Madame Chiang Kaishek's Kimono
LeftofCenter and Lily asked me to tell this story over at The Blue Republic a while back, and I am reprinting it here for those of you who might wish to read this story.
This is the story of how I came to be in possession of what I believe is Madame Chiang Kaishek's kimono.
My grandmother's younger brother, a rogue and a rascal, was one of the most colorful figures I ever met. We called him Uncle Henri. He was born just after the turn of the last century in New Orleans in the French Quarter, the son of a Frenchman and and Irish mother. When I was a child, he lived all over the world, although he swooped into Texas for holidays and visits.
During World War II, he was a codebreaker and photographer in the Navy because he was gifted with a near perfect memory, one of the better genes that somehow missed me. He could remember the details from a newspaper article he'd read years before and summon up dates and names. The MoMA in San Francisco has a collection of his black and white photographs, as he lived there in his later years.
During WWII, he was on the deck of the Battleship Arizona when it was bombed in Pearl Harbor. Few survived that day. I have Kodachrome slides that he took of the ships and aircraft carriers and navy personnel in Hawaii right before the bombing. Because he was topside that Sunday morning, attending Mass, he survived. He said he helped the priest give Communion to dying soldiers before the ship went down.
He lived in Copenhagen and Italy some years in the 1950s, brokered grain deals between the Pope and Nassar of Egypt, but before that he was in China.
Shortly after the end of World War II, China was engulfed in a full-fledged civil war. It was won in 1949 by the communists, led by Chairman Mao, with the old leader, Chiang Kaishek and the remnants of the Kuomintang fleeing to Taiwan where they were protected from annihilation by a US naval blockade.
This was where my Uncle Henri came in. He was living in China by the end of the war. He worked for IBM, supposedly, but my grandmother said he was really in China as an American spy.
My Uncle Henri told me this part of his story when he was still alive.
He said that when Chiang Kaishek was routed by the Communists, he came to my uncle and asked for help. My uncle went to the American Embassy and somehow obtained a white Cadillac and gave it to Chiang Kaishek for his escape. My uncle said the General was so grateful that he gave him one of his wife's best kimonos.
I showed this kimono to my friend Hong once when she was over for dinner. Hong grew up in China and is an engineer here. She was quite stunned when she saw it. She said it was not a kimono that an "ordinary Chinese person" would have, the workmanship and silk embroidery is too elaborate. She also told me that it is not one that would have been made for mass consumption.
So here is the question...was my uncle telling the truth? Is this really the kimono of Madame Chiang Kaichek?