Golden Inches is a charming memoir of an American couple who built up the YMCA in Chengtu and Chungking. Their careers on America’s farthest Western cultural frontier in Szechwan province give us a sense of the day-to-day texture of Chinese-American relations during the golden age between 1905 and 1935. America was then no threat to China but seemed to have what the country needed and the YMCA could offer by way of education and help in improving social welfare without having missionary strings attached.
Bob and Grace Service graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in the class of 1902. He had been president of the student YMCA and she the treasurer of the YWCA. Almost inevitably they married and soon answered the call of the Student Volunteer Movement for service in China. Thirty years later, after Bob Service’s untimely death in 1935, Grace used her journal and letters home to give their three sons an intimate account of the family’s early days. The first and third sons, Jack and Dick, subsequently rose as high as they could have in the United States Foreign Service before Joseph McCarthy intervened to cut short their careers. In editing his mother’s manuscript John has added notes on Chinese customs and history. Grace Service’s title, Golden Inches, comes from a Chinese saying that “an inch of time is an inch of gold,” an apothegm that might suit a Calvinist and a Taoist equally well. Grace had some of the qualities of both.
Bob and Grace landed at Shanghai in December 1905 right in the middle of the famous Mixed Court riots. Since all foreigners in Shanghai were under the extraterritorial jurisdiction of their national consuls, the Mixed Court with a Chinese magistrate assisted by consular officers handled cases purely between Chinese in the International Settlement. In order to repair the magistrate’s jail, the foreigners outvoted him and moved three hundred Chinese women inmates into foreign premises. The Chinese community became aroused, suspecting foreign dirty work, and all the Chinese servants left the foreigners’ households on strike. Windows were broken and some foreigners harassed.
To be deprived of one’s Chinese servants in Shanghai of 1905 was like a blackout of electricity in New York City sixty years later. Life almost stopped. The foreigners had to make do in their cooks’ kitchens and protect their women against the mob. Their fear of the Chinese mob was much like that of the Chinese magistrate’s fear of the chaos that would ensue if the Chinese populace once got out of control. Bob Service stayed up all night holding a poker to defend the premises, while Grace and her baby, Virginia, slept with another young mother and baby she had never met before. After a few days the Chinese servants, having expressed themselves, came back to work, but some foreign ladies took a long time to recover from the shock.
In the missionary community at Shanghai the Services met American, Canadian, and British couples who became lifelong…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.