China's White Russians By A. ROYDS D ISPLACEMENT and camp life
have been the fate of many peoples during the last few years. So it is no surprise to hear that the White Russians of China's seaports are once more on the move, pitching their tents a step farther away from their fatherland and its influence. The White Russians of the Far East are veterans among our modern " displaced persons." Their journeys began in 1917 with the Revolution, when many of them, used to a life of luxury, suffered extreme hardship as they passed down from Harbin and settled along the ports.
Of necessity, they debased the social cqrrency of the foreigner in the Far East. I remember being shocked at the sight of an old Russian selling toys among the thronging Chinese on the Shanghai Bund. This was in 1949, with the city no longer an International Settlement, and the Communists hard by. I, moreover, was fresh from the friendly jumble of London life. How must these Russian refugees, poor and hungry, have struck the rigid, fabulously wealthy foreign society of an earlier time ?
For these unhappy people Shanghai bee' ame a tolerant refuge. They contributed much to its legend in the years between the wars. Mostly in the field of entertainment they found their vocation— no small one in a city whose night-life was the glory of the yarning traveller. They were somewhat nearer to the Chinese than to the business community. They were obliged to learn something of the language and way of life of the people who were their helpers and messengers. But as a race they stuck together, celebrated their great chanting masses in a new cathedral, made vodka, danced and sang their pulsing songs. , Not for them the French Club and the Hungjao Golf Course ; they were always a middle people in that international merchants' paradise. They were the sleek waiters ; they were the unwearying musicians who played dance-music in night-clubs, or Strauss waltzes and " popular classics " when the Country Club wanted highbrow entertainment. They were the stout beshawled housewives plodding patiently up the Avenue Joffre with their shopping-baskets. They were the grizzled, blear-eyed watchmen over valuable cargoes in the godowns. They were wharfingers and minor architects and lawyers. Many of their younger womenfolk became dance hostesses in the teeming bars.
In the uncertain years after 1945, and once the bulk of the American fleet'had sailed away, Shanghai never regained its fabled night life. Under Chiang's corrupt but austere New Order there was no spending public to encourage places of entertainment. The Russians almost receded from the view of the foreign colony. One still saw them, mostly ample blonde ladies, about their shopping " up West." Their cathedral still functioned. A number of them still waited, poor things, sharp-eyed and avaricious, behind the few remaining bars whenever an American cruiser put into port. But the old " princess " story no longer applied. Whatever these girls were, it was nothing in the aristocratic line. Petty bourgeois at the most, remnants of the desperate wanderers of 1917, they were picking up a living more than ever precarious from this shadow of a once thriving city.
At the end of 1948 the name of Mao Tse-Tung began to be mentioned (here perhaps last in all the world) in the aloof foreign clubs. But in their cafés the Russians had long since been huddled together, whispering mournful tales to each other. The Reds were sweeping down on Shanghai. Had not the Governor already been offered so many gold bars to hand it over ? What chance, then, that the Russians (and the Politburo) were not close on their heels ? For the White Russian this meant . . . a swift movement of the hand would complete the sentence. Of course, there was that standing offer of welcome from the Soviet Union to any White Russian who wished to be repatriated. Many of them had acquired Soviet passports in 1940, when the war began to threaten. Ah, yes ; but what happened when Grishka accepted this offer ? Her mother got a letter saying, " These salt-mines aren't nearly as bad as people make out."
So rumour and uncertainty swept among the Russian community. Then U.N.O., which had for some time been considering the problem,•announced its plan to evacuate up to 12,000 of them.
The International Refugee Organisation got to work, chartered shipping and, with the approval of the Philippine Government, found a nice semi-deserted island where White Russia could make a new temporary home. Samar it was called—a name soon on the lips of every Russian in Shanghai. The travellers were massed together in the former French barracks, all ready for the voyage.
Here they sang songs about this island. The girls talked laughingly of making themselves grass skirts, such as they had seen on Dorothy Lamour. They were resigned and cheerful, joking about the whole business in the way that poor people do the world over when catastrophe is upon them. Not all Shanghai's Russians were leav- ing. Quite a number decided that the dangers were being exaggerated, and intended to see the matter out in their own homes. But the majority were trekking. Others joined them from Tientsin and Tsingtao, brought down the coast in American landing-craft when the Red armies began to circle round up north. And, as plans matured, we in Shanghai saw time and again the old Hwa Lien and other ancient ships cast off amid stormy farewells, and make their way, crowded and listing, down the muddy Whampoa. From April onwards (and even since the arrival of the feared Reds, who have not proved nearly as menacing as was expected) many thousands have sailed across to the city of tents and huts which has sprung up in the wastes of Samar. The natives are friendly, the settlers wryly report ; but for these sophisticated, urban people the local town is a one-horse affair. The early problems of drainage and water are being solved ; chapels and theatres have been built or planned. But the Russians are getting both brown and browned-off. Typical Shanghai gossip about " thousands dying of malaria " can be disregarded. But there are grave discomforts ; things like hurricanes are not unknown. Also these people should be on their ways, fairly soon, to some place which can make use of their talents.
So far, only a fraction have been placed. France has offered sanctuary to a few hundred ; the Dominican Republic and Australia will take others. For the Jews, crowded Palestine is making room. America, their promised land, has yet to decide. For many, the end of their long odyssey is not yet in sight. There is nowhere for them to go ; they are left to gaze hopelessly over the waters of the Pacific. Little wonder if the thought of the future makes them sit down and weep, as other and more publicised exiles have done. The fact that their captivity is (in a sense) voluntary does not make it any less burdensome.