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From Calcutta to New York

Hairy Crab 大閘蟹

I remember while I was staying with the Lings, one day Mr Ling brought back from the office a package which was flown in on a CNAC plane all the way from Shanghai.  It contained three precious hairy crabs.  He was so happy to get it but since there were four of us in the house, it was difficult to share only three crabs.   Mrs Ling decided to make a dish of scramble eggs with hairy crabs so all of us can enjoy it.  It was very nice of her to think of that and I really appreciated her thoughtfulness.


Since I had no idea at that time how best to proceed from India to US.  I thought maybe I would wait for the Liberty Ship.  Mr Ling suggested that since I had the time, one of the local staff at Bank of China who was from Darjeeling could take me for a trip to the famous summer resort high in the Himalayas.  From Darjeeling, I would  have a chance to view Mt Everest by going farther to the Tiger Top Mountain.  He also had two other persons who wanted to do that, so the four of us started by taking the overnight train from Calcutta to the foot of the mountain range where a narrow gauge mountain train would take us to our destination.  The India train system was something to remember by because there was no limit on how many tickets could be sold for one seat, or bunker.  The stationmaster at each stop could sell anything already sold at the previous stop.  The train was of the British design with each compartment having its own door to the outside so we were forewarned that since Calcutta was the starting point, once we get on board the train we should lock the door of the compartment and never open it to let anybody on until reaching our destination.  There were four bunker beds in each so just right for our party and we did it as we were told.  Otherwise, we could have maybe ten or twelve people jammed together.

The narrow gauge train which zig zag up the mountain took another day to reach Darjeeling.  Since the other people were from there, they all had places to stay.  I was the only one who had to check into a hotel which cost me one sterling pound per day. Darjeeling during the war was the only city from where you could reach interior China by land, so it became the place smugglers brought in all the luxury goods which were impossible to get elsewhere. The city was surrounded by snow capped mountains and very much similar to Switzerland.  It was a typical colonial retreat for the summer time. 

To go see Mt Everest, we had to get up at 2:30 in the morning taking a car ride to Tiger Top Mountain and then went by donkey to the peak of the mountain.  There was a sort of temple structure; we could hardly see anything in total darkness.  Our guide provided us with blankets to wrap ourselves in and told us to seat or kneels down in a certain direction.  When the day break, that was the time we could see the rare sight of Mt Everest for about half an hour before the clouds came in.  In was really a sight one never forgets.

Days in Calcutta

After we returned to Calcutta, because the elder son of Mr Ling had come home from school, I had to move out to the dormitory of Bank of China which was more like a hotel.  One day I ventured out to the main drag of Calcutta called Chow Ran Chi and to have a meal at the famous Ferpos Restaurant.  What surprised me was that the waiters were all bare foot walking on the marble floor making pit pat sound.  On another day I went to buy some orange and a sandwich walking down the same boulevard, a monkey jumped on me and grabbed my sandwich before I could enjoy it myself. 

At the dormitory, I got to meet another guest staying there, a General Walter Leigh who was once an adviser to the Chinese Government.  He told me that Vivian Leigh the actress was his daughter and showed me a picture of her.  I didn’t know to believe him or not.

On the Way to Cairo

One day at a dinner with Mr Ling, he had a guest who was the then Chinese Ambassador to Egypt and just came through on the way back to Chungking 重慶.  I told him of my looking a way to US.  He told me that if I could get to Cairo by plane, the Chinese Embassy there could arrange passage for me to sail for New York.  I said definitely I would try.  So he sent a cable to the Embassy asking the staff to expect me.

The next day I went to the BOAC office and inquired about the possibility of my getting a seat on the flight to Cairo.  The agent asked me what priority I held.  I said I had none and was told that civilian was usually given priority five which would have a six month wait for the first available seat.  Just before I was about to give up, the agent asked me if I would be willing to stand-by on a few hours notice.  Yes, I replied.  Two days later, in the early morning I got a phone call from the agent saying there was a vacant seat on the next flight out because one of the priority one passengers had cancelled his reservation.  Of course I immediately accept this offer and rushed to the airport with the bare minimum carry-on luggage.

