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花樣年華 The Age of Blossoms


Childhood in Chengdu 1920s

Mary Hu (née Chou) is born in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, on December 25, 1921, as the younger of two daughters. Raised in a military family, Mary encounters tragedy at age three when her father is killed. Only a few years later, Mary’s uncle, also a military man, is forced to commit suicide during a political uprising. Auntie and cousin Zhang come to live with Mary’s family in Chengdu. As the youngest of the three cousins, Mary becomes “Number Three Sister” in a household of women.

Notes from the Yale-China Archives 1921 † Hsiang-ya Medical College graduates its first class of physicians, and the Hsiang-ya Hospital meets the standards of the American College of Surgeons. 1924 † Edward Hume is inaugurated as the first president of the Colleges of Yale-in-China. 1926 † Demonstrations by students and labor activists result in civil unrest throughout Hunan. Wang Mei Ching (Mary’s mother) before 1919, the year she gave birth to her first child

1927 † Yale-in-China shuts down operations in Changsha and evacuates its American and senior Chinese faculty and administrators. Yali graduates safeguard the campus from marauding soldiers.

Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang army suppresses the worst of warlord violence and establishes a national government in Nanjing. Order is restored in Hunan after months of violence.

1928 † The Yale-in-China institutions gradually re-open under Chinese leadership. Each school relies on its own graduates to fill faculty ranks. The Yali Middle School joins with other Christian schools to become Yali Union Middle School. 1929 † Yale-in-China joins with other Christian groups to develop Huachung College in Wuhan, assuming responsibility for the university’s science division.

Mary, cousin Zhang, sister Elsie (Mary demoted to “Number Three Sister” in household)


Meeting the Hu Family 1930s

Unusual for early 20th century China, Mary’s mother never re-marries and becomes an independent woman managing property and choosing to educate her daughters. Mary attends college at which time she becomes acquainted with the family next door—the Hu family. Mary becomes close friends with one of the Hu daughters. The elder Hu son, Ian Y.C. Hu, becomes enamored with Mary—the “lively girl” next door.

Notes from the Yale-China Archives Mary and Number Two Hu Sister (best girlfriends in middle school and college)

1931 † Throughout the decade, Yale-in-China assumes a new role in Changsha: its representatives serve in teaching and consultative roles within the schools and provide medical and nursing care within the hospital, but leadership positions in each institution are held by Chinese. 1932 † Hsiang-ya Medical School and Hospital begin public health work in Changsha and throughout Hunan province with support from the provincial and national governments. 1937 † The Japanese invasion of China brings horrific violence and destruction to vast swaths of the country. 1938 † Yale-in-China schools move their students, faculty, and equipment to safer locations in western Hunan, Guizhou, and Yunnan provinces. Late in the year, much of Changsha is destroyed in a massive fire.

Mary and Ian courting

Hu courtyard in Chengdu


Double Wedding 1940s

Mary and Ian are married in May 1946, in a double wedding with Mary’s sister, Elsie, and her betrothed, Wilson. The brides wear identical white, western-style bridal gowns — the very latest fashion. Mary’s mother commissions the best embroidery artisans in Chengdu to make silken bed coverings for the newlyweds. The well-to-do Hu’s erect a new building within the family compound for Mary and Ian as a wedding gift. After completing a degree in Western-style dentistry at West China Union University, Ian is awarded a Red Cross scholarship to study oral surgery at Columbia University in New York City. In June 1949, Mary is seven months pregnant with their first child when Ian departs. Their daughter, Nikki, is born on August 10. Mao Zedong consolidates his power and establishes the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949. Shortly thereafter, party officials set up headquarters in the Hu family compound. They poison the family’s German shepherd guard dogs. Ian is counseled by his professors not to return to China. He and Mary find themselves unexpectedly separated by a political paradigm shift in China.

