by Dzenita Mehic Saracevic
It felt as if a strong, cold wind of one freezing January day in Van Ness propelled me, like a time machine, to a different time and location. I found myself in a place filled with an infinite number of antiquities and treasures: Chinese phone books from the 1920s and 30s, tiny cricket cages and feeders, beautifully decorated tin wash basins, soft toys used by Chinese babies at least 50 years ago, English opera hats and leather tape measures produced during colonial times, old Chinese tables with hidden drawers, an opium bed, books from Berlin dating back to the second world war, and myriad other objects whose purpose was sometimes hard to decipher.
The magical, museum-like place is the apartment of our neighbor Tess Johnston, who returned to America three years ago after spending over 50 years abroad, serving in Germany, Vietnam, India, Iran and China. Most of her eclectic collection originates from those countries, particularly China, where she spent the longest time.
Born in the 1930s in the South, Johnston never anticipated going to college, let alone spending most of her adulthood living far from her childhood home in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“When I told my father that I would like to go to college to obtain good education, I did not get any encouragement. He said that I should stay home and take care of my mother,” says Johnston, whom I meet in her apartment just a day or two after she returned from visiting friends in Florida. Johnston looks elegant and sturdy. I didn’t even notice that she was a bit under the weather – until she mentioned it.
Nothing in her Virginia upbringing pointed towards her future cosmopolitan living and Foreign Service career, but Johnston says that she has always had an adventurous spirit. While in college in early 1950s, she spent a couple of weeks traveling in seven European countries with two friends.
“I decided to see the world… and it was wonderful, just like in a movie,” she says.
In 1958, she worked with the American Foreign Service in Berlin and fell in love with the diplomatic lifestyle. She liked it so much that after completing her master’s degree in German at the University of Virginia, she applied to work for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Vietnam during the war there. Her mother had died while Johnston was in college so she did not need to accommodate her father’s wishes.
After seven years in Vietnam, Johnston served as a diplomat in Frankfurt, Tehran, Paris and New Delhi. Her final posting: Shanghai – the place where she would work more than 30 years, retire, and continue living until she reached her mid 80s.
The inspiration she found in Shanghai and her writing are some of the important reasons Johnston did not plan to return to the States after retiring in 1996. In addition, her ties to the U.S. were not as strong anymore.
“Most of my adult life I lived overseas, so I did not have strong desire to return,” Johnston explains.
When she arrived in Shanghai in 1981 (five years after the Cultural Revolution was over), there was virtually no expatriate community and all Foreign Service staff, plus foreign correspondents working for the American media, lived in the same building. The city of 14 million people – compared to 24 million nowadays – was missing some basic services. Some of the things that shocked her there were the non-existent normal taxi service and widespread public spitting.
“Government needed to crack down on that old habit by putting patrols on the streets,” Johnston says. “It was the time when the country was just opening to tourists.”
But diplomatic life was exciting, the compound for the U.S. Foreign Service members lively, and the old Shanghai enchanting. Johnston fell in love with the Bund, Shanghai’s spectacular riverside, and the beautiful buildings in the French quarter in which she lived. The view from her balcony was divine and there were many benefits of living as a diplomat. To Johnston, no normal person could refuse such life and profession.
Having learned German before, Johnston did not think that learning Chinese would be very difficult, but the language proved to be extremely hard and there was no way to improve unless one started to read and write, which she never managed.
“When pronouncing Chinese words, intonation is very important, but I knew how to get away with it,” Johnston says mischievously. “You just speak very rapidly so the tones are not important!”
A lover of beautiful architecture, Johnston developed a special relationship with Shanghai’s colonial buildings, most of them neglected and in disrepair. She remembers the moment she decided to write about them. “Nobody focused on those buildings, or knew who built them and who lived in them,” she says. So she started collecting books, mostly from the 1920s and 30s, in order to obtain the information she needed to create the memory of the old Shanghai and its Western quarters. As a result of this effort, Johnston wrote A Last Look: Western Architecture in Old Shanghai was created with Chinese photographer Erh Dongqiang.
Many more books on Chinese architecture and other topics related to her diplomatic life followed, including her 2010 memoir Permanently Temporary – From Berlin to Shanghai in Half a Century. Johnston’s next book, Shanghai Daisy, is a “riches to rags” autobiography by Daisy Kwok, a famous society girl and a daughter of the owner of the biggest department store in Shanghai in 1930s. Johnston is a co-editor.
I asked what her next project would be, and Johnston’s response took me by surprise: “I have no more books in me. Everything I knew, I have written about it.” Yet, it is somehow hard to imagine that she has run out of ideas.
Now in Van Ness, where she has lived during the past three years, Johnston is comfortable. Her apartment building is almost ideally located, near Metro, shops and important cultural venues. “Hard to say if this is home. However, my friends are here, or easy ride/flight to NYC or Florida, and I do not have to struggle to express myself,” says Johnston.
Even though Johnston complains that she had to get rid of many objects that were part of the international collection she brought to DC, her place is still filled to the brim. Most of her books and artwork will end up at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, but right now her research library is set in her apartment and those interested in researching Old China, Shanghai’s architecture, World War II, Berlin, and Jewish expatriates in Shanghai between the two world wars are welcome to visit.
To make an appointment to see the library of Tess Johnston, please email her at: [email protected].