The BOAC – British Oversea Airways Corporation -- plane waiting at the tarmac was a high wing Avon twin engine passenger plane.  Each passenger was given a box of dry food as lunch before boarding.  Because it was high wing, it was wide open when you looked out of the window.

The first stop – an overnight one – was Karachi, it was only a few hours of flight, so we had plenty of time to spend after arriving and checking into a hotel.  I went to a movie that evening and had to stand for the national anthem of Indian before the movie and the national anthem of Britain after the movie ended.  That was typical colonial days.

From Karachi, the next stop was somewhere in the desert.  The plane landed in front of a fortress and we went inside of it for a meal.  The next two stops were Basra in Iraq and Jerusalem in today’s Israel before arriving at our destination Cairo.

When I stepped out of the plane at the Cairo airport, I was astonished to see a line of four or five Chinese Officials from the Embassy standing there to welcome me.  Later I found out, that all during the war, there were very few Chinese came through Cairo by plane.  Those who made the trip were either high ranking military man or high official from the Central Government.  When the Ambassador sent the wire to inform the Embassy that I was coming, he did not mention what rank I held.  It was a surprise for all of them to see a young cadet like me stepped out of the plane.  After I explained that I was only a trainee without any official mission, one of the Embassy official, a third secretary whispered in my ear saying that he would be looking after me and asked me to stick with him.  Later I found out he was under Tai Li, a secret service agent keeping an eye on all the staff in the Embassy including the Ambassador.

The Embassy put me in a hotel and told me they had booked me a passage on the first troop ship – a Victory or Liberty class cargo ship - to accept civilian passengers after the war from Cairo to New York.  The trip would cost me US$125 and it would take 21 days.  The sailing date was still more than a month away, so it would be in January 1946.  

In the meantime, I did what I was told by the third secretary from the Embassy.  I followed him as much as I could.  I discovered we were from the same hometown Suchow, so we became very close.

He told me that where ever we went, there would be somebody following us, agents from other countries.  So he asked me not to use English between us, if we spoke our native Chinese nobody would understand us.

So every afternoon he would take me with him to a place called Churchill Bar where secret agents from different countries gather together and exchange information.  French was the common language which I don’t speak so it was safe to say I could be trusted.  I remembered the surname of our secret agent was Ku and he was short sighted wearing thick glasses looking like a fragile school teacher but actually according to his own account, before his assignment in Egypt, he was in Shanghai under Japanese occupation and had killed or strangled more than ten collaborators with the enemy.

He usually disguised himself as somebody delivering an important package to the targeted person.  He would insist on handing the package to the person himself and after he did it, he would produce a receipt and a pen to ask the person to sign on it.  When the person turned around and bend down to sign it, that was the time he use his hands to strangle the person from behind.  A professional assassinator.  Because his ability of speaking several European languages, he was transferred to Egypt during the war.

Cairo during World War II was declared as an open city.  Prisoners of war captured by the Allied Forces were detained in Cairo and only required to wear certain uniform for identification.  Otherwise, they were free to go out of the prisoner camps.

Christmas Eve 1945

On Christmas Eve, I had dinner with him and several of his friends and afterwards he took us to a nightclub.  When we got there it was already near midnight and in Cairo there was a curfew for liquor after midnight.  So when our host put in the order for drinks, it was already too late.  First the waiter refused to take our orders and then the manager came out to apologize.  Our host seemed not to have heard anything, he insisted that our order of liquor be served even after the curfew.  Finally the manager broke down and accepted our request and told us to keep it confidential.  As soon as our drinks were on the table, our host immediately went to make a phone call to the police who promptly appeared and arrested the manager for breaking the curfew!  Why, we were all puzzled.  Then after the manager had been taken away, he went to make another call and told us to wait.  A little while later, the manager showed up and told us everything is alright and go ahead to enjoy our drink.  All this was planned by our host who wanted to show us how powerful he was with the local authority.  The second phone call was to the superior of the police department and countered the police action in enforcing the law.

