The Great Escape
By Christiana S. Chiang as told to Lyn Millner
Restaurateur Christiana Chiang says she has enough stories to fill many books—not to mention the cookbook that many would have her write. The CEO of Charlie Chiang’s Inc. is the daughter of a fighter pilot who served in the Republic of China Air Force. Her family fled China during that country’s civil war when she was an infant. Christiana grew up in Taiwan, where she attended a women’s business college and then worked at the U.S. Embassy.
Over the past 35 years, Chiang and her husband, Charles, have started nearly two dozen restaurant businesses—in Virginia, Washington D.C., Maryland, Illinois and Florida. Christiana invents recipes (tempura cheesecake, creamy sesame jumbo shrimp, cheese fried rice) and has developed many new restaurant concepts, including fast food, catering and Asian fusion. Charles participates in the business, too, but she is clearly the leader.
The Chiang’s empire began humbly. When Charles came to the United States, he was a busboy at a Chinese restaurant—one of the jobs he held while earning a master’s and then a Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Illinois.
In the late 1940s, Charles and his father escaped China. He was six years old. They walked much of the 250-mile route from their hometown to Shanghai, and then took a boat to Taiwan. The trip took months.
“He has had a very tough life,” Christiana says of Charles. But when she met him, she assumed the opposite—that he was worldly and privileged.
BOY MEETS GIRL
Charles and I met in Taiwan after I graduated from college. On the day we met, he actually had a date planned with Miss Taiwan. His father had introduced them. He wanted Charles to marry and give him a grandson. Charles didn’t want to marry, but he obeyed. He was dating many women, but wasn’t serious with anybody.
That day, five of us girls were going to an afternoon dance, and we needed five boys to go, too. Charles’ friend called and told him he had to go. “You can date Miss Taiwan later,” the friend said. Charles finally said OK.
I wore a yellow dress that day, and I still remember that I had very short hair, like a little boy. I had cut it to be more professional at work. Before the dance, we went to a Western restaurant where modern, young people went. When Charles sat across from me, my girlfriends warned me about him: “Watch out for baby face,” they said.
I didn’t know what an afternoon dance was. I’m a country girl, and I was only 21 and living with my parents. It was so dark you could not see your finger in front of you. Charles said to the hostess, “We want a seat close to the stage.”
My girlfriends heard this and said, “Watch out, it looks like he’s experienced in this kind of place.”
One of my girlfriends started a rumor about how bad he was. That he looked like a rich boy. I told him, “Your life is very rotten. Afternoon dances, playing mahjong. What about your future?” I asked him. “You need to go to the United States.”
He said if he went to the United States, he wanted us to be engaged first. He promised me that within two years he would get his master’s degree. And he did. He worked so hard. Then he earned a Ph.D. Then he came back to Taiwan to get me.
CHARLES’ REAL STORY
Later, I learned about Charles’ childhood from his father. His father was very tall for a Chinese man. His ears were big, and he had dark skin. He looked almost like one of the gods from Buddhist temples. You know, they have some friendly gods, and they have a nasty god. His father may have looked like a nasty god, but he has such a nice heart.
When he and I met, he just melted. He told me all the stories. He had a heavy accent—a northern, Jiangbei accent. It’s like another language. But when I listened, I used my heart and, more and more, I started really understanding him.
His father fought the Communists in the civil war. He was pro-Nationalist, the commander of the army in the town where he lived, Huai’an. The army unit was like a local militia. Everybody followed Charles’ father. He was almost like a mayor in the town. He had charisma and power.
When he was 40 or 50 years old, he was captured by the Communists and tortured. They put him in a cage in the river. He could not stand up fully, and he could not sit for one to two months. Out of that cage, his body shape was curved, not a straight spine. It was like a shrimp. He shrunk from almost 6’1” to 5’11”. They didn’t want to kill him because they felt they would get revenge from his group. So they let him go.
THE ESCAPE PLAN
The story Charles’ father told me that is most touching is when he had to leave Huai’an. By that time, around 1948, the Kuomintang were losing the battle to the Communists and going to Taiwan to reorganize. So after his capture, he decided to leave the town. The father brought the whole family, about 20 of them. The situation was very dangerous because the Communists were after them.
