Monday, April 15, 2013

Tang Yu-Lin (?-1989)

While the history of Clemente and the Pordenone Mafia might have been extraordinary, more extraordinary still was the story of Spaso House's other international employee, Tang Yu-Lin.  Tang arrived in the Soviet Union in the early 1930's, working as personal servant for an American correspondent who had transferred from Beijing to Moscow.  Tang and his co-worker, Chin Pao-fang, were hired in 1939, a few years after diplomatic relations were established between the United States and the Soviet Union.  From that point on, Tang and Chin worked loyally at the Residence for the rest of their lives.  They were even featured in a Life Magazine picture essay on Spaso House in 1947 , when they were working as “No. 1 boy” (Chin) and “No. 2 boy” (Tang) for Ambassador and Mrs. Walter Bedell Smith.  Chin passed away in 1972, during the time of my predecessor, Marty Wenick, but Tang, although increasingly infirm with age, continued to work as one of Spaso's butlers.  At some point in his long tenure, Tang married a Russian woman who lived in an apartment building on the Rublevskoye Shosse. 

Despite the fact that he was married, and sent most of his income to his wife and her children from a previous marriage, Tang himself chose to live almost full time in a very spare basement apartment in Spaso House.  One reason why he did this, I think, was because he was a little afraid of venturing out from Spaso, and the American Embassy's protection.  Following the Communist takeover of China in 1949, Tang found that he had become a stateless person, and he feared what might happen to him if he was picked up by the Soviet police.  In addition, Tang increasingly feared (irrationally) that if he left Spaso House for any length of time, the Americans might not let him back in.  He lived for his work.

Despite the fact that he had lived in the Soviet Union for nearly five decades, Tang had very few Soviet friends, and never learned to speak Russian properly.  When he did speak, it was in a kind of broken pidgin Russian, and in the feminine gender.  Always respectful, his signature statement was "Pazhala" (Пожалуйста).  It was an endearing quality, and despite Tang's fears, he was never in danger of being fired.  Everyone loved him.

In 1979, toward the end of my first tour in Moscow, Tang's health problems began to overwhelm him, and it was clear that he could not work full time.  Before I left, I worked out an arrangement with Budget and Fiscal to consider Tang as having retired, granting him a monthly stipend equivalent to his current pay.  I told Tang that he didn't have to work full time if he didn't feel up to it, but that he would always have a room at Spaso, and he would continue to collect his pay.  Tang was grateful beyond words. 

Visiting with Tang at Spaso, Codel O'Neill April 1985
 John Feeney once told me he had visited Tang in his basement apartment to make sure he was all right, and that Tang’s quarters were just as bare and spartan as before.  John noticed a single sheet of flypaper on the wall that had captured several roaches.  By moving his forefingers about his head like antennae, John gave a worthy impression of the bugs, as they moved their feelers about and unsuccessfully attempted to extricate themselves.  I reflected at the time that they were not unlike Tang himself, stuck in the basement and not really knowing how to leave.

In 1989, I returned to Moscow on my second tour.  By that time, Tang had finally decided to move to his wife's apartment, and was bedridden.  He had broken his leg in 1984, and had lain undiscovered in his Spaso basement apartment for two days.  Even Tang agreed it was time to retire permanently.  John Beyrle came out on an advance for the Secretary, and as he and I were old friends of Tang, we decided to go out and visit him.  Tang was overjoyed to see us both.  He sat up in his bed, and our picture was taken sitting with him (unfortunately, that picture is now lost in a storage box somewhere).  Tang said it was one of the happiest days of his life to know that people still remembered him.

A few months later, Tang passed away.  No one knows how old he was, as Tang himself could not recall the year of his birth.  It is almost certain, however, that he was nearly 90.  Tang was buried in a traditional Soviet wooden casket in the Vagankovskoye Cemetery, the same cemetery where Vladimir Vysotsky is buried.  I attended the funeral as the Embassy's representative, and Ambassador Matlock, also an old friend of Tang's, sent flowers.  It was a sad day for everyone, but bittersweet as well: America will never have a more loyal or devoted employee.

Life Magazine link: 

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