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The Suzhou House

Su Wu 蘇五, Dora Kuo (Ahtong) 阿彤, and Lei Liu 雷六

October 10, 2020


Our House in Suzhou

During the eighteen years from the day Baobao was born in Beijing in 1934, to November 1962 when Mother and Zhizhi left Taiwan for America, the Lee family lived in many homes. Not including hotels the family had street addresses in Beijing (1934-35), Yancheng 鹽城 (in Jiangsu province) and Shanghai (1935-37), Hong Kong (1938-1941), Guiyang 貴陽 (1942), Chongqing 重慶 (1943), Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Kalimpong in India (1943-45), Hong Kong (1945-1947), at least two addresses in Singapore (1947-48), Suzhou 蘇州 (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 the most fleetingly by far. That was not our parents' plan when, in October, early 1948, they returned to Suzhou from oversees. After moving about so much during the long War of Resistance against Japanese Invasion (1937-1945), the plan was to finally settle down in their own house, 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 lost the civil war, in reality a war of revolution that tends to upend everything, including our household. The family lost the house and all its belongings, had all its savings wiped out in the ensuing hyperinflation, and became refugees.

In the early summer of 2009, for a month or so I was an academic visitor to Shanghai University, and one day my host, Professor Wen Tieqiao 文鐵橋, took me on a visit to Suzhou. After more than 60 years, I was to see our house, or at least its neighborhood, again. The old street was still there and I took a picture outside the gate of what I thought had been our house, at 4 Dong Dajie. It was the wrong spot.

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 (here).

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 Dong Dajie). 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

|End Letter

October 3 to November 10, 1948

[Speak, Memory. October 16, 2020. by Lie Liu].
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 stone-paved 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 me on a fishing trip - I don't remember handling a fishing rod - at a small brook not 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 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, from October 3 to November 10, 1948.

[Speak, Memory. July 30, 2020. Excerpts from Ahtong's diary of our Suzhou period].
Sept. 27. (After 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 (note by LL: should be 30) Panmen Dong Dajie 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 today it's 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.

[End Speak, Memory]

Suzhou then and now

[Notes. October 23, 2020. By Lie Liu].
I have very vague memories of our Suzhou House. I remember that inside the front gate was a driveway with the property wall on the right-hand side, and a good sized lawn on the left-hand side with the two-story house beyond. At the end of the driveway stood the one-story kitchen backing into the property wall (perpendicular to the driveway wall; see Figure 6). I remember there was a brook not far from the house to which, through a side gate, Qifage 齊發哥, one of the two house helps, took Su Wu and I fishing. I remember that once, when I fell from a high playground slide at school and was injured, Mother took me to a hospital on a pedicab. Ahtong said next door to our house was a military hospital; I know that was not the hospital Mother took me to. SW told me that from the second floor balcony of the house one could look over the driveway and wall and see a very large vegetable farm. Apparently, on the fateful day November 9, 1948, Mother was terrified by the huge hungry mob, likely a good part of which were refugees generated by the military defeat of the Nationalist army at the hands of the Communists in Northern China a few days before, storming the vegetable farm and stripping it of all its produces. The next day the family left the house and Suzhou in great haste, never to return. But I had not the vaguest memory of these scenes, nor the neighborhood of the house, not to speak of the latter's location relative to the ancient city of Suzhou.

Thanks to Google Maps we can now learn much about the location of the house and its surroundings.

Figure 7. The City of Suzhou. The approximately 1.5 km by 2.5 km Old Town encircled by the red rectangle is shown in detail in Figure 9. The famed Huqiu 虎丘 is approximately 2 km from the north-east corner of the Old Town (Google Maps, 2020).

Suzhou 姑蘇區 (Figure 7) has grown and expanded enormously in the last thirty years and is now a metropolis of more than ten million souls. The city proper, the Gusu District, has a population of just under one million, and within this district is the "Gusu Old Town" 姑蘇古城 (red rectangle in Figure 7). A 1949 map of the "New Suzhou" shows that when we lived in Suzhou in 1948, the Old Town was practically all of Suzhou (Figure 8).

Figure 8. A 1949 map of the "New Suzhou" (

The Gusu Old Town

The Gusu Old Town, surrounded by a moat/river, the Waicheng He 外城河 (Figure 9), a part of the Great Canal, has been substantially preserved, not torn down and built over. Its northwest corner, where the river is narrow, is especially, even spectacularly, scenic (here are some river scenes). The Suzhou Museum (2006) by I.M. Pei 貝聿銘 is close to the northeast corner, (red arrow).

Figure 9. Gusu Old Town 姑蘇古城, encircled by a moat, the Waicheng He, 外城河. The Dong Dajie 东⼤街 is in the southwest corner (red rectangular).

The old site of Dongwu University 東吳大學, which abuts the Laura Haygood School that Feifei and Ahtong briefly attended in 1948, is in the 4 o'clock direction (red ellipse). It is now part of the much larger Suzhou University to its east just outside the Old Town. The Panmen Dong Dajie 盤⾨东⼤街, now simply Dong Dajie 东⼤街, is in the southwest corner (red rectangular). A detailed map of the area (Figure 10) shows the street runs north-south. Of the even street numbers of Dong Dajie, 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. Interestingly, No. 30 is no longer on Dong Dajie, but on the east-west aligned W 2nd Rd. What happened?