Notes from the Yale-China Archives 1940 † Wartime hardships through 1945 exact a heavy toll on the hospital and each of the Yale-in-China schools. Budgetary constraints lead the Hsiang-ya Medical College to convert from a private to a national institution. 1945 † After the Japanese surrender, Yali Middle School and Hsiangya return to Changsha. Huachung students and faculty make their way back to Wuhan the following year. Enrollment at each of the schools booms. Double Wedding: Elsie and Wilson (left)/Mary and Ian (right)

1947 † Henry Luce and Averill Harriman lead a fundraising campaign in the U.S. to rebuild the Yale-in-China campus. 1949 † The People’s Republic of China is established and the Nationalist government flees to Taiwan.

Pregnant Mary and Ian on grounds of Hu compound

Ian in New York at the Statue of Liberty

Mary and infant Nikki (1949)


Path to America 1950s

With a basket in one hand and 14-month-old Nikki in the other, Mary flees the mainland, relying on friends, strangers, and luck to escape the Communists. Her perilous journey takes four months, and she will traverse 2,000 kilometers before finally arriving at the island of Formosa, or Taiwan. There, Mary works as an accountant for the Nationalist Army. In New York, Ian earns his DDS from Columbia University. By luck, he becomes acquainted with Senator Hubert Humphrey who introduces a bill in Congress that helps Ian gain permanent resident status and eventually U.S. citizenship.

Notes from the Yale-China Archives 1950 † Most Yale-in-China staff depart from Changsha and Wuhan. The remaining representative is confined to his home in Changsha under suspicion of espionage, and expelled in 1951. 1951 † Institutions affiliated with Yale-in-China in Changsha and Wuhan are renamed and nationalized. Chinese who studied or worked at Yale-in-China face severe political persecution.

Mary and Nikki in Taiwan

Ian graduates from Columbia University


Reunion in New York 1950s (continued)

In 1955, Mary and six-year-old Nikki arrive in the U.S., and Ian meets his daughter for the first time. Mary’s first American home is in staff housing at Rockland State Hospital (now Rockland Psychiatric Center), where Ian had found employment as the institution’s resident dentist. Their second child, John, is born in March 1958. Soon thereafter, Mary’s mother and sister, who had also escaped to Taiwan, emigrate to the U.S., further unifying the family. The family moves to Washington Heights in Manhattan, and Ian establishes a private dental practice. 

Notes from the Yale-China Archives Mary and Ian with baby John

1953 † Yale-in-China’s trustees vote to support New Asia College in Hong Kong. 1955 † Construction on a new campus for New Asia begins. Yale-in-China provides additional support for institutional development. 1956 † The Bachelor program resumes at New Asia.

Ian and Nikki in Washington, D.C.

Mary and Nikki in Washington, D.C.


A New Jersey Community 1960s In 1960, Mary and Ian build a house in Englewood Cliffs, NJ, where they would live for the next 53 years. Their third child, Mary Jean, is born in January 1961. Mary’s mother lives with the family; the children call her PoPo. As more and more Chinese families gravitate to the neighborhood, Mary and Ian’s social life becomes increasingly lively, and at weekend mahjong parties glamorous “Aunties” come elegantly dressed in stylish modern cheongsams. Mary orders one-of-a-kind cheongsams from “Monique,” a stylish dressmaker in Hong Kong. Nikki goes to Oberlin College and meets fellow student Guy Van Duser. In 1969, they decide to marry. Mary commissions a special cheongsam for her daughter’s wedding.

“PoPo” Mary’s mother, with baby Mary Jean

Notes from the Yale-China Archives 1963 † The New Asia College –Yale-in-China Chinese Language Center is established. 1966 † The Cultural Revolution begins in China, devastating the education system and halting its advancement for a decade.

Nikki and Guy’s wedding

Mary and Ian dressed for a mahjong party


Mahjong Parties 1970s

For Mary and Ian, this is the decade of hard work and lively socializing within an ever-expanding circle of mahjong parties. All the while, Ian’s practice grows. His clientele includes many noteworthy persons from the Chinese academic and professional communities in New York City. Mary works as an accountant at Lipton Tea Company and cheongsams are no longer her everyday wear.

