China Boat

Chapter 33

"COSMOPOLITAN Shanghai, city of amazing paradoxes and fantastic contrasts; Shanghai the beautiful, bawdy, and gaudy, contradiction of manners and morals; a vast brilliantly-hued cycloramic, panoramic mural of the best and the worst of Orient and Occident … "


"Shanghai, with its modern skyscrapers, the highest buildings in the world outside of the Americas, and its straw huts shoulder high … "


"Shanghai the bizarre, cinematographic presentation of humanity, its vices and virtues; the City of Blazing Night; cabarets; Russian and Chinese and Japanese complaisant "dance hostesses"; city of missions and hospitals and brothels … "


-'All About Shanghai'
(Author Unknown)
The University Press, Publishers

* * *

Friday, April 30th, 1937
8:05 p.m.
S.S. President Hoover
at sea


The Last Night Out, indeed.


" … ah, but it is true," from Mister Nieuwenhuis, smiling. "It is the most cosmopolitan city in the world! Why, one can get any kind of cuisine in Shanghai; Burmese, Indian, French — if you don't mind that the French cuisine is cooked by White Russians; but, eh, they do it better than the French themselves, they always have — "

We were all gathered, most of us standing, in the Continental Lounge, near the bar; and by some unspoken agreement, we were all dressed unusually well. Father, by my side, looked magnificent in his charcoal suit; I wore my good, light-grey suit, and I even had my tie properly knotted. The wood-panelling gleamed in the light of the wall-sconces; a woman was playing the piano in the corner, softly and skillfully.

And there was a surprising feeling of — sentiment, I suppose — in the air; sixteen, or for some of us, twenty-one days, is a very long time to spend together, on a single voyage. I felt as though I had come to know some of my fellow-passengers very well, and I would miss their company — 

Mister Nieuwenhuis was a case in point. I would miss him; and I had come to know him well enough, to recognize that he was all but openly laughing at himself, now, laughing at his own obvious interest in matters of the table.

" … but if you are daring enough to try actual Chinese cuisine — a cuisine older than our Western civilization! — may I suggest you try the food of the central province of Hu-nan?" He swayed just lightly on the balls of his feet, easily keeping his balance against the ship's increasingly deep pitching. "Ah! It is exquisite; spicy enough to appeal even to a good Dutch East Indiaman, such as myself … The memories bring tears to my eyes." He sighed, just a little theatrically, and looked sideways at his colleague, Mister Damkot.

"Those were the spices that brought tears to your eyes, Erik," from Mister Damkot; he looked at the rest of us, a little apologetically. "I must warn you, if you do try Hunanese food — it can be quite a painful experience … unless one is as accustomed to spices as we are."

"Eh, perhaps, perhaps," said Mister Nieuwenhuis, easily. He took a moment, to just barely taste his brandy, appreciatively. "But there are other regional cuisines, which are equally delightful! Take, for instance, the little dumplings from the South, known as dim sum — ? Bite-size dumplings, of the thinnest, lightest possible dough, filled with seafood, or exquisitely savory meats, or succulent vegetables; all steamed to perfection, and served in covered bamboo baskets to keep them beautifully warm and tender — ! Ahhh." His broad face creased into a wide smile, his eyes closed in memory; and then his eyes opened again, and he turned a plaintive look towards Mister Damkot. "Geert, you don't suppose we could spend, eh, a day or so in Shanghai, before we return home — ?"

It was not a serious suggestion. We all smiled, including Mister Damkot.

"We have our tickets to Batavia, Erik," he said, fondly.


Most of us in our little group — those of us who had talked of politics in the Far East, and Europe, and who listened to the BBC news on the radio in the Smoking Room — most of us were gathered now. Mister Nieuwenhuis, Mister Damkot, Mister Price; Lieutenants Dunleavy and Allison; Father and myself — 

And Mister Grey, of course. He was standing easily, with his gin-and-tonic in one hand, and a cigaret in the other; and he had so far had the decency to refrain from his usual, cat-and mouse word games with me.

For the most part, I found this a welcome relief. But a very small part of me was perhaps, just very slightly disappointed, in the turn of events. Against all reason or logic.

I would have to think about that.

Mister Sayles bulked large in our group, too; standing quite far apart from Mister Grey, and from Doctor Yang and Mister Podgorski, as well. The contrast between Mister Sayles and Mister Nieuwenhuis was interesting; the former soft as a pillow for all of his bulk, the latter solid as a squat tree … 

Tom and his family were not with us. The Last Night Out; as I had foreseen. But we had made a pact to meet each other before dawn, so we could see our landfall at the mouth of the Yangtze River, just as we'd seen landfall in Hawaii, together. It was a comfort.

