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From WuJiang 吳江 to Shanghai 上海

A Creative Family

I came from a typical Chinese big family.  My ancestors came from Hongnong 弘農 of today’s Shaanxi 陝西 province.  They moved to Wujiang county 吳江縣 Tongli 同里鎮 of Jiangsu 江蘇 province a few hundred years ago.  My grandfather Yang Dun-yi 楊敦頤, 號甦民 moved our family to Soochow (now Suzhou) 蘇州 then to Shanghai in the early 1900’s.  Our family shrine and funeral plots remain in Tongli 同里.  My grandfather had eleven children, six boys and five girls by his first wife who passed away in 1904, he remarried and the second wife gave birth to a boy who died at an early age.

My father Yang Sih-zung 楊錫仁 ranked eighth in his generation.  Of the five uncles of mine, one Yang Sih-tai 楊錫泰 died during childhood and one Yang Sih-en 楊錫恩 was killed in an accident, the surviving three all had very interesting career in politics, fine and applied arts, architecture and engineering.  My father was the only one making full use of his engineering training to go into business.  The artistic and creative genes in the family were reflected through the next two generations. 

Impression of a Bloody Hand

My uncle Yang Sih-en 楊錫恩 (also known as 楊君謀) who ranked number six was the only boy in our family who chose to become a medical doctor.  He went to the Soochow University 東吳大學 in Soochow 蘇州.  His avocation was writing and acting.  So for the graduation day program (another version was for a fund raising charity event), he presented a play called The Impression of a Bloody Hand 血手印 which he wrote, directed and acted in as the title-role.  The last act called for him to be stabbed to death by his adversary.  In order to make the scene more realistic, he came up with the idea of putting a bag of ox blood in front of his chest with a steel plate behind it so when the knife came through the bag, blood would splash out from his garment but he would be protected.  Everyone in his class thought it was a good idea but nobody had expected what actually was to happen.  At the very last moment seconds before he was to be stabbed, the string hanging the steel plate from his neck broke and the plate dropped with nothing between the bag of the blood and his own body.  He yelled out asking the stabber to stop but it was too late because everybody thought his plea was part of the dialogue of the play.  The knife went straight into his own heart and his own blood splashed all over.  He fell to the floor and still everyone believed it was part of the act.  Not until the curtain was drawn and he remained motionless, did people realize what had happened.  It was too late. 

Among all our family members in the audience was his new bride who never remarried and remained with our family for the rest of her life.

My Eldest Uncle

My eldest uncle Yang Tianji 楊天驥, 原名錫驥, 號千里 was a scholar famous for his Chinese calligraphy and carved seals.  He was well connected with the revolutionary force of Dr Sun Yat Sen as well as some of the underground organizations during the Japanese invasion.  He had three wives.  His number one wife Huang Zhifu 黃質扶 had two sons, Henry 楊恒, Charles 楊恪 and two  daughters Yang Yi 楊懿 and Cornelia 楊懇.  His number two wife Tong Zhaoxian 湯兆先 (who was the sister of my ninth aunt’s husband Tong Zhaojun 湯兆鈞) had one son Evan 楊彥岐 (易文) and one daughter Winifred 楊惠 .  His third wife Lu Cuizhao 陸翠朝 had one daughter Yang De 楊德 and one son Yang Kai 楊愷.  My cousins Henry and Charles all graduated from Chiao Tung University 交通大學 and then went to the United States and England for postgraduate studies.  My cousin Cornelia graduated from Ginlin College for girls 金陵女子大學 in Nanking.

My cousins Evan and Winifred both graduated from St John’s University 聖約翰大學.  Evan followed in his father’s footsteps and became a scholar.  He started as a writer and worked in the newspaper industry, then after he moved to Hong Kong in 1949, joined the movie industry and became a famous screenwriter and director under the name Evan 易文with more than 50 movies to his credit.

