In my late seventies I decided to organize my memories of my childhood before and during the Second World War into a coherent narrative. The tension of our lives when the Japanese army took over our town in China and the subsequent anxieties of travelling from country to country with my mother has imprinted the incidents of those years into my memory with an enduring lucidity that defies the otherwise fading recall of my aging mind.
The story involved my missionary grandparents saving abandoned infant girls and establishing an orphanage in the town of Cheefoo on the Shantung peninsula in northeast China. In my father’s generation, a lace and embroidery business developed out of educating the orphans in a life’s vocation in needlework. The ensuing years of luxury and tranquility for the family was destroyed when the Japanese army occupied the town and then by our harried escape from China on the second-to-last liner leaving from Shanghai to the United States. My mother’s and my travels from that point included several places in Canada, a suspenseful voyage to India, my time at a school in Darjeeling, my father’s death in a plane crash, our final year in China living in crazy post-war Shanghai and our departure for Canada.
The book is an illustrated memoir of those years.
In his memoir, Leaving China, Jim McMullan’s watercolors of delicately outlined characters, illuminated by soft yellow light or swallowed by deep purple shadows, create a pitch-perfect visual language that is the embodiment of Memory: remote yet vivid. His scenes from childhood zigzag narratively and compositionally through a time of momentous personal development set against a backdrop of imminent social, political and family upheavals. Beautiful and poignant, Leaving China, although autobiographical, feels like a magical tale of an alien’s journey into the strangeness of a floating world.