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The Press: Empty Hostel

2 minute read

For six long years of war, news from embattled China funneled through the tumbledown, mud-&-lath buildings of the Chungking Press Hostel. Last week, the last of the foreign-press corps followed the Central Government to Nanking. The bamboo-fenced compound looked as dreary and forsaken as an empty schoolyard—which it is.

When the ruinous Jap air raid of May 4, 1939 flattened 25% of Chungking’s downtown buildings, the Government had turned over the former Pa Hsien Middle School compound to the press. All the place ever had in its favor was its central location. Air-raid dugouts, Chiang Kai-shek’s house and the Chinese Central News Agency were within half a mile.

I Hear You Talking. The hostel usually housed an average of ten regulars (mostly U.S. and British), but at peak periods as many as 40 crowded into its thin-walled cubicles. Telephone conversations were communal; men and women loafed, worked, ate and drank together in what one correspondent described as “spiritual and gossipy incest.”

Leland Stowe, Raymond Clapper and Vincent Sheean found more comfortable quarters in town, but they had to stop at the hostel to learn what was going on, and to clear and file their dispatches. There was no such thing as a scoop; all the news came out of press conferences and censorship was drum-tight.

The liquor situation was tight too, but a nearby Greek doctor could be counted on to produce his own passable, if unique, make of gin. Generally the atmosphere at the hostel was sober enough. A few correspondents even brought their wives and children. One day all dispatches from China were held up for hours by the birth of a baby.

Just among Fronds. The hostel had one important atmospheric touch—there were banana trees in the yard. When a man got orders to “get out and cover the war,” he could always get a snap of himself in pith helmet and shorts, grinning bravely amid the banana fronds, to send his home office.

Lionel (“Old Man”) Pratt, the hostel’s oldest veteran, had come to China when the Sino-Japanese war (1895) was still big news. The Government had made him secretary-adviser to Madame Chiang Kaishek. Whenever Old China Hand Pratt talked about “the war,” newsmen often suspected that he meant the war of 50 years ago.

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