Promenaden Cafe, Shanghai
Sunday, December 15,1946

Ya-Li walked quickly under the Shanghai sky filled with gray clouds blown westward by the wind off the Whangpoo River as it flowed into the East Chine Sea. She hurried up the stairs to the second floor of the squat building in an alleyway off Chusan Road and knocked on the door. Chao Chen let her in to the shabby one-room apartment. Other than an unmade bed, an upright piano with its bench, a hot plate and kettle, and a wardrobe with a cracked mirror, there was hardly a hint of its occupants: the elegant twenty-eight-year-old bride and her younger Austrian- Jewish lover, Walter Kolber.

Ya-Li inquired, “Why are you still in your nightgown, Chao Chen? The taxi will be here any minute.”

“I needed to practice the piece Walter and I are supposed to perform after the ceremony. If I make any mistakes Walter will be furious with me. I guess the time just slipped away from me.”

“Let me help you with your dress. I ironed it a few days ago. It should still be fresh.”

Ya-Li took the red taffeta gown out of the wardrobe and instructed Chao Chen to step into it. The only time she had worn it was for the recital at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music was when she and Walter played the first movement of Beethoven’s “Spring Sonata” for violin and piano. Of all the student performers, they were the only ones who received a standing ovation. And now, two years later, they were about to marry- and not a moment too soon.

Ya-Li struggled with the zipper. “Chao Chen, you’re still tiny as a bird, but that baby inside you is taking up a lot of room around your waist. If you had waited much longer you would have had to buy another dress”

Chao Chen frowned. ” And with what money? Walter and I are just scraping by. He’s lost his job. the factory where he was working shut down, and the Jewish owners have gone to Canada.” She sighed. “I just pray he finds another job soon or we’ll be on the dole. The landlady is threatening to raise our rent now that so many Chinese are coming back from the countryside.”

Tenderly patting Chao Chen’s cheek, Ya-Li said, “Don’t fret so. It’s not healthy for you or your baby. Besides, it makes you look unattractive, and you’re still so beautiful, especially in that dress. You look like a rose in full bloom. Now, put a smile on your face and let’s meet your bridegroom at the Promenaden Cafe. I’m sure he’s wondering where you are.”

“Ya-Li, go downstairs and be on the lookout for the taxi. I need to feed the mourning doves. Who knows what time Walter and I will be back, and I don’t want then to get hungry, Besides, they’re afraid to be left alone for too long.”

Ya-Li laughed. “How do you know that if you’re no here?”

“I can’t explain it. I just know.” Chao Chen unconsciously rubbed her stomach. “They are like my babies.”

After tending to her birds, Chao Chen inspected herself in the cracked mirror. Her eyes sparkled and her long, dark hair curled softly around her face. Her cheeks were flushed. She turned sideways. I wonder if anyone will notice that I’m pregnant. She answered herself out loud, which was becoming a habit of late. “No. You just look healthy, Chao Chen. Now lift your head up high and show everyone how happy you are.”

She heard the taxi honking and grabbed her coat. Lifting the hem of her dress so she wouldn’t trip, she ran down the stairs.

The day was cold, dictating that all the guest wear warm overcoats, hats, and gloves on their way to the marriage ceremony at the Promenaden Cafe on East Seward Road in Shanghai’s poorest district. The officiant, Dr. Kurt Primo, seeing the darkening overcast skies, carried an umbrella. Better safe than sorry, he though, especially since he had two more weddings to perform later in the day, although neither would be as unusual as this. If he wasn’t being paid in American dollars he wouldn’t have bothered. He could only guess what kind of trouble the groom had stepped into to be marrying a Chinese girl. The young man had a dubious reputation among the members of the Jewish B’nai B’rith Lodge. A shame, since his father. Josef Kolber, was such a fine and well-respected man. Dr. Primo signed as he pushed his shoulder into the wind, wondering how many other young Jewish men had found themselves caught in the underbelly of war-torn Shanghai.

As Chao Chen and Ya-Li stepped out of the taxicab onto East Seward Road the bride noticed the “In Bounds” sign posted in the window of the Promenaden Cafe, signaling that it was safe for U.S. military personnel to eat and drink there. It also guaranteed that the cafe would be crowded and overshadows the small wedding party, which had assembled in a dark corner waiting for the brides’s arrival.

Ya-Li grabbed Chao Chen’s hand and guided her through the rowdy crowd. Some of the Seabees, sailors of the U.S. Navy’s Construction Brigade sent to Shanghai to repair a deep-water pier severely damaged by Allied and Japanese bombing, whistled at her as she passed.

Sitting at the piano was Bobby Johnston, a well-known Negro jazz pianist from Philadelphia who played at the clubs and cafes around Shanghai, a city that could never get enough of American music, especially jazz. His raspy voice and nimble fingers earned him a silver tray full of tips whenever he performed.

