by Sgt. Charles L. Leong
KUNMING, CHINA (By mail) Sept. 3 —When the fiery gilded dragon reared its head in a spirited dance above the milling jubilants, I thought for a moment that I was back in San Francisco Chinatown.
I shook myself from somnolence quickly enough as I looked around the crowds. This wasn’t San Francisco; it was a spot 12,000 miles away, a place where ten years ago was conversational subject only for explorers.
Today, instead of Sept 2 as proclaimed in the United States, was V-J celebration day in Kunming.
For one thing, as the dragon slithered through the middle of the narrow street, I noticed that it was only half as long as the famous San Francisco fire-breather. Nor was it half as ferocious as our Chinatown monster. But evidently, Kunming made up in quantity what it lacked in size, for in a moment, four other competitors danced from out of nowhere.
The crowds here certainly were different from the Chinese Americans of our Grant Avenue strata which all of San Francisco knows, loves and plays with, especially on festive Chinese New Year’s and Rice Bowl parties. This is a frontier West China city, for the past eight years, one of the few havens for China’s countless refugees. It was an excited, noisy potpourri which alternated between watching first the dragon dances, an endless procession of soldiers marching toward peace instead of war, and numerous trade guilds whose gaudy, enthusiastic floats depicting the cavalcade of eight years of struggle toward victory seemed very similar to the various Elks, Shriners, Eagles and other fraternal displays we see parading Market Street on holidays.
The Chinese crowds, which live especially on holidays, to haggle and bargain, bought new-season pears, peaches, apples, peanuts and watermelon seeds, sweetmeats, yellow corn steaming from little charcoal pots, and petit thin pancakes not unlike tortillas.
This good-natured, smiling and immensely happy mob was a cross section of a new China. Everyone was giving the thumbs up sign and yelling “Ding Ho” to all Americans and Allied soldiers.50 Through these years of both a spiritual and military alliance between America and China, the words “Ding Ho” had been the password for goodwill, even if neither American soldier nor Chinese knew another word of each other’s language.
The old China was there too. Hawkers shouted the virtues of intricately interesting bamboo toys, whistles-fashioned today as centuries ago. Mendicants, unfathomable in age and in misery, filthy and ragged, cried out for mercy and aid in the midst of all this holiday effervescence. Fortune tellers, comfortably seated under large black umbrellas, and with the same scholarly mien, talisman and astrological signs which their profession has used for centuries, were doing a brisk business. With victory, there were new futures to fathom.
City folks originally from the coastal cities were decked out in their best silks and satins which they carefully hoarded away for such holidays. Many Allied troops—American, British, and French—all with their own distinctive command insignia, furnished the necessary martial colors. Chinese Air Force officers, a very smartly turned out group, stood out in sharp relief.
From the farms and hills came the brown, well-muscled farmers, their wives and children, all dressed in deep blue denim, with broad bamboo pancake-shaped hats. And emerging from their hill vastness even the Miao tribe people, the aboriginal group of Yunnan province, came down to join in this great day. Their women folk were distinguished by elaborate peaked head dress, with waist sashes and anklet wrappings embroidered in geometric designs very much like Navajo Indian patterns.
The pattern of this crowd, a fusion of the forces of the old and new, truly was a picture of a New China. This was the hour of triumph for the people. They were out to enjoy it.
Column after column of Chinese soldiers, surprising well-armed with BARS,51 tommy guns, rifles, paraded by as men, women, and children waved Chinese flags. Flags flew from every window, every shop. The walls of every building, and as far as I could see, no building missed, were vividly plastered with slogans written on bright vermillion paper.
The slogans, printed in English, read “Love, Live, Democracy,” “Salute to the Four Powers” and “Equality, Freedom, Democracy Have Won.” One expressed the hope, “For a Lasting Peace to the World.” And the memory of the late President Roosevelt lives in the hearts of the Chinese people with “To the Memory of Roosevelt” as numerous if not more frequent than the other signs.
But like a pall of impending doom, large “Victory Sale” banners hung over every shop which catered to the huge profitable soldier trade in curios, silks, and art goods. It was an ironical reminder that Kunming’s wartime boom, in which prices soared frequently to 500 times that of pre-war, was over. The show was over, all of Kunming’s merchants wanted to unload, take the cash, and converge back to their coastal cities as quickly as possible. Signs featured 20, 30, 50 percent reductions.
Although in all parts of both Free China and occupied China, millions of Chinese joyously emerged from the suffering of eight long, hard years of war, Kunming’s celebration possibly was the most representative from its international standpoint. Chungking is the political core of the nation. Chengtu, the other large city in Free China, is an educational and cultural center.52
Kunming, former lair of the now legendary Fourteenth Air Force “Flying Tigers”, is the operational and headquarters center of the major U.S. military commands. The area abounds with GIs. It is the Chinese terminus of the famous “Hump” air route from India to China. It is the terminus of the Burma [Road], now called the Stilwell Road.
These factors have mushroomed Kunming into a roaring, wide-open boom town, not unlike San Francisco of the gold rush days. Its population has jumped from a pre-war hundred and fifty thousand to over half a million. Banking, businesses of every conceivable kind, industries, and an opulent black market trade had brought on an influx of Chinese from all parts of China into this former by-way of China.
For the past eight years, the two great ancient stone archways, the Jade Phoenix and Golden Horse arches, situated on dusty Chin Pee Road, Kunming’s main street, have looked down with pride on the teeming masses which have transformed this medieval stronghold into a modern hub where now jeeps, trucks, and planes are as casual a part of the city as rickshaws, shaggy Mongolian ponies, and lumbering water buffaloes.53
The jubilance of the all-day crowds [and] parades, to some, was moribund exuberance of an Irish wake. It was mask-like, hiding the inevitable question mark of the future. The end had come too suddenly. The atomic bomb, it is jokingly said around here, has blasted many a wartime fortune as well as parts of the Japanese islands. Many speculative merchants have been caught short.
People are genuinely happy that the war is over, but nevertheless, many are openly regretful that, as they say, “They were not properly prepared for it.”
But even those whose fortunes were pretty well dented, and I know several whose complete assets were tied up in wartime goods which now they can’t carry back to the coast, carried on with merry abandon to the spirit of the hour. Tonight, and for many nights to come, there are victory banquets with dinner-dancing parties in the homes of many Westernized Chinese. All day long on the street, I heard people talking about the road back to their native provinces, cities. At the parties, all chatter centered on going back to Nanking, Hankow, Hangchow, Hong Kong and Shanghai.54
Those who weren’t drinking and banqueting for the moment, either watched or joined in the torch light and lantern parades, gay impromptu groups organized by their guilds or organizations. Torch parades sprung up in every street, even out on the crooked narrow lanes.
In the flicker and glimmer of the pitch torch flames, the stone lions crouched at the bases of the Jade Phoenix arch seemed to be creeping once more into the shadows of the past.
50 Ding Ho—derived from ding hao 挺好—was an American WWII slang meaning “very good”.
51 Browning Automatic Rifles.
52 Kunming 昆明 is in Yunnan province in the southwest of China. During the War, many Chinese—including educational institutions—retreated here. This was also the training center for the Chinese Air Force. The temporary war capital of Chongqing and Chengdu are in nearby Sichuan province.
53 The Jinma Biji Arches 金马碧鸡坊 on Jinbi Lu 金碧路 were built in the Ming dynasty about 30 meters from each other. They were named after the nearby mountains. Legends say that the Golden Horse emerged from the sun, while the Jade Rooster/Phoenix emerged from the moon.
54 Now, Nanjing, Hankou, Hangzhou, Hong Kong and Shanghai.