TRAVEL / In search of a Shanghai childhood: When, after nearly half a century, his father returned to China, Paul Gander went with him to help find what survived of his past

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The Independent Culture
WHEN WE discovered that our guide for the city called himself 'Lucky Frank', we took it to be a good omen. Despite his turned-up jacket collar, the Pacific-rim American of his chat and the nervous laugh which punctuated it, he was less of a Lucky Luciano than a good-luck charm. What's more, he knew things about Shanghai that a map would never tell us.

With a philosophy that summed itself up in his much-repeated 'With Lucky Frank, no problem]', he seemed to bounce along the surface of life showing no more than professional interest in anything. But even he appeared genuinely intrigued by my father's determination to find a past he had left behind there half a century earlier. Here was a tourist who had not only pored over maps of pre- and post-war Shanghai to try and re-locate his two former homes, but had re-learnt his Mandarin.

It was to be an adventure for my father, but not only for him. He had taken five members of the family with him, and for us it meant a privileged glimpse into his past. The adventure began with a drive into a city which had exploded in size and changed radically. We crossed what had been the International Settlement and the French Concession - choice cuts of Shanghai once carved out for foreigners.

Our first stop was the Bund, the main road through the docks. It was here - on this river of traffic running alongside the real river of the Huangpo - that my grandfather had worked in the Customs House. The building is still standing and now houses a bank.

We were firmly in Empire of the Sun country now, and began our Spielbergian plunge backwards with an attempt to picture the Secretary to the Coast Inspector who was our grandfather arriving there in his Ford V8, late for work as always, having dropped off the rabble in the back at various schools.

Striking out towards the city centre in search of one of those schools, we must have made an odd spectacle for the Sunday morning crowds of Chinese: a straggling band of Westerners. Kate, our youngest sister, came in for special attention. Not many 11-year-olds with long fair hair find their way to Shanghai, and by the end of our stay enough hands had patted her head and run through her hair to last her a lifetime.

Only a few blocks and we were in front of the ex-Cathedral School for boys, now a local government office. Despite the loss of a spire on the chapel tower, there was no mistaking the place where my father had fought with other boys, been thrown out of lessons and, on a fateful day in 1942, been summoned with the rest of his family and the allied community by the occupying Japanese.

Unlike the boy Jim in J G Ballard's Empire of the Sun, my father was never separated from his parents. While for them the whole episode was a nightmare, with four children in tow and only uncertainty ahead, internment remained an adventure for him and many of his peers. Their first prison camp was in the north, near Peking, but when guerrilla activity threatened the PoWs' safety, they were moved south again. He spent the rest of the time until August 1945 in a camp in Pudong, across the river from the Bund.

But back inside the school gate, we were asking if we could have a look round the grounds. The doorman - a blue-capped Mao lookalike - apparently had nothing to offer us but a broad grin. 'Mei you', he kept repeating - sorry, can't help you. So using our numbers to the best advantage, some of us kept him and his henchmen occupied, with Kate as the main diversionary ploy, while the rest fanned out around the building.

Leaving that incongruous public- school architecture behind us, our crocodile set off in the direction of Nanjing Road - Shanghai's Oxford Street. By now our father was a grey-white head of hair bobbing 50 yards ahead in a sea of black. He was off following a scent that only he recognised; for the rest of us there was real potential for getting comprehensively lost.

Keeping up as best we could, our main obstacle to progress was the bikes. Wherever we went in China, our guides seemed keen to impress upon us the exact number of bikes in each metropolis. In Shanghai, we were informed, there are 8 million. I soon lost count, but if you add those that were coming at us from both sides at each junction to the number chained up and spanning the pavements like tank traps, that must be a fair estimate.

To my growing list of bike-facts I was able to add a few bike-observations of my own:

(1) They never stop for pedestrians, either because they don't have brakes, or because the brake blocks are too expensive to burn up over such trifles;

(2) They never have lights, probably for similar reasons;

(3) Bike lanes quite often take up most of the width of a road, leaving only the area around the central dotted line for motor vehicles to jostle over. Usually this involves driving straight at the oncoming car or bus and then swerving, if there is room, at the last minute.

Nanjing Road on a Sunday afternoon seems to be an exception to this last rule. Cars and buses still tilt at each other along the middle, but where on any other street there would be bikes, here there are people. 'In rush-hour time in one square metre there are sometimes 13 feet. It's very squeezed.' Frank's words came back to me: technically it wasn't the rush hour, but now I knew what he meant.

I didn't count heads, but most of Shanghai's 13 million souls seemed to be there, each cutting his or her own swath with the same determination as the earlier cyclists. When, I wondered, would the results of the official one-family, one-child policy, with all its incentives, begin to be felt in China?

