Friday, April 27, 2012

Dining by Madame Chiang's old haunt

Last night James and I had dinner at a Mexican place that shares a patio with this place.

Now it's an upscale eatery, but it used to be home to the mighty Soong family, big-time power brokers during China's brief and tumultuous Nationalist era. Soong Ching-Ling married Sun Yat-sen and later Soong May-Ling married Chiang Kai-shek. I'm presently reading this biography of Madame Chiang.

I started reading it about a year ago and put it down because the part about her formative years is slow. I'm glad I wasn't born into a richy-rich Chinese family around the end of the 19th century. After returning to Shanghai from studying in America, prior to her marriage, May-Ling spent a lot of time writing to American friends about how bored she was because her family wouldn't allow her to take a proper job. Without anything to occupy her time, whenever she got sick she thought she was REALLY sick and was very dramatic about it.

I've just got to the part where she marries Chiang. I never knew much about their marriage. In Taiwan sometimes you'll see postcards on sale venerating their great love story. I've also heard people remark that Madame Chiang was the most power-hungry of the Soong sissies.

Turns out, the wedding was a very calculated move on the part of the Soongs and Chiang. He also had to cast off his village wife, Jennie, before he could marry May-Ling. He sent Jennie to America, promising that it was only a political move of short duration and that he'd come get her in 5 years or so. But then he was quoted in the New York Times explaining that Jennie was just a concubine he'd set free. 

Hannah Pakula made a Freedom of Information Act request and dug up documents indicating the US government did its best to make sure Jennie didn't publish her memoir because it would reflect poorly on Chiang's government (our allies). Threatened with lawsuits, Jennie destroyed all but one of the copie. She died in 1971. The book finally made it out in the 1990s, Chiang Kai-sheks' Secret Past: The Memoir of his Second Wife.

I learned all this in a lengthy footnote in Pakula's book (after all, the book is about May-Ling, but it must be disappointing to drop that kind of lengthily-researched bombshell in a footer). I'm adding Jennie's book to my to-read list. There are actually 84 books on my to-read list. I just got a Goodreads account. Oh man, it's a great way to track and fuel a reading addiction.

Anyways, as we walked past Sasha's last night, I got really excited, "That's where the Soong family used to live! I'm reading about May-Ling now and this makes it all the more REAL!"

James: "The who?"

Me: "The Soong sisters! You know, the ones that married Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek."

James: So, Madame Chiang used to live in Sasha's...

It's common knowledge that Sasha's is the old Soong house, it's even printed in the front of their menus, but somehow it escaped me until recently that Sasha's was known for more than anything than overpriced cocktails and a great patio. Last night we had Mexican food in a second-floor dining room. I  got to eat fajitas and watch the Soong house, wondering if May-Ling ever sat by one of the windows I could see, writing about how bored she was, waiting for her life to start - unaware that she would shortly become one of the most important women in modern Chinese history.

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