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 friends and associates. China was opening up to Western progress, the imperial government still functioned, and soon the Hague Peace Conference would claim that it had put an end to warfare. It was an ebullient time and place to be starting one’s life’s work.

Soon, however, the pair started up the Yangtze by steamer to Hankow and then to Ichang at the entrance to the gorges. Access to the place where they were to work could be gained only through the perils of the trip up-river. They hired an eighty-foot-long houseboat that would carry all their household and personal possessions, along with its own crew and a team of trackers. Grace recalls

the roar and surge of the wild waters, often rising in huge waves;…the yells of the gang bosses, stimulating the trackers to greater efforts with voice and whip, the long lines of tracking men, fairly lying on the ground as they bent far forward and clutched rocks and earth to aid them; the ropes of such immense length that often the trackers were out of sight around rocky points.

As Grace saw the boat containing all her worldly goods hang “on the crest of a treacherous wave as the fury of the river pounded against its wooden shell,” the scene, she writes, “held more drama than one liked.”

As they day by day negotiated the thirteen large rapids and seventy-two smaller ones on this trip, baby Virginia fell ill with severe diarrhea which nothing could stop. After ten days of dehydration the baby died. There was no method at that time for feeding her saline and sugar solutions such as now save infants around the world. Jack Service also comments that the foreigners in China had no thought of using Chinese medical practitioners, who, although unsanitary and unscientific, had sophisticated remedies for local ailments. Little Virginia was buried at Chungking with the help of kind missionaries. Meanwhile Bob had come down with severe malaria that seemed to threaten his life as well. They reached Chengtu exhausted, but Bob recovered and they immersed themselves in Chinese language study.


Chengtu was an ancient provincial capital with its own governor-general’s yamen (headquarters) reminiscent of Peking’s. Long-established shops produced their handicraft specialties. There were many temples and a substantial upper class of retired officials and scholars. A Canadian missionary college and a new government university brought in American and other foreign teachers. The Anglo-Saxon missionary community had a great opportunity to offer instruction both religious and practical. As an American YMCA secretary sent to work with the Chinese YMCA, Service set about the task of finding friends and supporters, especially among the Chinese merchant community.

Service had been a star athlete at Berkeley, where his record in the halfmile stood for almost a decade. He became a great marcher over the landscape, leading expeditions to the mountains west of the city, while Grace, who was often unwell, followed in a chair with two bearers, along with the cook and houseboy and porters with their camping equipment. With missionary friends they climbed the towering sacred mountain, Omei Shan, and on another vacation spent several weeks farther west in Tibet. In summer they rented rooms in a temple and later built a house six thousand feet above the hot plain. Their family grew as Jack was born in 1909, young Bob in 1911, and Dick in 1914.

China’s revolution of 1911 had its first stirrings in Chengtu, where enterprising merchant gentry had agitated for completion of a railway to help develop trade. The Manchu rulers handled this issue ineptly with their customary coercion. As rebellion got underway, foreign nationals, fearing for their safety, had to evacuate downriver all the way back to Shanghai. Soon the Services were in a big house in Nanking, the new capital, where they entertained Sun Yat-sen and other makers of history. Bob abandoned his furlough and went back to Szechwan, while Grace and the two children spent the summer of 1912 at Kuling, a missionary haven 3,500 feet above the Yangtze plain which Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Tse-tung in turn would patronize in later years. The missionaries had “discovered” it, of course, in the way that Columbus discovered America. Temples and the retreats of Chinese scholars had been there for some time. The cool climate was fine, but by the time Grace and the two boys got to Ichang again for the trip up-river, she had come down with rheumatic fever affecting her heart. This time the houseboat trip was uneventful, however, and from Chungking they went by sedan chairs to Chengtu. The two little boys sat in a special chair facing each other, with a table and playthings between them. After a furlough in the United States, they went back up the Yangtze gorges in 1916 by steamer, sitting on deck to see the view as the 2,400-horsepower vessel bucked the current.

After Bob Service’s success in building up the YMCA in Chengtu, he was posted to do the same job in Chungking. As a treaty port and trade center it was very different from Chengtu. The foreign community was more merchant than missionary. When a young lady came to visit Chungking, there were forty-six bachelors for her to look over. The crews of two American gunboats, the Palos and the Monocacy, had the special merit of making ice cream and lots of distilled water. Much of the foreign community lived on the south bank across from the walled and crowded city. The Services found a bungalow in the second range of hills, well above the smog produced by soft coal and the humidity. The Yangtze in time of flood might rise one hundred feet, and the swirling water between the two banks had to be crossed by tugs or sampans that tried to reach the other side before being swept downstream.

In the early 1920s Chungking was fought over by warlord armies whose bullets penetrated foreign houses as well as ships. Excited soldiers stormed into the Service bungalow, a bullet missed Service by an inch but scattered glass fragments into his eyes. He told them that he knew their commander, who would not approve, and who in fact later apologized. When Grace made two trips down to Shanghai to enter their son Jack in the Shanghai American School, and then young Bob two years later, she found the safest part of a steamer was usually the captain’s cabin which had steel plating on the outside.

Within another year Grace had to go downstream again for her health. The Peking Union Medical College gave her a diagnosis of endocarditis. She could not return to Szechwan, where Bob was still at work. Eventually the Services’ family life was reconstituted in Shanghai, and Grace had a chance to pursue her intellectual interests. She had taken correspondence courses from Berkeley and in Szechwan had read John Maynard Keynes and conducted a course in economics. Now in Shanghai she worked with other wives and soon became chairman of the Joint Committee of Women’s Organizations. She became adept at fund raising and her health improved, while the boys went back to the United States to college. John at Oberlin was a champion runner like his father. The Depression curtailed YMCA work and after a period at the Y in Tsingtao Bob Service was “demobilized.” He found a job with the China International Famine Relief Commission, but died unexpectedly in 1935.


When they entered the United States Foreign Service Jack and Dick were American college graduates, to be sure, but they spoke fluent Chinese and had China in their bones. They came from a generation devoted to trying to help the Chinese people. As a reporting officer for the American embassy and also for General Joe Stilwell during World War II, John Service contributed to the realistic appraisal of Chinese politics that led Truman and Marshall to forestall an American intervention in the Chinese civil war and the revolution. For this he was made to suffer by McCarthyite politicians, but he knew what he was talking about. In publishing his mother’s vivid memoir, he has captured a bit of history on the wing.

This Issue

December 20, 1990