Connecting Carrboro and Shanghai

Dec. 07, 2013 @ 12:25 PM

Editor’s note: This column is based on earlier articles for "Salt" and "South Writ Large" magazines.
What is the connection between Shanghai and Carrboro? And what is the place in Shanghai that shows that connection?
Everybody from our towns who gets to go (or has to go) to Shanghai should visit a European-style home in the former “French Concession” of Shanghai. Not many westerners go there. But there is a regular flow of Chinese people to what is called “The former residence of Madame Sun Yat-sen.” Madame Sun, also known as Soong Ching-ling, was married to Sun Yat-sen. He was an early revolutionary who sought to bring down the government of the emperors of the Qing Dynasty.
In 1921, he became the first president of the Republic of China. Although he died without bringing peace and stability to his country, many Chinese revere him as the founder of their country. His widow maintained this house as her residence in Shanghai from 1948 until her death in 1981.
Although the house was given to her by her brother-in-law, the Nationalist Chinese leader Chang Kai-shek, she sided with the Communists in the civil war that drove Chang and his forces out of Mainland China.
Madame Sun’s support for the Communists was very important, because it gave them a tangible link to the “founder” of the Chinese republic. They made her Honorary Chairman of the People’s Republic of China and called her “Mother of the State.” Distinguished foreign visitors to China often came to visit her at the Shanghai residence rather than another home that she maintained in Beijing.
The home is filled with mementos of her life, her family, her visitors and her many honors.
All this might be important for Chinese people, but why would someone from Carrboro take time to visit here?
Here is the connection. Madame Sun (Soong Ching-ling) was the daughter of “Charlie” Soong, who has important ties to North Carolina through Durham industrialist Julian Carr, who gave his name to Carrboro.
As a young boy, Charlie Soong made his way to North Carolina in the 1880s. Carr took him under wing, arranged for his education at Trinity College (the forerunner of Duke University) and Vanderbilt, and supported his plan to return to China as a Christian missionary. Undoubtedly, Charlie Soong was also inspired by Carr’s success in the tobacco and textile manufacturing businesses.
After returning to China, Soong quickly moved from the mission field to business. He earned a fortune, some large part of which he funneled to Sun Yat-sen to support his revolutionary activities. He sent his children to the United States for education. All of them took on large roles in Chinese political and business life.
In Madame Sun’s former residence, North Carolinians can find letters and photos that show her family’s connection to America. Charlie Soong’s experiences in North Carolina prepared him for his success in China. Soong’s success gave his family the connections and opportunities for education that made Madame Sun’s prominent life possible.
Without North Carolina, there would probably have been no Madame Sun. Nor would this house have been her residence. So when North Carolinians come here, they can feel a special pride of ownership—at least enough to justify a special visit.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For more information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at