so many family war stories, we don’t know and probably will never know the details about of how they first met. But piecing some bits and pieces together, my grandmother found her, about 5 years of age at the time, on the side of the road when my grandparents were on the move with the military westward toward Kunming. My own guess is that with the heartbreak and guilt of losing her children, something must have touched her heart when she saw a little girl lost on the side of the road. My grandparents would take care of her through the entire length of WWII and then the resumed Chinese Civil War. When my grandfather’s unit was evacuated by ship from mainland China to Taiwan in 1949, she came to Taiwan with my grandparents as well. She is still very much a part of our family to this day.

Hiatt: What unit did your grandfather serve in and what was his job?

Chen: He was an enlisted man, an aircraft mechanic. We are not sure of his rank though. My father does know that my grandfather spoke of working in a factory. While my father doesn’t know which factory for sure, there weren’t too many in the Kunming area at the time, and personally I am guessing it was the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company factory at Leiyun (Loiwing)¬†which was in operation between 1939 and 1942. After the war, continued to work as an aircraft mechanic with the Civil Air Transport.

Hiatt: do you recall your grandparents expressing any lingering resentment toward different groups of people?

After the war, just about all Japanese people in Taiwan were deported, and when we moved to the US, we just so happened to not have any family friends nor neighbors who are Japanese or Japanese-American, so I don’t really know how my grandmother would react. But I can tell you this much — like many Chinese of her generation, she never referred to Japanese people as “people.” It’s always Japanese “devils”.

Hiatt: Did you envision that this family history lesson would put you on the road to becoming the editor of a well-trafficked WWII web site?

Chen: I’m not so sure if I ever really thought about it that way along the way, but with hindsight, I think having this history did plant seeds in my interest in history early on. Looking back, I probably did wonder why the sudden silence watching Empire of the Sun and why on the family registration booklet it says our ancestral home was a faraway place that for some reason we cannot visit. As my interest in the Second Sino-Japanese War grew to cover the entire WWII overall, having this sad history as a foundation of sorts inside of me, I hope I will always remember to never glorify war.