Figure 10. Detail of the red box marking the bottom-left corner of the Old Town, Figure 9. Dong Dajie runs north-south through the center of the figure, ending in the Panlong Bridge 蟠龍橋 over Waicheng He. The relatively new Panmen Scenic Area 盤門景區 across the street from where our house was has two highest category national heritage sites.

There is a likely explanation for the apparent translocation of 30 Dong Dajie (and other address on the street). After the 1945-49 civil war/revolution all land in new China belonged to the Government. In the 1980s, the Government instituted a policy to return houses lost during the revolution to their original owners then living overseas. This was how Mother had our maternal grandparents' house in Yangloudong 羊樓洞 returned to the Lei clan. However, the effort (by SW and our cousins on several occasions) to reclaim the Suzhou house were unsuccessful. Official reasons given for denying the reclaim application were that the Lees were not native to the city of Suzhou or the province of Jiangsu and besides, none of the Lee clan was living, or had plans to live, in Suzhou. At the time of application the tenant of the property was Suzhou's Bureau of Public Security. Possibly the city authority felt that moving its important office would have been too disruptive during a period when the city was undergoing rapid expansion.

Sometime after our reclaim application was denied our house was demolished and street numbers on Dong Dajie apparently rearranged. Our application probably had nothing to do with these changes, because there had been extensive urban renewal on Dong Dajie after 1949, and that process accelerated after China's "opening up" policy began to take hold in the early 90s.

Figure 11. A 1949 map of the area corresponding approximately to that shown in Figure 10. Our house most likely was located within the plot marked out by the red box; the land south and east to it was mostly undeveloped fields.

Figure 11 is a detail of the southwest corner of the old town as it was in 1949, an area approximately corresponding to the area shown in Figure 10; our house was probably situated within the red box. The great open field to its southeast was probably the great vegetable farm that was stripped clean by hungry mobs on November 9, 1948, and the little canal branch that extended right to the southwest corner of the block was probably the brook to where Qifage took SW and me fishing. That area has clearly undergone much change since 1949. Only the river Waicheng He, the canal running parallel to its north, and Dong Dajie itself have remained as before. The city wall (between Waichenghe and the canal) has been taken down; the brook leading to the neighborhood of our house has been rerouted; the area to the north, east, and south of the block have been extensively built over; W 2nd Rd. together with many other streets and lanes are new; a bridge across Waichenghe was added to the end of Dong Dajie connecting it to newly developed areas south of the river; and the land west of the block is now a large park called Panmen Scenic Area 盤門景區 with a new lake at its center (Figure 10).

The Panmen Scenic Area

Had I done my homework before visiting Suzhou in 2009 I would have known that where our house had been was right next to the Panmen Scenic Area 盤門景區 (Figure 12), which features two National Key Cultural Relics (the highest category) Protection Units 国家重点文物保护单位, Ruiguang Tower 瑞光塔 and (the gate of) Panmen 盤⾨, plus the Wumen Bridge 吴门桥, together known as the Three Sights of Panmen 盤門三景 (here).

Figure 12. The Ruiguang Tower 瑞光塔, behind the east-facing entrance to the Panmen Scenic Area, approximately across the street from our old house, was on Dong DaJie.

Ruiguang Tower was first built in the 3rd century. Panmen (bottom-left, Figure 11, where the old city wall makes an "S"-turn), originally built in early 6th century, is one of the few River & Land Gates 水陆城门 extant in China (Figure 13). In our time, Dong Dajie was called Panmen Dong Dajie, or Avenue East of Panmen. First built in the 11th century, Wumen Bridge (bottom-left, Figure 10, and Figure 14), which crosses the Waicheng He from Panman, is the longest single span stone bridge in Jiangsu.

Figure 13. The Gate of Penman, in the southwest corner of the Old Town, is one of the few river & land gates extant in China.

A stone's throw distance to the east of Wumen Bridge is Panlong Bridge 蟠龍橋 (Figure 14), which connects Dong Dajie to the south of Waicheng He, a new part of Suzhou developed after 1949. The bridge was rebuilt in 2003 using much of the material of an old bridge that previously spanned Xujiang 胥江 and was taken down 1981. Panlong is a flightless, lowest category, dragon. In earlier times Panmen was written as 蟠門 instead of 盤門.

Figure 14. The single span Wumen Bridge 吴门桥, foreground, with the three span Panlong Bridge 蟠龍橋 in the background.

There is a small, secluded park at the head of the Dong Dajie and by the northern end of Panlong Bridge (Figure 15). I was the only one there when I visited the area in 2009. Had I taken a few more steps down the path showing on the left-hand side of the photo, I would have walked right into the Panmen Scenic Area proper and discovered that the ancient Panmen was only a few minutes' walk away, that is, from our old house in Suzhou.

Figure 15. Small secluded park at the southern end of the Dong Dajie and a few steps from Panlong Bridge.

Copyright © Su Wu, Dora Kuo, and Lei Liu 2009, 2020