Another Kind of American History in Chongqing, 1: Prologue

by Xujun Eberlein

In the summer of 1987, my future husband, Bob, cycled across China -- I think he was the first American who did that -- as he came to meet me in Chongqing. As a yet-to-be-betrothed daughter, I lived with my parents, because an unmarried person was ineligible for an apartment. My parents, who had both been underground Communists in the late 1940s and active protesters against America in the post-WWII years, were shocked to see an American with a bike on his shoulder walking through the door of our 4th floor apartment. At the time, either a bike or a foreigner was a rare sight in Chongqing the inland mountain city. Across China, Westerners had only recently -- and guardedly -- been allowed to travel about, provided that they did not break the country's often invisible rules or court its untainted women.

My parents, temporarily held back by their traditional hospitality for guests (I told them Bob was my teacher at graduate school), tolerated Bob the American visitor for one day. The second day, my father could no longer bear his discomfort and ordered Bob to depart. Before laying down the law, he suggested Bob visit SACO - 中美合作所 (Zhong-Mei hezuosuo), on Gele Mountain in the western part of Chonqging.

"What is SACO?" Bob asked. I was very surprised. Having never set foot outside China, I thought every American knew the name SACO ("Sino-American Cooperative Organization"), just as every Chinese knew the name "Zhong-Mei hezuosuo."

I told Bob what I had known since elementary school: SACO was an American-operated concentration camp that tortured and killed underground Communists in the 1940s. It had two prisons, one called Refuse Pit, another Bai Mansion. The name of SACO's American co-director was Milton Miles, a US Navy official, and its Chinese director was Dai Li, the head of the Nationalist secret services (called euphemistically the Military Statistics Bureau, or "Juntong"). Dai Li was known to my parents and their Communist comrades as "China's Himmler."

Bob, largely apolitical, was hardly interested. If anything, he dismissed the notion of an "American-run concentration camp" as a myth. MIT-educated, he had done some reading on Sino-American history before traveling to China in early 1987, but had never heard of such a thing.

Though I had no desire to have Bob visit the SACO site, and was unhappy about my father's intent to instill guilt in an American, Bob's dismissal put me in a mood to argue. "This one is real," I said. I had seen, in the SACO museum, handcuffs marked "Made in USA," and pictures of the dead bodies wearing them. My statement was not ideologically based (in fact, I had gotten into political trouble for my dissident thoughts and writing in the early 1980s), but history is history, or so I thought. Bob barely shrugged, unconvinced yet with no desire to argue.

In retrospect, Bob was the first person I know to counter the mainland Chinese notion of SACO's history, albeit intuitively (and with an American bias). He did later speculate that, if there were actually such a graphic concentration camp in China operated by Americans, the ubiquitous US journalists wouldn't have foregone a Pulitzer-winning opportunity to expose it, ergo SACO would already have been public knowledge in the US.

But things are not always that straightforward.


This much was well known in China: on November 27, 1949, at the cusp of regime change, a massacre took place at Chongqing's Refuse Pit and Bai Mansion, two prisons in walking distance of one another. Over 200 people were slaughtered that day. At Bai Mansion, the executions were carried out in batches, still not quite finished by the evening, at which point the remaining twenty prisoners, with the help of a sympathetic guard, fled. In Refuse Pit, the jailers cut down over 140 prisoners with submachine guns, poured gasoline on the bodies, and burned them, but a handful escaped in the fire and chaos. Days later, on the hill next to the massacre sites, a pit was found full of bodies bound with handcuffs made in Springfield, Massachusetts, USA.BaiMansion.JPG

The burial pit, like the two prisons, was on the grounds of SACO's headquarters. SACO ("Sino-American Cooperative Organization") was founded in 1943, during WWII, under an agreement co-signed by President Roosevelt and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. (Only after moving to the US did I learn that the stated purpose in the agreement was to fight the two countries' "common enemy," i.e., Japan.)

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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