Still, I wished right then, that Mister Fletcher was present. For the talk had moved from food, to more serious aspects of life in Shanghai.


" … of course, the great strength, the great allure, of Shanghai, is that one does not need a visa to visit. One does not even need a residence card to go and live there," Mister Nieuwenhuis was saying. "Can you imagine? Shocking! An affront to modern sensibilities!" He lifted his brandy snifter slightly and laughed, as the ship pitched again. "And yet, eh, the result is a city full of, shall we say, exotic people, interesting people? People from every country in Europe, from the Americas, from Asia — people who perhaps are not quite using the names they were born with, people who are just a little vague about their lives, their occupations, before coming to Shanghai … ? Men who might have left an unfortunately disagreeable spouse at home in Belgrade, or Rio de Janeiro, and who have come to Shanghai and found True Love and Happy Marriages — all without having, quite, gotten around to informing their former spouses, their families, back home … ?" Another quick, deep laugh.

"Is this really so — ?" from Doctor Yang, who seemed fascinated. "I will confess, even I have heard a few rumors about Shanghai, back in California; and when my trip was announced, I was the recipient of some gentle teasing, from some of the junior members of my Department."

"Why, rumors of Shanghai are all true, and more!" from Mister Nieuwenhuis, easily. "Why, I myself knew a man, who was the head of one of the largest trading houses in Antwerpen — sorry, Antwerp — and one day, he simply disappeared; gone, without a trace. Alas, a great many millions of Belgian francs decided to disappear from his company's accounts, at the same time … such a coincidence, no — ?" He smiled at Doctor Yang. "So; you can imagine my surprise, when I encountered this same gentleman, three years later, in a very small but very good restaurant in the French Concession. He was enjoying the foie gras, I believe; and a very good foie gras it was, too!" He smiled, at the memory.

"And did he recognize you — ?" from Mister Grey, politely.

"Oh, yes," from Mister Nieuwenhuis, smiling. "It was a very small bistro; we were less than five feet apart. We recognized one another, immediately. I am," he went on, spreading his massive arms just a little, "recognizable … Or so I am told."

"But did you say anything — ?" asked Doctor Yang; more fascinated than ever.

"Not a word," from Mister Nieuwenhuis, with a short laugh. "Not a single word … Although," he went on, with a twinkle in his eyes, "the gentleman did lift his glass to me, with a rather … knowing … smile. And, so, eh, I returned the compliment. Did I not, Geert?"

"That you did," from Mister Damkot. "That you did. Yes," to the rest of us; "It happened just as he described."

"Really?!" from Doctor Yang; with a certain tone of delight, I thought.

"Eh," from Mister Nieuwenhuis; smiling broadly. "Such is Shanghai … "


My own feelings about Shanghai, just then, were decidedly mixed.

On the one hand, it represented — exile, I suppose; the end of the road. The single point on Earth farthest away from Jack; unless Father decided to take us to Hong Kong, or Singapore, or Rangoon. Or Timbuktu, for that matter. I was predisposed to hate it.

But on the other hand, I was very aware that Shanghai offered — choices. Potential; the potential to exercise my Letter of Credit; the potential to arrange some kind of passage, the chance to, just, run, the chance to bolt, to bolt the way I'd wanted to bolt, at the foot of the gangplank in San Francisco … 

It had been a powerful impulse, then.

It remained a powerful impulse.

So. The road back home, to Jack and my grandparents, to my whole world, lay through Shanghai; one way or another, by means legal or illegal. I knew it.

And then, there was the added spice of knowing what waited for me in Shanghai, at our hotel. Letters from Jack; weeks worth of them, days and days of his thoughts and feelings, in his own hand … it was enough to make me shiver, the thought of them had colored my whole day. And along with that, came my chance to mail him my own letters, at last; the chance to send him my own words, the expression of my own soul. I'd been aching to send him my letters, for days; I could barely stand the wait.

And then, incongruously, added to and mixed up with all of this — there was Tom. The prospect of perhaps exploring the International Settlement with him; the prospect of enjoying his company, his presence, of watching his young face, as he discovered a new country, for the first time … 

All while I was perhaps plotting a way to run away, and to leave him on his own, for good.

My feelings towards Shanghai, just then, were — confused.

I turned my attention back to the conversation.


" … not quite sure I understand," from Doctor Yang. "Is there no law enforcement, in Shanghai — ? Would such a person as your Belgian friend, not be arrested — ?"

