Published in The LA Review of Books’ China Channel

My review of “The Invisible Valley”, a novel by Su Wei translated by Austin Woerner, has been published by The LA Review of Books China Channel

In a 1983 lecture at the National Word Festival in Canberra, fantasy author Alan Garner explained the importance of childhood in making someone a writer1. He recalled his own early years in England during World War II, living life on a mythic plane of absolute good against absolute evil, with survival feeling like a daily struggle. Garner claimed that this seeped into the psyches of his generation and subsequently, its writers’ work, which was profound where the literature of later generations, he argued, was trivial and effete by comparison.

At the Macao Literary Festival in 2018, translator Austin Woerner – whom I first met at a literary translation boot camp in Huangshan in 2014 – explained that his early ambition was to be a novelist, but his comfortable, suburban, American upbringing was not great fodder. Fortunately, for lovers of genre-bending, constantly surprising, and occasionally-hilarious fiction, when studying Chinese at Yale, he met Professor Su Wei.

You can read the rest here 

The Forgotten Story of … China’s Saddest and Most Played Piece of Music

This article was originally published on The Nanfang on May 12, 2016

Music that wears its politics on its sleeve is destined to swing violently in and out of fashion. The fado, Portugal’s most famous musical form, is now tainted by its association with fascism. Richard Wagner – who in his lifetime was given his own opera house – has long suffered the stigma of his association with the Nazi Party, which was founded 37 years after his death.

China’s “red songs”, works that show support for the Chinese Communist Party and its causes, appeared to be making a comeback in 2011 due to a campaign by charismatic Chongqing official Bo Xilai. A few years earlier, an American going by the stage name of Hong Laowai became a much-loved online celebrity in the People’s Republic for his renditions of patriotic Mao-era songs. In neither case was a movement sparked.

Though writing music is often an attempt at achieving immortality, even the most popular music can die with the beliefs that inspired it. Songs that were staples in the 1960s such as “The East is Red” are now seldom heard outside period dramas due to their toxic associations.

Luo Lang
Luo Lang

Luo Lang, the man who conducted the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) orchestra as they played that song and other triumphant anthems in Tiananmen Square on October 1, 1949, died earlier this month. His best known composition is the dirge that was played at the funerals of Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping and those of ordinary Chinese every day. All things considered it is almost certainly the most played and enduring piece of music written for the Communist Party cause.

The dirge

Surveys of the most popular funeral songs in the Anglophone world tend to throw up “golden oldies” such as “My Way” by Frank Sinatra and “Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong. Since Graham Chapman’s televised memorial service in 1989, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” has been widely played. Much-loved hymns such as “Abide with Me” also remain popular.

Though to a certain generation it is perhaps more associated with The Undertaker and World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), Chopin’s “Death March” was performed at the state funerals of John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. However, in the West there is nothing quite as universally played at funerals as the dirge 《哀乐》 composed in 1945 by the 25 year-old Luo Lang.

There are an estimated two million funerals a day in China and by far and away the most played piece of music at these funerals is Luo Lang’s dirge. It may be the most played piece of music in modern China. What’s more, Luo Lang never collected a fen in royalties, insisting that it is the people’s property.

“After witnessing the aftermath of the liberation of Zhangjiakou in 1945, he observed that many of the soldiers’ bodies were lying down as if still poised to enter battle. It was then he decided to write a dirge that, as well as being somber, also had an air of defiance. He subsequently adapted a northern folk song that was originally for suono horn,” his daughter Luo Jing told CPC News.

On September 30, 1949, the day before the People’s Republic was declared in Tiananmen Square, Luo Lang conducted a band of more than 40 players in the dirge to honour those who had fallen in the war from which his side had just emerged victorious.

Is it really a red song?

It is not a rabble rouser and appears to do a lot less to promote Marxist values than John Lennon’s “Imagine” (also a staple at funerals). However, the song and its author’s red credentials are beyond reproach.

Born Luo Nanchuan in Dehua, Fujian Province, he followed his father to Malaya (now Malaysia) as a child before returning to Shanghai aged 13 to pursue his studies. He entered the music department of the Lu Xun Arts Academy where he studied under some of the masters of the day such as Xian Xinghai, Xiang Yu and Li Huan.

