LAST STAND IN SHANGHAI
. . . . .
With pomp, pride and a display of showmanship, the helmsman brought our whaleboat-packed with sailors from the destroyer, going ashore on liberty-up the congested Huangpu River, past ships flying the ensigns of a dozen nations-United States, Britain, France, Russia, Australia, New Zealand, Panama, Nationalist China, and many more I couldn’t recognize. Pulling at their anchors midstream were war ships and gunboats, river scows, coastal steamers, oil tankers, rusted freighters, smart cruise liners, huge seagoing junks and even an Arabian dhow. There were still more, Chinese lighters with painted eyes, white-hulled government launches with shiny brass rails and hundreds of other vessels. And sculling back and forth, from ship to shore, was a sea of tiny sampans and bumboats carrying passengers and cargo. Some bumboats were so heavily-laden with cargo, their freeboard was but inches above waterline and it appeared that the slightest wave might swamp them and send them to the bottom. The entire waterfront was pulsating with vigor. We continued smartly, our own ensign flying from the stern, up the Huangpu headed for the US Navy Fleet Landing a couple of blocks north on Soucho Creek. It was a proud feeling.
All along the waterfront, cargo vessels moored to the docks, loaded and unloaded their wares, while whizzing cranes swung their booms back and forth overhead. Sweating coolies tottered up and down narrow gangplanks with loads heavy enough to break the backs of ordinary men.
Two sailors with SP armbands had been assigned to escort me to Marine Headquarters. We disembarked at dockside, and there, before us, like a dutiful waiting mistress, was the wondrous, exciting world that was Shanghai. How many tales about Old Shanghai I had heard from Marine salts. “Why, kid, let me tell you, it’s the best liberty port east of the Golden Gate,” they’d say, and then rave on about ladies like Shanghai Sally “who could out-drink any Marine in the Corps,” and about a row of bars in a back street called Blood Alley that never closed. “In Shanghai, for five bucks, you can get fed, drunk, and laid, and still have some change left over.”
Indeed, and here it was, Shanghai, a city beyond any law; and lived up to the many names people gave it-“Paris of the East,” “Whore of Asia,” “Capital of the Tycoon,” “Paradise for Adventurers,” and a score of other such epitaphs. I couldn’t wait to find out for myself.
A US Navy Jeep with a Chief Petty Officer aboard was waiting for us at the gate. The sailors turned me over to him and jumped into the whaleboat for the journey back to the destroyer. “First time in Shanghai?” the chief asked when the sailors had gone. I told him it was, and began to explain what brought me to Shanghai, but he said he already knew. “We got the radio message yesterday from the Tin Can you were on,” he said, “and they reported you had been picked up at sea. I guess you’re just a lucky bastard.” I didn’t know what he meant by that last remark, but I assumed it was for the better. I sat back and we took off through the streets of Shanghai, with the chief pointing out the sights.
We drove past the Bund, the waterfront promenade where all the foreigners gathered. Here was the pride and joy of the British community, but for the Chinese, the Bund meant humiliation. I wanted to ask the chief about that sign “No dogs or Chinese allowed” but he was too busy talking about other things for me to interrupt him. I only half listened to him anyway. I was too dazzled by our surroundings. I didn’t know which way to look, nor where to tum. Everything seemed to be happening at once. Pedicab drivers hustled cargo as well as passengers through the streets, clanging their noisy bells as they pushed through milling crowds. There were more rickshaws than I had seen in any other city in China. Men, women and school kids peddled bicycles in and out of traffic. Coolies pulling heavy overloaded carts with wooden wheels struggled against the traffic. There were street-side hawkers, amahs in their black-and-white habit buying food for their masters’ tables, beggar kids who ran up every time the Jeep slowed down, and people, people, people everywhere. Stem-faced Sikh policemen, complete with beards, turbans and truncheons, stood guard at government buildings, not hesitating to use the sticks upon anyone who didn’t pay them heed.
And beyond all this, as far as I could see up and down the muddy river, rose a granite wall of magnificent colonial buildings: banking institutions, customs houses, hotels, private clubs, government offices, foreign consulates-buildings with clock towers, columns and domes, powerful and elegant-so un-Chinese.
