The Very Talented Miss Margaret Yu
|Margaret Yu, far right, circa 1950. I am not sure where this photo was taken or whether the people with her were family members or friends.
My mother, Joan Joyce (Schiavon) Huesca met Margaret Yu while both were attending Saint Francis College in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Margaret was an exchange student who had studied Linguistics at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and my mother was a drama major. They hit it off instantly and and began a friendship that flourished and deepened over the years until my mother’s death in 1987.
Margaret came from a family of elite professors in Hong Kong. Her parents owned two neighboring houses, one built in Chinese style and the other built in Western style, on a hill overlooking Kowloon. One week the family would live in the Chinese house, speaking Mandarin and observing Chinese customs, and the next week they would move everyone – servants and all – into the Western house next door, where they would speak English and live according to British customs. My mother believed this accounted for Margaret’s flawless English and impeccable manners.
Margaret was a highly cultured lady, having traveled with her parents and brothers and sisters around the world several times. She was well read and spoke several languages fluently, Mandarin, Cantonese, English, German, and French among others. Yet for all her worldliness and sophistication, she loved having fun just as much as the next young woman, and she and my mother spent their free time going to the theater, playing card games, or sipping root beer floats (also called “black cows” in the Midwest) with their classmates at Woolworth’s lunch counter.
Having no family locally, Margaret frequently accompanied my mother on her weekend visits home to Chicago. The two of them would sit cross-legged on my mother’s bed and talk late into the night, sometimes giggling so much that my grandparents, Ralph and Alice (McGinnis) Schiavon would have to knock on the bedroom door to ask them to keep the noise down. Even so, my grandparents loved Margaret and treated her like a special second daughter, allowing her all kinds of indulgences, such as sleeping in late in the morning and running around the house in her bright red Chinese silk pajamas. My grandfather delighted in her effusive compliments on his Italian cooking. At times she would reciprocate the favor, cooking elaborate Chinese dishes for the family.
|Margaret gave my mother this silk
embroidered Chinese purse in about
1948. My mother treasured it and carried it
proudly on special occasions.
Margaret Yu returned to Hong Kong at the close of the academic year, but she and my mother remained close friends all their lives. They wrote long letters to each other throughout the years, sharing everyday stories of their lives, hopes and dreams.
Margaret’s letters were instantly recognizable. Printing her return address under her name, “Miss Margaret Yu,” she always wrote on aerogrammes,. These were were thin, light blue letter stock, bearing imprinted postage images of Queen Elizabeth II (Hong Kong was still a British colony at that time) and labeled “Par Avion/Via Air Mail” in blue and red type. It was always exciting to see these exotic letters, often featuring red Chinese characters and sometimes even exquisite pre-printed drawings. How thin they were, yet how much news they contained!
My mother would slit the letters open carefully but eventually allowed us the honors as we grew older and more adept at such things. She breathlessly read “Auntie” Margaret’s letters to my father, my sisters and me, as we crowded around her, glued to every word. Through these letters we got a taste of what it was like to live in Hong Kong during a pivotal time of economic and cultural turmoil. As the years passed, we began to feel as though we knew her almost as intimately as my mother did.
We heard about the linguistic classes she taught at the University of Hong Kong and of the books she wrote on the subject. We learned about the rise of factories that made the colony a manufacturing giant in the 60s. We heard harrowing stories of the chaos and riots in mainland China that spilled over into Hong Kong as Chairman Mao Zedong’s Communist Party challenged British rule. Being young children, we wondered what Aunt Margaret meant when she said that a lot of the “intellectuals” had to go into hiding to avoid being rounded up by the Communists and that the Red Guard was indoctrinating children to turn in their parents for cultural “sins.” And we listened closely at the dinner table as my parents discussed the latest letter detailing Aunt Margaret’s efforts to join the mass exodus from the island, fearful of a Communist takeover.
In about 1967, my mother and father tried unsuccessfully to sponsor Margaret so she could emigrate to California. They wrote to our local Congressman, Don Edwards, the Department of State, and anyone else they thought could help. As we understood it, part of the problem was that so many people were trying to leave Hong Kong that the United States set a quota for the number of visas it could grant, which it did by a yearly lottery. We anticipated the lottery deadline every year, but Margaret’s number was never drawn. After several years of unsuccessful attempts, she applied for and was accepted as an immigrant to Canada. She arrived in Vancouver, British Columbia in the early 1970s, where she settled near some of her relatives. My mother was dismayed that Margaret had not made it to the U.S., but she was relieved to know her dear friend had finally managed to leave Hong Kong after all the turmoil there.
My mother and Aunt Margaret finally had their long-awaited reunion in about 1973 or 74, when Margaret flew down from Vancouver to San Francisco International Airport. She stayed with us for a couple of weeks, and she and my mother stayed up late into the night laughing and catching up on life, just as they had when they were young college co-eds. When she returned home, there were just as many tears as there was laughter.
Aunt Margaret and I shared a mutual love of foreign languages, and when I announced that I wanted to learn 17 languages like her, she gently corrected me and said she only spoke only eight. She encouraged me to pursue my language studies and suggested that I should visit Hong Kong one day. Just knowing someone who could speak many languages made it seem more possible to study several myself, and I did just that. By 1977, things had calmed down in Hong Kong, and I went there on a familiarization tour for airline employees. I visited some of Aunt Margaret’s friends on the faculty at the University of Hong Kong and had the time of my life. If not for her, I might never had gone there.
July 31, 1987
My dearest Joan,
My fondest love to you, Gilbert, Linda & all the girls.
Eleven years later, in April 1998, my husband and I and our young children drove north to British Columbia on Easter vacation. When we arrived in Vancouver, I phoned Aunt Margaret, eager to see her again.
It was not a good day for her. By now, she would have been about 78 years old. She apologized, saying that she was in poor health, and she asked me to call back two days later, on Wednesday afternoon. Wednesdays, she explained, were the days she received visitors. While this seemed a bit formal and old-fashioned, Margaret was very clear, and it was obvious that she had practiced this routine all her life. When I called two days later, there was no answer, and we left for home the next morning.
She continued to write to my father and me off and on after that, but her letters stopped eventually. We never found out why but guessed it had to do with her frail health.
Copyright © 2012 Linda Huesca Tully