We’ve all seen the Dos Equis “World’s Most interesting man commercials…..but I think I have found the Worlds most interesting Woman.
Amazing life: Fleeing Bolsheviks, fortunes won and lost, Tommy guns in Thailand and Shanghai romance
She was still a toddler when her father, Col. Pyotr Reksting, roused the family in the middle of the Siberian night. "The Bolsheviks are at the next town. They've shot everyone. You have five minutes to pack."
And so began a journey that ended in Victoria last week when Nathalia Buchan died at 100 years of age.
One of her earliest memories was of crossing frozen Lake Baikal by train. They switched to horse and carriage to cross the Chinese border, coming to rest in Harbin, Manchuria.
In 1929, with Japan muscling up to Manchuria, 19-year-old Nathalia fled again, this time alone, to Shanghai. Nathalia was educated by now, spoke seven languages, had attended the University of Peking. She became manager at DD's, a famed Shanghai nightclub that remains popular today.
One day a young Scot walked into the club. Having run away from school to fly biplanes in the First World War, Bill Buchan had landed in China after Lady Nancy Astor hooked him up with a telephone company undertaking a Far Eastern construction project. He entered DD's in a foul mood, was rude to the staff. "My mother, in the most polite way, put him in his place," says their son, David Buchan.
Bill liked that. Still, it was two years before he contacted Nathalia, sending her two huge opera baskets of flowers, piled taller than a man, when she was sick. It wasn't until Remembrance Day 1941 that they married, reasoning that she would be better with a British passport when the Japanese invaded Shanghai's international settlement, which they did less than a month later, the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked. "I will never let you down," he promised her.
Being Russian-born, Nathalia was given the option of freedom, but chose to follow her husband into the Lunghua concentration camp -- the one depicted in the movie Empire Of The Sun. "I will not be parted from the man I love," she said.
They remained in Lunghua until 1946, after the war, their survival due in no small part to the repeated kindness of the camp commandant, Capt. Tomohiko Hayashi. (David Buchan, who remains in contact with Hayashi's son -- a former Japanese cabinet minister -- says the commandant was unfairly portrayed in the film.) On one occasion, Hayashi sent an ailing Nathalia to hospital in Shanghai in his car, giving her enough money for medicine, lunch for herself and her guards, and a cake to bring back to Bill.
Still, she was in rough shape, weighing just 78 pounds, when liberated by American troops at the end of the war.
With Shanghai in chaos and China locked in a communist-nationalist struggle, the Buchans alit in Bangkok. Bill sold newsprint from B.C. before building up a tobacco business.
One day in 1946 they got a knock on the door. There, the story goes, stood two Vietnamese leaders -- Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap -- looking to buy arms with which to fight French occupation. "The Russians said you could help us," they told Bill.
Bill left for Czechoslovakia to broker the deal, but not before stopping at the British embassy to pick up a pistol for Nathalia; he
didn't want to leave her defenceless in lawless Bangkok. The man at the embassy -- described as looking like Peter Lorre -- gave him a Thompson submachine-gun instead. Every evening, Nathalia, still half-blind and emaciated from wartime malnutrition, would hobble onto the veranda on her crutches, place a pillow between the Tommy gun and her shoulder, and rip off a couple of bursts to keep the bandits at bay.
The Buchans built up the tobacco business, but lost everything when it was nationalized by the Thai government. So they started anew, grew another prosperous trading company after moving to Hong Kong in 1952. It was there that David was born -- and that his father died in 1958. Nathalia ran the business alone -- a European speaking Chinese dialect in a man's world -- until she sold it in 1962 after falling ill.
They had tickets to England, but someone convinced her Canada would be a better place to raise her son. They sailed -- David, Nathalia, her mother -- on the P&O liner Arcadia, a
31/2-week voyage. Vancouver was cold and rainy, but the clouds parted when they visited Victoria. "A sign from God. We will settle here," Nathalia said.
And so they did. David is still in Victoria, a manager in the provincial government. Nathalia never remarried. "I loved your father so much that I could never bear the thought of marrying anyone else," she told her son.
Canada gave Nathalia a quiet life, or at least quieter than the one in Asia. (There isn't space to get into the story of how she helped raise the actor Yul Brynner after he befriended her cousin in Shanghai. "He was literally living on the streets and stealing motorcyles, stuff like that," David says.) In Victoria, she was part of a small community of Europeans who drifted here from Asia after the war (Princess Peggy Abkhazi, of Abkhazi Gardens fame, was Nathalia's across-the-road neighbour in the Lunghua internment camp).
Nathalia lived in Glengarry hospital the past couple of years, had dementia at the end. But perhaps you saw her before that when she was still in her mid-nineties, poking down Oak Bay Avenue with her walker. Perhaps you looked right through her, not knowing she was this courageous, pious, compassionate, fiercely intelligent woman inching toward the end of a 100-year journey.
Nathalia Buchan, born in Russia on Aug. 29, 1910, died in Victoria on Dec. 27, 2010. She was to be buried at Ross Bay Cemetery after a service at Saint Sophia Russian Orthodox Church in Fairfield on Tuesday.
And in case you missed the Dos Equis commercials -