DESTITUTE RUSSIAN EXILES HERE, HUNGRY AND RAGGED
Barefoot youngsters and scantily clad elders throng $7 tenements near Greek Church
Shanghai has its own little parcel of forlorn and destitute Siberia, carrying the very spirit of hunger and lack of clothes and unemployment brought here from the north. Just how many hundred starving and silent families of Russians are hidden in the recesses of Chinese houses in the Settlement, no one seems to know. But there is one group of ragged humanity, twenty-five in number, not to count the babies, that is living in a building, far out on North Honan Road where anyone who wishes to know may see.
It is a doubled-decked tenement attached to the Russian Greek church and the wretched community by some means manages to pay rent to the management of the church for the chance to live. Ragged and barefoot youngsters, big blond youths with but a half a wardrobe, women in the scantiest of summer clothing, crowded about. The biggest and reddest faced youth could speak a little English and he volunteered as interpreter. Attired in a well worn suit but without shirt or collar, he led the way smilingly.
LOOKING FOR WORK
Of the first family, only the mother, the little girl whom she was nursing and one boy were at home. The father and other boy were out somewhere searching for work, she explained. It was a cheerless little whitewashed room almost devoid of furniture. How five persons could live in such a box, perhaps ten feet each way, she never explained. There was a bench on which the mother sat with her baby, a square Chinese table, a great roll of bedding, kept off the floor by an improvised rack of boards, and lastly, a small stove, cold and without supply of fuel in sight.
She saw the questioning look and answered it: "Oh, we sleep on the floor," she said simply.
Nothing else suggested it as a habitation, and no decoration except for the pallid and candle-smoked face of an icon looking down in Russian saintly fashion from its place in the corner near the ceiling.
The priest charged then but $3 a month, she said, while the others paid $7. So it was not so bad, and maybe her husband could get work, or one of the boys, and then they could pay. If they could only get work!
Other neighbors had crowded in. "Yes, if we can find something to do," they joined in. "That is all that we need." Everyone assented.
The red-faced young giant who had acted as interpreter, interposed: "If only everybody did not think us all Bolshevists. That is what we meet everywhere. No one will hire Russians."
He led the way to another room, where a tall and pale woman – Melina Pelipchukova, he called her – sat among bare surroundings doing nothing but acting as watch over two small children, a boy and a girl at play on the floor. They were not her own, she said, but those of a man who was out looking for work. Her own husband – but her voice suddenly broke and hastily she sought the corner of her apron and hid her face. But the young man took up the tale. She had been separated from her man now many months, due to the Revolution. Three days ago another man just arrived from Siberia, reported the husband is alive and well but is now living with another woman. It was evident that not cold and hunger alone had come to make this place desolate.
In broken English the guide directed us the way to the rickety stairs, and then along an open and narrow balcony, past many doors, all leading to into other box-like rooms similar to those visited. He stopped at his own and pushing it open motioned his visitor to step in. Then suddenly espying a steaming dish, forgotten in the interruption, he hastened ahead and with much confusion hid the steaming dish together with the tiny spirit lamp and chunk of white bread beneath the impoverished bed. Coloring a shade deeper he asked many pardons for the oversight.
"But let me see what kind of food the Russian people have," was asked. That appeared to relieve the situation. Hesitantly he brought out the steaming dish. It appeared to be rice with a trace of yolk of egg. "Kasha," he said, naming it.
Oh, it was good food, he insisted, and might be heated up again and again without burning it. Plenty nourishing for a young man with good health. But there were many people in Siberia that were not gettng anything of that sort and he knew others, here in the same tenement, that did not.
He was learning English, he said, and three hours a day he taught the small children, in a private family in Russian. The books on the table were in English. He offered one for inspection. It was Louisa Alcott's Little Men, and he appeared proud of his possession.
"I must learn English," he said, "because without English I cannot take other work."
The group that had followed from door to door this time did not pursue. But in its place the young men of the tenement one by one slipped in, some seven in all, and stood listening. One brought a kettle of hot water and a glass. Tea should be offered the stranger. There were perhaps two who had cigarettes; these, too, were a part of the hospitality. But one of the group had employment. It was unfortunate, but a young man could not get food out of breathing air, one gravely informed, repeating a Russian proverb.
Published in The China Press, December 1919.
The Orthodox Church of the Epiphany (named "Greek Church" in the text), where the refugees were living in the tenements:
Top image: Refugees from Siberia living in the train station in Vladivostok, waiting to go to China, in 1919. Getty.