Dancing on Clouds

My youngest uncle was Yang Sih-chiu 楊錫鏐 known in Shanghai as Snowball Yang.  He studied Civil Engineering at the Chiao Tung University but decided to practice architecture after graduation.  Among many of the projects he designed was the well-known Paramount Ballroom 百樂門舞廳 in Shanghai.  There were many innovative features which were the talk of the town at that time.  One was the main wooden dance floor supported by coiled springs so that the shifting of the weight of the dancers would make their movement extra smooth like dancing on clouds.  On the balcony there was a smaller circular translucent glass dance floor, so when the lights on the ceiling shone through the dancers on the glass floor, they created a moving pattern on the main dance floor which added to the swinging mood of the music.  The second was the lighted display of car license number at the parking lot so that the guest could alert his driver to bring the car to the front door when they were ready to leave.  The third was a large circular carpet on the second floor hallway, which could hold up to one thousand persons standing together.  Ideal for large receptions and cocktail parties.  The carpet was specially hand knotted by workers in the factory my father set up in Tientsin.

In addition to the Paramount, he also designed a swimming pool complex 大陸游泳池 with outdoor dining and dancing facilities located right in the center of the city on Nanking Road in Shanghai.

Of course, he designed our own house.  Since we are a big family, he came up with the idea of a multi-story split-level building.  The main part consisted of three floors, each one with a split-level extension, which was an apartment on its own with three bedrooms, a bath and storage space.  He used indirect lighting in all the common area on the first floor, which was unique at that time.  He also designed all the furniture.   The main round dining table was expandable to accommodate fourteen people and there was a special space for an electric refrigerator in the pantry.  This was in the 1930’s.  The house was situated within the International Settlement so we were not directly affected by the Japanese invasion.  It was there on the roof of the house, we witnessed the bombing by the Japanese planes.  Since the uncertainty of the war, schools had closed and business stopped during the fighting.  We all stayed in.  Uncle Snowball then thought of conducting a class to teach us children three things: dancing, typing and penmanship while my cousin Fei Chungwu 費成武 the artist who was staying in the penthouse of our house taught us charcoal sketching.  Time was not wasted.

From Shanghai to Hollywood

My uncle Cyrus Young (Yang Sih-yeh) 楊錫冶 who ranked tenth in the family changed his last name to YOUNG when he went to US as a student, and since then he was known as Cyrus Young or Cy Young.  After attending Art Student’s League in New York City, his first work in animation at the school was as lead animator on the 1931 short “Mendelssohn’s Spring song”.  Walt Disney saw it and was so impressed with the work, he immediately hired my uncle to be head of the Disney Studios new special effect  department.  The department’s first major project was “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” which was followed by “Dumbo”, “Fantasia” etc.  He left the studio after the 1941 Disney animator’s strike and enlisted in the US Air-Force Signal Corp as a staff Artist assigned to do camouflage work on tanks, guns and buildings.  After the Second World War, he returned to his first love, drawing and animation.  But because of his belief that to be a good animator one must have the formal training of a painter to fully understand the human anatomy, he was not able to catch up with the advance of new technology so he stayed as a free-lance artist. When I visited his home in Los Angeles, I found he had piles of storyboard of many famous Chinese novels.  His intention was perhaps someday they could be used as material for full length animated movies.  He was ahead of his time.

One of the most outstanding pieces uncle Cy ever did was animating the blossoms dancing and landing onto the pond from the Nutcracker Suite section in Fantasia.  Critics described that only an extremely sensitive artist could have animated this. The other was the beautiful storks delivering babies to the circus where Cy animated the bundles dropping in parachutes!

He was engaged when he left for the US, however never returned, leaving behind his finance in Shanghai waiting for his return for decades.   He did get married in 1934 in US to a woman named Dorolees but divorced a year later.  Then he married Roberta “Betty” Coke who survived his tragic death on January 16, 1964 when he committed suicide in a Los Angeles Park.  He was cremated and buried at Chapel of Pines of Los Angeles.  The only relative informed by the police was Cousin Richard Town 湯恢宇.

