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Stalingrad on the Yangtze
By Peter Harmsen
Casemate PublishingCopyright © 2015 Peter Harmsen
All rights reserved.
JULY 7 — AUGUST 12
The bullet-riddled sedan had screeched to an abrupt halt at the entrance of the airfield. Nearby, the two men who had been inside lay sprawled on the ground. Their blood-soaked uniforms identified them as members of the Japanese Navy's elite Special Landing Force. The brains splashed across the dashboard showed that one of them had died inside the car. He had then been dragged out to be slashed, kicked and pounded into a pulp. Half his face was missing and his stomach had been cut open, the sickly pallor of his intestines gleaming faintly in the night. The other man had escaped the vehicle but had only managed a few paces before being gunned down. A little distance away lay a third body, dressed in a Chinese uniform.
It was several hours before dawn on Tuesday, August 10, 1937. Darkness still engulfed Hongqiao Aerodrome eight miles west of Shanghai, and the investigators had to work under automobile headlights and using electric torches. They were a diverse group. There were Chinese, of course, but there were also Japanese, British, French and American detectives — representatives of foreign powers that felt quite at home in China's largest and most prosperous city after nearly a century there. Also present was a group of reporters from the cutthroat world of Shanghai's English-and Chinese-language press. Despite the antisocial hour, they had to be here. This could be big, very big.
The investigators quickly determined that the badly mangled body belonged to 27-year-old Sub-Lieutenant Oyama Isao, while the other dead Japanese was his driver, First Class Seaman Saito Yozo. The identity of the Chinese fatality was a mystery. The scene looked like the result of a simple shoot-out. However, too many questions remained unanswered: What were the Japanese doing at a military airfield miles away from their barracks? Who had opened fire first and why had he decided to shoot? The Chinese investigators and their Japanese counterparts didn't see eye to eye on the answers to any of these questions. As they paced up and down the scene of the incident, scouring the ground for evidence, loud arguments erupted again and again. Shortly before sunrise, they wound up their work having reached no agreement on what had actually happened. They got into their cars and headed back to the city.
The acrimony that the Chinese and the Japanese detectives displayed towards each other surprised no one. Tensions between the two nations had risen dramatically over the preceding five weeks, in Shanghai and beyond. These tensions were the result of distant events as hundreds of miles to the north an undeclared war was raging. It had started in early July, when a series of misunderstandings had caused Japanese and Chinese soldiers to clash near Beijing in a hectic night of confused skirmishing. Very soon events had taken on a seemingly unstoppable momentum of their own, as more and more areas around the old imperial capital were sucked into a conflict that still had no name. So far Shanghai, in the middle of China's economic heartland, had successfully avoided any hostilities, but everyone knew that the peace might not last.
China's future was uncertain. What were the intentions of the Chinese government in Nanjing, the Yangtze River city from which it had ruled the vast country for the past decade? What plans were being prepared by military and political decision makers in Tokyo? Would the Beijing turmoil expand into a general war engulfing all of China? The answers to these questions would also affect thousands of Japanese — soldiers, diplomats and businessmen — who were residing in Shanghai and other large cities along the Yangtze River. They knew that if war were to break out there, deep inside what would then be enemy territory, they would all be in great danger, surrounded by millions of hostile Chinese. In the present circumstances, all that was needed was a single spark. The incident at the aerodrome might be just that spark.
The investigators were keenly aware of the consequences if they failed to handle their delicate task with the necessary finesse. But even if they were hoping for peace, it was clear that Shanghai was a city preparing for war. As they drove through the still dark suburbs on their way from Hongqiao back to their downtown offices, their car headlights fell on whitewashed trees, interspersed with sandbag positions and the silhouettes of lone Chinese sentries. Officially, these sentries were members of the Peace Preservation Corps, a paramilitary outfit that, due to an international agreement brokered a few years earlier, was the only Chinese force allowed to stay in the Shanghai area. However, rumors were circulating that they were in fact disguised members of the 88th Division, one of the best-trained units of the entire Chinese Army.
Having entered the city, the vehicles passed first the French Concession and then the International Settlement, both parts of Shanghai where foreigners lived in comfortable isolation away from the din and dirt of the Chinese neighborhoods. Some districts were indistinguishable from London, Paris or Boston. The maple-lined streets housed businesses with names such as Ambassador Cinema, Vienna Ballroom and Café Bonheur. Surroundings such as these seemed almost designed to give a false sense of security. This was not Europe or America, but very much Asia. The deceptively peaceful veneer could dissolve any time and unveil an uglier and much more violent reality underneath, as had happened only too recently.
