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Walkie-talkie tales of town

CHINESE-AMERICAN Yvette Ho Madany traces her roots through walking tours that have become a book. It's not the well-trodden path of big names, but the trail of the lesser-known. Nancy Zhang traces the footprints. Shanghai's historical architecture has inspired numerous walking guides in English. But Yvette Ho Madany's new book, "Shanghai Story Walks," is different because it's written from a very personal perspective.

Weaving the life stories of some of Shanghai's most colorful characters, the little volume is also the author's journey to reconnect with her Shanghai roots.

Chinese-American Madany left her native city of Shanghai at the age of 16. When she moved back in 2006, it was to follow her American husband on business.

But unlike other expats, Madany had an unusually rich family heritage in Shanghai. Her parents were Shanghainese born in the 1930s, and her mother went to the McTyeire School for Girls, a missionary school for the elite of old Shanghai society.

"It was a small circle," says Madany, and the Ho family, Madany's family of birth, had many connections.

Using her local knowledge, Madany started doing informal walks with foreign friends, and these became charity fundraising events. All proceeds went and still go to help the children of migrant workers.

After she had organized more than 40 walks in the heart of the city center, a member of the American Women's Association suggested the stories would make a great book.

All her walks are included in the book launched on June 30. Shortly afterward, she moved back to the United States.

"Shanghai is much more than an economic powerhouse or place to shop and eat," says Madany. "I feel proud that I came from such an interesting city and country. Now, with the book, I can share the fascinating history and culture of Shanghai/China with a much wider audience."

For the book, Madany did over a year's research with local historians and archives. Through her family, and the families of her parent's old school friends, she was able to meet several characters from the book or their descendents. Their stories form the most poignant highlights.

One of these is Dong Zhujun, an early female businesswoman, founder of Jin Jiang Hotel and protagonist in an extraordinary rags-to-riches tale.

When Madany was a child, she met the elderly Dong in Beijing. She remembers learning to ride a bicycle with Dong's granddaughter in the siheyuan (traditional courtyard house).

The kindly old lady had started out as a child singer in a brothel in old Shanghai. At age 14 she married a 27-year-old government officer from Sichuan Province, who had fallen in love with her singing.

It quickly turned into an abusive marriage and Dong fled back to Shanghai where she tried to make a new life in business. But her first factory was bombed by the Japanese, and her next venture, a spicy Sichuan restaurant, was booed by critics who said it would never appeal to the mild palate of Shanghai.

They were wrong and her business boomed. But Dong would face more suffering during the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976).

Soon after the book was published, Madany moved back to the United States. There she has been able to meet descendents of some characters in the book as many had emigrated abroad.

Most recently she has met the Guo family who founded the Wing On Department Store, and Zhou Suqiong, whose father, Zhou Chunqing, owned the Huashan Garden in the Huashan Hospital.

Of course, she would like to have met gangster Du Yuesheng, "because he's such a legendary (and scary) figure;" the Soong sisters, "because of what they accomplished as women;" and Victor Sassoon, "because his parties might have been fun to attend."

But her favorite character remains someone without great fame, or infamy, such as an ordinary woman named Lingling who quietly lived an extraordinary life.

Lingling lived in the former Bubbling Well Lane, now called Yong Quan Fang, at 95 Yuyuan Road. This is also Madany's personal favorite walk, because it was where her family grew up and includes her old high school, Shixi High School.

Lingling was a family neighbor, a tall, striking woman who wore her hair in a traditional bun with never a piece out of place. She also made delicious wonton, and as a child Madany remembers she used to stand below Lingling's window and call up to her: "Have you made wonton today?"

Over years of everyday interactions, the Ho family got to know Lingling's past.

Born to a poor family, she used to make shoes for a living. But when she became a favorite dancer in the old Paramount dance hall, she fell in love with a wealthy young jockey who defied his family to marry her.

Her husband was later arrested for being a "class enemy," but instead of abandoning him, Lingling chose to stay loyal to a man who was to die in prison without ever seeing her again.

That steadfast resolve carried Lingling through the rest of her life, which included hard labor during the "cultural revolution."

"She was inspiring because despite her sad and tortured life, she was always kind and never bitter. She cared for others, and walked tall with her head held high," says Madany.

"Shanghai Story Walks" is available at Earnshaw Books, price at 100 yuan (US$14.7).


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