December 2, 2014 — Year in Review (Part 3 — July FIRST TRIP TO CHINA!)

After four months, I’m still try­ing to digest all the new expe­ri­ences and things I learned on my first trip to Chi­na in July – a study tour focused on World War II his­to­ry. Cur­rent­ly the aver­age high school world his­to­ry class in the Unit­ed States spends less than 15 min­utes a year teach­ing about World War II in Asia. Back in my day, it was even less than that. So this trip was a real eye-open­er even though I’d been study­ing up on the sub­ject for the past few years. A fel­low­ship from the New Jer­sey chap­ter of The Alliance for Learn­ing and Pre­serv­ing the His­to­ry of World War II in Asia (ALPHA) and a gen­er­ous dona­tion from Dou­glas Ho and the Beat­rice M.H. Young Foun­da­tion made my whole trip pos­si­ble. I’m grate­ful to them and all my trav­el­ing com­pan­ions who enhanced my experience.

2014 ALPHA Study Tour group on the Shanghai Bund (photo by Louis Au)

2014 ALPHA Study Tour group on the Shang­hai Bund
(pho­to by Louis Au)


Toron­to ALPHA orga­nizes the study tour to help high school teach­ers cre­ate cur­ricu­lum mate­r­i­al cur­rent­ly miss­ing from class­rooms. Although we did pause for pho­to-ops and many great Chi­nese and Kore­an meals, much of the tour was spent in study and reflec­tion on seri­ous top­ics, and once-in-a-life­time meet­ings with sur­vivors of the war.

Shang­hai was our first stop and a good prepa­ra­tion for what was to come, shat­ter­ing many pre-con­ceived notions that I had about Chi­na and main­land Chi­nese peo­ple. First of all, I was not inter­ro­gat­ed by immi­gra­tion or strip searched by cus­toms offi­cials or “shanghai’ed” by the taxi dri­ver.  In fact, as the taxi took me to our hotel from the Pudong Air­port late Fri­day night, Shang­hai seemed dis­ap­point­ing­ly west­ern.  The miles of tall apart­ment build­ings lead­ing into the cen­tral part of the city remind­ed me of the sub­urbs sur­round­ing NYC. The bill­boards adver­tised west­ern lux­u­ry brand goods and fea­tured Hol­ly­wood movie stars like George Clooney. As soon as we neared the cen­ter of the city we also hit NYC-style traffic.

Shanghai is a vibrant mixture of old and new, east and west

Shang­hai is a vibrant mix­ture of old and new, east and west


Since I’m a lazy blog­ger with a poor mem­o­ry, I refer you to fel­low trav­el­er Don Tow’s excel­lent wrap-up of our trip and my room­mate Debra Maller’s day by day blog to get a bet­ter idea of all the sites we vis­it­ed and peo­ple we spoke to.

My study tour roommate Debra Maller with our tour documenter Louis Au outside the Shanghai Jewish Refugee museum. Proud that the Chinese took in Jews during WWII when other countries turned them away.

My study tour room­mate Debra Maller with our tour doc­u­menter Louis Au out­side the Shang­hai Jew­ish Refugee muse­um. Proud that the Chi­nese took in Jews dur­ing WWII when oth­er coun­tries turned them away.


For me, learn­ing of the abus­es of women dur­ing the war was par­tic­u­lar­ly emo­tion­al. The real­i­ty of the sit­u­a­tion hit home for me when we vis­it­ed a for­mer “com­fort sta­tion” in Shang­hai, the for­mer res­i­dence of the Chen’s, a wealthy fam­i­ly who fled Shang­hai when the Japan­ese mil­i­tary invad­ed the city in 1937.


Outside Shanghai "comfort woman" house with Betty Ma and tour organizer Judy Cho (photo by Louis Au)

Out­side Shang­hai “com­fort woman” house with Bet­ty Ma and tour orga­niz­er Judy Cho (pho­to by Louis Au)


The Japan­ese mil­i­tary took over the house to use as a broth­el for their troops and forced women that they kid­napped to live there and pro­vide sex to the men.  About 40 women were kept in the house dur­ing the war.  It was a pow­er­ful emo­tion­al expe­ri­ence to be in the actu­al loca­tion where these women were impris­oned and abused. The place felt haunt­ed.  I could sense the help­less­ness of the women who were forced to ser­vice the men and the despair they must have lived with.

Courtyard of Shanghai "comfort women" house

Court­yard of Shang­hai “com­fort women” house


Second floor room of Shanghai "comfort women" house (photo by Louis Au)

Sec­ond floor room of Shang­hai “com­fort women” house (pho­to by Louis Au)


The fact is that sex­u­al slav­ery and the abuse of women still goes on all over the world.  How can we stop it?  On the last leg of our trip I was heart­ened to meet the Kore­an grand­mas in Seoul, sur­viv­ing “com­fort women” who had become activists to help oth­er women suf­fer­ing sex­u­al abuse. Their abil­i­ty to sur­vive to find enjoy­ment and pur­pose in life made me real­ize that human­i­ty is also capa­ble of great good. Their activism and com­mit­ment to shar­ing very painful per­son­al sto­ries so oth­ers might not have to suf­fer was deeply inspirational.


