Back to the Bars and Bad News
. . . . .
Outside in the street we caught two pedicabs. We didn’t have to tell the drivers twice where to go. They knew, like the old mare on the farm back home that knows well where the stable is. The moment we turned up Avenue Edward VII on to Avenue Rue Chu Pao-san, the official name for Blood Alley, the scene changed. It wasn’t a gradual change; it was like an explosion. Even though I had an idea what was coming, it was still a jolt. Those thousands of Marines who came before me hadn’t lied. Blood Alley was in a class all its own. We had hardly turned down the block when we were met-no, besieged-s-by gangs of pimps, panhandlers, conmen offering to serve as guides and who knows what else, all wanting to sell us something, or else wanting to buy what we had to sell. And there they were, the fun houses-dives, brothels, cabarets, cafes, side by side with fancy eateries and the lowest of low bars, all with swinging doors-s-a thoroughfare entirely dedicated to wine, women, song and all-night lechery.
Swinging doors were left open. From the cabarets music blared out into the street, a cacophony of off-key saxophones and strident trumpets thumping out the hits of the day. We paid off our pedicab drivers, who demanded more money than agreed to, and ducked into the first bar we came to->- Monk’s Brass Rail. Inside, standing shoulder to shoulder, were US Marines with leather belts slung over their shoulders ready for action, gaunt US Navy men from the Seventh Fleet, Seaforth Highlanders in kilts, seamen from the Liverpool tramps, French sailors with their silly-looking tams, Savoia Grenadiers, and the half casts of Shanghai’s underworld. Customers were in every stage of drunkenness, from “feeling good” to staggering blindness. Monk’s Brass Rail was like a time bomb, ready to explode at a slight side glance-“what the frig are you looking at”-or a slight misunderstanding-“hey, swabbie, I seen her first.” You could rest assured, any minute a drunken sailor would ask a Seaforth Highlander what he had under his kilt, and it would begin.
We finished our drinks and went next door to George’s Bar. Two Marines from Monk’s Brass Rail teamed up and went with us. A wise Marine always knew that safety lay in numbers. Marines with Marines; sailors with sailors; Grenadiers with Grenadiers. The two Marines who joined forces with us had been stationed in Peking, and like lost brothers we became instant buddies, ready to defend one another against all odds, if need be.
Customers in George’s Bar were more subdued. Here they had ears only for the girls clinging to them in the half-light of dance-floor alcoves. The freewheeling painted beauties in ankle-length dresses slit up the sides, sitting on stools at the bar, called out to us when we entered: “Dar ling, buy me one drink, pleeease.” We bought them drinks, but not one of them had any information about Tsingtao, except to say girls from Tsingtao hung out mostly at the Palais Cabaret.
We ventured from bar to bar, having a drink in each place, and finding each dive wilder, more noisy and better than the last one. We lost count-the Crystal, the New Ritz and Mums, plus a few more. By now we had forgotten what we came for, and it was then that we stumbled into the Palais Cabaret. They could hear us coming, walking down Blood Alley four abreast, singing to the tops of our voices, frightened of no one- Highlanders or Grenadier, Seventh Fleet swabbie or British Marine. The manager met us at the door. He was White Russian, wearing a frayed white-linen suit. He abruptly, without asking, moved three bargirls from their seats and gave us their stools near the door. We ordered Hubba Hubba vodka and before we had the first sip, bar hostesses were upon us like flies. The Palais, Gilbert insisted, was noted for the best looking women in Blood Alley. It appeared that way, with something else-variety. We had our pick-Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Anamneses, Russian Eurasian, Filipino, Formosan.
Gilbert was right; the cabaret was popular. It was jam-packed, with some customers standing three-deep at the bar. The booze poured like water from an open tap: rotgut whiskey, vodka, and local Chinese beer. The heavy smoke-laden air was so dense it was impossible to discern the faces of those sitting at the other end of the bar. Still, through the haze, I thought I saw a face I recognized. But I had to be mistaken.
I tapped Gilbert on the arm. “Who does that remind you of?” I asked, pointing to a girl sitting with a Marine officer at the other end of the bar. Gilbert looked hard, squinted and looked again.
“No,” he said and got up from his seat. Without explaining or commenting, he elbowed his way through the crowd, nearly causing a brawl with each step, and headed directly toward the girl and her Marine officer friend. I followed him, trying to keep up. I became momentarily separated from him, and when I moved in closer I could hear him screaming, “You son of a bitch! You bloody whore.” I closed the distance, and the girl whom I thought looked like Monique was Monique, Melanowski’s wife!
“You had better watch it, Marine,” the officer said to Gilbert, getting to his feet. He didn’t shout or threaten. He remained composed.
