Return to Tsingtao

When Marco Polo in the 13th century declared Hangzhou the world's most beautiful city. He never went to Qingdao, but I imagine if he had, Qingdao might head that list. I thought about this as I stood at the end of Pagoda Pier and looked back at the city. But then when Marco Polo was in China, Qingdao was nothing more than a tiny fishing village. It was the Germans who changed all that when they took possession of the port in 1898. Then things began to happen. They built a marvelous resort town with a Teutonic influence and, in German style, they established a brewery which today produces some of the finest beer in Asia. They called their new town Tsingtao and the beer, naturally, Tsingtao Beer.

It was in Tsingtao that I landed with my regiment, the 29th Marines, as a 17-year old kid, fresh from the Battle of Okinawa, soon after the war ended. We went there to disarm the Japanese who had been in the city for 18 years, and to repatriate them back to Japan. And, it was in Tsingtao that I was to grow up. I spent the next three years of my life there when kids back home were going to football games and Saturday night parties and so vivid are those memories that to this day I can recall details as though they had happened yesterday. And now, for the first time in all those years, I was returning for a visit.

I wrote a book Take China, The Last of the China Marines about my early experience in Tsingtao. I never intended to write the book but when the Japanese began rewriting history I felt I had to tell our story. And I never thought the Chinese would like what I wrote but soon after Take China was published a book publisher in Beijing bought the rights and translated it into Chinese. In Take China the following is what I wrote about our arrival in 1945, and later I compare it to my recent return visit.

"The streets were one continuous mass of humanity," I wrote, "a carpet of happy, smiling, waving people. In every direction I looked there were people. They jammed the streets. They crowded the alleys and doorways; they hung out the windows and looked down from rooftops. There wasn't a telephone pole, a signpost or a tree that didn't have people clinging to it. They waved and they cheered. Each and everyone there that day, without exception, babies included, held small American flags which they waved frantically. We drove through the city, passed a twin towered church ."

I returned this time with photographer Robert Stedman by train from Shanghai, an easy overnight journey. We shared a four-berth compartment with a Chinese man and his wife; they kept feeding us green tea. The accommodations were comfortable but I could not sleep, thinking of what was to come the next morning. A few Marines that I had talked to who had been to Tsingtao in recent years all had the same story to tell "You'll never recognize it. It's not the same." Certainly the Shantung University must still be there. They wouldn't tear that down. It was a magnificent stone structure with thick walls and long hallways. It was the first quarters we had when our regiment went ashore. Maybe the old Strand Hotel, the second place we billeted, may be gone as it was a wooden building, and so were many of the bars and restaurants where we drank and ate. I remembered all the monuments and pagodas. They must be there. And certainly the beaches were. You just can't easily tear down a beach. I was carrying with me a stack of photos that I had taken from 1945 to 1948, including the twin towered church on a hill in the center of town. It would be fun trying to match them.

I was out of my berth at first light, peering eagerly out the window. As we neared Tsingtao I couldn't believe it. The old warehouses where Marines had stood guard duty, shabby and rundown as they were then, were still there. What was not the same was the railway station. It was new and very modern. Standing at the entrance to the station was our driver from the Shangri-la Hotel with a sign WELCOME HAROLD STEPHENS. Not a parade and a cheering crowd like the first time but nevertheless a pleasant welcome. We climbed into the hotel car and set off across town. My memories came flashing back.

The Catholic Church on the hill was there. I wanted to have the driver stop immediately but he had the genes of a rickshaw driver of old and kept shooting ahead. My head turned in every direction. The old city with its hills and narrow streets were much the same but within minutes we were through the old section of town and the scene suddenly changed into a modern city. Now, it was totally new and unfamiliar. We shot over one hill and suddenly the beaches appeared, one after the other, each with tiled walkways and vistas with benches and fancy kiosks.

