How a local family had front row seat to changes in China

Grace Boggs Service should have been used to the chaos when shots rang out at her house in Chongqing, China, one night in 1923.

Service, who grew up in Highland and graduated from San Bernardino High School in 1898, spent nearly four decades in the eye of the hurricane that was early-20th century China.

This was a time when China was alive with revolution and social change, but she got a little too close that night when her husband Robert Service answered the door.

He was confronted by soldiers, one of whom inexplicably fired his rifle. The bullet missed his head by inches but shattered glass on the door with chards temporarily blinding him.

Such were the experiences of the Services, who were assigned to China in 1906 by the international YMCA. For many years they operated the YMCA chapter in the city of Chengdu in Sichuan province.

They were fired on, imprisoned, evacuated and threatened often. But despite the dangers and uncertainties, the Services — through the ideals of the YMCA — did their best to work for the Chinese living in Sichuan.

“That province has been our first Chinese home and we love it and the people with a persistence affection,” she wrote in her book, “Golden Inches: A China Memoir of Grace Service,” that was published in 1989, years after her death at Claremont’s Pilgrim Place.

Grace Service had married former University of California classmate Robert at her grandmother’s home in Iowa in 1904 after her father, San Bernardino banker W.S. Boggs, refused to give his consent to their marriage.

A year later, they were posted to China, though their first few days was marred by the death of their newborn daughter Virginia while traveling on the Yangtze River.

Despite that depressing arrival, the Services quickly realized they would soon have to experience everything from appreciation to suspicion as they went about their tasks for the YMCA. Chengdu, not far from the border with Tibet, was relatively isolated when the Services arrived, and they were always the center of attention.

“The crowds watched our every movement,” she wrote. While eating, “many people crowded tightly around us every time our chairs were set down. I think it was to study the ‘foreign devils.’”

In 1911, the last Chinese imperial dynasty was overthrown but not without some violence. Foreigners were urged to flee to the coast for their protection, so the Services, with two of their children, rode small boats for 13 days to reach the relative safety of Shanghai. At one point they were fired on by bandits.


They eventually returned to Chengdu, but such uprisings were fairly common as China grew less tolerant of foreigners within its borders as it attempted to modernize.

During quiet times, Grace raised three sons as well as supporting her husband’s work. She helped “everywhere I could and in every way,” she wrote in a biography for Pilgrim Place. “That meant teaching servants to cook, Chinese youths to speak English and read the Bible.”

She served on several boards for the Chinese and with women of various foreign groups or missions in the country. She also wrote books and poetry and edited English-language publications in China.

During their time in China, they occasionally took trips home. In 1932, Japan invaded parts of China, adding another level of tension. The Services took a furlough shortly thereafter and briefly stayed in Claremont, where son Richard was attending Pomona College.

They later returned to China, but Grace Service’s life changed forever in September 1935 when Robert died there. His ashes were scattered by Grace on the Chongqing grave of their daughter Virginia.

Interestingly, Grace Service chose to remain in China for several years, staying with Richard, who worked in the U.S. consulate in Qingdao. In 1940, they both were advised to leave due to worsening relations with Japan in the preliminary stages of World War II in the Pacific.

In late 1940, she came to Pilgrim Place, the retirement center for former church workers and missionaries, and remained there until her death in October 1954.

One interesting sidelight to Grace Service’s story was controversy affecting her oldest son, John Service. During World War II, he served with Gen. Joseph Stilwell, who sent him to China to assess the political movement of Mao Zedong (formerly spelled Mao Tse-tung).

His assessment was Mao’s forces were far better and more accepted by the people than those of Chiang Kai-Shek, whom the U.S. resolutely backed during and after the war. Service was later sent to Washington by Stilwell to make a case that the U.S. was supporting the wrong side in China, and it would be more productive to support Mao.

That later backfired as John Service was among the State Department employees blacklisted in 1950 by Sen. Joseph McCarthy for supporting communism. He was fired the next year, but six years later was reinstated in a case that eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

Later, he was working at UC Berkeley when President Richard Nixon went to meet Mao to China in 1971. It was then that John Service was invited to go to China to advise Secretary of State Henry Kissinger before the latter’s meeting with Premier Zhou Enlai (Chou En-lai).

John Service was honored in 1973 with a retirement luncheon put on by the Foreign Service where he received an award that in part said his life was “a victory of intelligence, patience and loyalty to country over political opportunism and hysteria.”

Joe Blackstock writes on Inland Empire history. He can be reached at or Twitter @JoeBlackstock.

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