Dust brushed off war her­itage sites

His­tor­i­cal build­ings serve as re­minders of a cru­cial time in his­tory, Luo Wangshu and Tan Yingzi re­port in Chongqing

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FOCUS -

TCul­tural her­itage

em­per­a­tures of 40 C were push­ing the mer­cury to the top of the ther­mome­ter, heat­ing up the old fourstory build­ing, which has a his­tory as tor­rid as any scorch­ing sum­mer day.

The quiet house, ivy cling­ing to the walls and porch, is lo­cated on a hill­top in the south­west­ern mu­nic­i­pal­ity of Chongqing, the wartime cap­i­tal of China. It now serves as the ad­min­is­tra­tive cen­ter of the Third Peo­ple’s Hos­pi­tal of Chongqing, but dur­ing World War II the plain build­ing was the Soviet em­bassy.

“This build­ing may have been the birth­place of many im­por­tant de­ci­sions that shaped the world dur­ing the war, and it may also have hosted world lead­ers,” said Wang Fumei, di­rec­tor of the hos­pi­tal’s cul­tural af­fairs of­fice, who has worked in the build­ing for nearly 30 years.

Many coun­tries es­tab­lished diplo­matic cen­ters in Chongqing dur­ing wartime, play­ing a crit­i­cal role in the Asian the­ater of war. How­ever, the his­tory of th­ese sites was rarely men­tioned un­til five years ago when peo­ple started to seek out and cher­ish wartime truths through Chongqing’s liv­ing his­tory.

The sites, which are mainly scat­tered around down­town dis­tricts such as Yuzhong and Nan’an, have changed their func­tions in the post-1945 world.

The for­mer United States em­bassy be­came the ad­min­is­tra­tive cen­ter and din­ing room of the Chongqing Emer­gency Med­i­cal Cen­ter. The Bri­tish em­bassy, as was, is pri­vately owned and has been leased to a re­sort com­pany. What was once the Ital­ian em­bassy, its walls cracked and criss­crossed by elec­tric ca­bling, is home to six fam­i­lies. The for­mer of­fice of the In­dian pre­fec­tural com­mis­sioner, lo­cated in the Nan­shan Botan­i­cal Gar­dens, now serves as a pub­lic li­brary.

In the af­ter­math of that global con­flict, th­ese sites fell into dis­re­pair, their fa­cades di­lap­i­dated and un­cared for, the grounds over­grown and tan­gled with weeds.

Now though, th­ese his­toric sites are fi­nally get­ting the recog­ni­tion they de­serve. In July, 13 of Chongqing’s wartime diplo­matic cen­ters were se­lected as National Arche­o­log­i­cal Sites, with the aim of bet­ter pro­tect­ing and pre­serv­ing China’s cul­tural her­itage.

In a 2010 pro­posal, Huang Jiren, a Chongqing writer and a mem­ber of the Chi­nese Peo­ple’s Po­lit­i­cal Con­sul­ta­tive Con­fer­ence, ap­pealed to the State to pro­tect Chongqing’s wartime her­itage.

The cen­tral govern­ment is now pay­ing great at­ten­tion to the preser­va­tion of the wartime her­itage. Chongqing, home to many wartime trea­sures, is also on a mis­sion to pro­tect and pre­serve its her­itage. An in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ence themed “The War of Re­sis­tance against Ja­panese Ag­gres­sion dur­ing World War II”, will be held in Chongqing next month and a num­ber of in­ter­na­tional au­thor­i­ties on the con­flict will at­tend.

In the past two years, the Si­noJa­panese re­la­tion­ship has be­come even more com­pli­cated be­cause of the Diaoyu Is­lands is­sue, which has at­tracted greater global at­ten­tion to the his­tory of the war in China, said Zhou Yong, di­rec­tor of the Chongqing Re­search Cen­ter for War of Re­sis­tance against Ja­panese Ag­gres­sion in the Un­oc­cu­pied Area, which col­lates and pro­tects his­tor­i­cal ma­te­ri­als re­lat­ing to the pe­riod when parts of China were oc­cu­pied.

“Th­ese em­bassy sites are re­minders of a time — past, but not long past — when China was part of a global strug­gle against the forces of fas­cism and im­pe­ri­al­ism. China’s war with Ja­pan was part of a wider in­ter­na­tional con­flict and the em­bassies re­mind us of that time,” Rana Mit­ter, pro­fes­sor of the his­tory and pol­i­tics of mod­ern China at Ox­ford Univer­sity’s In­sti­tute for Chi­nese Stud­ies, wrote in an e-mail to China Daily.

When the Kuom­intang govern­ment of Chi­ang Kai-shek es­tab­lished Chongqing as China’s cap­i­tal in 1937, the Soviet Union was the first coun­try to hand in a re­quest to set up an em­bassy in the wartime cap­i­tal. The Soviet move was swiftly fol­lowed by sim­i­lar re­quests from more than 30 coun­tries.

How­ever, th­ese once glo­ri­ous sites, awash with his­tory, have be­come hos­pi­tals, li­braries, mu­se­ums and even pri­vate res­i­dences, serv­ing the lives of or­di­nary peo­ple.

Wang, 50, be­gan work­ing as an ad­min­is­tra­tive as­sis­tant at the site of the for­mer Soviet em­bassy in 1982. Climb­ing the wooden stairs to her fourth-floor of­fice is like tak­ing a trip 75 years into the past, to a time when the build­ing was full of diplo­mats and in­trigue.

The four-story build­ing, with 56 rooms spread over its 488.8 square me­ters of floor space, was used as a clinic and wards in the im­me­di­ate post­war era.