But not Gilbert. He was in an uncontrollable rage. I had never seen him like this before. He was always quiet and mild-mannered. Now he was like a demon released from a cage. Those standing around began to move back. I took my eyes from Monique and looked at the officer. My heart missed a beat. That son of a bitch! The officer was Lt. McCaffery, the Jap lover, the hometown boy who introduced me to Sofuku Geisha House in Tsingtao. He was with Melanowski’s wife. My thoughts flared up. Had he started fooling around with her while Melanowski was out in the field with UNRA? That creepy son of a bitch, an ill excuse for an officer. I never did like him. He recognized me. “You had better call your friend off,” he said to me.
“You giving me an order?” I fired back.
Monique hastily took a position and stood between him and Gilbert, for it was obvious Gilbert was going for his throat. “You bitch,” Gilbert continued shouting at Monique.
“Where’s Ski? Home waiting for you?”
“Hey, take it easy,” Lt. McCaffery repeated, pushing Monique to one side. He was getting angry now.
Our Marines buddies had sensed that something was wrong and came running to our aid. “You are a son of a bitch,” Gilbert shouted at Lt. McCaffery and made a lunge to grab him by his jacket, but hands from every direction reached out and held him back. “Let go of me,” he shouted. “Let go! I’ll kill the bastard.”
This was serious. Gilbert was about to strike a Marine officer. Monique moved in and attempted to grab hold of my arm. “Let me talk to you,” she pleaded.
“You go to hell,” I shouted and pushed her hand away. “Listen!” she cried. “Listen, damn you!”
“Listen, listen to what?” I repeated.
“Let me tell you,” she said, looking directly at me and then at Gilbert. Her eyes filled with tears, and she reached out for my arm again, to steady herself. She looked solely at me now, attempting to dry her eyes with the back of her hand. Her voice choked up with emotion. She finally blurted it out: “Melanowski’s dead.” She hesitated, letting her words sink in. “You hear, Melanowski is dead.” Our Marine buddies let Gilbert go and his arms dropped to his side.
The White Russian manager pushed through the crowd that had gathered, and seeing that things had settled down, suggested that Monique, Gilbert and me follow him. He told Lt. McCaffery to wait where he was. He led us to a back door that opened into a small courtyard.
Monique told us the story. Her husband, Melanowski, was killed when a convoy of half a dozen UNRA vehicles bringing in refugees to Tsingtao from the south was ambushed. All the drivers were killed, including Melanowski. The refugees were unharmed. A patrol of Marines was dispatched to retrieve the bodies but the gunfire became so intense, and they were so outnumbered, they had to turn back.
She talked about the evacuation from Tsingtao. Only military personnel and their dependents could travel on US ships. She told how White Russians with suitcases jammed with money pleaded for passage to Shanghai but the Americans had to turn them away and leave them to the mercy of unscrupulous ship captains for passage. Those without money attempted to flee aboard open sampans and bumboats.
I asked her about Ming-Lee but she had never met her and didn’t know her. She suggested I contact Roy Lund. Roy had owned the Hansen Photo Studio on Chung Shan Road in downtown Tsingtao. He was a friend of all Marines and sailors. I knew him. He came to the aid of any Marine in distress. He loaned us money when we were broke, as we usually were between paydays, and he guided us in the right direction when we got into trouble. He was our Chaplin, without preaching religion. Melanowski had befriended him, and he was the one who was able to secure Monique’s safe passage to Shanghai.
“But you were married to an American citizen,” I said to her. “Didn’t that cut the mustard?”
“No one would listen to me in Tsingtao. It was terrible. I had to get here on my own. Once I got here I went to the US Embassy. With thousands of dependents wanting to leave, they have lines of people waiting. But the consul was helpful. They put me in touch with Lt. McCaffery. He’s working with the American dependents and refugees.”
To Gilbert and me that still didn’t matter, not at all. The way Lt. McCaffery was pawing her at the bar, he had to have more in mind than a passport.
“What about the other civilians?” I asked. “What about Little Lew? You remember him. You met him when you and Ski came to the PX one day.”
Monique again welled up with tears. I braced myself for the worse, “Yes, I know,” she said. “The Marines told me what happened to him. I can’t bear the thought.”
“Where is he?” I asked. “Tell me, what happened.”
“They killed him,” she sobbed.
Nothing she could have said could have come as a worse blow. Was I hearing right? “I am talking about Little Lew,” I said, thinking she must have the wrong kid in mind, hoping she was wrong.
“Yes, it was him, Little Lew,” she replied.
“Killed him! Who killed him? What are you talking about?” I demanded.
“The other kids,” she said. “When the Marines left the university he stayed back, as long as he could, but he eventually had to come out. He put on his old clothes, but the kids recognized him when he stepped out the gate. They picked up stones. They stoned him to death. There was nothing the Chinese guards at the gate could do. There were too many.” What had we done? My teacher Mrs. Murray was right. She said our making Little Lew the company mascot would lead to no good. “What about when you Marines leave?” she had asked. Who thought we would ever leave China? Why didn’t we listen to her? I left Monique standing there with Gilbert at her side, and they made no attempt to come after me. I found a back gate to the courtyard and walked through the streets of Shanghai back to the barracks.