After his mother was killed by Japanese soldiers in 1938, Luo became highly politicized and went with six friends to Yan’an to join the revolution. During the war, Luo composed over 200 military anthems, including 《从军区》 (From the Militarised Zone) and 《英雄赞》 (Praise the Heroes).

Acting as composer of a military band of over 200 players as they performed triumphant red songs including “The East Is Red” and “Without the Communist Party There Would Be No New China” on October 1, 1949 was later described by Luo as “the most unforgettable experience of my life.”

Luo Lang Tiananmen
Luo Lang on Tiananmen Square October 1, 1949

In 1956 Luo was appointed as head of the People’s Liberation Army’s top musical academy, training the army’s most promising musicians such as French horn player Sun Dehua. “The people who he trained in the 1950s went on to keep the tradition alive,” a tearful Sun told CPC News.

Though in his old age, his eyesight and hearing declined and he became more foul tempered as the friends he went to Yan’an with died off, Luo kept strict the habits of his military background – bathing at exactly 9 p.m., keeping strictly regular patterns of eating and making his own way up and down several flights of stairs, according to Luo Jing.

In 2009, during the build-up to the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic, an 89 year-old Luo conducted an impromptu rehearsal of the Chinese National Anthem during a visit to a military camp.  The anthem, “March of the Volunteers”, which is now banned at funerals, was written by left-leaning, politically-engaged people but not members of the PLA who dedicated their lives to its cause.

If you listen to the lyrics it could just as easily have been written by supporters of Chiang Kai-shek. Lyricist Tian Han died in prison in 1968 after being denounced as a counterrevolutionary.

The dirge is the work of a man who had a long life with the Communist Party and a relatively uncomplicated relationship with it. “He is now conducting the PLA band in the sky,” his daughter told Caijing.

A musical soldier

The dirge was of course played at the funeral home on Balao Mountain in Beijing on July 17 as Luo’s loved ones said their last goodbyes. It remains to be seen whether his estate will continue to give the song away for free.

Music, unlike politics, can be simple and utopian. His political convictions may have prevented Luo Jing from hitting the heights of the great composers.

Shostakovich, for example, reluctantly joined the Russian Communist Party toward the end of his life.  His late string quartets are not heroic statements defying totalitarianism but a desperate comment on his own cowardice and opportunism. They were the works, according to Slavoj Zizek, of a broken man.

In “The Lives of the Great Composers,” Harold Schoenberg compares Haydn to Mozart. Haydn was, according to Schonberg “a very nice man to know,” who never acted in ways that were petty such as worrying about younger, better-looking composers stealing his thunder.

Mozart, by contrast, was “the more dangerous, repressed, rebellious man.” Schoenberg suggests this might be the reason why Mozart ultimately hit greater heights.

Luo Lang’s rigidity and conservatism may have held him back, but he wrote the piece that may well have brought tears to more eyes than any other in the past century.

The Forgotten Story of … Shenzhen’s Disappearing Coastline

This article was first published on The Nanfang on June 18, 2014

Shenzhen’s Dameisha Beach briefly became world famous this month when images of the mountains of litter left by revelers were published in international newspapers. This problem is not new. Last year, one local businessman complained that the beach was so filthy he couldn’t bring his foreign clients there.

Newsworthy as this is, thoughtless individuals throwing litter is far from the biggest threat to Shenzhen’s coastline. Moreover, once-pristine beaches are not the only thing about Shenzhen’s coastline worth preserving.

Dameisha during Dragon Boat Festival, when 362 tons of garbage was discarded on the beach, image via The Daily Mail

A brief look at some of the things that have happened along this coastline involving both human and non-human life shows that it is as evocative and historic as any other. These stories include a 40-day siege by Japanese pirates, mainlanders swimming to Hong Kong to escape Maoist China, the diverse marine life that hindered some of them, and the corporate interests that are destroying this marine life and the coastline itself.

Human stories

Dapeng Fortress in Longgang District, which was built in 1394 to protect the local area from pirates, is one of Shenzhen’s best known historic sites. In 1571, the fortress withstood a more than 40-day siege by Japanese pirates who were armed with ladders.

