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May 28, 2013

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A 92-year-old's tale of lost love in Shanghai

Gary Matzdorff could not hold back the tears as he took a walk down memory lane on his return to the former Ohel Moshe Synagogue in Shanghai.

Memories came flooding back as the 92-year-old Jew spoke of a Shanghai woman he loved and lost.

The synagogue, now part of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, was also the place where Matzdorff married a Jewish woman 66 years ago when they were both refugees in the city, fleeing the Nazis.

But Matzdorff said it could well have been a Shanghai woman standing next to him if she did not break his heart.

For Matzdorff, Shanghai is not only the city that saved his life but it also a place he calls home. He was only 17 when the World War II broke out.

This was his sixth trip to the city, digging out old memories of his time here from 1939 to 1949 and also to look for his former love Cleo Wang.

"Dear Miss Wang, where are you? If we can meet again, our ages may add up to over 200," Matzdorff said.

Matzdorff, who now lives in the United States, can still speak some Shanghai dialect as the locals discovered. He still remembers the location of his former residence in the modern city and shared his story of lost love for a young Shanghai woman with them.

Dancing hall

Matzdorff said he met Cleo Wang, a young and beautiful Shanghai woman at a ballroom in 1941.

"One late afternoon my friend and I went to the top of Wing On Department Store where you could dance with girls after buying tickets. After an hour, two young women walked in as customers," said Matzdorff.

As the ballroom had a rule that disallowed strangers from taking the floor, Matzdorff and his friend gave a note to the waiter to give it to the two women. In it, they asked: "Would you like to meet us and have dinner somewhere else?"

Matzdorff wasn't sure if the two Shanghai women could read English, but they were pleasantly surprised when the message, written on a napkin, came back with a reply saying: "OKEY DOKE."

One of the women, Cleo Wang, was educated at an American school in Shanghai. He fell in love with her and started dating her. Wang also helped him with some small businesses.

"After six months of steady dating, Cleo disappeared. I found out from her brother that she ran away with an American sailor, who had told her that he was in oil business in Texas," said Matzdorff.

But Cleo showed up again weeks later and wanted to make up with him. He learnt that she came back because the sailor only had a gas station in Texas, which was his "oil business."

"I was not keen to take her back as I was too hurt. My mother really liked Cleo and if this hadn't happened I would probably have married her," said Matzdorff.

Instead, he married a Jewish woman in 1947 at the Ohel Moshe Synagogue.

Matzdorff recalled that he was sent to Shanghai with his parents and grandmother in April 1939.

His first home in Shanghai was an abandoned school, according to Xinmin Evening News.

Matzdorff managed to make a living by renting a car with nine seats for US$10 every day and cashing in by servicing rich foreign visitors as a "black cabbie."

Sometimes he had to bake bread for thousands of people at a Jewish refugee camp simply to get a share of the food.

"On the first day of my job there, I said I have to go back home to fetch an apron. It was a lie as I actually ran back to my grandma so she could teach me how to bake," said Matzdorff.

He showed his gratitude to the city as he godfathered a Chinese student and helped him study in the United States.

Matzdorff said he met the student, Chen Zhenhong, in 1982 when he took his son to the Tilanqiao Area in Shanghai. Chen was surprised to hear Matzdorff tell him in Shanghai dialect, "This was my home."

When Chen asked if he could study abroad, Matzdorff got him a student visa and arranged for a school in the US. Chen now works as a programmer in the US and has named his daughter Matthew Gary Chen out of respect for Matzdorff.


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