Chris Magee. Photo: Courtesy of Chris Magee
Chris Magee, 59, has never met his grandfather, John Magee, who died five years before Chris was born. But he grew up in the US listening to his family talk about the man many in China consider a hero.
He knew John went to China in the 1930s as a missionary and wanted to spend his life there, but he only found out after he grew up that his grandfather is a revered person in China.
In 1937, John Magee filmed the only available motion footage of the Nanjing Massacre, when 300,000 people were killed by Japanese troops. The massacre still remains largely unknown among the Western public.
Chris Magee is on a mission to retrace his grandfather's footsteps. He came to Nanjing this year to re-document through his own photographs the sites that his grandfather had filmed and tries to show a comparison of the city in its modern day with the black-and-white photos. He hopes his work will help keep the memory of the victims and his grandfather's contribution to telling the true story alive.
A family history
Although Chris Magee's early childhood was spent in Hong Kong where he attended a British school there, he learned almost nothing about the Nanjing Massacre.
When he moved to the US for high school in the 1970s, he visited his uncle David Magee, who kept John Magee's legacy in his garage.
This is where he first saw the trove of documents, detailing his grandfather's work: a film camera, photos, diaries and letters. The documents were old and fragile, and yellowed by the passage of time.
They reveal a terrifying story in which the elder Magee put himself in mortal danger in order to reveal the truth of the brutal occupation of Nanjing by the Japanese.
The story began on December 3, 1937, when the US government issued a warning urging American citizens to evacuate from China. John Magee, then 53 years old, chose to stay.
During the Nanjing Massacre, which began on December 13, 1937, the Japanese troops occupied Nanjing in East China where they slaughtered 300,000 civilians.
Like a few other brave foreigners, Magee wrote detailed and descriptive accounts of the murders of local people that they witnessed. Their accounts told a completely different story from then Japanese government propaganda films.
"I still cry every time I read the documents," Chris Magee said.
However, the general public in the West still knows little about the war crimes inflicted upon the Chinese people. "People know about the holocaust, but they don't know anything about the Nanjing massacre. Most don't even know where Nanjing is," Magee said.
For years, the memory of John Magee and the artifacts remained a part of family lore. The Magee family didn't know where to send the footage or if anyone would be interested.
In 1997, the book Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang was published. It had created a lot of discussion in the West and people began to pay attention to the massacre. In 2002, David Magee donated his father's camera and four rolls of film to the Memorial Hall of the Victims of the Nanjing Massacre.
When walking into the memorial hall, a bust of John Magee can be seen. Next to the bust, photos and film footage are showcased.
Some of the most dramatic and hard-to-watch films show incredibly brutal acts by Japanese soldiers. There's also footage of Li Xiuying, a pregnant woman who was raped and bayoneted 37 times but somehow managed to survive.
Another scene shows 8-year-old Xia Shuqin and her 4-year-old sister in shock after their entire family was murdered by Japanese soldiers.
During Magee's visit to China this August he was introduced to Xia Shuqin.
"It was wonderful to make a connection with someone in my grandfather's past," he said. "When you are meeting someone like that, it brings you full emotional impact, it's not like reading a book in a library."
Bringing it full circle
Magee has always wanted to come to Nanjing, to see where his father and uncles spent their childhood. The city feels like the ancestral home for the Magees.
"It wasn't until I got to Nanjing, when I started walking around, did the connection start becoming vivid and real," he said. "It becomes really strong, you can feel the history here."
Before leaving Nanjing, Magee had dinner with the director of the Memorial Hall Zhang Jianjun. Magee said wanted to see sites where his grandfather had filmed, and Zhang agreed suggesting it might result in a book that would become part of the exhibit.
Magee's project includes filming at the same locations his grandfather had filmed at and showing a comparison and changes.
So far, Magee has taken photos and videos at Nanjing's Drum Tower Hospital, where his grandfather filmed many victims being treated. Magee took a photo of the modern day hospital, where patients were being treated in a modern day setting with advanced equipment.
There was also a photo of John Magee and his oldest son at the Sun Yat-sen mausoleum, where Chris Magee took a photo of Xia's granddaughter and her child.
"I still have so much work to do, so many photos and videos," he said. "But it's really meaningful. Looking back at this, I really find it's a full circle."