Sixty Years in A Dream
My real hometown is in Zhejiang Province, China. But we moved to Shanghai when I was small. For this reason I know Shanghai quite well; so I like to think myself as half a native Shanghai. Indeed I more or less see Shanghai as my hometown.
When I was about 15 or16 years old, I joined the Guomingdang army, and became a soldier under the wings of a then very well known general. Because our battalion kept moving around all the time, I got the chance to travel to lots of places. During the war against the Japanese invasion, we moved to the Guangxi, Yunnan region. Later because a small team of soldiers had to be sent for tank mechanics training in a field training camp set up by the Allied Forces in South Asia, I was chosen as one of the trainees as well. During those days, tanks were not actually very common in Chinese armies. So in a way we were the first Chinese soldiers to be trained abroad for this kind of skills. As a result, I became a tank mechanic, and later in the late1930s found myself landed in England where I was a migrant of sort. At that time, in England, finding work that allowed me to use my newly acquired skills was not easy at all, let alone I did not speak English when I first arrived. But then at the time there weren’t many Chinese around either. In order to survive, I had to work as a labourer, a kitchen worker, and then a porter in East London’s docklands. London’s East Docklands were a very busy port then, lots of big ships coming in and out all the time. My job as a porter was a hard one too. Luckily, I was young and quite strong, able to cope with all the hardship that came along. But still I had lots of problems: First since I did not speak English very well, I was not able to communicate easily with people around me. So for me the first few years here were not entirely a happy experience. Since there weren’t many Chinese anyway, finding a Chinese girl was almost impossible. After some setbacks I was able wed a local girl; and the marriage later brought us two children after some years. But good things don’t always last. Before long we separated. The separation caused me lots of headaches. I had done all I could to save the marriage but failed. Objection came from the other side.
I few years later I married again. I swapped between jobs and worked in a number of different places. But even so my work was always manual. Later I started a small catering business, thanks to the savings I had previously accumulated from my wages. Chinese restaurants then were very basic, very different from what you see today, and what was known as menu was even more basic. But since few people had ever had authentic Chinese food, we did not always have lots of people complaining about the tastes. What’s more, since there weren’t many Chinese vegetables then, we had to use tinned food for the dishes. Basically it is always impossible to prepare an authentic cuisine, regardless of the cook’s skill, if you haven’t got the stuff for it. Having said that, running a restaurant isn’t a plain-sailing business, there are always risks to take. Time and again I had to close down because of poor business, and then moved to some other place to start things from scratch. It was on and off like this that I survived through the years, a bit like a relay race. I have lived in various places in northwest England and the Midlands, but always in a hurry and facing some difficulty. I had lived in the UK for many years yet hardly had time to visit the European Continent. It was only until my retirement over 20 years ago that I began to take a break. Since the late 1980s, I began to visit my friends and relatives back in China whenever I had the means to do so. Since I left my hometown at a very young age, and since it had been such a long time ever since, some of my relatives back home like to think that I have money. So every time I visit them they would expect me to bring them something. What they never realize is that I don’t lots of savings. In fact I reply on my pensions for survival.
My two children are now middle-aged and each has their own family. They live in the north of England so we don’t get together very much. Occasionally during festival seasons my daughter would give me a call to check if I am alright. They don’t speak Chinese, let alone their children. I also have a younger brother in Taiwan, who moved there in the late 1940s. Like me, he remains basically a poor guy, after all these years. We have never met since parting decades ago. On a number of occasions, in the dead of night, he called me by phone. As we picked up the phone, all sorts of feelings welled in our hearts, and we both heard sobbing at the other end of the line.
My health is getting worse those days. I feel pain in my legs when I walk. Not long ago whenever the weather was fine, I would take a walk in the park, but now it has become difficulty as the result of the worsening situation. And since most older people in the Chinese community centres speak Cantonese, whereas I speak only English, Mandarin and the Shanghai dialect, communication with them can be a problem. So I don’t always join them there. As a result I feel rather lonely these days. Sometimes I would say to myself: Why not spend the rest of my life in Shanghai with my relatives. But when I realize that I must have lots of money to do this, I would quickly abandon the idea altogether.
(Wei Lin Chen)