Mister Nieuwenhuis looked amused. "Well, eh, yes, there is law enforcement, in the International Settlement. But whose law would be enforced — ?"

Doctor Yang was nonplussed. "China's? I assume — ?"

"I do not think it is quite so simple," from Mister Nieuwenhuis. "The International Settlement is an autonomous entity, with extraterritoriality treaties. It is run by the Shanghai Municipal Council, whose members are selected … Well. I am not so very sure how the Council is selected; except that the members represent the business community. It is a very Dutch solution!" he went on, with a rumble of laughter. "Where there is money to be made, we Dutch set up Committees, Councils, Alliances, all to make sure that the money keeps on flowing … And, so. There is the Council; and then, there is also the Shanghai Municipal Police, who report to the Council; an excellent force, with both Japanese and Chinese, and also the British and the French, and the Indian Sikhs, and a few more members from other, more exotic places; and they enforce the local laws … But I do not know that the local laws in the French Concession of Shanghai, China, provide for arresting a man for a crime committed in Belgium. And in any case — how could such a man be identified? By checking his passport — ?" Another deep rumble of laughter. "What passport? Or, more realistically, perhaps, I should also add — which one? Bearing which name — ?"

A moment's silence, as we contemplated this. The ship gave an unusually sharp, short lurch; we all swayed, slightly, and Doctor Yang reached for the back of a nearby armchair.

"Well … " he started; then, "My goodness. Is Shanghai so full of desperate characters, then — ? I had imagined smuggling, perhaps, or even opium dens … but I hadn't imagined international intrigue."

For some reason, this brought a full belly-laugh from Mister Nieuwenhuis; and his broad face just beamed, in a mischievous smile.

"Desperate — ? Eh, no; I dare say most Shanghailanders are as dull as most other people, anywhere. Although, it is true that Shanghai is the opium capital of the world; almost all of the the world's opium supply passes through the city, by grace of a marvelously efficient, and highly respected, criminal organization … But, desperate — ? No. But I will warn you, those of you who are stopping in Shanghai, to beware of one of the prominent local industries … " He paused for dramatic effect, swirling the brandy in his snifter, gently.

"Yes — ?" supplied Doctor Yang.

"I would warn you all," said Mister Nieuwenhuis, "to beware of spies!" He opened his eyes widely, comically; he was just this side of laughter, again, laughter at himself, at all of us, at the entire situation. He was clearly all but past the point of pretending, about his own activities. "Shanghai is the espionage capital of the whole, entire world, East and West, both; why, you will very likely meet spies wherever you go, people who pretend to be something they are not; people who deal in secrets, people who seek to trade, in information. A disreputable traffic, no — ?" Another deep rumble of a belly-laugh, from him.

I could not help looking down, briefly, in embarrassment; and then, I could not help looking up again, to glance around me — 

Beside me, Father had gone still, and blank-faced; which is a thing he does when he is intensely uncomfortable. Doctor Yang seemed even more delighted than before; Mister Podgorski was stone-faced, Lieutenants Allison and Dunleavy looked like schoolboys caught sneaking cigarets, Mister Sayles looked bored — it is a deliberate expression I've used myself, at times — 

Mister Grey looked blandly polite; but he caught my eye, and as he did, he had the grace to let a hint of amusement show through. Amusement, and perhaps, just a hint, of — something else?

I dropped my eyes again, quickly.

Well; that was one less thing to have to think about later, I told myself.

Damn and Hell, and Sheisse! Would I ever get past being caught out by him, at odd moments — ?

" … the espionage capital of the East, and of the West?" from Doctor Yang; smiling.

"Well; that is the reputation," from Mister Nieuwenhuis, still of the verge of laughter. "And it is a very firmly-established one. Why, I am reliably informed, that if, say, Rome wishes to know what is truly going on in the inner councils of Paris, or of Warsaw — " He rather deliberately, I thought, avoided looking at Mister Podgorski — "or of Berlin, even — well, they ask their sources in Shanghai, first. And the same is true, going in the other direction. Peoples of a great many countries mix freely, in the International Settlement; information flows rather freely, too — for the right price. It is very convenient, for all concerned." Another rumble of laughter.

He truly was enjoying himself, I could tell.

"Surely there are not so many — agents — in the city, as that — ?" from Doctor Yang. "You make it seem quite terrifying! Paid spies and assassins, lurking around every corner!" Behind his eyeglasses, his eyes sparkled.

