“You need to meet Alice Dent,” said my wife, Jan. “She grew up in China and has some very interesting stories.”
I've always been amazed by the great variety of backgrounds that many of our fellow residents have, so I got an appointment with Alice and made my way to her apartment. The things she shared truly astonished me.
Alice began her story in Shanghai, China, where she was born in January of 1925. Her father was Iraqi, born in Basra, Iraq and her mother was British, born in Hong Kong, China. It was the norm in those days that marriages were arranged through marriage brokers, mostly through the synagogues. That's how it was done in the case of Alice's parents, who were married on June 23, 1915 in Hankow, China. It was at the wedding ceremony that they met for the first time!
To make matters even more difficult, Alice's father spoke very little English and her mother spoke no Arabic.
From the beginning of their marriage her mother spent endless hours patiently tutoring her father in the three R's. She had the patience of Job, and he was a most willing student. Together they achieved an almost impossible success.
They raised six children, five daughters and a son—four born in Hankow and two, including Alice, in Shanghai. There they lived comfortably in a two-story house in the French Concession. Unfortunately the dark clouds of World War II were on the horizon. Here is Alice's account of a few of her wartime experiences in her own words:
“It is well known that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, but less well known is the fact that on that same date they simultaneously attacked Guam, Wake Island, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Malaysia and Shanghai. Japanese forces heralded their arrival in Shanghai with one loud cannon boom from their battleship Idzumo. They met with no opposition. Within hours of the attack Japanese forces had gathered the officials of the British, American, French, Belgian and Dutch embassies and consulates into the Cathay and Metropole Hotels, putting them under guard and subsequent internment. The North China Daily News (where one of my sisters worked) reported these incidents in its December 9, 1941 newspaper edition.
“Japanese intelligence was such that they knew whom to intern, whose house to fully or partially occupy, and who were bi- or multi-lingual. Since their records listed my family as 'Iraqis,' we were not interned. The living and dining rooms on our first floor were chosen to house eleven Japanese-American soldiers (who remained loyal to Japan, having left the United States to serve their ancestral country). The soldiers were picked up every morning and dropped off every evening. Actually all they did was use our house as sleeping quarters. The beds were tatamis (Japanese bamboo mats) strewn across the carpeting. Since the area they occupied was the dining and living rooms, there were no closets or cupboards. Instead, the dining room credenza drawers served for their clothing and storage needs. All our family was required to do each day was to shake the mats and vacuum clean the carpeting. The soldiers were kind and friendly and they spoke perfect English.
“When the war finally ended and the soldiers were leaving our house for the last time, there were no 'goodbyes.' After the truck picked them up that morning we never saw them again. No one came by to collect their belongings.”
(As World War II came to an end, a shocking event took place. Here's how Alice describes it.)
“On August 15, 1945, loudspeakers throughout Shanghai announced that an important message would be forthcoming from Emperor Hirohito. All Japanese soldiers and civilians were ordered to assemble in their designated halls immediately. Although I had only a smattering knowledge of Japanese, I followed the crowd to the nearest hall in the French Concession. (All halls were formerly movie theaters modified to serve as places to assemble. The one we entered housed the Lyceum Theater where my sister, Sophie, and other members of the Amateur Dramatic Society entertained us every Sunday afternoon.)
“There was total silence when the sirens stopped blasting. All the doors remained open. The Japanese soldiers were standing at attention with bowed heads, listening intently to Emperor Hirohito's announcement informing them that he had on that date surrendered to General Douglas MacArthur. He then gave them the choice of surrendering or committing Hari-kiri, a highly ceremonial and extremely painful ritual in which the soldier meets death by unflinchingly disemboweling himself in front of witnesses—a ritual stemming from Shogun warrior days.
“Again there was total silence as we witnessed every soldier in the hall prepare for his ritual suicide. No Japanese civilians were there. First, all the soldiers laid their weapons behind them. Second, they spread a sixteen by sixteen inch square of white linen cloth on the floor. Third, they knelt in front of that cloth. And finally, they simultaneously performed the most gruesome ritual of disemboweling — making sure the contents fell within that square of white cloth. Not one sound emanated throughout this ordeal. I had heard about such a ritual, but had never witnessed one. Totally mesmerized, I stayed glued throughout the entire ceremony!! It was only when this gruesome ordeal ended and I removed myself from that God-awful sight that my tummy started churning, causing me to toss my ‘cookies.’ That continued off and on until I reached home.”