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The Suzhou House

Su Wu 蘇五 and Lei Liu 雷六

October 10, 2020


Our House in Suzhou

From the day Baobao was born in Beijing in 1934, to November 1962 when Mother and Zhizhi left Taiwan for America, the Lee family had many homes. Not including hotels the family had street addresses in Beijing (1934-35), Yancheng, Jiangsu) and Shanghai (1935-37), Hong Kong (1938-1941), Guiyang (1942), Chongqing (1943), Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Kalimpong in India (1943-45), Hong Kong (1945-1947), at least two addresses in Singapore (1947-48), Suzhou (1948), at least three addresses in Hong Kong (1948-51), and three addresses in Taiwan (1951-1962). Only in Suzhou did we live in a house the family owned, and in that house we lived most fleetingly by far. That was not our parents' plan. After moving about so much during the long anti-Japanese war (1937-1945), the plan was to finally settle down our won house in Suzhou and raise the children and have them educated in a stable environment. That plan was quickly and utterly smashed in short order. In barely more than a month the national government Father worked for lost the civil war, in reality a war of revolution, and like untold other families, it brought total financial ruin to us. The family lost the house, everything in it, and had all its savings wiped out in the ensuing hyperinflation, and became refugees.

In 2009, for a month or so I was an academic visitor to Shanghai University, and one day my host took me on a visit to Suzhou. After more than 60 years, I was to see our house again. The old street was still there and, judging by what I remembered of the surrounding, including a brook (which has somehow become a river) that I remembered to be close to our house, I took a picture outside the gate of "our" house, and 4 Dongdajie.

The Deed

|Letter, SW to LL, July 7, 2009

Lbr 雷六贤弟,

Firstly, I must thank you for your generous enthusiasm regarding the SuZhou house. Had you not stirred up our confused memories in regards to the house number, I would have let it go. Because of your activism, I was "induced" to cough up another piece of family history.

I abandoned my regular routine and spent days searching through many boxes (翻箱倒箧). The backbreaking "archeological dig" was rewarding. I found the house papers.

There are altogether seven separate pieces of documents, some with numerous attachments pasted (with 浆糊 ) to each other. Collectively, the papers describe the plot location and its boundaries; they document the changes of ownership, with receipts of sales and remodeling, etc.

Suffice to say that most of the documents are much too big to fit on a scanner. As they have become quite fragile with age, I handled them with great care and photographed some of the larger pieces in sections.

Enclosed are a few images for your perusal.

The papers were contained in an old envelope shown below (Figure 1). I remember seeing this envelope once in Walnut Creek, but was not curious of its contents. It was handed to me for safekeeping after Dad passed away. I just discovered Mom's handwriting on the cover flap; the writing, in pencil, is so faint that I had never noticed it before. With a magnifying glass, I can read it as 苏州房屋部分契据.

Figure 1. The old envelope holding the documents, with Mom's (very faint) handwriting: 苏州房屋部分契据 (Parts of the Suzhou Hose deeds).

The history of the property's transactions is recorded in successive deeds. There are numerous pieces of official documents pasted (either on an edge or a corner) to the earliest deed (Figure 2). It is dated December, 光绪⼆⼗⼋年.

Figure 2. History of the property's transactions is recorded in successive deeds.

The collection of papers indicates that the property changed hands several times since 光绪⼆⼗⼋年 (1902): in 民国⼆⼗年 (1931) and 民国⼆⼗⼆年 (1933). It was purchased by our Father (under the ownership name of Li Zhong-De-Tang 李种德堂) in 民国⼆⼗四年 (1935). Was our grandfather named Li Zhong-De-Tang 李种德堂?

The purchase of this house occurred after DD's birth. The existence of this complete set of records can be credited to Mother's meticulous manner of keeping records.

The history of transactions begs an interesting question. Why did the property change hands thrice within a short period of five years?

A sales contract, describing the buildings on the property is shown below. The seller and buyer's names Yang Wen-Wei 杨⽂纬 and Li Zhong-De-Tang 李种德堂 , respectively, are revealed (Figure 3):

Figure 3. A sales contract. The seller's name Yang Wen-Wei 杨⽂纬 is in the middle, first column from right, and the buyer's name Li Zhong-De-Tang 李种德堂 is at top, sixth column from right.