In the twentieth century, nearby Dapeng Bay was one of several main areas from which mainlanders risked their lives to flee to Hong Kong. Believe it or not, these escapees are among the major reasons why Shenzhen has gone from being a cluster of fishing villages to a metropolis in the space of 30 years.

Mok, 67, told the South China Morning Post last year that, as the son of a former Kuomintang official, he had few prospects in Cultural Revolution-era Guangdong. In 1971, he trained and practiced swimming for months while studying maps and the edibility of particular wild plants while planning his escape. He couldn’t carry maps on his person for fear of arousing suspicion.

Four “freedom swimmers” are led away by police for questioning at Tai Po Kau, Hong Kong in May 1971, image via South China Morning Post

At his first attempt, he and his friends nearly drowned while being captured by border guards. He was taken to various detention centres and beaten before being publicly paraded and sent back to the factory where he worked. The following year he tried again and succeeded. Mok was reluctant to reveal his real name to the paper because he and his family still have business interests in mainland China.

Shenzhen official Wang Shuo wrote in 2011 that an estimated 606,000 people illegally escaped to Hong Kong between 1956 and 1980, more than half of such cases coming in the 1970s. Chen Bingan, author of “The Exodus to Hong Kong” puts the estimate at 2 million, easily outnumbering East Germans who scaled the Berlin Wall or North Koreans who swam across the Yalu River.

The shortest and most popular route to swim was from Shekou to Yuen Long, but this was heavily guarded by People’s Liberation Army soldiers. So high was the casualty rate on this route that it was a paid job during that period to help officials collect and bury the bodies of those shot or drowned on the way.

Dapeng Bay was less well guarded but may have been an even more dangerous place to attempt to swim from. In October 1970, 300 mainlanders sneaked into the colony, 280 of whom had swum from this area. During this period, marine patrol police around Sai Kung regularly found the mutilated bodies of attempted escapees who had been attacked by sharks.

In spite of this, the following year saw a huge surge in “freedom swimmers” according to a contemporary report. In the first eight months of 1971, 2,500 of them were arrested in Hong Kong, a near three-fold increase from the previous year. An estimated 12,500 made it to safety during the same period.

In August 1971, Typhoon Rose caused guards patrolling the border to be diverted to clear up the mess, causing yet another increase. According to “The Great Exodus to Hong Kong,” the peak years for these escapes were 1957, 1962, 1972 and 1979.

These escapees may have been illegal immigrants, but their cheap labor was welcome in Hong Kong. Chen Bingan insists that they played a huge part in Hong Kong achieving its “Pearl of the Orient” economic status, though neither the Communist Party nor the Hong Kong government is keen to commemorate them. Some escapees became Hong Kong residents and the knowledge and skills they acquired were a direct influence on Deng Xiaoping choosing Shenzhen as a Special Economic Zone.

Tan Jialuo, a Cultural Revolution expert formerly of Guangzhou Teachers’ College, thinks this is one of the few examples of ordinary citizens changing Communist Party policy. “It had an important role in the initiation of reform…they effectively helped promote social progress,” Tan said.

Non-human stories

Escapees swimming through Dapeng Bay in those days are said to have had their bodies and limbs scraped by jagged oyster beds. This is a problem they may not have faced in more recent years. Human activity has severely depleted Shenzhen’s marine life and ravaged much of the land along the coast during the Reform and Opening Up period. The famed Shajing oysters, for example, are now gone from the bay.

Chief among this activity is land reclamation, that is the conversion of water surfaces into land for human use. Shenzhen Bay shrank by 25 square kilometers (27% of its total area) between 1997 and 2009. This caused the nearby mangrove forests to be halved from 140 hectares to 70 hectares and reduced the number of migratory birds that spend winter in Shenzhen. The bay could be lost completely in 170 years as sediments grow at a rate of 1.9 cm a year, according to Roger Lin of Shenzhen Daily.

Pollution has also done enormous damage to Shenzhen’s marine life and coastline. In 2011, nearly half of Shenzhen’s coastal waters were found to be severely polluted. Nine sewage pipes were discharging inorganic nitrogen and phosphates into the South China Sea. Professor Xu Hong of Shenzhen University blamed illicit dumping and poor oversight. The situation improved ahead of the Universiade but the bad old days swiftly returned.

