Witnessing history: the proud memories of a venerable Shanghai expatriate

Betty Barr
I remember feeling inordinately proud that the Shanghai Communiqu was signed in my hometown, and the significance brought changes to many individuals, including me.
Betty Barr

I write this in a room shared with my 94-year-old Shanghainese husband George Wang in Residence Lan (Orchid Residence) in Hongkou District of Shanghai. How does it happen that I am here? In February 1972, I was teaching at a middle school in Hong Kong. An American friend came to join us to watch, on a small black-and-white TV, the historic arrival of then US President Richard Nixon in Beijing. We saw him descend the steps of the plane and shake hands with Premier Zhou Enlai. A week later, at the end of that visit, the Shanghai Communique was signed.

I remember feeling inordinately proud that it was signed in my hometown, and I hoped that the two leaders who signed it were aware of the significance of that moment in Sino-American relations. Such significance brought changes to many individuals, including me, who was born in Shanghai in 1933 to a Scottish father and an American mother.

I had long wanted to visit my hometown again. So when I was in Hong Kong and heard that the mainland was inviting native English-speaking teachers, I managed to get a visa for an individual trip for five days in Shanghai and five days in Beijing.

In September 1973, after a year's study in London, I found myself on a Pakistan Airlines plane – the only international airline then flying to China – bound for Beijing. The Chinese embassy in London had kindly arranged for me to fly with a group of Chinese scholars returning after a year's study in the UK. They had been one of the first groups in many years to do so.

For two years, I taught at the then Shanghai Foreign Language Institute, now Shanghai International Studies University. Suffice to say that I enjoyed teaching 10 young teachers of English and accompanying them on visits to communes and factories. We worked in the mornings, and I wrote short passages about what we were doing. These texts provided lessons for the following day.

Fast forward to 1984. I returned to Shanghai from Scotland to marry the widower of a former institute colleague and friend Margaret Schofield Wang. Soon I found the significance of the Shanghai Communique started to show in many other aspects, such as diplomatic relations.

Witnessing history: the proud memories of a venerable Shanghai expatriate

In this 2019 file photo, Betty Barr and her Shanghainese husband George Wang pose with the book "Shanghai Boy, Shanghai Girl" they wrote together.

In 1986, Queen Elizabeth II visited China. In Shanghai, she stayed on her yacht Britannia, which was moored in Pudong opposite the Bund. At that time, there were very few British people here, and so we were honored to be invited to a garden party held for her at the British Consulate, which was then on Yongfu Road.

We were informed beforehand that only a very few people would actually be presented to the queen. We were not among the chosen few. However, after meeting those few, the consul was not sure what to do next. A young vice consul whispered to him, "Betty and George, Betty and George." Before I realized what was happening, my sovereign was approaching me. Not having received any instructions as to protocol, I stuck out my hand to welcome her. This was a big mistake! One is supposed to wait until the Queen stretches out her hand. George, with great aplomb, did the correct thing.

Another fast forward to 1996. I was awarded an MBE, an honor given by the queen. We heard later that this was the first such honor bestowed to someone on the Chinese mainland since 1949, but we were not sure about that.

This time we went to Buckingham Palace, where I was given strict instructions about holding out my hand and curtseying as I backed away from her.

"I had the honor of meeting you in Shanghai," I told the queen.

"Oh," she said with a big smile, "that was a wonderful visit!"

"We hope you will come again," I said, holding out my hand. Another mistake! In 2002, 30 years after the signing of the Shanghai Communique, I retired from Shanghai International Studies University. When I was 88, George and I moved to Residence Lan, where we have been living happily ever after.

(The author is a retired teacher from the Shanghai International Studies University.)

Special Reports