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In Liji Lane

My grandmother refused to take her niece when her brother offered her. It was 1949 and clear that the Communists were going to win the civil war. My grandmother had convinced my grandfather that they should flee the mainland to go to Taiwan.

Her brother, however, was going to stay in China. He was a German-trained surgeon; he didn’t care about politics; he’d stay and help rebuild the country after twelve years of war. But his daughter, he said, he wanted her to go. Who knew what the Communists would do to a girl?
Nai-nai knew what soldiers could do. She’d fled her hometown of Nanjing in August of 1937, four months before the Japanese army would arrive. She’d traveled by boat and by sedan chair and by foot. She’d kept the family moving one step ahead of the invading Japanese army for eight years, from Nanjing to Wuhu to Changsha to Chongqing, and back again. She’d seen the remnants of the enemy’s brothels when she’d returned to Nanjing in 1945.

The Japanese had been devils, but she didn’t trust the Communists, and she didn’t trust the KMT either. Soldiers were soldiers. They were men. She was fleeing China to a tiny island overrun by soldiers. She didn’t know what would happen.

“You always said she was like a daughter to you,” her brother said. “Take her with you.”

My grandmother had three young sons to worry about, my father and his two younger brothers. A teenage girl, she knew, would attract attention.

But decades later in New York City, my grandmother had her regrets. The family had made it to Taiwan and then, a few years later, to America. They’d survived, whereas China had been overtaken by fanatics: the Red Guards raging in the streets; her brothers’ letters to her censored, lines blocked out; her care packages returned unopened, a stranger’s calligraphy proclaiming, “China does not need old clothes.”

Over the dinner table when we gathered for holidays—my grandparents, my uncles, my cousins, my parents and brother and me—she’d say, “My niece, she was like a daughter to me. But I couldn’t take her. I didn’t know what would happen.”


In 1985, four years after my grandmother’s death, my father and I together traveled to China. It was his first trip back since he’d left at the age of seventeen. I had just graduated high school.

We visited Beijing and climbed the Great Wall and toured the Summer Palace and Forbidden City, things he’d never imagined doing when he was growing up in China amidst war after war. We met relatives who’d migrated north when their city residence permits had been restored after the Cultural Revolution. We were about to leave for Shanghai when a middle-aged woman showed up at our hotel, bearing a mesh bag of oranges and a browning bunch of bananas. She’d ridden seventeen hours on a train to see us.

It was my grandmother’s niece.

“I was always like a daughter to your mother,” she said to my father. She remembered that my grandmother had paid for her to have piano lessons. She was allowed to study English with a tutor alongside my father and his brothers. She remembered she was treated as though she were as valuable as any son.

Her happy memories had sustained her during the long difficult years of Mao’s endless political campaigns. She was not bitter that Nai-nai had not taken her when she’d fled the country. She understood her aunt’s fears. She knew what soldiers could do to girls.


Some thirty years later, this past summer, I was visiting China again and I stopped in Nanjing at a new memorial to the so-called comfort women, the thousands of women and teenage girls who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army during its occupation of the city from 1937 to 1945. The Japanese military established forty “comfort stations” throughout Nanjing, even importing Korean women and girls to join the Chinese held captive there.

At the newly opened museum of the Liji Lane Former Comfort Station, site of the former Shinonome Comfort Station, the oldest and largest such complex in Nanjing, a row of narrow two-story buildings had been restored to show the rooms in which the women had worked and lived. In addition to providing sexual services, the women also swept, cleaned, did laundry, and cooked. The women were also subjected to medical procedures: tests for venereal disease and pregnancy and forced abortions.

The rooms were extraordinary in their banality. A wooden bed frame, a cotton tick, a straw broom, a wooden bucket in the corner. A hook on the wall for a jacket—the woman’s or the soldier’s, it did not say.

Historians estimate as many as 400,000 women throughout Asia were forced into sexual slavery during World War II as the Japanese invaded country after country, creating its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Military brothels, euphemistically called “comfort stations,” were established in Japan, China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaya, Thailand, Burma, New Guinea, Hong Kong, Macau, and what was then called French Indochina.

After the war, many of the women were shunned at home, shamed for having been sex workers to the enemy.

In the Liji Lane museum, there were video testimonies by former sex slaves who’d survived, some of whom had gone on to have families of their own. There were photographs of these elderly women surrounded by adult children and grandchildren. There was a statue out front meant to represent the women whose pictures could not be found.

But long before this museum opened, there were the stories told by women. For most of human history, there have only been stories by women to memorialize the girls who died on the side of the road, in the fields of their families’ farms, in the courtyards of their families’ homes, in the alleys outside their schools, in a brothel, in a ditch, on a mountain road, in a forest, in the woods, on a boat, in a river after having been raped on a boat, by the sides of streams, on a highway, on a train, on the roof of a building, in a cellar, in the shadows, in the sunlight, in the rain, in the mud, in the snow, in this war, in the last war, in the forgotten wars, in the current wars.

Stories from women like my grandmother, who was afraid to take her niece when fleeing China’s civil war because girls were harder to protect, because girls would attract more attention from soldiers, because she wanted to give her sons the best shot at survival, which meant leaving the niece behind.

In memorial for these women, I am telling this story, my family’s story, my grandmother’s story, this story of fear and war and girls.

Photo of May-lee Chai
May-lee Chai is the author of ten books of fiction, nonfiction, and translation, including her latest short story collection, Useful Phrases for Immigrants, published in October 2018 by Blair. Chai teaches in the MFA program in creative writing at San Francisco State University. Her writing has been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman, Jack Dyer Fiction Prize, Kiriyama Prize Notable Book, Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, and honorable mention for the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights Book Awards.