SUMMIT, NJ - More than a century ago, Ching-ling Soong and Mei-ling Soong -- two young sisters -- were brought by their aunt and uncle from China to attend and board at the Miss Clara Barton Potwin School, located at 34 Locust Drive in Summit..
Unbeknownst to many, the Ching-ling Soong later became Madame Sun Yat-sen when she married her husband, the founder of the Chinese Republic who was often called the George Washington of China. She served as a vice-chairman in the Chinese Communist government from 1949 to 1975.
Mei-ling Soong became Madame Chiang Kai-shek. Together, she and her husband were named "Man and Woman of the Year" in 1938 by Time magazine. The Chiang Nationalist government ruled China during World War II and then established a government on the island of Taiwan when the Communists took over the Chinese mainland in 1949.
The saga of the Soong sisters goes back at least 140 years. Their father was born in 1866 on South China's Hainan Island and was named Soon Yao ju -- the family name is first in Chinese custom and the "g" was added when he was older. At the age of nine, he was given to an uncle as a common practice in Oriental society at that time was to give away a child to a childless relative.
About this time the boy's uncle was opening a tea and silk shop in Boston and paid for Yao ju's passage. During his few years of apprenticeship, he came into contact with several Chinese students who had been sent to America on an educational mission. Their stories were filled with their experiences at American schools and summer activities as well as criticisms of their homeland. The young boy began to dream of an American education.
Against his uncle’s wishes, the boy went down to the Boston Harbor and slipped aboard one of the ships as a stowaway. The boy claimed his name was Chiao-shun, which to American ears sounded like Charles Sun. The name was written into the ship's log. Later the spelling became Soon, then Soong.
In 1887, Charles 'Charllie' Sun married Miss Ni Kweit-seng, Charlie and his wife firmly believed that their six children -- three girls and three boys -- should be well-educated and well-prepared for their lives. This was especially important for the girls because they received the same educational preparation as the boys.
The socially outgoing Ai-ling married into wealth. Her husband's name was Hsiang-his (H.H) Kung, a Descendent of Confucius and a member of one of the wealthiest families in China (banking). He had studied at Oberlin College in Ohio and had received a Masters' degree at Yale. Eventually, he was finance minister of China from 1933 - 1944 and served briefly during that period as President of the Chinese Republic.
While on one his frequent missions for Dr. Sun Yatsen in 1906, Charlie was taken to the Clara Barton Potwin School in Summit by his brother-in-law Wen Bingchung. Wen headed a commission sent by the Empress of China to study America and its economic conditions and to enroll his godson at the Potwin School to prepare him for the University of Pennsylvania.
Wen knew Clara Potwin through her father and a friend from Summit named William Henry Grant who lived at 87 New England Avenue. Grant was an American educator who had worked for years in Manhattan as a librarian. He was active in the Central Presbyterian Church, involved in mission work, and had traveled to China many times.
The Miss Potwin School was located in a brown shingled house on 34 Locust Drive behind the present Grand Summit Hotel, between Larned Brook and Tulip Street. Charlie was so taken by the atmosphere of Summit and the college preparatory qualities of the school that he asked Potwin if he could enroll his two daughters the following year.
In 1907 Wen brought Ching-ling and Mei-ling to the Clara Potwin School. The girls spent one year at the Potwin School before journeying to Wesleyan College to join their older sister Ai-ling.
Why did the Potwin School have some Chinese students? Clara's father had tutored some wealthy Chinese students at Yale in the 1890's. Over the years they maintained contact and Clara and her father had traveled together visiting them in China. When her father died she began to take in a few Chinese pupils to prepare them for American colleges.
When the girls arrived at the Potwin School in 1907, both spoke perfect English and they attended Sunday School at the Central Presbyterian Church.
At the time, Louise R. Morris -- the first professionally trained librarian in Summit -- headed the Summit Library. She writes of her fond memories of the two Soong sisters. "The library was evidently a great boon to the Soong sisters. The elder, Ching-ling, was a shy, pretty girl... and a great reader. She selected books of a serious character, far beyond the taste of the average girl of that age."
"Mei-ling ... used the library for purposes both serious and playful. Her book selection ranged from Peter Rabbit to Dickens, but chiefly she loved to just drop in to see what I was doing. She developed a system of watching outside until she was sure to have me and the library to herself. And because Mei-ling found me and my activities in the library hugely entertaining, I treasure a store of memories of a fascinating little girl."
In 1942 Madame Chiang Kai-shek sent a telegram which was read at the Summit dinner for United China Relief. Part of the telegram read as follows:
TO ALL GOOD SUMMIT PEOPLE INCLUDING MY SCHOOL MATES
AT MISS POTWIN'S WITH WHOM I SKATED, PICNICKED AND CUT
PAPER DOLLS ... I SEND AFFECTIONATE AND WISTFUL GREETINGS.
MEI-LING SOONG CHIAN
Although the girls’ stay in Summit was a brief one, their legacy and the history of the Clara Potwin School live on at 34 Locust Drive, a residential property currently now for sale snd listed by Lois Schneider Realtor's Cynthia Baker.
A more in-depth chronicle of the life of the Soong sisters in Summit, an article by Robert A. Hageman’s, entitled “The Soong Sisters - An Historical Footnote to a Noteworthy Family” and which was originally published in the Summit Historical Society's March 14, 2004, edition of Historian, can be found by visiting summithistoricalsociety.org.