Right after acquisition, the house was lavishly furnished and extensively remodeled, e.g., notice the mahogany 红⽊ and teak 柚⽊ furniture, and the installation of electric lighting all over the house, etc. The image below (Figure 4) shows a small portion of the remodeling receipt:

Figure 4. Part of a remodeling receipt for extensive remodeling of the house after it's acquisition. Top right lists some of the items using mahogany 红⽊ and teak 柚⽊.

This remodeling effort looks like the sort of enterprise Mother would undertake. It matches her idyllic expectation of a cultured life and the education projects 教育计划 she had planned for her family. The SuZhou house was to be her permanent domicile, her sanctuary, her home base where she would raise her children. She once showed me a SuZhou bank deposit book where she had opened a savings account for BaoBao, DD and FeiFei?s education; several regular payments into that account were made. If I recall correctly, that was prior to the Marco Polo Bridge Incident (芦沟桥事变).

Our parents owned this house since 1935. They never resided in it for any length of time. It was a period during which the world turned topsy-turvy, and our parents' lives were totally disrupted.

But in an image (seen below) of the receipt pasted on to other pages, one is immediately pulled back to an auspicious and happy beginning in December, 1935 民国⼆⼗四年 (Figure 5)

Figure 5. Document from the seller acknowledging receipt of all proceeds from the sale of the Suzhou House.

The House

An early photo of our sturdy SuZhou house (possibly from 1935) is shown below (Figure 6). Doesn't it evoke fond memories? I could go on with stories of a fishing trip with you and 齐发哥 and a trip to the market where I first saw a stone bridge over a narrow canal; of the pomegranate tree in the front, the two giant straw-burning stoves in the kitchen; of food riots, and our hasty retreat (my first taste of 逃难). But I should stop here.

Figure 6. Front of the Suzhou House (facing right) as seen from the gate; side building shown on bottom right is a kitchen.

In every document where the house address is explicitly mentioned, it is consistently 盤⾨东⼤街三⼗号 (30 Panmen Dongdajie). With this evidentiary proof, the issue of house number is settled.

The chapter on the SuZhou house could be closed, except for an Epilog: may we seek recompense (in the name of children of 李种德堂) for property confiscated during the Liberation?

For old times' sake, let's visit together, when I'm ready to shed nostalgic tears, but especially when my back isn't killing me (it was days of lifting and moving multiple boxes!).

Lv, 蘇五

宣统⼀百零⼀年, 民国九⼗⼋年, 公元⼆00九年 七⽉⼗三⽇

Our stay in the Suzhou House, October 3 to November 10, 1948

[Speak, Memory. Note added by Lie Liu, October 16, 2020. Suzhou is lodged firmly in my memory, I have clear images of going to school (grade 2, at the Elementary School Affiliated to Jing Hai Girl's Middle School 景海女校附屬小學) on a hired rickshaw through winding streets; watching classmates play pingpong in a games room; playing catch (a very dangerous game) in the school yard with a mixed-grade crowd including SW, and once getting seriously injured; being taken to the hospital by Mom, again on a rickshaw; our house help taking SW and I on a fishing trip - I don't handling a fishing rod - at a small brook now far out the back door of the house; watching the cook boiling water or some other thing on a big open straw burning stove in the kitchen, a is a single story hut separate from the main house; and one day having to leave Suzhou suddenly and hastily (in the midst of the beginning of the collapse of the national government) and not being able to retrieve my stationeries from school. After leaving Suzhou in such haste, not even having a chance to say a proper goodbye, we never saw our house again. Only much later, in the last few years, did I realize our stay in Suzhou was very short, barely more than a month.