Snapping their fingers and tapping their feet, the sailors added their off-key voices to his jazzy renditions of “Swinging on a Star” and “Twilight Time.” A petite Chinese waitress worked her way through the crowd, balancing drink orders on a tray and shoving tips into her apron pocket, unable to protect herself from the sailors who pinched her cheek or patted her backside as if she were public property.

As Chao Chen and Ya-Li passed by, Bobby Johnston interrupted what he was playing, threw her an admiring glance, then broke into “The More I See You.” The sailors sang out, “And there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for the rare delight of the sight of you.”

Chao Chen wished she could just run away from this unwanted attention, but she willed her feet to keep moving toward her groom, who was laughing at something Professor Alfred Wittenberg was saying. As she neared, Walter caressed Chao Chen’s neck and whispered in her ear, “I was beginning to worry about you. It’s already past one o’clock.”

“You didn’t look too concerned, Walter. Weren’t you just now laughing at one of Professor Wittenberg’s jokes? I hoped you’d be waiting at the door to the cafe, looking out for me.”

“You know how important it is that I appear to be hanging on his every word. I need his patronage. Without it I won’t get anywhere.”

Chao Chen sighed, resigned. “Sometimes I think you overdo it, Walter.”

Walter signaled for the guests to gather around, and in a matter of only a few minuted the perfunctory civil ceremony concluded. Dr. Kurt Primo, the attorney Willi Schultz, and Fritz Weiss, who reprinted the Shanghai B’nai B’rith Lodge, signed the marriage certificate. The document was elaborately decorated with pink blossoms and birds and carried the seal of Shanghai’s Jewish community, the Judische Gemeinde stamp.

Then, with everyone looking on, Walter embraced Chao Chen, bent her back at the waist, and kissed her on the lips with the false ardor of a movie star in a romantic scene. The guests applauded and then found their seats at the two tables reserved for the wedding party. Chao Chen, startled by her groom’s sudden show of affection, wondered, Did that kiss really mean anything to him?

Weeks before the wedding, Chao Chan’s brother Fu-Chan had offered to pay for the modest celebration at the Promenaden, one of the few Jewish cafes that accommodated weddings and known for its excellent European-style cuisine. He told Chao Chen, “I’m sorry, but that’s the best I can do for you. I wish I had more money to spend on a more elaborate reception in one of those fancy hotels along the Bund, but I have the family to think about. I’ve only just started working again.”

“Don’t worry, Fu-Chan. I’m just glad that you and brother Fu-Ti will be there.”

“It’s the least we can do for you. But I’m sorry that you have chosen not to tell either Rui-De Xu or Ya-Nan that you are getting married.”

“Why would I tell them? They made it clear they want nothing more to do with me when I told them I was moving out and would no longer give them money. Can you imagine how they would react if they know I’m marrying a Jew? If they had their was they would have pawned me off to some wealthy widower with five children. In fact, they tried, but I refused.”

Chao Chen whispered in her brother’s ear, “The way Rui-De Xu carries on, you’d think she was the Empress of China instead of a pathetic widow. And as for our mother, Ya-Nan, since Father died… Well, you know, a concubine is a second-class citizen in the Chen family. If Father were alive he would be ashamed to see the way those two woman behave, always squabbling over what’s left of his estate.”

Fu-Chan asked, “Will anyone be there from the Kolber family?”

“No. Walter kept our marriage a secret from his parents. Only his older sister, Lilly, knows about us, and she admitted to Walter that she didn’t want to be disloyal to their parents and so she and her husband won’t come either.”

Fu-Chan ran his hands through his thick black hair, then adjusted his glasses as if to inspect his sister more closely. “You always were a rebel, Chao Chen. I’ve always liked that in you. But don’t you think marrying a Jew is taking things too far?”

“So, you also disapprove of me marrying Walter?”

“I didn’t say that. It’s just… I worry what’s going to happen to you. There aren’t many mixed marriages in Shanghai, especially between Jews and Chinese. Neither side is particularly tolerant of the other, except when it comes to doing business together. But in matters of the heart, you and Walter will be alone, I’m afraid.”

Chao Chen signed. “We already are alone, Fu-Chan.”

Chao Chen tried to push the memory of this painful conversation out of her head and concentrated on the guests seated at the tables. Out of respect to the bride, they conversed in English because Chao Chen knew only a few German words. Seated at the place of honor was Walter’s violin teacher, Professor Alfred Wittenberg, who had been an illustrious member of Berlin’s Schnabel Trio. He and his wife, like so many other Jews who found a safe haven in Shanghai, had narrowly escaped the Nazis. To his left, Chao Chen’s piano teacher, Miss Liang, and her father, a well-known conductor and professor of music composition at the Conservatory, were deep in conversation with Deirdre Moller, the daughter of a Swedish Jew who owned a fleet of freighters and steamships. Deirdre had traveled all the was from Hong Kong to attend Chao Chen’s wedding. They had met each other when Chao Chen tutored her cousin in English before the war. Sitting beside Ya-Li and Chao Chen’s brothers were the Jewish officiant and witnesses, who expected a free meal in addition to their fee.

