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Alum recounts his escape from communist China

Frank Leo hired a people smuggler to lead him to freedom. Today his LA firm is an industry leader in interior design.

by Mary Niehaus

For 350 years, Frank Leo's ancestors recorded portions of the family's history in graceful hand-lettered characters on large sheets of delicate rice paper -- all now destroyed.

In "Shanghai Remembrance," the University of Cincinnati grad (DAAP '62) renews the tradition, writing a candid and affectionate portrait of family love and survival.

Wedding photo from 1934 Shanghai shows Frank's parents in western-style formal dress and his Grandfather Liu in traditional attire. At right is China's finance minister, who gave away the bride.   photos/courtesy of Frank Leo.

Wedding photo from 1934 Shanghai shows Frank's parents in western-style formal dress and his Grandfather Liu in traditional attire. At right is China's finance minister who gave away the bride. Photos/courtesy of Frank Leo.

Growing up in a privileged family, one of many decimated by the rise of the Communists in the 1950s and '60s, Leo risked everything to be free. He applied for a visa on the pretense that he must escort his severely ill mother back from Hong Kong. Even with authentic papers, he knew he might be arrested or shot on the spot, if the Chinese border guards thought he was lying. He had no papers to enter Hong Kong and had to rely on a "people smuggler."

Making it into Hong Kong, where his mother and other relatives waited, meant he could rectify his legal status, finish high school, improve his English and be admitted to an American university. Leo would eventually find his way, complete UC's six-year architecture program, open an interior design firm in Los Angeles, ColorDesignArt, and see it grow into an industry leader.

Now retired, Leo says, "America was everything I had hoped it would be. As I had imagined it from the movies I saw as a child, it was, for me, a place where a person who worked hard had the opportunity to become successful."

From "Shanghai Remembrance"

Copying a pose they'd seen in a 1947 MGM movie, "Fiesta," are Frank, his sister Ivy and her future husband, Shu.

Copying a pose they'd seen in a 1947 movie, are Frank, his sister Ivy and her future husband, Shu.

[Editor's note: Frank Leo's life was in grave danger twice in his youth. The first was a kidnapping in 1941, when he was 6 years old.]

Mamma Chang (the nanny) let go of my hand to take the envelope. In that split second, I disappeared. All Mamma Chang saw was a car speeding away from the curb and me sitting in the lap of a man in the front passenger seat. Father read the short note: "We've got your boy! Don't worry, we'll take good care of him. You'll be contacted by someone soon."

The man holding me told me not to be afraid. "We are your friends," he said urgently. "The Japanese are raiding your house right now, and your parents are on the run. We are going to hide you from the Japanese."

Another man, who was older, more distinguished looking and dressed in a fine Western business suit spoke to me in a deep, gentle voice. "As soon as this thing blows over, I'll personally deliver you back home. For now, however, I want you to be a good boy so your parents will be proud of you."

My father rarely spoke more than one or two sentences to me during a day. It was a totally new experience for me to converse with a grown man. His gentle smile and soft voice soon began to win my confidence, though it is not that difficult, of course, to make a six-year-old believe a story.

At age 16, Frank poses outside the solarium of his family's home. A year later, he would leave China to find freedom.

At age 16, Frank poses outside the solarium of his family's home.

[The kidnappers treated Frank well, kept him entertained, provided a tutor, music lessons and even a puppy. After collecting a hefty ransom, they returned the boy to his home four months later. By 1952, he had watched the Communist-led government cruelly ruin his father's business and health. At 17, he was determined to escape from his homeland.]

Most of my life as a rich kid I had expected to have an easy time. Now, I realized that if I wanted anything in life, I would have to get it for myself. I had two choices. The easy one was to stay put, finish my medical training and work in a job assigned me by the government. The other was to leave my family and, like my father had done after World War II, go somewhere where I could work hard and have the opportunity to succeed.

As the only young man in the vast throng (at the train station), I stood out like a sore thumb. People were surprised that the government would allow me to leave the country. When asked about it, I always stuck to my story that I had to pick up my sick mother and be back within a day or two.

Two days passed, and I was going crazy with anxiety. Finally, we got the news that the railroad was in operation again, and I would be able to cross the border -- on the very last day before my visa's expiration.

Frank Leo

Frank Leo

[At the border, guards repeatedly examined Leo's travel documents, then allowed him to walk out of Communist China. Still, he lacked the papers to enter the British colony of Hong Kong, so Leo hired a "people smuggler" to pay off the colony's border guards.]

The smuggler pulled me out of the line and told me to follow him. I walked behind him, carrying my two suitcases. Empty-handed, he walked very fast, and I was having a hard time keeping up.

Soon, we approached the right side of the gate, where several Hong Kong border guards loitered. The smuggler walked right past them through the gate and never broke his stride. I kept walking behind him, my heart pounding furiously. I realized then that these guards were on the take.

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