Charles had an infant brother, who got sick during the trip. His father wanted Charles’ mother to take the baby back to the home, and to take Charles, too. He said, “Let me run by myself. If I survive and escape, they will not touch you because they will be afraid of revenge. But if I get killed or captured while you are with me, we all get killed.”
The decision was made that Charles’ father would escape, and everybody else would go back home. But when Charles heard that, he said, “I want to follow the father.” Charles is thinking that with his father he can be protected. The father said, “No. You go back with your mother.” Charles caught his father’s leg, and the father is almost beating him away, saying, “Leave, leave, leave.” But Charles keeps holding his leg.
Finally, the father said, “OK. I give up.” So only the father and Charles run. They escape toward Shanghai. At that time, Shanghai was not occupied by Communists. It had a still-free harbor.
They went on land from Huai’an to Zhenjiang, south of the Yangtze River, and then to Shanghai. They didn’t have a map. They would hide in the woods and come out and not know where they were. Sometimes, they went the wrong way.
There were lots of people on the road, but he couldn’t ask for directions. So the father was very clever. He would see someone and say, “Hi, friend. Nice see you. Where you go?” The person might say, “I go to Shandong.” That means north. And then the father knew he was going the wrong way.
Once they reached Shanghai, they went north to Wusongkou (on the Yangtze River) and waited for a boat to take them to Chongming Dao (a large island at the mouth of the Yangtze). Then they stayed in Chongming Dao for two months and waited for a boat to Taiwan.
People used all kinds of boats to escape. Cargo ships took people instead of cargo. Some boats were overloaded. If you had a 1,000-passenger boat, they would put on probably 3,000. Some boats sank. Some got hit from the Communist side. Everybody would take a chance because they wanted to run.
Day by day, Charles and his father went to the Wusongkou harbor and checked for news of a boat. Everybody at the harbor was helping each other, getting information and passing it around and waiting. One day, someone said, “I have a big boat that can take 3,000 people.” They said that this boat was leaving the next morning at 7 o’clock. Everybody got excited. Charles slept next to his father on the harbor.
At about 3 o’clock, this boat started leaving. The boat operators knew if they gave the message that it was leaving at 7 o’clock, they should leave earlier; otherwise there would be overload. Charles woke his father up. “Ba Ba, the boat is leaving.” They could see the mast. And they ran. The father was strong, physically, so tall and so fast. Charles was six or seven years old, and he was a little foot and could not catch him. The father got on the boat and couldn’t find his son. He was calling (Charles’ name), “Ta Jan! Ta Jan!” Charles started yelling from the dock, “I’m here.” They saw each other, but the boat was moving away.
The father cannot leave his son behind. He tells the people on the dock, “Please throw this boy to me.” I don’t know how far the distance was from the dock to the boat. These people on the harbor pick up Charles and swing him. If he drops in the ocean, he will die. He doesn’t know how to swim. The people swing him high, and they throw him. And—I think it must be God helping him—the father caught the boy.
When Charles and his father escaped, they had nothing. The father needed to join the Kuomintang army to survive. Charles also joined the army. His father changed his birth year from 1942 to 1940 to make him older so he could join. Otherwise, the army would think he was too little. So Charles became a soldier when he was only six or seven years old.
A NEW WORLD
In Taiwan, he suffered a lot. He was the youngest one in his camp. The other soldiers treated him like a toy. They tried hitting him with knives for target practice. One time, a big sharp knife hit him, just a half inch below the heart. It didn’t go through, but there was a big hole. He has a mark there.
My family escaped to Taiwan, too. But my escape is not like Charles’. My father was in the Air Force, and they took care of their families very well. We just sat in an airplane.
My father always wanted me to come to America. He had two years of training in the United States to be a fighter pilot. When he got home, he felt that I should come and experience it.
You come to this country as an immigrant; you start from nothing. But this country is so beautiful, so wonderful. Where else can you go that, under the Constitution, you have equal opportunity? If you work hard, and if you desire strongly to be a success, this is opportunity land.
In 2003, we visited Naples for the first time. The people were very friendly, the water has a peaceful energy, and this area reminds me so much of Taiwan. We opened a Charlie Chiang’s here in 2005.
Sometimes I think if all of this hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have Charles. Life is like a banquet—for a lot of reasons, not necessarily to celebrate. Like life, food tastes sweet or bitter or sour or salty. Life is very unpredictable.