As a boy, "Charlie Two Shoes" was adopted by U.S. Marines stationed in China after World War II. His old Marine buddies helped him emigrate from Communist China to the U.S. in 1983. Some of those friends joined Charlie when he recently returned to a much-changed China for the first time in 30 years. NBC's Ian Williams reports.
BEIJING – Next weekend, an 80-year-old Chinese American called Charlie Tsui will give the commencement address at the College of the Ozarks in Missouri.
The events which shaped Tsui's life took place well before any of the 270 students receiving their bachelor degrees were born, though his story of loyalty and friendship easily bridges the generational divide.
Tsui was born in a village just outside the Chinese coastal city of Qingdao, which is where he first met U.S. Marines, stationed there at the end of the World War II. He lived in a hut just beyond the barbed wire of the Marine compound. It was a time of immense turmoil in China, which was gripped by a civil war that would eventually lead to the Communists taking over in 1949.
Tsui would bring the Marines boiled eggs and warm peanuts from his village.
The Marines adopted him, gave Tsui food and clothes, taught him English and paid for him to go to the American school in the city. They also gave him a nickname: “Charlie Two Shoes,” since his original Chinese name, Tsui Chi Hsii, was tough to pronounce.
Charlie Tsui, nicknamed "Charlie Two Shoes" as a child by the U.S. Marines who became like brothers to him in Qingdao, China after World War II.
"We were like brothers in the Marine Corps," he recalls. "We love each other, just like brother and sister."
But the Marines were not able to take Tsui with them when they left shortly before the Communists took control.
"Leaving him over there when I left in 1947, it was like leaving a wounded Marine behind," said Don Sexton, who was squad leader back then.
Charlie Tsui as a child in Qingdao, China after World War II.
For years, the Marines heard nothing of Tsui, who was jailed and then kept under house arrest for seven years for refusing to denounce his Marine buddies.
In 1983, Tsui did manage to get a letter out, and NBC News was able to track him down. The timing was good, as China was opening up, and the Marines campaigned successfully to get him a visa for the US, his family joining him two years later. He was soon running a successful restaurant business in Chapel Hill, N.C., which of course was the scene over the years of many a Marine reunion.
But having gotten to the U.S., seemingly in the face of massive odds, he then faced a 17-year-battle with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. He came close to deportation before gaining legal residency and ultimately citizenship under a 1992 law prompted by the Tiananmen Square massacre.
"He was one special person. Now he's like family," said Carl Frost, one of those Marines.
In 2002, Tsui was made an "honorary Marine" in an official ceremony at Camp Lejeune.
Frost and Sexton were among the members of Tsui's Marine family who recently returned to Qingdao with Tsui for the first time since he left all those years ago. Also on the trip were students from the College of the Ozarks, which sponsored the visit. The college has a program that pairs students with American veterans, taking them back to their battlefields or military stations.
Today's Qingdao is a very different place, with modern glistening buildings and brash prosperity. NBC News also joined the trip as an at times bewildered Charlie Two Shoes sought out the landmarks of his childhood.
Charlie Tsui and a group of his old Marine buddies return to Qingdao, China for the first time in 30 years.
"That was the cave where the Japanese stored their weapons," he said, pointing at the craggy rocks just beyond what is now a sports field, but had been a military parade ground, during the Japanese occupation of the city.
The old Marines barracks has long since been reclaimed by the city's university. "That's where I slept, up the end there," he said, pointing down a long corridor.
The old American School is now an elite kindergarten. Remarkably, Tsui's old family home still stands, though much expanded by the migration workers now living there. His village, Chukechuang, has become part of the city's sprawling suburbs. This is where he met an elder brother he'd thought was dead.
"I was worried. He's alright. He's alright," he said, as the two stood gripping each other's hands.
The man called "Charlie Two Shoes" by his old U.S. Marine friends leaves China. NBC's Tom Brokaw and Sandy Gilmour report on May 9, 1983.
When the Americans left, Tsui had moved into an orphanage run by nuns, which is where he developed a strong Christian faith, which he says kept him going through those hard times.
St. Michael's Cathedral, where he received his first communion, still stands - a city landmark. Tsui would walk 10 miles, there and back, to worship on Sundays until the Communists shut it down.
Tsui's return visit was during a big Chinese holiday. The beach and promenade at Qingdao was packed. For a moment Tsui was lost in thought, before recalling where the last of the American ships were loaded before leaving. Back then he thought he'd never see his Marine buddies again. But he never gave up hope.
More NBC News reporting on China in Behind the Wall
This story was originally published on Thu May 2, 2013 4:40 PM EDT