After Father Malachy Murphy’s first year at St. Columban’s in Shanghai, my sister Maria and I began calling him The Murph behind his back. Malachy Murphy was a large, freckled redhead from County Mayo who told us his family was so big that whenever they had chicken for dinner, he only got the neck. He never did get a workable grip on the Shanghai dialect or any other Chinese language, but it was his gutsy laugh I remember more than his poor Chinese.
My family had its roots in myriad places. My father was Italian-Dutch-Indonesian, my mother was Chinese, with bound feet. Foreign adventurers, businessmen, diplomatic envoys, an array of criminal entrepreneurial types of various nationalities, and a large Russian émigré population made Shanghai a booming enclave that became known in the 30s as The Pearl of the Orient. Anything was possible there, everything was available. My father was a businessman, his father a diplomatic envoy who came from Italy in the 1800s My mother danced, on her little feet, in the famous Palace Hotel ballroom. Life was good for most people.
Being the youngest, I don’t recall the good times myself, but in May of 1949, when the Communists came to power in China, the situation for Chinese and foreigners alike became desperate. Arrests by night were common. Increasingly, they began to occur on the streets of Shanghai by day. Chinese parishioners of St. Columban’s entrusted The Murph wih their valuables before they vanished. They gave him the names and addresses of family members in other countries. He soon had difficulty storing all the antique vases and jewels he was given. He began to worry about transporting the objects when he, himself, left China. He confided to my father that he was going to “have to carry out more worldly goods than I brought into China.”
In February 1952, while applying for exit visas, Maria and I were detained at the police station. I feared that we, too, would disappear as our friends and neighbors had. My family’s sole means of protection lay in our Italian citizenship. Although my mother was Chinese, she had an Italian passport, which the police considered a joke.
That February day began six weeks of daily interrogation from seven in the morning until six in the evening. The questions were leveled as accusations:
What did you do for the United States government?
Who were your collaborators?
It did not matter that the questions were laughable. Both sides understood they were merely a way of discrediting our family before our possessions could be confiscated. And always, the threat of execution hovered over our heads, Italian nationals or not. For mysterious reasons, Maria was dismissed after the first few days. Perhaps they thought that I, a teenager, would be easier to break. Break in what way? I don’t know; I had nothing to tell them.
Each day when I was dismissed, I would go to St. Columban’s where The Murph gave me tea, and an assembly of parishioners listened as I recounted to them the questions I was asked. When I said that Maria and I had been threatened with execution, he said stoutly, “They haven’t shot any foreign citizens that I know of, so far.”
When The Murph, himself, was interrogated he showed marvelous ingenuity in refusing to take along an interpreter – a move all of us considered brilliant. The chief interrogator eventually sent for an interpreter, who became as baffled as the interrogator. “The man was inspired,” The Murph told us. “He gave the chief a lovely story about me buying and selling meat and vegetables and playing golf while walking my dogs.”
My family left China before The Murph did. The prospect of the huge outside world after being confined in our own neighborhood for years was frightening. We had no money but the few dollars the Communists allowed us to take, my father’s health was precarious and, of course, there was no hope of my finishing school.
The Murph understood our apprehension. In saying farewell, he had Maria and me bow our heads while he blessed us. In typical Murph style, he said, “You’re not to worry. You will muddle through.” And we did.