Tired with the walk - a bit like trying to tread water in a Jacuzzi - Kate and her mother decided to beat a retreat to the hotel. By then we were off the main road, on a corner which had evidently not seen a taxi in years. Parked on the pavement, and eyeing us with avid interest, was a raggedly dressed pensioner astride a motorised rickshaw.

Only once the negotiations over the fare were completed and the two of them wedged into the box at the back did we notice something odd about the chauffeur. But by then one of his two wooden legs had kickstarted the machine, and they were off. Kate, an aficionado of video games, was to discover what it is like to be whisked through one of those mazes with someone else's hands on the controls. They were zigzagged through the traffic, scraped past buses and trucks, only to be dropped off at the wrong hotel.

Meanwhile, we set about trying to find one of the old family houses: the last home before home became a prison camp. It was, we supposed, in among the streets of the old French Concession, not far from our hotel.

We had more to contend with than the 50-year-old memories of a 13-year-old schoolboy ('Surely the roads were wider than that?'). A whole Who's Who of street names - avenue Joffre, rue Lafayette and avenue du roi Albert - had been blotted out. So too had the street numbering system. Though this Shanghai was anything but deserted, we began to understand how Ballard's boy-hero had felt wandering through the Concession - with the difference that he had at least known where he was going.

That was rue Lafayette: my father used to cycle that way to school. This was rue Massenet, so we were close. But round that corner, where we had hoped for a fossilised residential area from the Thirties, we found instead an unrelenting stretch of modern wall. At the only break in it, a sign was set - LAVATORY in English and Chinese. It was like a slap in the face.

Our disappointment was only slightly lessened by the discovery that behind the wall, and covering the entire area where the house might have been, was a hospital. Still, it was, as one of us suggested, a better sort of public convenience to blot out the past with.

We drowned our sorrows in jazz and Tsingtao beer at the Peace Hotel - one of Shanghai's anachronisms, which has survived all types of cultural evolution and revolution. Tables of foreigners still sit listening to the six-piece Old Jazz Band - said to be the same Henry Wu and the Syncopators who set the place alight in the Twenties, though they didn't look quite that old.

The sight of the first couples taking shyly to the dance floor revived more memories of the camp. The slow foxtrot had never been my father's dance; that had always been the quickstep. This was in the days when he had helped to entertain fellow prisoners - him with his mouth organ, and two accomplices with a violin and a bass drum which had been fashioned from an old suitcase.

There was still one address left on our checklist. Until 1937 the family had lived in the International Settlement, off the Yu Yuan Road. The next morning the taxi driver's face was a picture of scepticism as he dropped us off. A swift translation would have read: 'No way are you where you think you are, and you cannot possibly want to be here.'

We were where we thought, but we had few expectations: we weren't going to feel let down a second time. Slowly, as we saw more and more buildings that seemed to have survived the half-century, our hopes grew. Scarcely believing it, we found ourselves following the correct sequence of numbers. That's the one: lane number 1136. At the bottom of the cul-de-sac, flag- and flowerwaving Youth Pioneers were rehearsing a routine to a brass band playing the 'Internationale', ready for the arrival of some party dignitary. As my father approached the house, the welcoming concert was a happy coincidence.

The doorbell was answered by a maid - a throwback to the days when the servants' quarters were as full as the main house. We were welcomed by Mr Shen, who had lived in the house since the Forties and, it struck us immediately, had changed almost nothing over the years. The furniture, the light fittings and electrics looked like museum pieces. The red-brown paintwork, though clean and highly polished, had never been retouched, even where it was worn away completely.

Mr Shen spoke excellent and at times florid English. Hearing our story, he remarked, 'But your father must be an octogenarian]' No, I assured him, he's only er . . . in his sixties. 'Ooh-la-la]' he exclaimed. That turned out to be his catchphrase for expressing surprise, which we traced back to the time when he taught French in Shanghai's Foreign Language Institute.

Every inch of the house and garden was picked over for memories. Yes, my father remembered having broken the window on the upstairs landing. And there's the garage - bricked up now, with the chauffeur's room above and the ghost of the V8 below. The garden is better tended now than in the days when it was cluttered with his brother's caged squirrels, chipmunks, snakes and an affectionate gibbon which used to drape itself round their father's shoulders like a cloak.

Over a cup of the stuff, Mr Shen told us how he used to export green tea to North Africa, had worked for European engineering companies in Shanghai and, of course, had taught. It was as if this sort of encounter was an everyday occurrence. My father was equally relaxed by this time, despite having found a pair of dentures grinning at him from the bottom of the bathroom basin - and even tiptoed into French. 'Ooh-la-la]' exclaimed Mr Shen.

Back at the hotel, Frank clearly did not share our sense of triumph. The trouble with lucky people is that they take good fortune for granted. Perhaps the rest of my father's childhood was arranging itself neatly in his mind into a series of Shanghai holidays for the future. 'Here's my card. Look me up next time you're here. OK? No problem.'