My $50 Antique Chinese Gown

I have a beautiful antique Chinese gown with intricate appliquéd embroidery mounted in plexiglass over my piano. I have never seen another one quite like this. It has a bat-and-peaches design and some flowers, all symbols of good luck. It is handmade of silk and very tastefully done. I treasure this gown very much and never tire of looking at it.

When I was fresh out of college and looking for a job, I was asked by my aunt if I would be willing to purchase the gown from a tailor who had fallen on hard times in China. The tailor had asked my aunt to take the gown to the U.S. and sell it for money to feed his family. I fell in love with this garment and even though 50 dollars was a lot of money for me at the time, I bought it and have never regretted the purchase.

Later, I found out more about the tailor. He was our family tailor for many years in Fujien, China. We were a household of 30 including my parents, their six children, and Household helps—enough to support him and his family, as we did not have stores that sold ready-to-wear clothing. It was this tailor who made it possible for my family to leave China for Hong Kong in 1950, after all of our money and property were confiscated by the Communists.

I mentioned in my last post that my parents decided to escape from Communist China after a party official warned him that our family was in danger. My father had a well-placed contact in the Anglican church in Hong Kong, and he asked this man to find him a job there. This benefactor wrote to say he had found him a job and advised him to come as soon as possible.

By land or by sea?

The plan was to have my father escape through the border of Canton and Hong Kong by hiding underneath a produce truck. In that first year of Communist rule, everything was disorganized, so my father was able to get through the border without being detected. But he was robbed by bandits and was left without a penny and without his belongings when he arrived in Hong Kong. He also found that his benefactor had lied about finding a job for him. There was no job waiting. Fortunately, my father got himself hired by the British government as the medical officer for the Eastern portion of the New Territories of Hong Kong. That was a vast area to cover. He was very happy that he had a steady job. That’s when he sent for us to come and join him.

My mother and all six of us children were living with our maternal grandfather in Fuzhou. We applied to leave for Hong Kong because our breadwinner was not in town. The Communist government agreed to let us go because we were too much of a burden to feed. (They were rationing food for everyone, and it was a savings to take my mother and six children out of the equation.)

My grand father and my mother planned their exit route carefully because at the time it was still quite chaotic. We could either go by train all the way, or ride the bus to Xiamen seaport and take a ferry from there to Hong Kong. Because my father had been robbed, my mother chose to go by sea for part of the journey, although she knew that would be dangerous, too: Taiwan was bombing the strait between Xiamen and Taiwan.

The trouble was, we had no money. In 1950, the ferry tickets for our family added up to $600 U.S. No one would lend us the money once our properties had been confiscated by the Communists and my grandfather was in prison, followed by my uncle. Our family was in disgrace, shunned by many people in the town because of our misfortune. But my father knew that our tailor had been saving U.S. dollars for a rainy day. (At that time people saved in U.S. dollars because the Chinese government, and therefore the currency, was unstable.) So he asked for a loan and received it. For the tailor to lend us that amount of money was a brave and generous act, since he had no way of knowing if we would ever be able to pay it back.

I still have vivid memories of the trip even though I was only four years old. My mother had sewn us each a bag with shoulder straps. In each bag, she put an apple, some cookies and some candies in case we got lost, so we would not starve. Being children, we start eating our treats even before we boarded the bus to go to Xiamen. Also I was forever reminded of how inappropriate I was by innocently asking when the bandits were coming to rob us the minute we got on the bus. For a four years old I had no idea that was not what people wanted to hear at that moment, especially when everyone was so tense and afraid that bandits may try to rob us.

When we arrived in Xiamen, we were told that our ferry would be delayed indefinitely due to the sporadic bombing from Taiwan. We waited in the harbor for an aunt who lived nearby to bring us some food. Then we found a rundown hotel with straw mats for beds, and my aunt sold her only gold chain to pay for our room. Every day we waited for news of the ferry’s departure.

After many false alarms, we were awakened in the middle of night and told to get up, get dressed and run to the ferry. They turned off the light immediately to avoid attention. The next morning we arrived in Hong Kong. Our ferry was the last boat to arrive in Hong Kong because only one boat had left Xiamen Harbor after ours, and then China closed the harbor in accordance with the government’s new closed-door policy. The ferry before us was bombed. The one after us was captured and the passengers were sent to Taiwan.

Do you see why I have never taken life for granted? Do you see why my $50 antique Chinese gown means so much to me? Each time I look at it, I think of the tailor whose generosity and faith made it possible for my mother and six children to board that ferry, that day, and to escape Communist China to make new lives in Hong Kong, and eventually to come to America. I am grateful to him and to my aunt who sold her jewelry to give us food and shelter on our journey. Even my father’s friend in Hong Kong who lied to him played a role in our survival and success—for if he hadn’t promised work for my father, my family would not have left Fuzhou.

I am reminded of the Bible passage Luke 12:48: “For everyone to whom much is given, of him shall much be required.” While I cannot begin to repay the tailor for his kindness, I am happy that I paid him $50 for a gown when I could least afford it, because that money may have kept his family from starving. I can never repay my mother for the hardships she endured to nurture and protect me and my siblings, but I’m glad I was able to take care of her for the last years of her life, and cook with her, and watch her play mahjong with her sharp-eyed elderly friends.

Most of all, I am pleased that I can share my journey of a lifetime with you. I have been lucky and I want to give back by helping you not just to survive, but to thrive—to be happier and healthier, and to realize your full potential. I wish you a wonderful life!



  1. P.A.M. Lesch says:

    thank you May …this short story is very meaningful & as lovely as you are…

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