A Visit to the Ancestral Birthplace

In addition to pursuing the longest total solar eclipse of the century, another goal of our China trip was to visit the childhood home of Raina’s father, Bill Hanson. Bill’s parents were Baptist missionaries who came to Shanghai from America in 1915. His father, Victor Hanson, taught Political Science at the University of Shanghai from then until the Japanese invasion in 1936. Bill was born in the family home on the university campus in 1924, and he spent his boyhood years there, attending Shanghai American School across town. His family moved back to the United States in 1940, where he has lived since. Bill has made two return trips to Shanghai, the last in the 1980s, during which he saw his old home. At that time it had been converted into apartments for five families.

So, with Shanghai on the itinerary, Raina and I were excited about the opportunity to look for her father’s birthplace. We began our research well before the trip. I found this aerial photograph of the campus in the 1930s on the internet:

Univ of Shanghai in the 1930s

In spite of the low resolution of the image, Bill was able to identify his home (circled), and many of the other structures in the photograph. But finding the modern location of the campus proved to be a much trickier problem than anticipated. There are now several branches of the University of Shanghai, and multiple campuses for each branch. After sorting through a number of possibilities, we identified the main campus of the University of Shanghai for Science and Technology as the one we wanted. The fact that we had identified the correct location was confirmed by this image from Google Earth:

Univ of Shanghai from Google Earth

Then, just a few days before we left for China, Bill came across this old snapshot of his boyhood home:

House in olden times

He also drew us a map of the campus from memory:

Hand drawn campus map

So, well armed with this documentation, Raina and I decided to devote a day away the tour to see if we could find her father’s birthplace.

On our first full day in Shanghai we alerted our tour guide to the fact that we would be “off the bus” that day. We asked some of the people at the hotel for advice on how to get a taxi to take us the 10 miles or so across town to the campus. One of the women from Champion Tours was kind enough to translate a short note that Raina had written so we would be able to explain to people on campus what we were up to. Here it is:

Letter of introduction

We then went outside the hotel, and with the help of the hotel doorman, the woman from Champion Tours, and one other guy who just joined in for the fun of it, we managed to explain to a cab driver exactly where we wanted to go, including having him wait for us there for one hour (for an additional $3.00) while we went in search of the house. The conversation was protracted and highly animated, but eventually successful. The drive across town took about 25 minutes, and the cab driver seemed to have a good idea of where he was going the whole time. We arrived at an impressive looking gate which had this plaque mounted on the wall to the left:

Raina and I were thrilled to have found the original University of Shanghai campus – now to see if the house was still standing. We walked up the main central road of the campus, seeing several old homes off to the left. They were of the same style as the house in the photo, but upon closer inspection none of them looked quite right. Then, just beyond a curving road, which Bill had described and clearly drawn on his map, we came face to face with our objective. A comparison to the old snapshot left no question that this was the house where Raina’s father was born:

This is it!

We spent quite a while walking around the house and peeking in every window. The house is empty now, boarded up and abandoned, and the surrounding gardens are untended and overgrown. But it was easy to imagine what it must have been like for Bill to live here and to grow up on the campus. We stopped some students who were walking by, showed them the explanatory note (they seemed to be mildly amused), and asked them to take this picture:

Shanghai Gothic

After finding the house we spent some additional time touring the campus. We went into an auditorium which had a great display of pictures from the years when Bill was growing up. We shared our story with some of the people there, who noticed our overheated appearance, took pity on us and gave us some bottled water. We then went back to our cab, back to the hotel, and rejoined the tour.

Waking up the cab driver

All in all it was a delightful little personal adventure to add to our China tour, and quite thrilling in the moment of discovery.