Melville Jacoby's interest in China can be traced back to 1936. That year and into 1937, during what would have been Mel's junior year at Stanford University, he went to China as an exchange student. There, he studied in the southern port city of Canton (that was the English transliteration of the time; it is now commonly transliterated as Guangzhou). He joined other American and Chinese students on the campus of Lingnan University (which still exists in another form in Hong Kong, while its original campus remains as part of Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou).
There were other romances for Melville Jacoby before he and Annalee Whitmore escaped the Philippines as newlyweds.This shouldn't surprise most of you. Many have remarked about Mel's good looks, and photos of him certainly seem to excite the Tumblr set. Saying Mel was dashing might be superficial, but it's no less true. Among the women who stand out was Marie, the daughter of a wealthy Portuguese colonist who had many Chinese wives.
"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.