Over the years, I’ve been blessed to meet quite a number of courageous women. Elizabeth Feng was one of them. She was the mother of Alex Feng, my martial arts teacher in Berkeley, and did the bookkeeping for his school and acupuncture clinic. I would chat with her sometimes after an acupuncture session, and she shared stories from her life.
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Elizabeth Brückman was born in Germany and was a young adult during World War II. Her family provided her with a good education, which enabled her to make a living teaching English and business skills. Wei-ren Feng was a foreign student, enrolled in a philosophy program at one of Germany’s top universities. He and Elizabeth met and fell in love.
Unlike Jews and Romany, the Chinese were not scheduled for extermination. However, Nazi ideology forbade the mixing of races. The young couple had to keep their relationship secret. Had it become known, they would have been arrested and, according to Elizabeth, “we would have been sent to concentration camps—separate ones.” When a Gestapo officer took a liking to Elizabeth and asked her out, she had to go on dates with him and pretend to enjoy herself.
One day the Gestapo arrested Wei-ren. Elizabeth didn’t tell me why, but I suspect it had to do with a change in global alliances. In the early 1920s, Chinese ex-sailors had begun to settle in the St. Pauli quarter of Hamburg and establish businesses there, where they were tolerated, if not especially welcome. However, a series of events changed the German attitude towards these immigrants. In 1931 Japan invaded China, and again in 1937. In 1936 Hitler chose Japan as an ally against the Soviets. On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor. Two days later, on December 9, China joined the Allies and declared war on Germany. On May 13, 1944, the Gestapo arrested 129 Chinese nationals, who were interned and abused for months, and at least 17 of them died while imprisoned. https://www.st-pauli-archiv.de/aktuell/neue-gedenktafel-fuer-das-chinesenviertel-an-der-schmuckstrasse Wei-ren Feng was probably arrested just for being a Chinese national.
After the arrest, and without revealing the nature of their relationship, Elizabeth went to her lover’s professor and pleaded for help, assuring him that Wei-ren was not political and was harmless. The professor arranged for his release.
The young couple continued to have luck. Toward the end of the war, Elizabeth narrowly escaped being killed by an Allied bomb. “I always like to eat,” Elizabeth said—she was on the stout side—and had gone upstairs in her office building for a snack. When the bomb hit she was standing under a ceiling beam that stopped just above her head and kept the rubble from burying her.
Once the war was over Elizabeth and Wei-ren left for China, and baby Alex was born in 1948. Not long after, the Communist revolution came to their city. Elizabeth was what they call a gwaipo in Cantonese, roughly translated as “foreign devil,” and Wei-ren was a suspect bourgeois intellectual. The two of them fled during the night, taking separate rickshaws to the airport. Elizabeth’s had a curtain around it, to conceal her foreign appearance. Wei-ren carried the baby in his vehicle, because if the Communists had stopped a white woman with a Chinese baby, both would likely have been killed. “I didn’t know if I would see either of them alive again,” Elizabeth told me.
In Taiwan they had another child, a girl this time. Alex remembers that the family was quite poor. Butter on the bread was a huge luxury. Alex grew up speaking Chinese and German, since Elizabeth wouldn’t give him food unless he asked for it auf Deutsch.
One day he watched, horrified and outraged, as a couple of thugs beat up an old man. This motivated him to begin studying martial arts. I don’t know when he began to learn English, but Elizabeth must have been saving money for some time, because one year she flew to California with the children. Elizabeth didn’t tell me where this happened, but “a Jewish woman saw us—a German with two Chinese kids—and she must have told herself, ‘There’s a story.’ She took us in.”
Once Elizabeth had established herself with a job and a place to live, she sent for her husband. Many years later, during the time I was studying with Alex, the family succeeded in bringing Wei-ren’s son by a previous marriage out of China. He had been tortured by the Communists.
Over the years Elizabeth had become a citizen of five different countries. “Whenever I applied for citizenship, they’d want me to surrender my previous passport. I always told them I was so sorry, but I lost it. The truth is that I keep them hidden in a trunk. Never give up a passport. You never know when you’re going to need it.”