Chasing the dragon

Updated: 2011-07-08 13:42

By Patrick Mattimore (

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It is sometimes said that numbers don't tell the picture of a man's life. But in the case of Roy Rowan, they are a good place to start.

Mr. Rowan is ninety-one years old (or ninety-one and a half) as he told me during a phone conversation Wednesday. He is one of two surviving American journalists who covered the Chinese Revolution from 1946-1949. The other survivor is Seymour Topping, who was then working for the Associated Press.

Although Rowan has not been to China for twelve years, he said that even in 1999 the changes he saw in the cities were "unbelievable" and "stunning." He originally went to China in 1946 after serving in the American military in the Philippines during World War II. To Rowan, China seemed like the "best place in the world to be." Rowan was on the doorsteps of Chinese history during some of its most poignant moments. For example, when the "beaten man," as Topping described Chiang Kai-shek in 1949, left Nanjing to retire to the island of Taiwan.

Rowan's ninth book, "Never Too Late: A 90-Year-Old's Pursuit of a Whirlwind Life," was published April 1 and Rowan said that he hopes to write his next book about the making of movies in China. The background for that story will come from another book he wrote, "Chasing the Dragon," which is slated to be made into a movie in China sometime soon.

"Chasing the Dragon" is Rowan's firsthand account of the 1946-1949 Chinese Revolution. The first part of the book is about Rowan's experience overseeing and running supplies to Chinese villagers during the war through the auspices of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Association. Corruption among local Chinese officials was rampant and the job was dangerous.

In order to get food and clothing to people during the Chinese Revolution, Rowan and his colleagues often ventured by truck through territories variously held by the Nationalists and Communists. He said it was his best experience in China but he eventually resigned when his truck was shot up. Rowan never learned which side did the shooting but he suspected it was the Nationalists warning him not to bring the supplies into Communist territory.

Subsequent to his supply work, Rowan had a lucky break. After learning that his application for admission to Columbia's School of Journalism had been denied, Rowan met Bill Gray, Time-Life Magazine's Shanghai Bureau Chief, in a bar. Gray had seen Rowan's devastating photos and accompanying story "Stadium of Skulls," a hillside war memorial in Hunan Province, published just that week in Life Magazine. Surprisingly, Rowan didn't even know his story had been published.

Gray offered Rowan some more work and recommended him to the bosses at Time-Life in New York and that's how Rowan's professional journalism career kicked off. Rowan covered China for Time Magazine, Life Magazine, and Fortune. He served as Time's Bureau Chief for Asia from 1972-1977, when he lived in Hong Kong.

Much of his work after that period involved photo shoots and stories with "then and now" photos capturing pre-and post- Communist rule. On those subsequent photo shoots, thousands of Chinese would turn out to see Rowan. Hopefully, many thousands more will welcome Rowan back when "Chasing the Dragon," goes into production.

The author is a freelance journalist and lives in Beijing.