History is complicated.
Writing about history is even more so.
That's one reason I haven't written you in six months. Last time I checked in I was busily trying to complete my book...er ... (it has a new title. No, I can't tell you quite yet, but it looks good on the book's cover, which I can't quite show you yet). Well, I did.
Then I wrote it again.
Then I wrote it again, again.
Phew. My head hurts. My carpal tunnels hurt. My blood is mostly coffee sludge. I've become a master of doctoring up Top Ramen. I know the shame that is ordering pizza from a place three blocks away because I can't be bothered to stand up because this sentence is connecting with that one and this with this one and oh my god I'm actually writing, there are words coming out and they make sense and I actually think I have something here and wow I'm going to win the pulitzer and...
...crap. This is junk. What am I doing trying to write a book? I couldn't even write a postcard.
What was I saying?
My brain is fried.
Something about whales?
Look: 45 years ago today some people thought it would be a good idea to blow up a dead whale on a beach in Oregon. Well, it made for good TV, such good TV that decades later the footage was digitized into one of the first viral videos I ever saw. You should see it and read about it here.
Oh, oh! You should also read this. I wrote it! Did you know the United States used to have a fully-functioning court for U.S. citizens in China (well, fully-functioning is probably not quite the correct descriptor as there weren't juries)? It did! And, because of course this makes sense, most of its rules were based on codes for Washington, D.C., so, as one source noted for this story, you might see a case that said "so and so was brought up for pushing a Chinese into the Huangpu River contrary to the laws of the District of Columbia." It was a fascinating vestige of American colonial and legal history. By the way, Atlas Obscura is quite the wonderland for those interested in random history and geographical quirks. I'm thrilled to be published there and you should definitely explore more of the site.
Speaking of sites, I redesigned my web site since I last wrote. It's pretty. Give it a look!
That's right, publishing! Wasn't I saying something about a book?
Oh, yeah, so this one time, China and Japan were at war. Japan had conquered all of China's coastal cities, so China needed to get supplies to its wartime capital, Chongqing, an inland city that a long time ago was the capital of the Bā empire but was hardly known before the war. So China turned to France, or rather, a French colony called Indochina, which was made up of places we know today as Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. You see, there was this port city called Hải Phòng, though they wrote it Haiphong because Europeans weren't terribly keen on recognizing local accents and punctuation. Anyhow, there was a railway that would take supplies from Hải Phòng to a place in China called Kunming, a very lovely city next to a large lake where at the time you could buy chocolate. That was notable because you couldn't get chocolate in Chongqing, as one American named Mel Jacoby noted. Then again, he came down with malaria in Kunming, so maybe he wasn't as excited about the place as I'd like to think.
But I digress (shocking, I know). So in this port city in a place that we now call Vietnam, but back then called Indochina because it was under the thumb of the French, was a warehouse that an American company used to store goods it was going to ship up that railway. But, you see, Japan wasn't eager for China to have these goods. At first it bombed the railway. But then, in June 1940, Germany conquered France and a group of collaborators set up a government subservient to the Nazis in Vichy, a town with nice spas and supposedly-healthy water, and those collaborators said "oh, hey, what should we do with these colonies all over Africa and Southeast Asia? Hmm, let's not worry about it right now, especially not that Indochina place." Anyway, Japan's foreign minister at the time was this American-educated lawyer* who really hated Communists and he thought "Gee, these Nazis don't seem too fond of Communists either, maybe we should work with them" (Not a terribly unique sentiment among Japan's leaders), so he negotiated an alliance between Japan and Germany (and Italy, but who's counting?). They signed that alliance that September and lo-and-behold we have the Axis, a term that made coming up with shorthand for anyone American leaders wanted to demonize in the future super easy.
Like I was saying, there was this American cargo at a warehouse in the Vietnamese portion of Indochina, a colony run by the French, and the Japanese were trying to keep the Chinese from having this cargo. The French had been all, like, "Regarde, we don't have a chien in this guerre, we're just doing les affaires," mais non! Now they had business. Those dudes in Vichy were like "hey, the Germans say 'maybe you shouldn't anger these new allies of ours' [I don't know enough German for good, er, Germglish?]," though in a far more complicated, official, historically-accurate, but still quite waffly manner. However they said, the point was that they let Japan into Indochina. Thus allowed into Indochina, the Japanese occupied the warehouse where these shipments were coming, much to the annoyance of the Americans, who were neutral and flying their flag above the warehouse.
Oh, yeah, at the same time, Thailand -- Aka the Kingdom of Siam -- was like, "hey, the other side of the Mekong River looks mighty nice to us. Maybe we'll just fly a few planes over there. What? Cambodia? We aren't invading Cambodia, which, of course, is part of Indochina, which, of course, is run by the French, who, of course, are under Germany's control, which, of course, is allied with Japan, which, of course, is at war with China."
Darn. Digression. Sorry.
So, the Japanese are now inspecting U.S. goods at a Hải Phòng cargo terminal and that really didn't sit well with the Americans. That dude Mel had mostly recovered from his malaria and was hanging in a city near Hải Phòng called Hanoi. Mel stayed in a hotel called the Metropole, where all the Japanese and French and Americans and anyone else drank in the bar and talked too much about what they were doing. So of course Mel learned about this mess at the U.S. port and thought "hey, that's a story, right?" I mean, sure, he'd been telling his family and his then girlfriend that he was going to head home after a year in China, but come on, was he actually supposed to not check out what was going on at this warehouse? I mean, what possible harm could come form that?
Hmm... wouldn't you like to know? Good thing I wrote a book!
I promise it doesn't read like this letter.
P.P.S. I'm still stretching my dollars every which way. As you might be able to tell, my mind has been a little off and I forgot to mention: you're still welcome to share a few piastres.
* = Also keep your eyes peeled for the December issue of Portland Monthly for more about this dude, and a woman who was a much, much cooler representative of World War II history.