“I was born in 1924 in the city of Zhangzhou, China. We had a large fruit and vegetable orchard. My grandmother worked hard as a nanny and mistress of ceremonies at weddings. She sent my father to a missionary school. ‘Hard work and thrift’ was the family motto. She and my father made it possible for everyone in our family to be educated and get a good job.

When I was in primary school, my mother woke my younger sister and me up one night. She covered our heads with a blanket and the three of us squatted and moved to the orchard. We saw a fire in the sky beyond the river. It was the ‘White Army’ setting fire to the armory as they retreated. The ‘Red Army’ was to enter our town the next day. The male members of our family had escaped earlier to Xiamen City. The night after the burning we hurried in a small boat to join the men in Xiamen. On the way bandits robbed us. We stayed in Xiamen for several months before returning home.

The armed conflicts continued. We left our home and moved to a house behind Xiao Zhuang Shudian, the bookstore my father had started. Eventually he achieved literary fame and many scholars came to visit the bookstore. While living there I entered a Western high school. The English teacher from London, Miss Box, was very kind to me and encouraged me to participate in many activities. I also worked hard for the government’s New Life Movement. I joined the Great Cleanup and put posters everywhere. Finally, the Sino-Japanese war broke out. All schools were ordered to move inland. The students and teachers of our school took wooden boats and sailed to Huaan, a little city in the mountains. We climbed several peaks and arrived at an old church, which was to be our temporary school.
I graduated junior high school at a time when the government required graduates to work as teachers. So at age 15 I was assigned to be principal of Guomin Xuexiao. There, in a Confucian temple, I helped to reduce illiteracy and taught children to be good citizens. I eventually returned to my original school to begin senior high. It was hard for my family to find the money to pay for my college. But my mother, who herself was illiterate, worked hard selling fruit from our orchard. We also had help from my brother-in-law, a country doctor. I studied Chinese literature at first, but in the second year I transferred to the Department of Law in hopes that I could become somebody in the field of Chinese law. During that time the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into World War II. We jumped in the air after the U.S. dropped the bomb that forced Japan to surrender.

I wanted to practice law, but was advised against it by my professor. He said, ‘you are such a petite girl, without the severe face of a judge. I don’t think you would enjoy working in the judicial world.’ My cousin Chuang Nan-Ping, who had moved to the Philippines, suggested I go there to teach in a Chinese school. My family liked the idea, and I also wanted to pursue graduate studies there. I arrived in Manila in 1946. It was there that I married my high school sweetheart, I-Hsiung, who had recently joined me in Manila.

After Mainland China came under Communist rule in 1949, my parents did not want us to return to China. My father’s letters were full of bad news. The Communist government took over our orchard. The bookstore now belonged to the government. Many Chinese people moved to Manila, and Chinese literature and culture flourished. My husband and I stayed in Manila for more than 20 years. We raised our family there, and I wrote regular columns in two Chinese newspapers. I gained some renown and was hired by a third newspaper to be their literary editor. During this period I published my first book. My husband taught as well. As my children grew I resumed my graduate studies. My final thesis was The Confucian Cosmopolitan World and the United Nations. Eventually my husband became a celebrated master of Chinese brushwork and calligraphy and a professor of fine arts.

In 1968, my husband and I brought our four daughters, Doris, Helen, Jane, and Grace, to the U.S. I-Hsiung was asked to teach Chinese art at the University of Connecticut, and then at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, where we lived for many years. When we first moved to the U.S. I wanted to be a professional woman, but who would take care of the house? I decided to assist my husband rather than pursue my own career. But I still wanted to be a scholar. I studied writing in English. I was an independent scholar at the Law School of Washington and Lee, wrote papers, and participated in university conferences. During this time I published my second book, a collection of essays. Later I was a columnist for the local newspaper, The Rockbridge Weekly, and I also wrote for the Roanoke Times.

Looking back, I regret that I didn’t work as a lawyer, but because of the political situation, I was unable to practice in China. In the Philippines they did not permit a Chinese person to be a lawyer.

I miss being independent. I must use a walker and it is hard to write now because I can’t use my hands that well. I do use the computer to write and edit; my daughter taught me. But I am at peace because my daughters all have good jobs.”

Interview conducted by New Jersey artist Janet Boltax for this exhibition.