The water off eastern Shenzhen where the more popular beaches are located was found to be cleaner and most areas where seafood is farmed were found to be safe, but much marine life and natural beauty has been lost. In the early 1980s, there were vast corals, starfish and shoals of long-gone fish species in Shenzhen’s Meisha area. Due to the city’s “development,” sightseers are now more likely to see tons of floating garbage than coral.

Coral in Dapeng, via doyouhike.net

Plantlife near the coast has also suffered. Chen Cui of Shenzhen’s Green Management Department of Shenzhen Afforestation Committee, who is also known as “The Housekeeper of Shenzhen’s Ancient Trees”, uses great expertise and passion to help protect Shenzhen’s oldest plant life. However, Shenzhen has in recent years failed to preserve the centuries-old trees and pristine villages in Baguang on the northwestern tip of the Dapeng Peninsula.

The struggle to preserve it

In March 2013, an environmental protection group was established to remove 4.5 tons of floating garbage from the ocean off Meisha. It attracted 162 members in a successful first five months before turning its attention to seabed maintenance.

Protecting coral has become a policy in Dapeng. An article published November last year in Southern Metropolis Daily, a paper that has historically been far from a mouthpiece, predicted the recovery of the bay’s corals.

Divers are initiating a comprehensive coral planting campaign. Salinity and water quality are relatively stable and it has a natural barrier so is a good place to grow coral, according to Zhou Xuejia, professor of marine biology.

However, Shenzhen’s coastline is under threat from something more powerful than the cluster of groups and organisations that have taken it upon themselves to protect it – corporate profit. China’s oil and gas behemoth PetroChina announced a plan to reclaim 39.7 hectares of land from the sea off Dapeng Peninsula for the construction of a natural gas depot and wharf.

This will further threaten Shenzhen’s eco-system and decrease the number of places in the city where residents can be by the sea. No less importantly, it will mean Shenzhen loses remnants of its past.

The city needs a power supply and cash needs to be generated, but a balance also needs to be struck if Shenzhen is to develop its own distinct identity. Novelist Italo Calvino once said that a person’s memory must be strong enough to enable them to remain the same person but weak enough to enable them to keep moving forward. The same applies to a city.

The Forgotten Story of…Republican China’s Most Mysterious Man

This article was originally published on The Nanfang on March 22, 2015

The first half of the twentieth century had many characters – TE Lawrence springs to mind – who excelled as both men of thought and men of action, living lives that dwarf any author’s imagination. As Orson Welles ad-libbed in The Third Man, there is something about living through the kind of times nobody wants to live through that brings out greatness.

Another such man was Dai Li. A genius of military intelligence, Dai (also known as Dai Yunong) was China’s most accomplished assassin during the War of Resistance against Japan. As well as helping Chiang Kai-shek claim the scalps of high-profile enemies and defectors, he also bedded some of the most glamorous women of his day.

After Dai’s death in a plane crash on March 17, 1946, Chiang Kai-shek is known to have rallied his troops by insisting: “Dai Li never died.” His death was indeed mysterious and conveniently timed for those who might have wanted him dead. On its anniversary this week, Xinhua went over the whole story and the various conspiracy theories around the plane crash. However, none are as bizarre as the official history.

Career

He was born Dai Chunfeng in Zhejiang Province’s Jiangshan City in 1897. After showing early academic promise, he got into The No. 1 Middle School in Zhejiang Province before moving to Shanghai. In 1924 he joined The Huzhou Military Academy.

In 1926 he began training at The Whampoa Military Academy in Guangzhou where he met Chiang Kai-shek. This was the beginning of a highly fruitful period of collaboration during which Dai’s nicknames included “蒋介石佩剑” (Chiang Kai-shek’s personal sabre) “中国的盖世太保”(China’s global bodyguard) , “中国的希姆莱”(China’s Himmler), and “中国最神秘的人”(China’s most mysterious man). Here are just a few of the reasons why:

In May 1933 in Beijing’s Grand Hotel, Dai personally assassinated Zhang Jingyao, a fearsome warlord who tried to help the Japanese set up a puppet Manchu government. In June of the same year he was responsible for assassinating the democratic activist Yang Xingfo. In 1934 he killed the celebrity journalist Shi Liangcai and Communist Party member Ji Hongchang.

