Shanghailanders – the Telfer family – Gordon

Gordon at the age of 13

My brother, Gordon, arrived home from the Cathedral School for Boys, and ran in.
Giving Ah Fok some money to pay for the rickshaw ride, our mother hugged
Gordon and asked if he’d had a good day at school.  Amah took my brother up to wash and change out of his school uniform.  Ah Fok was just wheeling in the tea trolley when Gordon came down again.  While having tea, he sat in the armchair on the other side of the fire and told us about his art class, and the boxing lessons he was having at school from Billy Tingle.

“Mummy,we could draw anything we liked.”  “And what did you choose?” “A knight in full armour.  Look, I’ve brought it home,” and from behind his back Gordon brought out a wonderful drawing. “You have your father’s talent,” said our mother. “And I managed
to hit Billy Tingle twice with my boxing gloves, too.”

After tea, our mother decided to read a story from The Golden Book of Wonder.
It was about the Golden Goose. This was too tame for Gordon, who decided to get some action by having Dopey do his one and only trick.  My brother suddenly leapt up, put his arm out at a right angle to his body, and declared loudly, “Heil Hitler!”  Dopey immediately woke up and barked and growled menacingly.

“Don’t you think you can find something quieter to do?’ said our mother mildly.  “I’ll go upstairs and finish making a swing for Margaret’s dolls with my Meccano.” Peace returned.

This blog will resume in February 2013.




Shanghailanders – The Telfer family – Amah, Ah Ling


The person with whom I spent most of my time was our amah (the Chinese word for mother) who told me her full name was Young Ah Ling.  Amah came from the
Canton region of China.  She was younger than my parents, in her twenties, and had a beautiful, long slim build with a long, rather than round, face.  Ah Ling
was highly intelligent.  She spoke several European languages: Japanese and Shanghainese as well as her own Cantonese.  She did not read or write,
so Ah Ling never read to me.
During one of our talks, I promised that when I learned to do these
things myself, I would show her how.  But time was short and I never
did manage to teach her. Once when we were sitting on my bed talking
after Ah Ling had changed me for dinner, I asked Ah Ling, “Why are your feet
not like the other amahs’?”

“When I am small like you, mother put bandages tight round feet.  When mother go shop-side, catchee food in  market, I cry, I cry.  It hurt.  I take away bad bandages.  Mother angry, very angry.  She say must make feet small.  I not like; I take off again.  Then mother stop.”


Shanghailanders, The Telfer family – Amah, Ah Ling

Amah led me through the hall and downstairs to the kitchen. … Ah Fok had just taken
a batch of small cakes for tea from the oven, … The aroma of cakes mixed with the scent of the food the others had been eating.  Amah still had some left in a bowl on the table.  She took me on her knee and I leaned against her shoulder as she fed me delicious rice and vegetables, with chopsticks, from her bowl.  I loved the crunch of the
bamboo shoots and the spicy taste of the baby bok choi and rice with soya
sauce. In the dim light of our kitchen in Bubbling Well Road, some of Ah Fok’s relatives
were sitting round the table, finishing their meal.  I was almost lulled back to sleep listening to their conversation, which I did not understand, but which flowed easily and quietly along, spoken in the comfortable, sibilant dialect of Shanghai.

When I’d finished eating, Ah Fok’s wife came

Our much loved Amah, Ah Ling, our Chinese mother

round the table and popped a piece of warm cake into my mouth.  She stroked my hair.


Shanghailanders, Introducing the Telfer Family

Margaret at about the age she was in this exerpt from Gudao, Lone Islet.

I woke up from my afternoon nap to the gentle attentions of Amah: my nurse, the centre of my life, my Chinese mother.  She opened the window, and came over to stroke my face while I stretched in the bed my father had ordered from a Chinese workshop.  It was the colour of chocolate, with slatted arms coming down half way on either side.  The first thing I saw when I opened my eyes, was Mickey Mouse, carved on the footboard and painted in bright colours.   Donald Duck was carved on the headboard, and Pluto sat up on the reverse side at the foot of the bed.


Old Shanghai of the Twentieth Century before 1950

In Shanghai the  Nationalists overthrew the Manchu dynasty in 1912 and established the Republic of China.   Shanghai was also the birthplace of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921.
Peking held sway as the centre of governmental authority, but the whole of China looked to Shanghai for the latest in business, fashion, literature, movies, entertainment and urban design.
By the time of this story, (Gudao, Lone Islet, The War Years in Shanghai), much of the Treaty Port of Shanghai was built in the Art Deco style.  It was a city ahead of its time, a mosaic of many different ethnic groups, a hotbed of spying and power plays, a fine place for rackets, drugs and international business, a crossroads of empire.

See above a view of the famous waterfront, the Bund, from the Whangpoo River


Shanghai 1930s and Praise

From time to time a city steps onto the world stage as the embodiment of modernity to which people flock for fame and entertainment, power, money and limitless opportunity. In the 1930s Shanghai was such a place.

Thus begins Margaret Blair’s powerful and moving autobiographical story.  In 1937 Japan expanded its invasion of China to the city of Shanghai; and the neutral foreign concession, International Settlement, became a gudao, lone islet, of safety from the Japanese soldiers. Visit Margaret Blair Books, See right.

I was totally taken by your story … (it) reminded me of Empire of the Sun … D.Pomper (Canada)


Gudao, Lone Islet

Much wider in scope than most memoirs, Gudao, Lone Islet paints a wonderful portrait of the lives of both Chinese and foreign inhabitants of Shanghai before, during and after the Second World War. For the broad range of readers, this beautifully written and carefully researched book provides fascinating insights to pre-revolutionary Shanghai, and a thoroughly satisfying reading experience.