“The rooms were not the same shape as reg­u­lar hos­pi­tal wards and so the build­ing’s func­tion was changed and it be­came an ad­min­is­tra­tive cen­ter,” said Wang.

For Wan Xin, a 23-year-old mem­ber of the ad­min­is­tra­tive staff, the build­ing is her work­place, but it also holds happy mem­o­ries from her child­hood when she spent her days play­ing in the grounds.

“The ceil­ings are higher than those in other build­ings,” said Wan, whose mother has worked at the hos­pi­tal since Wan was a child.

Al­though the fa­cade has been al­tered slightly and the in­te­rior re­mod­eled, the for­mer Soviet em­bassy has gen­er­ally been pre­served well.

Sadly, the same can’t be said for the for­mer US em­bassy, sit­u­ated just a fiveminute drive away. The build­ing was torn down in 2007 and is now be­ing re­built in ac­cor­dance with the orig­i­nal plans, but with up­graded ma­te­ri­als and fa­cil­i­ties.

Wu Yang, deputy di­rec­tor of the Chongqing Emer­gency Med­i­cal Cen­ter’s gen­eral of­fice, said the em­bassy will be re­stored to its orig­i­nal ap­pear­ance.

A fam­ily home

Ding Hui­long, a 73-year-old re­tired high school teacher, has closer ties with the old em­bassy sites than most peo­ple. Her fam­ily moved into the for­mer Ger­many em­bassy, sit­u­ated on Nan­shan Moun­tain in the east of Chongqing, at the end of 1971 and stayed there for 21 years.

“My stu­dents loved com­ing to my home to use the li­brary and prac­tice their act­ing and singing,” said Ding, re­call­ing the old days. The for­mer Chi­nese teacher added that the front yard of the house, which is now pri­vate prop­erty, served as a stage for her ar­tis­ti­cally in­clined stu­dents.

One of her for­mer pupils, Li Jia, of­ten vis­its her old teacher. The mid­dle-aged woman said she still likes to hike to the top of the hill to take a break and ad­mire the stun­ning views of the Yangtze River far be­low.

“The house was fan­tas­tic for us teens, es­pe­cially in the 1970s. The view from the bal­cony is great,” said Li, who can clearly re­call the lay­out of the build­ing.

Ding keeps two snap­shots of a tall blond-haired woman in her photo al­bum. “She is the daugh­ter of a Ger­man doc­tor, the orig­i­nal owner of my old home, the for­mer Ger­many em­bassy,” she said, be­fore apol­o­giz­ing for her in­abil­ity to re­call the name of the woman, who vis­ited the site in the late 1980s.

Ding doesn’t speak Ger­man and the “Ger­man woman” didn’t speak Chi­nese, but the vis­i­tor wrote her ad­dress on the backs of the pho­tos and sent them to Ding’s fam­ily in the hope of main­tain­ing con­tact, how­ever slight, with her Chi­nese friends in the pre-In­ter­net age.

Al­though the hand­writ­ing is dif­fi­cult to de­ci­pher, Ding and her hus­band cov­ered the backs of the pho­tos in clear tape to pre­serve the con­tact de­tails.

Un­break­able links

The for­mer Aus­tralian lega­tion, whose vis­i­tors in­cluded its for­mer prime min­is­ter Bob Hawke and his wife, is now the ad­min­is­tra­tive of­fice of E’ling Park, a large pub­lic space in Yuzhong dis­trict.

“The sites are links be­tween Chongqing and the rest of the world,” said Zhou from the re­search cen­ter. Zhou said the af­fec­tion that ex­ists be­tween China and other coun­tries was forged by his­tory and the shared ex­pe­ri­ence of dif­fi­cult times.

Ox­ford Univer­sity’s Mit­ter said the sites are re­minders of a cru­cial time in the his­tory of the world. He said it’s im­por­tant for Chi­nese peo­ple to re­mem­ber those times and re­mem­ber that, along with the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party and for­eign al­lies, the Kuom­intang govern­ment played a role in de­feat­ing the Ja­panese.

“It’s im­por­tant to pre­serve the his­tor­i­cal sites in Chongqing, the places that re­call its role as the wartime cap­i­tal of China. The pol­i­tics of the Cold War in China and the West led to this piece of his­tory be­ing for­got­ten. It is im­por­tant to re­mem­ber the role of Chi­ang Kai-shek along with that of Mao Ze­dong — and Chongqing was the cap­i­tal where China’s Kuom­intang govern­ment re­sisted Ja­pan, in al­liance with the CPC,” he wrote. Mit­ter sug­gested that for­mer al­lies and en­e­mies need to visit Chongqing and un­der­stand the im­por­tance of the city’s role in re­sist­ing the in­va­sion of China.

Zhou echoed Mit­ter’s opin­ion. “The only way to gain per­ma­nent peace is to liq­ui­date the his­tor­i­cal debt thor­oughly. One of the im­por­tant rea­sons for China to pre­serve th­ese wartime sites is to clear up the is­sues of his­tory with Ja­pan.” Con­tact the writer at lu­owang­shu@chi­nadaily.com.cn


The ad­min­is­tra­tive of­fice of the Third Peo­ple’s Hos­pi­tal of Chongqing was once the em­bassy of the Soviet Union in the city.

Top: The hall­way of the ad­min­is­tra­tive of­fice of the Third Peo­ple’s Hos­pi­tal of Chongqing. Above: The for­mer Ger­many em­bassy, which is now pri­vate real es­tate.

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