Shui Chu Chen (Mary Chen)

I would like to tell you about a very special woman who just happens to be a member of the Wayne Senior Center – where she enjoys Tai Chi classes, thought-provoking bridge games and spending time with friends. To the casual observer, Mary Chen is quiet and reserved. However, underneath that peaceful persona is one of the strongest, most determined individuals that I know. Mary has faced horrendous challenges with grace and dignity, never giving up.

Shui Chu Chen, known in the United States as Mary Chen, was born in China in 1930. She was actually born in Hong Kong while her mother was visiting for a family wedding. After Mary’s birth, they both returned home to Kuong Tong Province where Mary had two brothers and two sisters. Life was good. When Mary was 7 years old, Japan attacked China. People suffered a great deal in those eight years of war. Civil war in China continued, immediately following the war with Japan. However, Mary was sent to Macau before the Pacific war started so that she would not lose any school time. Education was and is the top priority in Chinese culture.

When Mary left China, it was with a broken heart. She loves China, which she calls her motherland. Her hope for China is for progress and peace. She and her husband toiled to ensure that their children had every opportunity to achieve their dreams and to gain the knowledge needed to contribute to the community and lead a peaceful existence. This they did! What an enormous accomplishment in the face of very strong odds! Mary Chen is most definitely a hero, as far as this author is concerned.

These were very hard times for young Mary. She and her brothers had to move around to keep safe. There was very little food, but the children kept studying. She was never in the same school for more than two years. In 1945 the war was over, and they finally had peace. Mary was able to go back to live with her parents in Hong Kong and graduated from high school in 1947. She then entered Qinghau University in Beijing to study chemistry. While there, she met her husband, Clay Chen, and got married in 1953. Their text books were all written in English! Even though their country was now known as the People’s Republic of China, as the Communists had taken over the government.

Clay and Mary both acquired jobs in Beijing. They had two daughters and two sons all while Mary continued to work. Unfortunately, China was still in turmoil. Under the ruling of Mao at that time, countless class struggle movements were raging in China. In 1957 the anti-rightist Movement began. Many intellectuals were considered as the “Right” and got severe punishments. Clay was sent to the mine to perform hard labor and did not even earn a salary. This adversely affected the family left behind. Mary and Clay’s children were treated as bad “origin” because their parents were educated. One daughter was sent to a village to be a farmer at the age of 15. Their son was not allowed to go to high school. Mary, now the only parent in the home, was forced to make the agonizing decision to give her younger daughter to her brother-in-law to raise, as she could no longer provide for her needs. Absolutely unthinkable!

Mary and Clay Chen visiting the Grand Canyon
Mary and her family in 1975
Later, when the government allowed people to come to China from overseas, Mary made the choice to leave China to look for a brighter future for her children and family.

In 1980, Mary’s son received a scholarship to Princeton University. Her son eventually earned his Ph.D. in computer science. As time went on, the other members of the family immigrated to the United States. Her younger son earned his M.D. and Ph.D. and now is world-renowned for his work with prostate cancer at Sloan Kettering Hospital. Mary’s elder daughter became an R.N. after she arrived here. Her youngest daughter has remained in China, but comes to visit as often as she can.

Calling all world history teachers: Mary lived it; who better to teach us about what it is like to survive and eventually thrive one of the harshest revolutions in history!

Susan Shapiro
Susan Shapiro

Susan Shapiro is the Executive Director of the Wayne Senior Center.