Aunties and uncles at dinner

Notes from the Yale-China Archives 1972 † Richard Nixon’s visit to China begins gradual rapprochement between the U.S. and China, raising hopes of renewed contacts in education. 1976 † Yale-in-China is renamed the Yale-China Association, and broadens its mission to include the education of Americans about China and furtherance of U.S.-China understanding. The association co-founds the International Asian Studies Program at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.


A Yale Wedding 1980s

Mary’s younger daughter, Mary Jean, meets fellow student Jonathan Knisely at Yale University. They marry in 1986, and Mary commissions another exquisite cheongsam for the wedding. Mary retires from Lipton in 1989. She loves to travel and visits China almost yearly.

Notes from the Yale-China Archives 1980 † The Bachelor program resumes in the mainland at Hunan Medical College and Wuhan University, expanding to additional institutions in these and other cities in later years. 1981 † Faculty exchanges begin between Hunan Medical College and the Yale School of Medicine.

Mary Jean and Jon’s wedding (1986)

1986 † Changsha Number Five Middle School is renamed Yali Middle School on the 80th anniversary of the school’s founding. YaleChina sends Bachelors and sponsors visits of teachers to the United States.

Exchanges in American Studies begin with faculty from Huazhong Normal University.

1989 † The suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing leads to a suspension of the Bachelor program in mainland China for one semester.


The Next Generation 1990s

Mary becomes a grandmother when Mary Jean gives birth to Ian (1990), Toby (1993) and Gabriel Knisely (1995). Her legendary culinary expertise is now directed towards her grandsons. The minute they walk through the door of her New Jersey home they find steaming hot food ready and waiting on the table. Favorite dishes among “the boys” are dumplings, meatballs, soybeans and, of course, noodles. Mary continues to travel, returning home to China as often as she can. Although she seldom wears cheongsams now, she stills loves to have her clothes custommade by dressmakers in Chengdu. 

Mary, Nikki, Guy, and friends at Xi’an (1998)

Notes from the Yale-China Archives 1992 † Program diversification leads to the development of projects in environmental sciences, theater, and pediatric cardiology. 1995 † Summer Institute in American Studies for East Asian Scholars is inaugurated in Hong Kong, moving to New Haven two years later. 1996 † Yale-China’s work in nursing is resumed for the first time in decades, becoming a major focus of its work in health. The Teaching (Bachelor) Program begins a major phase of expansion, extending to Zhongshan University in Guangzhou (1996) and two schools in Ningbo: Huizhen Academy (1997) and Xiaoshi Middle School (1999.) 1997 † Yale-China begins public service internship program to place Yale students with nongovernmental organizations in China, including Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Mary with Chengdu dressmaker

1998 † The Chia Family Public Health Fellowship Program is established. Exchanges of teachers between New Haven and Ningbo begin.


90 Birthday th

2000s

Mary’s 80th birthday is celebrated by all the family in December 2001, and her 90th in 2011. Her lifetime spanned dramatic changes on the world stage. Facing hardships with tenacity and grace, she honored the traditions of old China. She was always well-dressed, and well-loved by all who knew her.

Mary’s 80th birthday photocard (2001)

Notes from the Yale-China Archives 2000 † The Yale-China Legal Education Fellowship Program begins to place U.S.-trained lawyers in teaching positions in Chinese universities. 2001 † The Yale-China centennial is celebrated in New Haven and Changsha. 2003 † Yale-China responds to the SARS breakout by creating a well-received SARS manual. 2005 † Foote School begins exchange program with Yali Middle School. 2008 † China hosts the Olympic Games. 2010 † Yale-China celebrates 100 years of its Teaching Fellowship.

Mary’s 90th birthday cake


Age of Blossoms: Mary C. Hu