The incident took place in Zhabei, a rough working-class neighborhood not far north of the Art Deco facades of the International Settlement. Since the start of the boom years early in the century, Zhabei had attracted tens of thousands of migrants from the countryside with its promise of work, food and shelter. This had led to overcrowding with many people living in too little space, and Zhabei had become a leprosy-ridden slum area normally shunned by Shanghai's expatriates. They could mostly afford to pretend it did not even exist. Mostly, but not always. Five years earlier Zhabei had been the scene of fierce, house-to-house fighting between Chinese and Japanese soldiers who had been killing each other with gusto in a brief unofficial war. For five weeks in early 1932, the constant, unsettling sound of battle had been carried by the wind into the International Settlement, while swarms of refugees had tried desperately, and mostly in vain, to gain entry into the safety of the foreign quarters.
In the end, the Japanese had scored a Pyrrhic victory, while China, despite its defeat, had arguably gained more. It had won confidence. After nearly a century of humiliation at the hands of foreign imperialists, it now knew that it could strike back and hit hard, even at the most aggressive and merciless of all the hated colonial powers that were encroaching on its territory. Important as it was, this was not the only lesson that China drew from the 1932 war. It was abundantly clear that any new conflict with Japan was likely to be costly. Even five years after the fighting, despite years of busy reconstruction efforts, Zhabei still carried the physical scars of that short, sharp flash of violence. With the threat of conflict now in the air again, the stakes were, therefore, high as the investigators returned to their offices while the day dawned over Shanghai. Mismanage this crisis, and there was no telling what bloodshed might ensue and at what cost to millions of innocent civilians.
In the hours that followed, both sides released their respective versions of the events. According to the Chinese, the Japanese vehicle had tried to force its way through the gate of the airport. When Peace Preservation Corps members posted at the entrance had motioned to Saito, the driver, to stop, he had abruptly turned the car around, while Sub-Lieutenant Oyama had shot at the Chinese guards with an automatic pistol. Only then had the Chinese opened fire, killing Oyama in a hail of bullets. Saito had managed to jump out before he, too, had been gunned down. It was not the first time someone Japanese had tried to enter the airport, the commander of the Chinese guards told a western reporter. It had happened repeatedly in the past two months, and they "obviously were undertaking espionage."
The Japanese account, unsurprisingly, blamed the entire incident on China. It stated that Oyama had been riding along a road skirting the airfield, with no intention of entering. Suddenly, the vehicle had been stopped and surrounded by Peace Preservation Corps troops who, without warning, had opened up a barrage of rifle and machine gun fire. Oyama had not had the slightest chance to shoot back. The two Japanese had every right to drive on the road, the property of the International Settlement, a Japanese statement argued, before labeling the incident as a clear violation of the 1932 peace agreement. "We demand that the Chinese bear responsibility for this illegal act," the statement concluded.
One crucial question remained: who was the dead man in the Chinese uniform and how could he have lost his life if Oyama had not been able to return fire? A Japanese doctor, who had been among the first to arrive at the scene, took special note of the man's appearance, stating that he had rather long hair, and he had allowed his finger nails to grow to almost feminine lengths. This was odd, because neither was permitted in the Chinese military. Even stranger was the fact that the lethal bullet had entered the back of the man's skull. He had been shot from behind, execution-style. The conclusion seemed inevitable: he was not a soldier, and he had not been killed in a shoot-out.
* * *
Shanghai — "Paris of the East" to some foreigners with a romantic bent, "Queen of the Orient" to others — was a prize worth fighting for. With about 3.5 million residents in 1937, it was Asia's largest city after Tokyo, the fifth-largest in the world, and the key to the riches of an entire continent. A popular guidebook proudly stated that Shanghai was home to 48 different nationalities. The vast majority of the inhabitants were Chinese, while about 70,000 permanent residents were foreigners. Japanese, citizens of a young and hungry empire undergoing rapid expansion, formed the largest segment and numbered about 20,000. British and Russians, the latter mainly émigrés who had fled the 1917 revolution, accounted for just below 10,000 residents each. The United States and Canada were also represented, as was every European country from Greece and Czechoslovakia to Norway and Poland.
The various nationalities had been drawn to Shanghai by one thing — trade. Commerce was the driving force behind the city's seemingly miraculous transformation. This transformation saw a cluster of poor villages gathered around a small walled town expand into a sprawling modern metropolis in less than 100 years. In 1842, the ailing Chinese Empire had lost the First Opium War to Great Britain, and as a concession to the victors it had declared Shanghai open for foreign trade. In the decades that followed the city prospered as a result of its unique location near the Yangtze estuary. On the one hand, this connected Shanghai to some of the most vital areas of China, situated along its longest river, and on the other it provided direct access to the ocean and global shipping routes. Shanghai got a cut as the produce of China — cotton, wood oil and animal hides — passed through its docks on the way to the world markets. In the other direction flowed mainly one commodity, opium.