"Paid — ?" Another, deeper, rumble of laughter, from Mister Nieuwenhuis. "I did not say, 'paid'; at least, as in, money. Why, I feel quite sure, that a great many 'agents', as you call them, are simply patriots; loyal citizens — or subjects — who have, eh, respectable employment — ? Who are, perhaps, tasked by their governments, with gathering the odd bit of information, performing the occasional service, or favor, when asked — and all, I expect, with woefully inadequate, what is the term, expense accounts — ?"

Mirth covered his broad face. Mister Damkot, by his side, looked stoic.

"Hmm!" from Doctor Yang. Still smiling his pleasure, and his appreciation of the joke of it all. "No one from my government has approached me!"

More laughter, from Mister Nieuwenhuis.

"Perhaps you are the exception, to the rule, then — ? Still; you have not even arrived in Shanghai, yet. Do not be too surprised if you are invited to dinner in your Consulate — such a distinguished professor, it would be natural to honor him, with a splendid dinner, no — ? And, do not be so surprised, if some lower-ranking official takes you aside, for a nice, quiet little talk, over brandy and cigars afterwards, eh — ?"

As I listened to all this, I could not help thinking of Father, standing still and silent, at my side. Could it be — ?

No; no. Father was a ranking officer, of his Bank. He would never agree to any outside undertaking, that might reflect notoriety on the Bank, if discovered.

Would he — ?

"A lower-level consular official?" from Doctor Yang. "Not the Consul, himself — ?" More smiles.

"Oh, no. It seems an unwritten rule, everywhere. Junior Embassy staff, junior Consulate staff, eh, they are the ones to recruit the lucky volunteers. They then get to stay in their tidy offices, while their superiors remain wonderfully unaware of what is going on, and while the lucky volunteers do the actual work." Another rumble of mirth. "Do you not find it so, my friend — ?"

This last was directed, suddenly, at Mister Grey.

I did not believe I had ever seen Mister Grey surprised, before — except for that first time we exchanged silent looks, and discovered one another. At Mister Nieuwenhuis's words, now, I saw him blink, once, twice, three times — 

In the end, though, he recovered gracefully enough; and with just the right tone.

"Do you know," he said, thoughtfully — "Now that you mention it, I believe I have heard something along those lines, somewhere, before … "

I just looked at him, for a long moment; blinking, myself, now.

* * *

The Last Night Out.


I was back in my cabin, preparing for landing, the next day.

I had already brushed my tweed coat, and my corduroy slacks — I knew from experience, that disembarkation can be a grimy thing; it is not a time for good suits. And besides, Father and I would be re-examining the seals on the caskets of the gold bars, presumably on the dock, or wharf, beside the ship … No. The tweeds, and the corduroy, were good choices.

Virtually everything else was already packed up in my steamer-trunks. Just my bathing items, some toiletries, and a couple of books, were left; and the books would go in my book-bag.

My Letter of Credit would go in my book-bag, too.

And it would stay with me, with my person, until I deposited it in the hotel safe; or — far more preferably — until I found a bank, on the Bund, who would rent me a safe-deposit box.

Of course, it would have to be a bank which did not do correspondent business with Father's. And I would have to slip off, on my own, in order to find it, and engage the box … 

We'll see, I told myself.

In the meantime, the Letter of Credit remained safely in my steamer-trunk of books. It would be the last thing I removed, before we left the ship.

I picked up the shoes I would be wearing tomorrow, and looked at them critically; and then, with a sigh, I went to find my shoe-brush, balancing against the deepening pitch and roll of the ship. It was too late to ask Mister Spivney to shine them; and in any event, I prefer to shine my own shoes. But my kit was already packed away, deeply … Well. A good brushing, would help — 


I heard a tapping, on a cabin door. Not my own door; I thought it might be Father's — 


The sound of a key turning, in a lock; and then, a susurration of voices, too muted to understand. They came from the main cabin, on the other side of the sliding partition-door, from my sleeping cabin.

The voices went back-and-forth, for a moment; one of them was Father's. I strained to hear, but after a moment, they fell silent.


Tap-tap, politely, on my sliding partition-door.


I slid it open — it hadn't been locked — to reveal Father, in his shirtsleeves, with Mister Spivney, and a completely unfamiliar deck-officer, behind him.

"Yes, sir — ?" I said; blinking at them.

"It appears," said Father, imperturbably, "that the Captain has asked us to visit him, on the Bridge. At once." He glanced down, at my feet. "You might want to put your shoes on."

"Actually, sir, sirs — " The deck-officer was young; he looked from Father, to me — "it's blowing and a little wet, topside. You might also want your hats, and some good coats … "

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