Chongqing’s importance is geographical: it sits on a hilly peninsula overlooking the confluence of the Yangzi and its principal tributary, the Jialing River. Today, people visit Chongqing to start cruises either to the nearby Three Gorges or downriver 2,400 km (1,500 mi) to Shanghai – but the city remains first and foremost a huge commercial port of vital strategic interest. It was China’s capital from 1938-1945, ruled by Chiang Kai-shek for the Kuomintang National Government. Although the capital moved to Nanjing afterwards /Chongqing remained a Kuomintang stronghold with American assistance, until it was besieged and taken in 1949 by the People’s Liberation Army-of Mao Zedong. The waterfront fire that brought Chongqing such grisly fame took place during that siege.
Chaotianmen harbor runs along the Yangzi shore of the peninsula to its point, where the clear water of the Jialing runs parallel to the ‘golden’ (muddy) Yangzi. In 1949, although the port had been developed to handle massive civil and military traffic, this waterfront was still a district of narrow lanes with tall, ramshackle wooden buildings and warehouses. They had survived appalling Japanese bombing raids and represented a real link with the city’s history.
Details of how a devastating fire started in September 1949 have been obscured by different propaganda interests. Chongqing waterfront still had lots of US installations and materiel given to support the Kuomintang, which they were reluctant to hand to the Communists. The Communists in turn like to refer only to the successful ‘struggle’ of the era. So was this catastrophic fire sabotage, military action, criminal arson, or just a simple accident in a highly sensitive area stuffed with explosives and flammable goods? The ghosts behind this veil of reluctance and secrecy make the fire seem more horrific. It was one of the worst fires the world has ever seen – but Chongqing official guide makes no mention of it.
When was the Chongqing Waterfront Fire: September 2 1949
Where was the Chongqing Waterfront Fire: Chongqing, China
What was the Chongqing Waterfront Fire death toll: At least 1,700 people died, trapped in a maze of old buildings whose usual entrances and exits were blocked by all manner of dead-ends, concrete walls, barbed wire and other defenses that had accumulated in ten years of national and civil war.
You should know: The fire spread with the wind, helped by the presence of fuel oils, incendiaries and munitions. After the Japanese bombing (Chongqing holds the unhappy tide of ‘most severely bombed city’) perhaps it didn’t seem so awful; but each of the three parties involved – the USA, the Chinese Nationalists (Kuomintang) and the communists – have, or had, good reasons to wish the fire to be remembered only as a ‘local accident’.