It was the Opium Wars that changed Shanghai forever. As we drove through the streets, I could hear the voices of Roger and the students in Peking echoing in my ears. The Opium Wars erupted and China lost to the West. In 1842, the British imposed upon China the Treaty of Nanking that paved the way for the opening of Shanghai to the world. A British gunboat was the first ship to sail up the Huangpu; it hoisted the British flag over the city, and declared Shanghai a free port where all foreigners could enjoy “free” access and extraterritorial rights. Chinese justice, however, did not apply. The official languages became English, French, German and Russian, but not Chinese. But for how long? The cannons of Mao Tse-tung were roaring in the hills not too far away.
We followed Nanjing Road with its thronged sidewalks, past European-style shops, cheap Chinese garment shops and clothing stores, magnificent hotels like the Park Hotel, colonial mansions behind high wrought-iron fences, and terraced houses in densely populated side-streets. We finally came to Main Headquarters. The chief saluted the duty officer, handed him a brown envelope containing my orders and left. He wished me luck.
I learned from the duty officer that the Marines had evacuated Tsingtao. With the exception of Charley Company, 3rd Marines, who were living aboard the USS Chilton, a transport ship in Shanghai, the others were on their way home, and all our records were sent to San Diego with them. Until my files could be forwarded, or until some staff officer decided what to do with me, I would be attached to Casualty Company. I explained briefly what had happened in Loh Shan, and that I had been with the MPs in Tsingtao. He looked at me with a distant stare in his eyes. As an afterthought, I mentioned that I spoke Chinese and had been to the language school in Peking, and that was the reason I was sent to the Loh Shan Mountains.
“Language school in Peking,” he said and his expression changed. “A coincidence. There’s another Marine in Headquarters who went to the language school too.”
“Who is that?” I asked, trying hard to think who it might be. “Cpl. Gilbert,” he replied.
Cpl. Gilbert-he was the last person I expected to meet in Shanghai. I hadn’t seen him since Tsingtao, after we left Peking. He was only in Tsingtao a short while before he was reassigned to Tientsin, after the 29th broke up. I was sure Gilbert would like to know about Melanowski. He and Melanowski had become good friends in Peking, and he was quite concerned about him. He had doubts about Melanowski’s relationship with Monique. “If he wants to shack up with her, that’s fine,” he said back then. “But to marry her, that’s something else.” Gilbert would be surprised to learn that Melanowski did marry Monique, and he got his discharge in China and landed a job with UNRA.
I told the duty officer I’d like to see my old buddy Gilbert, and he offered to get word to him that I was in Shanghai. He then assigned me to my quarters and told me I would have to make a report later. Shanghai was in its own time of troubles and there were many other pressing matters that had to be settled first.
At the paymasters I got an advancement against my pay, and I had just returned from the quartermaster’s with new khakis and greens when Gilbert came charging into the room. He was beaming! For a full five minutes we kept firing questions at one another, hardly giving the other a chance to answer. He was, of course, surprised to hear that Melanowski got his discharge and married Monique. “I never thought it would happen,” he said. “I guess I was wrong.” The question that neither could answer was, what happened to Melanowski and his wife now that the Marines had pulled out of Tsingtao. Maybe he was in Shanghai. I asked Gilbert if he knew anything about Little Lew and Ming-Lee, but he couldn’t tell me. “Hell, you forgot, but I’ve been stationed in Tientsin,” he said. A thought came to him and his face then lit up like one of those folly little cherubs you see in those old religious paintings. “There is one place where you can find all the answers. They can tell you anything you want to know about what’s happening in China, and about anyone you want to know.”
“Where’s that?” I asked. I thought he was going to say he knew someone in headquarters. He completely threw me off.
“At Blood Alley,” he said.
“Blood Alley! You gotta be kidding!” I replied.
“Not at all,” he said. “Everything happens at Blood Alley, and there’s always some drunk or bargirl around who has the latest scuttlebutt, the straight scoop.”
“What the hell are we waiting for?” I said.