"I just can't possibly write now. Perhaps a little later after bombing season." Three quarters of a century ago, today, Melville Jacoby took a brief break from his radio broadcasts for NBC, his writing and photography for Time and Life magazines, and his chaotic search for a panda -- yes, a panda -- to write to his mother and stepfather about life in wartime Chungking, or Chongqing, then the capital of China.
After spending four years with the research, writing and re-writing that shaped Eve of a Hundred Midnights, I feel sometimes as if I've lived in Melville Jacoby's shoes. At least, I feel as if I've seen the world through his eyes. As you can see in the following photos, Chongqing was a place of extensive striving and, after years and years of bombing -- during his stints there in 1940 and 1941 Mel experienced 168 air raids -- deeply scarred yet incredibly resilient.
Beyond the fireworks, you hear Chongqing in honking horns, sizzling streetside frying pans and screams of Schezuanese from every direction. At night, before your eyes, Chongqing's bright lights dance up skyscrapers, the same towers that shoot from fields of strewn rubble and half-buried buildings, far past the smog-smudged apartment blocks they're replacing. Chongqing's scent wafts from grilling meats and fetid alleys.
Chongqing was hot. It was loud. It was squalid. It was crowded.
It was home. Chongqing was home.
"You get to like it,” Mel wrote.
Will I like it? Five weeks from today I will wake to my first morning in Beijing on the first leg of a trip through China and the Philippines. In the weeks to follow I hope to visit Guangzhou and Manila, to see Shanghai and Cebu, to ride trains through Guangxi, and to sail through the Visayas. Most importantly, perhaps, I hope to climb from the Yangtze through the exploding megalopolis of Chongqing and, I hope, to find this place Mel and Annalee and so many others once called home.
“Learning to bum cigarettes from visitors, enduring a cold water bath, eating only Chinese food, getting letters home by clipper, settling the world’s problems over rice wine, and watching the Chinese in their tremendous efforts is all part of Chungking’s fun,"
Most of my posts about Melville Jacoby focus squarely on nonfiction. He was a journalist. I am a journalist. Though Mel worked for a time as a broadcaster and was handy with a camera, he was first and foremost a writer. So it shouldn't be terribly surprising that he dabbled in fiction a bit. I found one of those stories — "Monsieur Big-Hat" — and put it together with some photos Mel took of an air raid in Chongqing to make a short ebook that's now available online. The story describes what happens when an American correspondent meets a French diplomat as bombs fall on the Chinese wartime capital in June, 1940.