[Speak, Memory. July 30, 2020. Excerpts from Ahtong's diary of our Suzhou period].
Sept. 27. (After staying leaving Singapore and a short stay in Hong Kong) Left H.K. for Shanghai on the SS. Boissevain, a Dutch vessel. I carried Winnie on board.
Oct. 1. Arrived Shanghai. Cleared customs with 24 trunks (the rest went as cargo), and every trunk was examined. "The sea captains took away our Radio and Gramophone and other things". Stayed at the Palace Hotel (now the International Hotel) for two nights.
Oct. 3. Took the 12:45 train to Suzhou. Arrived at our home, 34 (should be 30) Pan Men DongDaJie 盤⾨东⼤街三⼗号. "It is very nice". My diary says that "Aunty lives there with her six children". Could that be Yao Niang 幺娘? She only had four children at that time.
Oct. 4. We went to Laura Haygood School - 景海女子學校 - where Dad had reserved places for us, but we arrived after the term had started and our spots were given away. We were finally accepted.
Oct. 5. We had an English test given by Miss Bradshaw. She said my English was fit for Senior III, probably ⾼三 (grade 12 in US system). I was assigned to Junior I 初一 (grade 7), Vivien to Junior II Middle School, Peter in Standard III 小學三年級 (grade 3), Paul Standard II and Nancy Std. I.
Oct. 6. I went to school but only stayed for the first period as I was going to go to Shanghai with Mummy to settle the luggage affair. That was unsuccessful and there was no room at the Palace Hotel so we went back to Suzhou.
Oct. 7. Viv, Peter, Paul, and Nancy went to school today but I didn't as I was to go to Shanghai again with Mummy. We went with Aunty because she wanted to see a friend in Shanghai. We took the 9:45 train and arrived at about 12:30. We had our lunch in a restaurant and all of us had chicken curry. After that we went to the Palace Hotel and booked a room on the 4th floor-423. After visiting Aunty?s friend in Broadway House, we went back to the hotel. In the evening we walked from the beginning of Nanking Road ( to nearly the end. It is a very long road. (it is a pedestrian street with the earliest department stores. Even to?da?y it?is?very crowded.)
Oct. 8. We woke up early because we were going to Thos. Cook to get our trunks. We took the 2 o?clock train and got back to Suzhou at 5 o?clock.
Oct. 9. I went to school and I was late. The Head was waiting at the gate for us to sign our name.,,,The first period we had was History. The lessons are all in Chinese. Today (Saturday) is half-day.
Oct. 10. Daddy brought us out to tea today as it was Ching-ching?s birthday and also Double Tenth. There was nothing for sale in all the shops because a lot of customers had bought them already. We had ice cream, milk, Chinese buns with meat and smashed sweet beans.
Oct. 16. Aunty and all her children went away to Hankow.
Oct. 25. Today is my 11th birthday. I am not having any party as there is a shortage of food. Daddy gave me a ?Wearever" pen. Mummy gave me two hankies and a pair of socks. I am writing with the ?Wearever? Pen.
Nov. 8. Daddy went to Shanghai again and did not come back.
Nov. 9. Daddy came back in the night.
Nov. 10. We went away today. We packed everything in a hurry because of the coming communists. We were going to HongKong. We all went to the station but Mummy told me to go with Daddy to pack the trunks again. They (Daddy, Feifei, Pengpeng, Pupu, and Nancy) would go first. We (Mummy and I) would go afterwards. I packed and packed until lunch came. After lunch we went to get our cloth back at the tailor's. We (Mummy carrying Winnie) went to Shanghai at 10:15 (train) and arrived at 3am. in the morning. (I remember Daddy met us.) We are staying in the Palace Hotel again.

A visit to Dongdajie, October, 2010

Figure 7. Suzhou Map, 2020.

Figure 8. Suzhou Old City, surrounded by the Weicheng He, 2020.

Only 4, 18 and, within the Ruiyuan Business Building, clockwise, 30, 32, 34, 38, 42, 44, 46, 52, 54, 56, 58, 64, 62, and 60 are found on the Google Map.

Figure 9. Area around Dongdajie.

Figure 10. Dongdajia, xxx, 2010, with Professor Wen Tieqiao 文鐵橋, ZhejiangUniversity 浙江大學.

Figure 11. Ruiguang Tower, in 盤門景區 Panmen Scenic Area 瑞光樓.

Figure 12. Panlong Bridge 蟠龍橋, connecting to the southern end of Dongdajie and spanning the southern branch of Weicheng River.

Figure 13. Plaque, Panlong Bridge 蟠龍橋碑.

Figure 14. Small exercise park by Panlong Bridge, across the plaque.

Copyright © Su Wu and Lei Liu 2006, 2020