Dai Li, the most formidable assassin of his day.
Dai Li, the most formidable assassin of his day.

From 1937 onwards, Dai Li would often carry out reconnaissance work in the most dangerous occupied territory. In January 1938, he was involved in trapping and killing Shandong Governor Han Fuju who was suspected of colluding with the Japanese to spare his province and position. In March of the same year, he was part of the unsuccessful assassination attempt on Wang Kemin who would later commit suicide while on trial for treason.

In February 1939 he assassinated Chen Lu, foreign affairs minister of the puppet government, in Shanghai. In March of the same year Dai was sent on a special mission to Hanoi to assassinate Chiang Kai-shek’s political rival and Japanese collaborator Wang Jingwei. Wang survived the bullet wound but died in Japan in 1944 when receiving treatment for an infection caused by it, avoiding a likely execution for treason.  In August 1940 he shot to death Zhang Xiaolin, leader of notorious Shanghai criminal organization The Green Gang and in October of the same year he stabbed to death Shanghai’s puppet mayor Fu Xiao’an.

After the attack on Pearl Harbour, which Dai had accurately predicted, he was invited to collaborate with American Intelligence Agencies. In 1943, he was behind the successful poisoning of Li Shiqun, who had defected from the Communists to the Guomindang and later headed the No. 76 Spy Organization which became notorious for torturing Chinese who fought their invaders. In January 1944, he was behind the bombing of a Japanese-occupied coalmine in Hebei. When the war ended in 1945, he began a campaign to arrest suspected traitors throughout the country.

Love Life

As well as being a feared assassin, Dai was also a notorious lothario. His lovers included actress Hu Die, one of the most famous beauties of the era.

However, the woman who brought out his softer side was Chen Hua, who he affectionately knew as “Huamei”. Chen Hua, was sold as a concubine at age 13. At 16 she married Yang Hu, Sun Yat-sen’s Shanghai Garrison Commander. Dai met her on a train in 1932.

Dai was enchanted by her beauty. He tried to arrange for his student Ye Xiazhui (the wife of General Hu Zongnan) to be her assistant but Chen saw what he was up to and refused.  Later, they got to know each other and Chen found a kindred spirit in Dai. She later became his only close friend. It was her who helped Dai spy on Wang Jingwei and on many other projects. He later stated that she was 50% responsible for his successes.

Hu Die (left), Dai Li (right)
Hu Die (left) and Chen Hua (right)

Dai Li had a taste for fast cars and lavish homes but was never that rich so often had to rely on other people such as Chen to provide him with them. She was known in intimate company to call him “Little scrounger! Little penny pincher!”

However, when she was stuck in Chongqing during the latter part of the war, he made sure she was kept in the lifestyle she was accustomed to with mink coats and imported shoes and stockings. When those resources became too rare, he had her sneaked on a plane to Hong Kong.

On the last night they spent together in Shanghai in March 1946, Chen Hua claims Dai said to her: “I keep telling you Huamei. As soon as the old fella (Chiang Kai-shek) no longer needs me, I’ll be dead.”

Already anxious about her lover’s safety, Chen received a phone call on March 17 from local politician Wang Xinheng saying that Dai would fly from Qingdao that day to have dinner with him. Chen took the liberty of making her own way to Wang’s home. When Wang arrived, he told her that Dai’s plane hadn’t shown up. Then in front of the already present dinner guests, Chen said with a mysterious grin: “It’s crashed!” before being reluctantly escorted away.

Chen Hua opined that Dai Li killed himself, shooting the pilot before crashing the plane. Dai wanted to have a post-military career in politics but, according to Chen, Chiang Kai-shek saw him as more trouble than he was worth now that the Japanese had been vanquished.

Conspiracy theories about Dai Li’s death

Air travel was a lot less safe back then, so Dai Li’s death may well have been simply an accident, or Chen Hua may have been right. Conspiracy theories have abounded and debate continues to rage, yet none are as bizarre as the official story published by Xinhua this week.