Still, Shanghai owed its rapid progress to more than just geography. It was built on the toil of hundreds of thousands of destitute Chinese peasants. Unlike the foreign residents, they had not entered the city from the ocean side transported by comfortable steamers, but overland, mostly walking on foot while carrying their only possessions on their backs. They came to man the factories and workshops that were transforming Shanghai into an industrial powerhouse. Many had no choice. Nothing was worse than the rural squalor the migrants had left behind. However, by every conceivable measure, life at the bottom of Shanghai society was as bleak and brutal as anything European capitalism had produced in its darkest Dickensian hour. Days spent at exhausting and often dangerous work were followed by nights in cramped and unsafe apartment buildings. The hopelessness of it all turned Shanghai into a fertile recruiting ground for China's nascent labor movement.
Not all new arrivals ended up in industry. The young and the pretty were just as likely to be channeled into the biggest sex industry the world had ever seen. It was a profession capable of catering to every taste, every perversion, and every wallet. At the top were women of immaculate beauty and refined manners, highly skilled in the Oriental art of love, and capable, too, of cultured talk if that was what their customers wanted. At the bottom, one found the "nailers," offering their quick services against dark alley walls. Soldiers and sailors from all corners of the globe formed a considerable portion of the clientele, with the Japanese showing a particular talent for efficiency. "We assemble the men in squads of thirty," an admiral of the Imperial Navy explained, "give them each a bath and a change of underclothing, then march them as units to the comfort headquarters."
Prostitution was inextricably linked to Shanghai's sprawling criminal scene, as were gambling and extortion. It was no surprise that a big city would give rise to organized crime, but Shanghai made "the Chicago of Al Capone appear a staid, almost pious, provincial town," as the Chinese writer Han Suyin remarked. The sinister Green Gang dominated the Shanghai underworld, allowing its members to roam virtually at will. They were the untouchables after they had penetrated deep into the police force. In that capacity, they worked quickly and efficiently to solve all crimes targeting expatriates, prompting the foreign authorities to tolerate their presence, however grudgingly.
On top of all the other hardship that they had to endure, Shanghai's faceless poverty-stricken masses also experienced the violent political storms that swept across China in the first quarter of the 20th century. In 1911, the last dynasty collapsed with startling speed, bringing to an end the two-millennia-old imperial system and setting the stage for long years of chaos. The revolutionaries who brought down the emperor had hoped for a republic in the European mold, but instead the country was plunged into internecine strife by rival warlords. They were the power holders in a corrupt new oligarchy fueled by greed and based on violence, and they coveted Shanghai because of its lucrative opium trade. Consequently, the city changed hands among them several times.
It clearly was not a sustainable situation, neither for Shanghai nor for China. The endless fratricidal wars gave rise in the 1920s to frustrated calls for unification, and as the decade entered its second half, the movement to bring all of China under one government finally gained traction. It found an efficient leader in an ambitious and ruthless officer, who had been educated in Japan but was fiercely patriotic. His name was Chiang Kai-shek. Born in 1887, he exhibited the youth and dynamism that was called for in those turbulent and dangerous times. In 1926, he set out from the south Chinese province of Guangdong at the head of a vast Nationalist army. He headed north with the aim of successively bringing all the provinces under his control as he went along. Shanghai was in his path, and in the spring of 1927 his troops reached the city.
The undisciplined warlord forces holding Shanghai were no real match for Chiang, and they knew it, so they melted away before any serious fighting had even taken place. The Communists were another matter. Despite a tenuous alliance with Chiang, they signaled their intention of taking over Shanghai, using their existing organization in the city to arrange strikes and dispatch armed gangs to patrol the streets. Chiang struck decisively and fiercely, with the help of the feared Green Gang. Labor activists taken prisoner were beheaded or thrown alive into the furnaces of locomotives. One union leader was beaten only half to death, before being thrown into a pit and buried alive. The crackdown was so brutally complete that Communism would not gain a serious foothold in Shanghai again until the late 1940s. The criminal underworld, on the other hand, was as strong as ever.
Excerpted from Shanghai 1937 by Peter Harmsen. Copyright © 2015 Peter Harmsen. Excerpted by permission of Casemate Publishing.
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