AN AMERICAN IN CHINA: 1936-39 A Memoir

Chongqing ~ 重庆/重慶

Chungking ~ Chongqing

G.H. Thomas writes on May 4, 1938:

AIPINGMEN and the sights there on the steps are probably the most vivid recollections that foreigners carry away with them from this strange river city. Seen twice a day, week in and week out, it is a hard place to forget and seems like a symbol of the city as a whole.

The slimy, worn steps; the wretched hovels on either side; the gigantic pigs that overrun the area; the mangy dogs; and the endless stream of coolies grunting their way to the top under crushing loads — all this is very little different from any of a thousand byways of the city up on the top.

Water for most of the city is carried up by coolies, each with two wooden buckets on a shoulder stick. A step at a time, swaying their load to give them momentum, and grunting at each step, they work slowly to the top. Their buckets emptied, they go to the bottom again, wade in the river, up to their calves, fill up and start the painful climb again. They do this their whole lives until they can't work anymore. Will the time ever come when millions of coolies don't have to work like slaves for a wretched living?



Old Chungking Slide Show
Chongqing, formerly Chungking, is the largest municipality in southwest China, with a greater population of over 30 million. It suffered much damage during the Sino-Japanese War when it was heavily bombed, starting in 1938. Once a river trading port frequented by foreign gunboats, it is now a bustling modern metropolis filled with skyscrapers, one of which, believe it or not, is called New York, New York. As Shanghai was to East China in the '90s and Guangzhou/Shenzhen to Southeast China in the '80s, Chongqing is expected to play the leading role for a rapid development of western China in the current decade, which is China's top economic priority. It became China's fourth municipality in 1997 and encompasses the huge, and controversial, Three Gorges Dam Project. Americans will appreciate that the Chongqing Stilwell Museum, in memory of General Joseph Stilwell, is the only museum in China in honor of an American citizen.

Manpower: The above photograph was taken by the author as he was
being carried by sedan chair up the steps of Taipingmen in 1938. Transport down the city's steep slopes to the river is now by funicular. ©G.H. Thomas, 2004


The gunboat USS Luzon arriving in Chungking, taken by the
author from the veranda of the Texaco House on the Yangtze in 1938.


   August 21, 1938

On the tenth the USS Luzon and the USS Tutuila came into port, and two of the embassy chaps moved in with me the following day. The Luzon [carrying the American ambassador Nelson T. Johnson] came in first, early in the morning as I was eating breakfast, and anchored just below my porch. For these parts it is a snappy looking craft. While the crew blew their bugle call and raised the American flag at the stern, I joined them at the same instant in hauling up my ragged Stars and Stripes. It was good to see so many Americans in port later in the day. Counting the officers on the two gunboats and the embassy staff, we put twenty-four new names on the Chungking Club book that afternoon, which must be a record.

The next several days were hectic with many parties. There were tiffins on board the Luzon and HMS Gannet, where they showed movies. Ambassador Johnson and Admiral LeBreton [commander of the Yangtze River Patrol] were much taken with a couple of my Tibetan scrolls; the admiral commissioned us to find similar ones and send them downriver to him. After the Luzon sailed Sunday morning, things became a little more normal. but even so our permanent guests, the embassy people and the Tutuila people are so numerous that the port seems quite different.

Above, the British gunboat HMS Falcon taken by the author in 1938. G.H. Thomas would frequently have "tiffin" or curry lunch on board with the British officers. The city of Chungking is visible upper left.

The French Naval post in Chungking, familiarly called “the Bastille"
April 16, 1938

Last night, Commander Harvey Overesch (the U.S. Naval attaché) and I were invited to dinner at the “Bastille,” which is the name given to the French naval post. It is an hour’s ride from the house by chair at night, a rather hair-raising trip. Miraculously, those chair coolies keep their footing in the dark, going up and down stone steps and over rocks where there isn't even a path. After dinner Colonel Sabatier, the French attaché, came home with us and I put him up too.

Peiping Lily Lee Held for
Observation as Spy

This was a headline in The New York Times on Nov. 21, 1936. The article read:

"Peiping Lily Lee, glamorous wartime party girl who is supected of being a wartime Mata Hari,
is being detained by Chinese authorities today for "observation."
Peiping Lily once associated freely with Foreign Office and military officials of this provistional capital of China (Chungking). Chinese secret service agents arrested her and two men when they attempted to board a plane
for Hong Kong on Nov. 13. Chinese newspapers were forbidden to publish word of the incident.
In Peiping Lily's baggage were photographs of Chungking and Chengtu that officials said were of
military significance.

Little Manhattan? Above, a contemporary view of Chungking, where the author lived and worked in 1938.
For astonishing contrast, see 1938 panorama

The Three Gorges Dam project will create a reservoir hundreds of feet deep and over 400 miles long. It will allow ocean-going vessels to reach the interior during six months of the year. Officials hope the project will turn Chongqing, under the direct control of Beijing, into a major commercial center. Completion date is said to be around 2008.

The Fastest Growing City in the World?

Chungking, although once known to millions before the war, is relatively unknown today. But those who are unfamiliar with it and those who remember Chungking as a malarial backwater had better wake up. Today it is the fastest growing urban center in the world. Left, the new Wanhao Financial Center for JW Marriot, under construction, is almost as tall as the Empire State Building. Right, a tribute to the Chrysler Building, this skyscraper is called New York, New York. To get an idea of the vast changes in this Yangtze River city since the 1930's, visit an extraordinary collection of contemporary photographs at

Skyscraper City Web Site


Wu Ping, Feisty Lady of Chungking, Takes on the Developers

March, 2007 -- A 49-year-old restaurant entrepreneur has been able to prevent the wreckers from tearing down her house. She had asked in compensation more than the city would give her. Because of a recent law guaranteeing private property rights, her property has so far been allowed to stand until an agreement has been reached.

See the complete New York Times Article


Chongqing, now drawing about 200,000 residents a year, is China’s biggest inland city,
but it may not be long before it vies with Shanghai and Beijing
for the title of the nation’s biggest city period. Read the New York Times article. Includes a slide show.


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