This world is tiny.
By now, anyone closely following Melville Jacoby's story knows a little bit about Chan Ka Yik. For newcomers, Chan (who later adopted the Americanized "George K.Y. Chan") was Mel's roommate while the two studied at China's Lingnan University during the 1936-37 academic year. Last week, a few members of my family and I met Chan's daughters for something of a reunion between our two families.
As I've already described, the visit was lovely. But it also stirred up a fantastic coincidence, one that could reshape how I tell this story, and which I think will provide a truly unique glimpse on Mel's time as an exchange student in China.
Seeing who steps out of the woodworks has been a big part of this project. Last year I tried to find some hint of Chan Ka Yik during a day-long layover in San Francisco. A few days later, his daughter, Emmy, called me to respond to a longshot email I'd sent to a cousin I'd found a few weeks earlier. That first call put our two families in touch and laid the groundwork for last week's reunion.
This Spring, a man named Darrow Carson reached out to me. Carson's grandfather, Lew, was a fellow passenger on the Doña Nati, the ship that took Mel, Annalee and Clark Lee on the final leg of their escape from the Philippines. As Clark Lee explained in 1943's "They Call it Pacific," with American forces deploying to the Pacific, hotel rooms were scarce when the group arrived in Australia. Lew Carson finally found the group beds after they'd spent weeks sleeping on freighter decks.
But the coincidence in Palo Alto is something else entirely. During our lunch with Chan Ka Yik's daughters, my grandma told the stories she'd heard about her cousin Mel and his time in China, and about the people he knew. One was Chan. Another was a man named George Ta-Min Ching. Many of the photos Mel took in China, including the one attached to this post, featured Ching, a handsome man who often appeared in sharp suits (Of course, who among Mel's contemporaries, himself included, wasn't utterly dashing or stunningly beautiful?).
Chan's daughters all knew about Ching. They called him "Uncle Ching" and had met him multiple times when he'd visit their father's Dim Sum restaurant in San Francisco. George T.M. Ching had moved to Los Angeles in 1951. Indeed, he even called on Elza Meyberg (Melville's mother) multiple times over the years. It was from him that Chan first learned of Mel's tragic death.
George Ching was a success in America. He was a co-founder of Cathay Bank, which the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California says aimed to provide financial services and capital to L.A.'s growing Chinese American community. The bank has grown significantly since then and is the oldest Chinese American bank in the country.
In addition to his professional success, Ching raised two daughters in Silverlake. That fact caught the attention of my aunt's husband Mike, who grew up near Silverlake around the same time. "Was one of them named Debbie?" Mike asked, remembering a high school friend with whom he remains in touch. Sure enough, one was, and Mike emailed a photo to his friend.
The next day Debbie Ching responded, flabbergasted why he'd have a picture of her father as a college student. Mike explained that his mother-in-law Peggy (my grandmother) was a cousin of a good friend of Debbie's father when they were young. Debbie, in turn, recalled her fathers frequent fond stories of a many he referred to always as just "Jacoby."
What's most amazing, though? Three quarters of a century after he and Mel met, Ching is still alive at 97-years-old. Apparently, he has seen the pictures Mike sent to Debbie and he may be willing to speak with me and/or my grandmother about Mel. I'm floored by this news because the chance to speak to one of Mel's contemporaries would be extraordinary. I'll certainly keep you posted about how this goes.
Your support is what made it possible for me to make this discovery. Will you help make it make more discoveries before it's no longer possible? If so, Please make a contribution , and you can always learn more about Mel and my effort to tell his story on my central page about him at lascheratlarge.com/melville.