“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,"
This week's news of a panda cub's birth at the National Zoo in Washington D.C. reminds me of one of of the more comical aspects of Melville Jacoby's story. Shortly after Mel proposed to Annalee Whitmore he was transferred by TIME to Manila to cover the brewing war. After wrapping up her work with Madame Chiang's United China Relief, Annalee joined Mel and the two were married shortly before Thanksgiving, 1941. But the couple didn't end up in the Philippines unaccompanied, even after their nuptials.
"They slipped away for a two-day rainy honeymoon in a cottage on Tagaytay," wrote TIME in its May 11, 1942 obituary of Mel [Sorry for the paywalled link] . "But they were not alone; they had to see to the care & feeding of two baby giant pandas, gifts of Madame Chiang Kai-Shek en route to the U.S."
This morning marks one of the most exciting moments for me as I continue to pick up where Mel was silenced. In a few hours I'll be in an apartment in Alhambra, California, meeting with George T.M. Ching, his wife, and their daughter. George was one of Mel's dear friends during his time as an exchange student at Lingnan University. At ninety-seven-years-old, it's uncertain how able George will be to really deeply reflect on Mel's life, but I'm hopeful that just the chance to share some time with someone who Mel cared strongly about, and who cared strongly about him will be valuable.
"I recognize our father immediately," Susie Poon says as she stares at a weathered black and white image of a young Chinese man. is Chan Ka Yik, Melville Jacoby's roommate while the latter was an exchange student at Lingan University in Canton during the 1936-37 academic year.
Poon and her sisters, Emmy Ma and Eva Cheung, their husbands, and three generations of my own family pass ancient photos around the room. The pictures show a prized water buffalo and grinning friends on balconies, boys jumping into swimming holes and old men steering sampans, classes arranged for group photos and candid snapshots. They contrast an elaborate family compound in Guangxi with peasants toiling in the countryside. And they feature handsome young men in three-piece suits, their smiles filled with excitement, adventure and friendship crossing two cultures, two continents, and two countries.
"Mel looked like a movie star," Emmy says, echoing a sentiment many express when they see pictures of Melville Jacoby. But the star today is my grandmother, Peggy Cole, who holds court with a folder full of letters, a pile of photos, and a sheet of notes to which she refers while recounting the adventures Mel, Chan and their classmates took together. Many of the tales she shares she heard from Mel's own mouth when he returned home from his first trip to China and visited his adoring cousins. The others she pieced together from letters and memorabilia she inherited from Mel's mom, Elza. For the first time in half a century our two families connected. As we exchanged memories, new stories took shape.
I was digging through the collection of materials I have at my place related to Melville Jacoby and found a photocopy of a lovely letter written to Mel 74 years ago today. The note was sent by Chan Ka Yik, one of Mel's best friends. The two were roommates at Lingnan University in Canton (now Guangzhou) while Mel was an exchange student there. The letter responds to an earlier mailing Mel had sent. It describes Chan's fondness for his roommate, and, in many ways, is the sort of letter anyone might send to catch up with an old friend. But these greetings are described against a backdrop of war. Though calm seemed to have returned when Chan wrote the letter, it was clearly still a presence.