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The Magpie Sings the Great Depression:
Selections from DeWitt Clinton High School's Literary Magazine, 1929-1942

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By Burton Thorman, '32

The Magpie, June 1931, v. 32, n. 2, p. 57

To me Shanghai always associates itself with the stench and filth of a pigsty. It isn't that the foreign settlements are so dirty, but it's the mass of native inhabitants who invade this territory, filthy beggars in tattered rags or bared to the waist, many covered with large sores of a diseased body, or horribly deformed. One can scarcely avoid them in the narrow, congested streets. The most pitiful sights these beggars are, unkempt and almost animal-like in their habits; delousing themselves on the streets; grovelling at the white man's feet for money; squatting anywhere, even in the mud, to eat rice to the last grain from bowls fashioned out of cocoanut shells; the mothers nursing dirty and often naked babies, teaching these youngsters the art of begging as soon as they are able to walk. Dirty coolies everywhere, who bathe possibly once a year, these human beasts of burden pull all day long, rickshas with heavy passengers, or carts laden with heavy cases of merchandise, or deliver a piano from one thoroughfare to another with the aid of a bamboo pole placed across the shoulders of two coolies, and load and unload the heaviest freight, even to an automobile from the ships. The smell of garlic and perspiration from this dirty human horde; the smell of grease-soaked food cooked and sold on hand-carried stores; the smell of sun-baked pig meat being carted to market—that is Shanghai!

The Bund is a wide street along the Woo Sung River. Fine modern structures of office buildings, hotels, foreign consulates, and electric trams are along this street. There is also a picturesque park where one can while away interesting hours watching life on this important river. The water throbs with the life of the busiest. Foreign battleships and large steamships are anchored everywhere. Sampans ply back and forth; up and down stream move countless junks, navigated by men or women and sometimes by youngsters. Some are anchored and serve as houseboats.

Everywhere are exchange shops, and one hears the constant jingling of coins. Almost every nationality is represented amongst the population, and so one hears the jargon of strange tongues, and sees strange sights, and a variety of native costumes, but most imposing of all is the Hindu Siekh policeman, who directs busy traffic in the British Concession, or what is known as the International Settlement. His tall, upright figure clothed in the dark blue uniform with the brass buttons, and club and gun lend the authoritative air. His brown features are beautifully molded, and a black silken beard is wound on a string and tied under the chin, and the string is tied on top of his head under a colorful turban. Large dark eyes make their faces unusually attractive.


During my sojourn in China I went through some very exciting experiences. These were caused by the Civil War of 1927.

Everyone is aware of the hurried concentration of troops from the various nations whose interests were represented in China. Almost every large nation has battleships stationed in Far Eastern waters, but at this time there was a greater concentration of ships and troops. Suddenly, it seemed as if Shanghai had become a veritable battlefield over night. Barbed-wire entanglements, sand bag barricades with machine guns peeping through openings, armored cars, and tanks, appeared everywhere. It was a thrilling sight to see the numerous soldier, sailors, and marines in their respective national uniforms patrol the streets. Curfew prevailed and the gay night life of Shanghai ceased at ten o'clock. In order to keep in their good graces, the white man attempted to make friends with the Chinese servants whom he had heretofore ignored and domineered. Orders were given to all foreigners as to where to assemble in case of an enforced evacuation. There were numerous false alarms, and fearful, exaggerated rumors flew thick and fast. One incident which remains in my mind occurred on the night when I suddenly awoke to find my parents feverishly packing our belongings. It seemed the Chinese had fired several shells, hitting a foreign home, and the rumor had gone about that the Nationalists had begun their attack. In the morning, everything was quiet again. Another morning we awakened to the shrill warning of sirens. Few ventured out of doors that Sunday, by evening the signals were given that all was well.

In Shanghai I attended the American School, which was three miles from the hotel in which we resided. One day during tiffin (lunch time) several trucks filled with troops passed the school. We knew that some trouble was in the air and surely enough, school was dismissed early. I tried to communicate with my parents, as I feared to go through Chinese territory alone, but the telephone lines were so congested that it was impossible to get connections. I thought the lines had been cut, and I was afraid I would not be able to get home. Soon my parents came in a car from the hotel to get me. When we reached the business section of the city, there were numerous Chinese troops on the streets, and the Nationalist flags were flying from the windows of the Chinese houses. For several days thereafter the school was closed.

At one time, part of the native city, known as Chapei, was set fire to and burned. Snipers, hidden in houses, would not permit the firemen to extinguish the flames, and we lived in constant fear of the city's being destroyed. There were many beheadings and executions, and heads were strung on poles as a warning to possible revolutionists....

After Shanghai's winter rainy season subsides, the sultry heat takes its place. The only redeeming feature is the beautiful flowers which are so plentiful and cheap. At twilight swarms of bats made their appearance, much to my mother's horror, for she always feared one would get into her long hair. There always had to be something or other to disturb our peace, although it made our beloved America appear so much finer in every way. To appreciate one's homeland, one need only leave it for a spell.

The Magpie Sings the Great Depression

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