This woman, a daughter of a Cuban diplomat and born in 1906, was educated by a British tutor and spoke French, Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin, and other Chinese dialects with native fluency. She stayed in Cuba from pre-adolescence to her twenties, before moving back to Shanghai where she met and married Ch’ien Naiwen (Nelson), and gave birth to four children: Tian Mei, Tian Zuo, Tien You, and Tianli. Her marriage faced some difficulties: she lived through both the first and second world wars, and during the second had to flee to different cities multiple times. Her husband was finishing a law degree in Chicago and during part of it he lived alone while she remained in Shanghai—during the invasion of Nanjing during the Sino-Japanese war. “We had to cover our windows with blankets during bombings and raids so no one would think the house was inhabited,” she said. Later in Hong Kong—a final stopping point after the Communist takeover—she would raise the girls in Hong Kong while her husband took the boys to Macao—information from her old son Tianzuo, who remains unknowing as to exactly why the family was divided in this way: perhaps it had something to do with the commute. In the final part of her life she lived in America, her husband would pass away at 67 from a stroke, while she survived to age 94, finally passing away in her sleep in a senior home in Norwich, CT.
She lived with fond memories of Havana, Cuba, and told her family stories of riding horses on the beach in the mornings and having visitors from all over the world in her father’s seaside mansion. Her vignettes were often amusing, such as buying shoes for all the children, who numbered ten: “We would spend hours in the store, because the shoes had so many eyelets to lace, all the way up the calf. And the salesman had to lace a pair for each of us.” Liao Cheng-li remembers numerous servants in the Havana household. “Every dinner guest had a servant standing behind their chair,” she would tell us. And every course would have its own set of tableware. Silver for the main course; gold for the dessert, engraved appropriately: thus, gold plates with fruit designs for the final course. Salt and pepper shakers of mother of pearl and silver would decorate the table as well.