When Bobby Johnston took a break and after the dinner plates were cleared, Fu-Chan rose from his seat to deliver a toast to the bride and groom. his soft voice almost inaudible. The bride, lost in her memories, barely heard a word he was saying. She remembered when she and her brothers were young and carefree before the war, before their lives were turned upside down. Despite the crowded room and her new husband sitting beside her, she suddenly felt very lonely.

“Chao Chen, do you remember the beautiful lake at our estate and how you loved to row the boat past the pavilion?” Fu-Chan asked with a smile. Chao Chen was brought back to the present moment and returned her brother’s smile. How could she ever forget gliding along the lake in her little boat, free from all worry and completely at peace? She nodded, unable to speak, as Fu-Chan raised his glass. “May your marriage be as smooth as the surface of our lake, and may your journey together bring you as much joy as you had when riding in your little boat.”

Everyone raised their glasses and then took a drink, and in the moment of quiet that followed, Professor Wittenberg seized the opportunity to deliver his own toast to the bride and groom. Miss Liang helped him to his feet because the cold December day meant his arthritis had flared up.

Professor Wittenberg, known for his ebullience, the very quality that endeared him to his students and that carried him through the gloomy days of the war, began his speech, which was characteristically lengthy. Chao Chen heard only about half of what he was saying; she felt as though she were in a daze. After expounding on Jewish numerology and the symbolism of their wedding date, Professor Wittenberg payed and lifted his glass, his eyes scanning the table to make sure everyone was hanging on his every word. Feeling as though she were a student in his class, Chao Chen straightened in her chair and focused on his words.

“It was Beethoven’s ‘Spring Sonata’ for violin and piano that brought these two talented young people together,” he said, beaming with pride. “As the seasons of their lives change from spring to summer, from summer to fall, and so on, may they always make beautiful music together.” He raised his glass still higher and continued. Let is make a toast to their health and happiness, and to the children they might someday be blessed to bring into a world that is finally at peace. May it always remain so.”

Chao Chen blushed at the mention of children. Then Professor Wittenberg reached under the table and handed Walter his violin case, nodding to the cafe’s owner, Frau Reuben. “The Promenaden Cafe has graciously given Walter and Chao Chen permission to perform a short duet for us. Perhaps the other customers will temper their revelry for a few minutes.” He turned around and scowled at the sailors, expecting that his expression would have the same effect on them that it did on his music students, but that simply ignored him. It was only when Chao Chen was seated at the piano and Walter tuned his violin that hush finally fell over the crowd.

Walter cleared his throat and announced, “My lovely bride, Chao Chen, and I would like to play a short duet for you.” One sailor who’s had too much to drink booed and yelled, “Get off the stage! Bring Johnston back! We didn’t pay to hear these two.” Then he started stomping his feet. Someone grabbed him and pushed him back into his seat.

Trying to maintain his composure, Walter continued. “In all the commotion, I forgot to tell you the name of the piece we’re going to play for you. It’s ‘Salut d’amour’, or ‘Salute to Love’ by Elgar. He wrote this little jewel for his fiancee, and in return she presented him with a poem, which he later set to music. Oh, they were perfectly suited for each other, just as Chao Chen and I are.” Ignoring Chao Chen, he smiled out at the audience. Walter added, “One of my wife’s suitors played this very piece two years ago at our first recital together. But he was a fool to have set his sights on her. I had already won her heart. Isn’t that so, my dearest?”

Chao Chen was mortifies that Walter had told such an intimate and untrue story. Forcing a smile, she nodded and then rested her hands on the piano keys, waiting for Walter to tune his violin so they could begin before the crowd lost patience.

Chao Chen played the first two measures, which she thought of as pulling back the curtain on the composition so that Walter’s violin could take center stage. Expect for a few measures toward the end of this romantic piece, the piano is there simply to accompany the violin. Walter took full advantage of his primacy, extending his bow, which he held in a French-Belgian grip, making sure that his wrist was relaxed and flexible, and showing off his mastery of the vibrato to infuse the piece with emotion and a sparkling brightness. Chao Chen complemented his style, adjusting her tempo to his, delicately pressing the pedal with the changing harmonies of the piece. It was a flawless performance, the happiness of the composer and his love for his fiancées finest communicated by Walter and Chao Chen.

As the final breath of music- played by Walter alone- hung suspended in the smoke-filled cafe, everyone stoop up and cheered. Walter and Chao Chen took their bows and Bobby Johnston returned to the stage. “Your magnificent performance has brought tears to my eyes,” Bobby said. “I’d like to give you a wedding gift, from one musician to another.” Turning around, he handed Walter all the tip money that sat on his silver tray. The sailors broke out in applause and cheers.

Walter stuffed the money into his jacket pockets, thanked the pianist, and walked back to his guests. Chao Chen followed behind him, unable to hold back her tears. Anyone looking at her would have interpreted them as tears of joy.