One beach I remembered in particular; it was way out of town. We called it Long Beach; it had several Quonsets huts for storage. It was as far out of town as you could go without getting shot by bandits. I tried to orientate myself. The only way we could get there then was by four-wheel drive military jeeps and recons. Where was Long Beach now, and the Quonsets? With my map in hand I discovered the Quonset huts had been replaced, and now standing in their place, perhaps a bit farther back from the water, was the new glittering Shangri-la Hotel. The hotel, with it marvelous view, was surrounded by shopping complexes, high-rises and wide avenues.

I was fortunate that the Public Relations director of the hotel offered to be our guide, and a fine guide she was. She had alerted the press that someone from the past was in town. Two reporters arrived and after a ten-minute conversation they called a local TV station. It seems they had a problem. They were in doubt that US Marines had occupied their city after the war, and that the Japanese had actually surrendered to the US forces. I assured them it was true and produced my old photographs. They continued to doubt until we went to the Shantung University and I explained in detail, as we stood at the front gate, what the inside of the building looked like the stairway leading to the second level and the very room where I was billeted and a few other details.

What a thrilling moment to walk up those same stairs, with the cameras following. I remember the room where I slept and led the way. It was now a science lab, and the teachers inside were astounded to see us enter. One teacher asked, "What are you doing here?" And I responded, in my best Chinese, "What are you doing here? I was here first." That turned a few skeptical eyebrows.

We walked through the campus grounds and I pointed out that this building was the gym and that one was the mess hall. The media was convinced the Marine had been there.

We then went to the Strand Hotel, which was my second home in Tsingtao. Again we found the very room on the second level where I was quartered. The hotel had been refaced with a new entrance but little of the interior was altered. The old stairway, the railing and the windows were originals. I could almost hear the bugle sounding off calling us to muster at dawn every morning.

There were other sites we found and all were a thrilling experience. I was disappointed that I could not find the home of my first Chinese teacher, Mrs. Djung. When I had shown some aptitude for Chinese, my command officer found a teacher for me, which I wrote about in Take China. "An amah in black-and-white dress opened the door. I said in my best Chinese that I would like to see the lady of the house. She put her hands to her mouth and chuckled . . . Mrs. Djung appeared . . . She was quite stunning, a very proper Mandarin Chinese lady . . . She wore octagonal glasses, without rims. She reached out her hand and smiled . . 'We are having an early dinner,' Mrs. Djung said, 'and we hope that you can stay. We can get better acquainted... .

"Dinner was a formal setting . . . with Mrs. Djung at one end of the table and Dr. Fenn at the other. . .Dr. Fenn was very polite . . . The conversation drifted from one thing to another . . . Mrs. Djung said to me, 'Maybe you can help. We have read so much about Western culture, and now we have a foreign student among us to explain it.' I smiled, and said I would be pleased to help in any way I could.... She continued. 'Tell me,' she said. 'Do you think the philosophy of Kierkegaard had much influence on Christianity or led to the philosophical existentialism movement?'

'Huh?'

'Kierkegaard,' she repeated. 'You know, Jean-Paul Sartre.'

'Huh?'

"Our conversation after that changed to other more mundane topics...." and the next time I was invited for dinner I ate with the servants. When I finally did go to a university, years later, and learned about Kierkegaard and Jean-Paul Sartre, it was too late.

Qingdao is not on the tourist map but one day I suspect it will be. The city is most famous for its beaches. But the city itself is also appealing with its relics of the colonial past and many 19th-century German-style buildings that have survived. Red-tiled roofs, timbered facades, sloping gables, triangular attic windows, the tall towers of the Cathedral, Zhongshan Lu, the Protestant Church and the former governor's residence, which has the air of a Prussian hunting lodge, all create a distinctly Teutonic flavor. The German pres ence lasted until 1914 the beginning of World War I when Japan conquered the colony. Liberated by the Chinese in 1922, Qingdao was reoccupied later by the Japanese once again.

That is Qingdao but to me it will always be Tsingtao.