my alumni experience

The Lady from Shanghai

Ai-Li Sung Chin '39

Heading off to college is an adventure for anyone, but few incoming students experienced more adventure than did Ai-Li Sung Chin '39. The first Chinese graduate in Colby-Sawyer's history, she left her country amidst life-threatening circumstances. Separated from her family, whom she would not see again for over 30 years, she crossed an ocean and a cultural divide to seek an education. What she found was a new life in a strange land.

In the late 1930s, Ai-Li Sung Chin attended an Episcopal boarding school in her native Shanghai. The eldest daughter in a family of nine children, she had no thoughts of applying to an American university. Then fate intervened in the forms of Martha McCracken Howard '38 and Elsie McCracken Barcalow '38.

Born to American missionaries and raised in Shanghai, the twin sisters were, at the time, the only students from Asia enrolled at Colby Junior College. As Ai-Li recalls, “They said to President Sawyer, 'You've always given two scholarships to Europeans. Why not give one to someone from Asia?'”

The twins were persuasive. Because their father was Dr. Josiah McCracken, who had helped found the medical school of Shanghai's St. John's University, and because Ai-Li's boarding school had a connection to St. John's, the young woman soon learned of the scholarship. After interviewing with Dr. McCracken, her place at Colby Junior was secured.

A Journey Perilous and Exhilarating

Although her amah (nursemaid) was alarmed at the thought of her young charge traveling to America, Ai-Li's parents felt differently. At that time, 1937, Japan had already invaded the northeastern provinces of China and was launching an all-out bombardment of Shanghai. Ai-Li's parents decided it was for the best to let their eldest daughter leave the country.

Getting safely to America, though, was no easy matter, as it required perilous travel by ship. With Japanese bombs raining destruction down on Shanghai, ocean liners could not dock at the city's ports, so Ai-Li first voyaged by coastal steamer to Hong Kong. There, joined by more than 100 students— mostly men, mostly graduate students, almost all older—she boarded a Canadian ship bound for Vancouver. Her journey across the Pacific Ocean would last a month.

Ai-Li's memories of that ocean crossing are, perhaps surprisingly, happy ones. Despite the Japanese threat and the uncertainty of leaving her family for an unknown destination, the young student found the experience exhilarating. “It was a wonderful trip across the ocean,” she says, her eyes twinkling. “I was young, and there was such excitement to be on my own. I didn't think too much about the hardships back in China. I left the troubles behind.” Even during rough storms, Ai-Li and her shipmates took delight in playing raucous games of ping pong as their vessel was buffeted by wind and waves.

Upon docking in Vancouver there followed a train ride to Seattle, and from there a weeklong journey by rail across the United States. One by one, at stops across the country, Ai- Li's travel companions disembarked, until only she was left. By the time the train arrived at Potter Place Railroad Station in Andover, N.H., Ai-Li admits to feeling quite lonely.

A Warm Welcome from the President

Waiting for her at the station were two advisors and President Sawyer himself. “Partly he was curious about this first girl from China,” observes Ai-Li. Yet there was another, more practical reason for his presence. The bombardment of Shanghai had prevented Ai-Li from traveling directly to America, causing her to arrive after the beginning of the school term. As a result her dorm room had been given to another student. Dr. Sawyer was bringing her home to temporary quarters in the President's House.

Safely installed in the attic bedroom of the Sawyers' son—he was away at college—Ai-Li was dazzled by the home in which she found herself. In Shanghai, a densely populated city, her family rented a row house comprised of a main room, an adjacent smaller room, a kitchen in the back—and no bathroom. Now she found herself in a beautiful New England home, a freestanding house that shared no outer walls with the neighbors.

Here were flowers blooming, green grass all around, and open space. Ai-Li remembers, on her first night, nervously asking Mrs. Sawyer for a drink of water. “She could barely hide her smile as she explained that the water in the tap was perfectly safe to drink. That was my introduction to tap water.” Ai-Li stayed with the Sawyers for almost a month before a dorm room became available.

“It Opened up America to Me”

When asked about her experience at the college, Ai-Li answers quickly and unequivocally. “Colby Junior was wonderful to me. We had extraordinary faculty and programs. All the faculty helped me out. I had no spending money, and, if they thought I should go to a conference, they'd round up some cash. They really took care of me.”

She remembers the faculty organizing field trips to study different areas—from New York City, to coal mines in Pennsylvania, to the legendary Black Mountain College in North Carolina. “It really opened up America to me. It was extraordinary for a junior college, any college, to provide that kind of education.”

In her own words, Ai-Li was “the first Chinese girl in New London, maybe even in New Hampshire.” One might expect that she experienced racism, but she insists that wasn't the case. “I didn't encounter any prejudice. They all welcomed me and I was pampered.”

She does admit, though, to having very little contact with people outside of the college. Most of that contact came when she spoke to church groups and schools, educating people about China. In those days, she remembers, there was so little exposure in New Hampshire to China “that people just wanted to see a Chinese girl.” Her passion for enlightening people about China has continued throughout her life.

Finding Her Life Partner

During her two years at Colby Junior, Ai-Li met her future husband, Robert Chin, at a conference at Miami University of Ohio. They married in 1942, after Ai-Li had received a B.A in sociology from Wellesley College. With her family unable to attend the wedding—the ongoing Japanese occupation prevented any communication with relatives in Shanghai—it was President Sawyer who stood in for Ai-Li's father at the ceremony.

During World War II, Ai-Li and Robert went to Washington, D.C., where they worked for various agencies on behalf of the war effort, including the Office of War Information and the Federal Communications Commission. After the war, they settled in the Boston area, both earning their doctorates in sociology from Harvard and raising a family of three children.

By this time, Mao Zedong had established the People's Republic of China, and Ai- Li faced yet another obstacle in communicating with her family. “The Communists were suspicious of anyone with overseas connections. I had a sister who had gone to Hong Kong, so during the Maoist years I used to write her the barest news: I'm fine, we had a child, and so on, but without revealing that I was in America. So communication was minimal.”

The Chins received a joint Fulbright Fellowship in 1971 to teach and conduct research, and they spent a year at Taipei University in Taiwan and Chinese University in Hong Kong. When U.S. President Nixon visited China, an historic event leading to thawed relations between the two countries, the Chins jumped at the chance. “We were right there,” exclaims Ai-Li, “and applied for a visa to go in. We followed Nixon right into China!”

In the 1980s, Ai-Li and Robert began to visit China once or twice a year, teaching American management techniques. She explains that, although the Chinese were resistant to capitalist influences, they wanted to improve their factories. “In those days, very few westerners were able to go in and connect with people, to do this kind of work. “

Now widowed and approaching her 90th birthday, Ai-Li remains active, visiting China every few years. Of her family, four siblings now live in the United States, one sister having emigrated in the 1950s, the rest making their way during the thaw of the 1980s. Has Ai-Li ever thought about retiring to China? She considers the question thoughtfully before shaking her head with a smile. “I can't leave this country now. All my cultural habits, my needs, my wishes are here.” Ai- Li Sung Chin's adventure, begun some 70 years ago, has now, it seems, brought her home.

-Mike Gregory