Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Diplomatic Disaster

on November 14, 2013

1964: France was the first country in the democratic world to break its diplomatic relations with the Republic of China, then seated in Taipei, Taiwan.

After the overthrow of the last of the imperial dynasties in 1911, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, the architect of the Chinese Revolution, had established a new government named the Republic of China. As all new organizations do, the young nation then underwent a series of upheavals, thus turning into a ripe morsel for predatory countries such as Japan. The Sino-Japanese war started four years prior to its integration into World War II. However, an internal cancer had started growing during this time, a Chinese Communist Party, fed and sustained by its parent in Soviet Russia. No sooner had China won the war against Japan, than a civil war boiled over. The government had to retreat to its smallest province, Taiwan, an island and therefore more easily defended, leaving the mainland to the Communist Party, which adopted the name of People’s Republic of China.

The temporary retreat stretched into years. The Cold War was now in full swing. But France eyed the 350 million-strong market in China and declared that it had waited long enough for the re-conquest of the mainland. Thus, it offered Mainland China to recognize her as the rightful ruler of China and establish official diplomatic relations.

 Lucien Paye (left), the first French Ambassador to China, presents his credentials to Chinese President Liu Shaoqi (right) on May 31, 1964

Lucien Paye (left), the first French Ambassador to China, presents his credentials to Chinese President Liu Shaoqi (right) on May 31, 1964

The powers that be, up in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Taipei, learned about this diplomatic disaster early enough, but since this was an unprecedented event, did not quite know how to handle it.  All staff at the embassy were commanded to behave as if nothing was happening. The ostrich attitude is traditionally the default approach to oncoming catastrophe among the Chinese.

Until the day Paris made its official announcement and gave our diplomatic staff a one-month ultimatum to pack up and get out the door, everyone at the George V mansion and the old consulate carried on as usual.

The one-month period was a surprise. The sudden frenzy included not just packing official documents, and emptying the offices, but affected all families intimately as well. We had to pack our belongings, and sell what we could of the furniture as fast as possible. Mama lamented for the rest of her days the piano that she had to let go for pennies on the dollar, or rather centimes on the franc. Aunt Lily was then pregnant with her second child, with the due date approaching soon. Uncle Lung was able to obtain a permission to stay in Paris until Aunt Lily was done delivering and recovering from it.

All real estate owned by our government was to be handed over to the Communist government, gilded halls, chandeliers, carriage houses, broken statues, empty fountains, and paved courtyards…

The authorities back in Taipei scrambled to redistribute all staff among the various posts around the world. And that staff in Paris was very extensive. All of us were issued plane tickets to our various destinations. Furniture and belongings were shipped by container.

Papa told me later of one family that left by ship. The father strictly warned his children not to be careful and not speak to any Chinese, because they might be “Communist Bandits”. This was the name we used to call the Communists, “Gong Fei”. Now, you do not really expect little ten- and twelve-year-old boys to fearfully avoid talking to Asian faces.  No, getting to meet real live bandits was way too alluring. The first Chinese person they met on the ship, the boys ambushed as soon as they could, out of parental sight.  “Hi, are you a Communist Bandit?”

Papa received the order to move to Ankara, Turkey.  I was terrified. Turkey? Isn’t that where Lawrence of Arabia went? One of the scholarship university students had taken Saadia and me to the cinema to see Lawrence of Arabia, and the sandstorm that swallowed the little Arab boy had haunted my nightmares for days. The thought of going to that desert was horrendous. Of course, I didn’t know that I had been misinformed and that the movie had not been filmed in Turkey nor was the real desert crossing in Turkey. Papa seemed not too concerned about Turkish sandstorms. He was however furious about having to pack up  and go in just one month. So he sold our air tickets  and declared that we were to drive all the way to Turkey. At least that way, we would get to see the scenery.

lawrence of arabia

In preparation for weeks on the road, Mama cut off our long braids. I was really happy. No more ouchies every morning as Mama combed our hair. No more, “to be beautiful you must learn to suffer!”.  We went to a beauty salon and had our hair permed. Then, we stuffed our suitcases in the trunk of our good old grey Cadillac, passed by the hospital on the morning of March 2, 1964 to visit Aunt Lily and the newborn baby boy who was born in the night, and drove off onto our next adventure!


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