Grandma Gil, one of the Korean "comfort women" we met at the War and Women's Human Rights Museum in Seoul

Grand­ma Gil, one of the Kore­an “com­fort women” we met at the War and Wom­en’s Human Rights Muse­um in Seoul


86 year old Grandma Gil continues to advocate for women in weekly demonstrations in Seoul.  She was forced into sexual slavery at 13 years old.

86 year old Grand­ma Gil con­tin­ues to advo­cate for women in week­ly demon­stra­tions in Seoul. She was forced into sex­u­al slav­ery at 13 years old.




Don Tow, Robin Lung, and Judy Cho at memorial to Kim Hak-Soon, the first woman to publicly testify to being a sexual slave to the Japanese military during World War II

Don Tow, Robin Lung, and Judy Cho at memo­r­i­al to Kim Hak-Soon, the first woman to pub­licly tes­ti­fy to being a sex­u­al slave to the Japan­ese mil­i­tary dur­ing World War II


Many of the World War II atroc­i­ties we learned about on the tour are com­pi­la­tions of per­son­al his­to­ries that have almost been lost and are only now being able to be told due to the dili­gent work of indi­vid­ual schol­ars or brave indi­vid­u­als who have gone pub­lic with their sto­ries despite the pub­lic shame or gov­ern­ment dis­ap­proval that has come with it.  As our learn­ing ses­sions con­tin­ued, I began to see that every coun­try and every gen­er­a­tion with­in each coun­try has a dif­fer­ent way of remem­ber­ing his­to­ry and using his­to­ry to forge a path to the future. There are also forces in every coun­try that cause large chunks of his­to­ry to be sup­pressed or for­got­ten. Amer­i­ca is no excep­tion. How much of our own his­to­ry has been lost or for­got­ten? And why?

Our group after touring the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall

Our group after tour­ing the Nan­jing Mas­sacre Memo­r­i­al Hall


The Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall is built near the site of a mass grave of 10,000 victims and displays some of the remains excavated near the site. A gruesome reminder of the horrors of war.

The Nan­jing Mas­sacre Memo­r­i­al Hall is built near the site of a mass grave of 10,000 vic­tims and dis­plays some of the remains exca­vat­ed near the site. A grue­some reminder of the hor­rors of war.


At the John Rabe House study tour leader FLora Chong and Judy Cho greet Nanjing Massacre survivor Ding Zheng Lan who was sheltered in the Safety Zone created by Rabe and several other westerners who remained in Nanjing during the massacre in 1937.

At the John Rabe House study tour leader FLo­ra Chong and Judy Cho greet Nan­jing Mas­sacre sur­vivor Ding Zheng Lan who was shel­tered in the Safe­ty Zone cre­at­ed by Rabe and sev­er­al oth­er west­ern­ers who remained in Nan­jing dur­ing the mas­sacre in 1937.


Nothing like restorative noodle soup after studying about wartime massacres. One of my favorite China meals was at the Nanjing airport.

Noth­ing like restora­tive noo­dle soup after study­ing about wartime mas­sacres. One of my favorite Chi­na meals was at the Nan­jing airport.


Why would you eat at the airport McDonalds when this is available?

Why would you eat at the air­port McDon­alds when this is available?


The high­light of my trip came after the offi­cial study tour was over and I trav­eled to Chongqing, the wartime cap­i­tal of Chi­na where much of KUKAN was filmed. I was able to stand at the very place that Rey Scott filmed scenes of the bomb­ing of Chongqing that made KUKAN famous.

View of Chongqing from the south bank of the Yangtze

View of Chongqing from the south bank of the Yangtze


I also screened KUKAN for a group of about 30 his­to­ri­ans in Chongqing.They were clear­ly moved by the scenes of their city being dec­i­mat­ed by the Japan­ese bombs. They had nev­er heard of KUKAN before even though many of them had spent their aca­d­e­m­ic careers study­ing the war. The film rep­re­sent­ed the most com­plete record of the bomb­ing of Chongqing that they had ever seen and con­tained a trea­sure trove of images from all the loca­tions in Chi­na where Rey Scott filmed.They applaud­ed Li Ling-Ai and Rey Scot­t’s hero­ic effort in mak­ing the film and my effort to bring it to their atten­tion. As a strug­gling film­mak­er, know­ing that a piece of work can have an impact beyond one’s life­time helps keep me moti­vat­ed when the chips are down.  I hope to have more news about a return trip to Chi­na soon.

Scholars in Chongqing view the 1941 KUKAN - screened in China for the first time.

Schol­ars in Chongqing view the 1941 KUKAN — screened in Chi­na for the first time.


Chongqing's central shopping square is anchored by the People's Liberation Monument, built in 1945 to commemorate the victory over the Japanese in WWII. It was renamed in 1950 to commemorate the Communist conquest of the area. Even monuments change to fit the popular mood of the times.

Chongqing’s cen­tral shop­ping square is anchored by the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Mon­u­ment, built in 1945 to com­mem­o­rate the vic­to­ry over the Japan­ese in WWII. It was renamed in 1950 to com­mem­o­rate the Com­mu­nist con­quest of the area. Even mon­u­ments change to fit the pop­u­lar mood of the times.

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