Another Kind of American History in Chongqing, 2: Evolution

More on SACO, an American run concentration camp for Chinese Communists

by Xujun Eberlein

(First a note about yesterday's post: a reader wrote to call my attention to "David Herlihy's 2010 book The Lost Cyclist, which tells the story of Frank Lenz, the first American to cycle across the 1890s!"  I want to thank the reader, and I really look forward to reading that book. Meanwhile, let me take the opportunity to make a correction.  I think - and this could still be wrong - Bob was the first American who cycled across China after it re-opened in the 1980s. Now, the SACO story continues from yesterday's prologue.)

Following Red Crag's publication, an exhibition titled "SACO: Crimes of America and Chiang [Kai-shek]" opened in 1963, and immediately became a big hit for tourists.  The two prisons, Refuse Pit and Bai Mansion, were displayed as part of the SACO "concentration camp," together with torture cells equipped with American supplies. Included was also the residence of Miles, which Dai Li had built for him. On its walls were texts describing Miles as a mad anti-Communist American military man.

Passionate visitors came in an endless stream to look for traces of the Red Crag heroes. Monuments were built up for the martyrs. When I was in middle and high school in the 1970s, every year on November 27 we students went to sweep the tombs.  Each time we took a day-long tour round the exhibition area.

The impression of American cruelty at SACO ran deep and we never questioned its authenticity. The novel Red Crag spread the accusation, and the exhibition established hard evidence. The martyrs were real people (two of them, Qi Liang and Wang Po, were my father's underground comrades); the prisons and the SACO site were real places. What was there to question?

In early 1967, several years after Red Crag's publication, the novel's leading author Luo Guangbing jumped off a building and killed himself. This happened in the heat of the Cultural Revolution; I was eleven then. I was utterly stunned to hear a friend of my parents describing the gross suicide scene (though today some still suspect Luo was murdered).  I was too young to understand why a hero who survived torture and massacre in an enemy prison would want to die in an era following the victory of his own side.


Bob never visited the SACO site in 1987.  A year later we married. China was changing fast, and so was my parents' view of Americans. Our marriage was a personal happenstance, but its possibility was dictated by historical conditions: it happened after a turn in Sino-American relations. Accompanying China's economic reform and opening, the image of Americans held by Chinese was transforming from fierce paper tiger to exotic animal and then to fleshed-out human.

My father's condition for accepting Bob as his son-in-law was "Keep my daughter out of politics!" which Bob cheerfully accepted. In our happiness we never asked whether he meant Chinese politics or American politics. Either one, we couldn't have cared less.

Among our wedding guests was Uncle Jin, an old friend of my parents and an idol of my youth. In 1948 Uncle Jin had been arrested as an underground Communist and jailed in the Refuse Pit prison, in the same cell with Luo Guangbing (Red Crag's author). Fortunately, several months later Uncle Jin was bailed out by his wealthy landlord family, thus avoiding a deadly fate in the November 27, 1949 massacre.

At our wedding, Uncle Jin again suggested Bob visit SACO. "You must see the handcuffs, made in USA!" he said repeatedly. Bob was annoyed, but he smiled and said some polite and meaningless English that Uncle Jin did not understand.  In private though, he complained to me, "Why does everybody want me to see SACO?"

What Bob wanted to do was ride his bike to Tibet, along the Sichuan-Tibet road that was built in the 1950s.  It had been his plan the year before in the first place. But once again his ambition was foiled by my fierce objection: that road was too harsh, too dangerous for a cyclist.

I moved with Bob to Boston in the summer of 1988, started a family, got my PhD and began work with a small technology company. That busy life kept me "out of politics" without the slightest nudging from Bob - until one day thirteen years later, when the twin towers fell.

For me, Chinese netizens cheering the lesson that America had received signaled the return of abstract hatred. I was troubled: what my generation dropped, the new generation picked it back up.  I say "abstract" because, I'm sure, if an American tourist ran into one of those young Chinese in a private situation, he or she would be as friendly as anyone.

My enthusiasm in technology waned. In spring 2002, I took an unpaid leave from work, and returned to Chongqing with Bob and our young daughter. This was only the second visit to my hometown in the 13 years since I had left. I was driven by an urge to revisit my childhood and youth, to understand my past.

My father again suggested we go see SACO, but this time his tone was completely different from that of 1987. "They expanded and remodeled the place and made big sculptures. It looks magnificent," my 76-year-old father said happily, as if talking about a recreational theme park. There was no hint of historical grudge.

So we went. Chongqing's change had been overwhelming, yet I was not quite prepared for what I saw at the "martyrs tomb."

The tomb itself, which was a collective burial for the hundreds slaughtered in the 1940s, still looked familiar, but that was it. Nothing surrounding it was the same.  The once solemn and quiet mood from my teenage memory, set off by tall pines and cypresses lining stone steps, was replaced by an outrageously large-scale commercial ambiance complete with vulgar decorations.  A gigantic brown sculpture of figures - revolutionary heroes in a typica
l propaganda pose - stood on top of an interminably wide flight of concrete steps. The new name of this place? "Red Crag Soul Square." It was like someone had put the dead for sale in a fake-upscale market.

Left: "Red Crag Soul Square" (2002)

Several elementary school children threw their red scarfs into the railed tomb, a gesture of respect for the dead, but the ubiquitous commercial air made the action a bit comic.

I didn't think such a political site would be a good money-making candidate. But apparently, the lure of profit can make people curiously creative. The grand exhibition hall, which had once been SACO's training ground, was now called "The Gele Mountain Revolution Memorial Museum," and sold expensive tickets to visitors. (I don't remember ever paying a penny during my school year visits). I guess there was no problem getting customers. As I heard, mandatory visits were assigned to schools and workplaces alike each year, and the exhibitors also made tours and sentimental performances nationwide.  The hall was crowded, but I couldn't tell if the visitors came for entertainment, education, or simply to get a chore done. (To save money, my parents declined to go in with us; they sauntered in the big square as if repeating their morning constitutional.)

If there were changes in the contents of the exhibition, they were not obvious, except the displays were more elaborate. I did notice an introduction on the wall saying that, Miles, the US representative at SACO, "besides collecting Japanese military information," mainly provided support and enhancement for Chang Kai-shek's special services. I wondered if this text had been there before, or reflected a subtle historic revision. In the numerous visits from my childhood and youth, I never got the impression that SACO did anything to help fight the Japanese.

Bob, being there for the first time, looked on the exhibits with the horror and disgust that is present when one must face the reality that ordinary people can do things like this to one another. He was also saddened that many of the materials used were American, and that this coincidence of manufacture would figure so strongly in China's attitude toward America. But he never believed any American personnel were involved.


Out of the exhibition hall, in another display area, a group of wall-size, mural-like paintings halted my steps. The subject of torture was depicted with a religious theme.  For a moment it felt as if I had entered a Catholic cathedral.

So the martyrs now had to carry on two incompatible roles, neither one of which they would have expected: religious and commercial.

I had heard that the museum's director, Li Hua, was the brains behind all the commercial schemes.  Several of his books were on sale there.  Out of curiosity, I bought the one titled (in translation) SACO Concentration Camp's History Study, Protection, and Utilization, published in September 2001.  So SACO was still labeled as a "concentration camp."

It never occurred to me that, several years later, in order to explore the SACO myth, I would be so determined to meet Li Hua in person that I had to deploy a stratagem involving an innocently conspiring American friend.

(To be continued tomorrow here.)

Xujun Eberlein is the author of Apologies Forthcoming, a story collection set in China, and Inside-out China, a cultural criticism blog. She also writes reviews of China-themed books, for example this one.