Tragedy on the Honeymoon

My eldest aunt Yang Sih-lun, Renlan 楊錫綸 (楊紐蘭) who married Fei Puan 費朴安 from the same town Tongli 同里 and had four sons and one daughter 費達生.  One of the sons was Fei Xiaotung 費孝通 who graduated from Yenching University 燕京大學 and was a world-renowned anthropologist.  He had served as one of the Vice-Presidents of the Standing Committee of the People's Congress of P R China.
He was studying at the Graduate School of Tsinghua University 清華大學 in Beijing.  His first fieldwork trip was to the interior of Guangxi Province 廣西省 to study the Yao ethnic minority tribe 瑶族少數民族.  Since he would need an assistant to go with him and the one most suitable was one of his schoolmates, a girl named Wang Tunghui 王同惠 whom he was planning to marry.  So the University advised him to get married first, it would be more convenient for the two of them to travel together.  They did and went on the trip as their honeymoon.  After arriving at the destination, a small village, and one day on an excursion into the woods with a party of several other persons, they got behind and got lost.  Without any pre-warning he stepped into a trap used to catch wild tigers in the mountain.  His leg was heavily wounded by the dropping stones.  His bride first removed the stones and then went back to the village asking for help.  When daybreak arrived and no help came, my cousin, on his own strength, got to the village and he went back to search for his newly wed wife with some villagers.  About five days later, they did find his bride but she was dead with wounds all over her body.  A shock beyond belief.  As the story went, some villagers heard or saw the incident, and when they saw my cousin’s bride climbing out of the hole, they believed she was the tiger who, after being trapped, transformed herself into a human being to escape.  It was a local superstition so the villagers caught her running and stabbed her to death.  It was a terrible tragedy.  I was in Shanghai and still remember the reaction of our family members when a telegram came to announce the accident.

On a brighter side, as a congratulatory note for his marriage, I and few other cousins told him that we had the names of his future children all figured out.  The first should be called 費(微)生蟲, the second one 費(維)他命 and the third one 費(味)之素.

The first name pronounced in Chinese means ‘bacteria’, the second means ‘vitamin’ and the third means ‘MSG’, they all started with ‘Vi’ which sounded just like ‘Fei’.

My Other Aunts and Cousins

My fourth Aunt became deaf and mute due to early age meningitis.

Fifth Aunt Yang Chiu-wan 楊秋紈 by coincidence also married into a family with the surname Fei, Fei Maishu 費邁樞 from 吳江縣 and had two sons Fei Wenshao 費聞韶, Fei Chungwu 費成武 and one daughter Fei Fuzhang 費黻章.  Fei Chungwu 費成武 (1911-2000) was an artist and painter whose wife was also a painter named Chang Chien Ying 張蒨英 (1909-2003).  Both of them graduated from the Fine Arts College of Nanjing Central University 國立中央大學.  They went to England with two other students of Hsu Beihong 徐悲鴻 in 1946 and settled down there.  They owned the “Vermilion Pavilion Collection of 20th Century Fine Chinese Paintings” which was auctioned off in Hong Kong on September 5, 2006.

Seventh Aunt Cordelia Yang 楊季威 never got married and became a devoted Christian.

Ninth Aunt Yang Sih-lin 楊錫琳 (字一碧) was married into a prominent family from 洞庭山  named Tong Zhaojun 湯兆鈞, 字韻韶 and had two boys George 湯定宇, Richard 湯恢宇, and two girls, Vivienne (formerly known as Rosie) 湯益宇 and May 湯靖宇.  Her husband was a playboy and they got divorced after the children had grown up.  The four children were all closer to our family, than to their father’s.

Richard Town 湯恢宇 joined the US Military after Pearl Harbor and married a girl from Guam.  They stayed in Guam for many years and moved to Campbell, California after his retirement.  I on one of my trips visiting my parents in Taiwan made a special stop at Guam to visit him and his family.

May Tong 湯靖宇 married a Colonel Chien from the Chinese Air Force who was a good friend of her older brother.  They were in Japan after the Second World War when Colonel Chien served as the Air Force Attaché with the Chinese Embassy.  Later they moved back to Taiwan and settled down there.  They had three sons, Shing-shing 錢興, Ping-ping 錢平 and little Peter 錢大定.