The Beijing of Tucsonan Chi Newman’s memories “is like no other place in the world.” Though it’s been six decades since Newman called China home, she remembers vividly the details of a charmed childhood.
She and her twin sister, Lu, the daughters of a high-ranking official, were raised in a lavishly decorated home of many courtyards, tended to by a cadre of servants and educated in French and English at an exclusive Catholic school.
They played in private gardens while swans glided around a man-made pond. In the wintertime, they nestled in the warmth of their beloved father’s long, blue cape as he told them stories about Chinese history in his outdoor library.
It all ended abruptly in the late 1940s when the communists seized power.
But Newman, now in her 70s, has never forgotten the misty and colorful Beijing dawns and the city coming to life each day to the music of roosters crowing, dogs barking and street vendors peddling their goods.
Prodded by family and friends, Newman has written her life story and self-published it as a memoir, “Farewell My Beijing: The Long Journey from China to Tucson,” through Wheatmark, a Tucson-based publisher. She has sold several hundred copies since the June publication.
In the memoir, she described the beginning of the end of her life in Beijing,
The twins had moved back and forth between the worlds of their beautiful home and French school, largely insulated from the turmoil of the Chinese civil war.
But one day, when their parents were away, the girls were in the entrance courtyard playing with a ball when they heard banging on the front gate.The girls opened the gate to find 50 to 60 young men carrying their belongings on their back.
“They shouted and pushed while they forced themselves into the courtyard. ‘We know you have a large house with many gardens. We are poor peasants and have no place to live, so we are moving in,’ they shouted at us,” Newman wrote. “The garden was dark with young bodies. They filled every space in the garden and then moved into our beautiful house. Dirty feet trampled over Oriental rugs. Jade, cloisonné and lacquered screens were pushed aside to make room for more and more people. We were terrified and held on to each other as we watched them.”
Later, a servant took the girls to the school, “where Mother Superior calmed our fears and took us to the chapel to pray.”
Just a few months hence, shortly after the twins turned 13, their parents arranged for the girls to be flown out of Beijing to an aunt in Nanjing.
“All I can remember is they woke us up about four in the morning. Mother Superior was there, too,” Newman said in an interview this week at her Northwest Side home. “They gave each of us a suitcase. I can remember how cold and scared we were. I can remember their disappearing figures.”
She would never see her father again and would reunite with her mother only briefly before her mother’s death. Newman said she knows little of what became of her parents after the communists came to power, only that they may have gone into hiding in the south of China and that her mother’s worldly possessions at the time of her death fit into one suitcase.
The twins stayed for a couple of months with their aunt before being sent to live in Taiwan. Now blossoming into beauties, they added three years to their ages for employment purposes.
Lu found a job with China Airlines. Chi was hired as a secretary at the French embassy.
For the first time, Newman lived on her own. She was ferried to the office in a chauffeur-driven car, worked with handsome Frenchmen and smoked Gauloise cigarettes.
She spent most of her salary on tailor-made dresses of silk and brocade and handmade shoes to match, at least until a co-worker persuaded her to put away 60 percent of her pay in a safe at the embassy.
She dated a Chinese pilot, followed by a dashing but jealous American. After she broke it off with “Jack,” he introduced her to another American, Dick Newman, who would become her husband. They have two children.
Dick Newman spent a career as a administrative and financial manager with the U.S. State Department and, later, with the World Health Organization. His work took his family around the world: Paraguay, Uganda, Bolivia, Chile, Brazil, Guatemala, South Africa and Barbados.
Dick Newman said wives of diplomats play very important roles in their spouses’ careers. His superiors didn’t rate just him each year. They also rated his wife’s performance, he said.
“The wife has to be able to entertain because diplomats have to mingle,” Dick Newman said.
Chi Newman, who speaks five languages, excelled at her hostess duties. She learned to cook and took up tennis and bridge. Adherence to the Chinese principle of “never lose face” served her well, she said.
But the life of a diplomat’s wife wasn’t all bridge tournaments and dinner parties.
While serving in Guatemala, Dick Newman was kidnapped at gunpoint by Marxist guerrillas. They held him for eight week in a series of small rooms with little light. Chi Newman put on a brave face in public during the ordeal but let the tears flow in private. She didn’t know if he was dead or alive until his captors sent a photograph and cassette.
After Dick Newman’s release, the couple recuperated in Tucson, cementing his desire to retire here.
“We specifically chose Tucson because we were looking for a hot climate, a mixed ethnic group, to be able to speak Spanish and because of the beautiful sunsets,” Chi Newman said
Their home is decorated with the treasures of their travels, including a wall of miniature doors from each country they’ve lived in. Chi Newman loves doors because they hold secrets. I asked what secrets she had learned about people as a self-proclaimed “citizen of the world.”
“I think human nature is alike all over the world,” she said. “We might have different cultures and different ways of doing things. But it you go down deep into the heart, we are all the same.”
Anne T. Denogean can be reached at 573-4582 and email@example.com (firstname.lastname@example.org) Address letters to P.O. Box 26767, Tucson, AZ 85726-6767. Her columns run Tuesdays and Fridays.
To purchase a copy of the book, which sells for $14.95, call Chi Newman at 742-0120 or Wheatmark at 798-0888.