Leaving China

Excerpt 1: My Father at the Piano


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My father was still devoted to music, the piano and singing. In the late afternoons, home from the office, he sat at the keyboard and played and sang the hit songs of the day that he had heard over the radio or on records. The songs he loved he played over and over again, tinkering with the tunes and the tempo: “The Way You Look Tonight” and “When the deep purple falls over sleepy garden walls,” as well as the songs from Anything Goes. He had a good singing voice and a fluid way of playing. Like so many musically inclined people of that time, he was enamored of the light, flowing style of the movie musicals. Those popular songs and movies influenced much of what my father and mother wore, what they drank, and how they arranged their social life. It was for them a special connection (and a style tutorial) to that fabulous world very far away from Cheefoo.

My father was a very English man in his manners and sense of propriety, but almost American in his feeling for clothes and glamour. He was able to take a magazine photo of a posh event in New York and a bolt of English cloth to his Chinese tailor, who made him an excellent copy of the dinner jackets he saw in the photo. This attraction to material things and to the lighthearted games of society, for which he was suited by temperament and talent, gave him pangs of guilt, since the saintly life of his parents was never very far from his mind and the example of his missionary sister, Gladys, was only a house away. Occasionally I would overhear my father proclaiming that they must stop all this party going and lead more Christian lives.

These memories of late afternoon, when I played with my toys as my father sat at the baby grand and casually sang or experimented, doodling out some variation on the melody, happened at that moment when the sun coming through the tall windows would be carved into clear rectangles on the carpet into which I could steer my trucks and cars as if they were entering a city of light.

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