Shanghai restored through process of memory

Jane Buffington is 86 and often relies on a cane when she walks carefully yet determinedly across a room.

But don't be fooled by her age: the newly minted author is a firecracker with a dynamic wit.

"If you don't have a name that is known, it can take two to five years to publish a paper book," she says. "My writing group told me, 'Jane, when you are 86 years old, you don't have two to five years to publish a book. You'd better do an e-book.' "

With that, she laughs heartily.

Buffington, who summers in Ashland and winters in Florida's Fort Lauderdale, wrote "Of Rickshaws and Rebellion," an e-book about the nearly four years she spent as a child in China just before our nation marched into World War II. The nonfiction book will be available on Amazon.com in mid-September.

Although I have yet to read it, I suspect it will be a fascinating read, given her bright personality and unique childhood.

Her memoir takes the reader into a world that no longer exists, a place where there were rickshaws and Russian Cossacks, sampans and streetwalkers. She survives a typhoon as well as the no-nonsense Japanese troops occupying Shanghai at the time.

Later she and her late husband, Collier, a former Marine from Gold Beach whom she met in D.C., bought a ranch in 1945 on the Southern Oregon coast. Four years later they moved to the Rogue Valley, where they bought another ranch near Medford.

She bought a home in Ashland about 50 years ago to use as a launching pad to go to the plays. She now lives in her Ashland home each summer until mid-September before heading to Florida.

"I love my friends and lifestyle here, but you get addicted to not getting cold," she explains. "I like winters where there is no ice or no snow."

Among her many other experiences, including learning to fly a plane and becoming a partner in a firm that builds yachts, she was a freelance photographer for the Mail Tribune in the 1960s.

But let's get back to her book and how she ended up in Shanghai before WWII.

"I was born in Annapolis — my father died when I was 3 years old," she begins. "He was a big businessman. His father told my mother that he would support her and she could live in the house — if she never dated another man.

"Well, she went off and got married again," she adds with a mischievous grin.

That would be to a fellow named Wallace Sherman Sheraton Newton, a Naval officer who specialized in metallurgy. The lieutenant commander was transferred from the East Coast in 1937 to Shanghai.

"This was when the Panay was sunk," she says of a U.S. gunboat sunk on the Yangtze River near Nanking by the Japanese on Dec. 12, 1937. "It was during the Sino-Japanese war. The Japanese thought it was a Chinese ship."

Our heroine was just 11 years old at the time.

"When we arrived in Shanghai and we were all standing along the ship's rails, there were two things that were striking," she says. "One was the noise. And I found in the years I lived in Shanghai that the noise never abated. Night and day there was noise.

"Secondly, right down at the water's edge there was a terrible odor," she adds. "We tried to hold our noses but it didn't help."

Upon her arrival, she recalls seeing a sampan coming across the water from their hotel carrying two American children.

"They got off the sampan and into a rickshaw," she says. "Later I found out from my father that they were on their way to Shanghai's American school."

The family lived in the Metropol Hotel, where she and her brother, Spencer, three years younger, had what she called an amah, or nanny.

"When the amah and my brother went to sleep, I would go downstairs and get in my rickshaw," she says. "We each had our own rickshaw, you see. So I would ride around in a rickshaw almost every night."

Her escort was a rickshaw driver named Dow.

"Our parents were out drinking and smoking and living the high life," she says. "I have a big chicken streak. But I learned to overcome and go out and do things.

"Old Shanghai was so exciting," she adds. "There was so much to see and do. It was absolutely fun."

Her family often ate at a place known as Jimmy's Kitchen. That's where her father invariably ordered an eight-course meal, eight being a lucky number in China, she says.

"We always started off with shark fin soup," she says. "Once my father splurged and we had bird's nest soup. It sounds terrible but it is marvelous."

Yet, as a youngster, she also saw the ugly face of racism.

"Shanghai was owned by Americans, French and British," she says. "We Americans say we have never colonized, but I played in parks that said, 'No dogs, no Chinese.' "

Those signs didn't set well with her.

"I fell in love with all things Chinese because of the nights exploring Shanghai in the rickshaw," she says. "In China, they laugh and enjoy life so much. They have so much joy. The whole place is uproarious."

Each summer, they would go to Tsingtao, where she and her brother were taught to ride horses by a Russian Cossack. The book also tells of her memories of starting high school in Manila.

"I've had wonderful experiences," she says. "And I'm not done yet."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.


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