Yung Chang (張蓉珍), was born in China in 1915, the youngest of 8 children. The Changs were middle class and Yung’s older siblings were all highly educated and successful in both the arts and various professions. From an early age, she loved music, playing piano and training as a dramatic soprano at the prestigious Shanghai Music Academy. Yung’s burgeoning career was cut short by World War II. She married in haste in Shanghai, the day before the Japanese invaded the city. Yung and husband Bingsun (秉孫) had three children and moved all over China, eventually settling in Taiwan, Iran, and then the United States. Yung continued to give solo recitals in China and Taiwan, and even sang for the U.S. Fourth Marine Regiment in Shanghai.
“For me, coming to America was like reaching heaven because the dislocations of war had left only painful memories. In America, our needs have always been met . . . I feel very fortunate to be living in the United States.” Yung Chang, p.35, 20th Century Wartime Experiences of Chinese Women: An Oral History, Reminiscences of Mme Zhang Rongzhen, Nov. 2004.
Yung and Bingsun became American citizens in the 1970’s. Settling in the Boston area, Yung taught piano, gardened (growing Chinese vegetables that could not be found in supermarkets), and sang in the Wellesley Chorus and the Golden Tones in Wayland, MA. Our grandparents always had treats for us, shown in two patches on the totem:
Chocolate chip cookies: 阿爹(our grandfather) always made the best Nestle Tollhouse chocolate chip cookies! I used to love going over to their house and having fresh cookies to eat. I'd lay on the floor of their TV room and eat the cookies. That room had a thick carpet and was filled with all the plants that they grew.
Cut up fruit: 婆婆(our grandmother) would always have a bowl of beautifully cut up or peeled fruit waiting for me or any other visitor, whenever we showed up. She could peel and take the skin off of each grapefruit section without breaking the sections at all. And then she would arrange it into a flower shape.
My grandmother taught me to knit when I was 5 years old. Using small metal needles, she guided my chubby, inept fingers in making a doll-sized garter stitch scarf. It was probably only 8 stitches across. The yarn was scratchy blue acrylic. She finished the ends with a stylish fringe. Before I was born, my grandmother made thick wool sweaters for my mother, uncle and aunt. They had clever geometric patterns in keeping with the style of the 1950’s and 60’s. One of my mother’s sweaters was an incredible shade of violet, pink and mauve. It was a bulky yarn that knit up dense and warm. In elementary school, I sported handmade knit creations that my teachers always exclaimed over. My favorite was a vest from my kindergarten years, featuring green grass, sheep, blue sky, a red house, white clouds, and a yellow sun. My older sister and I wore matching yellow and navy ponchos crocheted by my grandmother. I continued to wear my grandmother’s creations in high school and college. She adjusted to the times and made 1980’s styled sweaters with big cables and bold patterns, always with interesting textures. In keeping with her inventive and practical nature, my grandmother never used expensive yarn or a pattern.
The blanket that forms the base of the totem was one of the last things our grandmother made before she died in 2005. Diagnosed with ovarian cancer, she kept busy with knitting and crocheting. Like everything she made, the blanket is useful, practical (it’s made of scrap yarn), and beautifully finished.
Yolanda Wu, Brooklyn NY