From Cairo to New York 1946

Then came the news that the troop ship was to sail from Port Said on a certain day in January 1946.  The American Embassy had schedule to give a reception for all the passengers in Cairo.  I went and discovered that I was the only oriental person among some 400 passengers, all male, from more than thirty countries in the Middle East.  They were all students or family members of people already in the US.    I could never forget the question asked me by a student from one of the college in Egypt.  He said “are you a Communist?” and after I replied I am not, he said good because we just killed four communists in our school last week.

On the day before sailing, all of us had to take the train from Cairo to Port Said.  After arriving Port Said, naturally the first thing to do was to look for our ship.  When we discovered it was a battered troop ship, some of the Egyptian students were so disappointed they started to complain to the American Embassy Staff who accompanied us on the trip (some even brought formal dress expecting to board a luxurious passenger ship).

A few of us then shared a tender to board the ship.  Her name was Cornelies Gilliams and it was a cargo ship converted to take passengers.  There were four hatches, the first one near the bow was to hold sixty something war-brides from the Middle East.  The second hatch was for us students and third one was reserved for returning soldiers.  The fourth one was for provisions.

In our hatch, the bunker beds were stacked four to a column. Each could be folded up to make room in the day time.  In the center of the hatch there were long tables for us to have meals standing up. The kitchen was at one end of the hatch serving meals cafeteria style. Each one of us was given a set of utensils which we had to keep and use for the entire trip.  We were actually traveling just like a soldier.  Briefing was given on boarding and duty was assigned to each one of us.  I was assigned to clean the latrine 5 am in the morning once every week or so.  Fresh water was limited to washing and brushing tooth.  No facilitate for showering.   For US$125, what did you expect?  However, there was a daily mimeographed newspaper to keep us informed on things like how far had we sailed and some jokes and cartoons to amuse us.

I was given the top berth.  Everyone was to have one blanket. There was no room for luggage, so you had to sleep holding on to whatever you had.

One day lice were discovered on somebody somewhere, so on our first post call at Gibraltar, doctors came abroad and spray everyone with DDT. 

Fight on Board

As I mentioned before the meals were served cafeteria style.  We got two and half meals a day only.  Breakfast, lunch and very light dinner.  In the kitchen, there were a few Chinese chefs.  After a few days they recognized that I was the only Chinese among all the Middle Easterners.  So, one day when I reached the serving station, the Chinese chef behind the counter gave me some extra food, two apples instead one.  This little incident started something almost out of control.  Several Middle Easterner saw that and they began to shout at the kitchen staff and complained the preferential treatment given to me.  One of them started to jump into the kitchen to get some extra food and the kitchen staff reacted by pushing him back.  Then more people joined in the fight, one got hold of a kitchen staff who was holding a knife in his hand and shouted that the staff had started to fight them with literal weapons.  So more people rushed in to join the fight and almost the entire kitchen was destroyed.

At that time one of the few non Middle Easterner passengers grabbed me and told me to join him on the top bunker so could see the fight but not involved or be harmed.
The ship alarm sounded.  There were a dozen or so shore patrol soldiers on board, they immediately came in drawing their weapons and ordered all the passengers on board line up on both side of hatch.  The Captain then walked in to look over the situation.  Surprisingly, he apologized to all the passengers and said this would not happen again.  Later I learned that he believe if he had not apologize to pacify the Middle Easterners, their would be more fights or even mutiny on board to prevent the ship from reaching New York.  The root of the trouble was most of the passenger never expected to board a ship and be treated just like regular troops.

On a lighter side, because nobody wanted to stay in the hatch during day light, we all scattered around the deck, in the gun battle station with the guns already removed.  Since I was good at sketching, I got hold of a pad of paper and started to do sketched portraits for other passengers.  I was kept pretty busy and decided to charge some token fee for doing that.

The rest of the trip was not without any further trouble.  Because there were sixty or more war brides from the same area without their American husbands around, naturally some would start intimacy with other male passengers, some made use of the deserted gun station as the rendezvous place before the curfew time.

This led to jealousy and conflict.  One day we found some of the male passengers from our hatch were spray with human waste and other times there would be fist fight on deck.  All these were forgotten after we reached New York, the new world.  Then we began to refer to each other as room-mates on the last voyage of Cornelius Gilliam before she went to the scrapyard.



             next CHAPTER 5