One theory posits that, considering he knew too much and had collaborated with the Americans, Chiang Kai-shek could not risk keeping him alive. Another suggests that it was American agents. Some say he was murdered by the Communists – Wang Ruofei and several other senior Communists had recently died in a plane crash so this may have been revenge.

However, the real story of what happened and who was responsible is even more fanciful. At 1:13 p.m. on March 17, 1946, Dai Li’s plane crashed over Jiangning County, the crew members all escaped unhurt. This was widely agreed to be an accident until two years later when Chiang Kai-shek received a top secret memo claiming that Dai Li was murdered by Beijing-based colleague Ma Hansan.

Ma and Dai went back a long way. It was Dai who helped Ma get promotions to Lanzhou, Ningxia and eventually Beijing. So why would Ma repay him this way?

In March 1946 Dai went in person to Beijing No. 1 Prison to interrogate Manchu Princess-turned Japanese spy Kawashima Yoshiko. There the spy told him that Ma Hansan had been arrested in 1940 and told the Japanese everything he knew as well as handing over a priceless Kowloon sword from the Qing Dynasty. Ma was sworn to secrecy and released, according to the spy. He later retrieved the sword from her house when the Japanese surrendered.

Though stunned by the revelation, Dai Li acted as normal and even left a letter to Ma saying he trusted him to keep watch over Kawashima Yoshiko. On March 16 Ma and Dai were all smiles when they met for the last time at Tianjin Airport. It is here that Ma is alleged to have told close friend Liu Yuzhu to put a time bomb on Dai’s plane in Qingdao.

At Qingdao Airport, Liu Yuzhu used his identity as a member of The North China Supervisory Body to get to the plane as a safety checker. While supposedly checking the plane, he placed a time bomb in a wooden box that was due to detonate over Shanghai.

The next day the rain was too heavy to land in Shanghai so they diverted to Nanjing where the rain was also too heavy. After completely veering off course, the time bomb went off, causing the plane to nose dive into a 200-metre tall hill just south of Banqiao Village in Jiangning.

After a thorough investigation, Ma Hansan and Liu Yuzhu were arrested in Beijing on June 30 for conspiracy to murder. They were both executed at a secret location on September 27, 1948.

The Forgotten Story of … Japan’s Plan for a Jewish Settlement in China

This article was originally published on The Nanfang October 26, 2016

A number of things have happened in 2016 to suggest that we might be returning to the 1930s, the last great period of darkness in Western political history. These include Donald Trump’s vaingloriousness drawing comparisons to Mussolini; Morgan Stanley comparing the macroeconomic environments of then and now; and the increased acceptance of racist language in mainstream discourse.

Voices as diverse as SalonThe National Review, and Oliver Stone have claimed that we could be wandering into totalitarianism. Some have speculated what totalitarianism might look like in an age where data is mined cynically from devices that we use to do everything from hailing cabs, to monitoring our health, to hooking up.

Given the example of a project by one of the most monstrous regimes of the twentieth century, this future could be even more chaotic than we imagine. Totalitarianism is seldom monolithic.

There is a great novel from the mid-twentieth century that captures some unique insights into totalitarianism. Not “Brave new World” or “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, but “The Lord of the Rings”. The incompetence of Sauron’s orcs which allows Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee to enter Mordor with relative ease, shows the cynicism and paranoia at the heart of most totalitarian states.

Another tale of cynicism and ultimate failure involves a difference between two of the twentieth century’s biggest partners in war crime. Japan’s campaign to populate Manchuria with Jewish refugees, many of whom were fleeing the Nazis, was marketed as a humanitarian project, but many of the officials behind it would be executed as war criminals after Japan’s 1945 surrender. Its backstory is even more bizarre than the premise suggests.

Harbin’s Jewish Community

From the mid-nineteenth century, a large number of Jews fleeing the Tsars’ pogroms in Russia came to China and eventually settled in Harbin. By the early 1920s, the city’s Jewish population had reached 20,000 accounting for five percent of the population.

The settlers excelled in the fields of finance, business, law, medicine, and art, helping Harbin develop rapidly into a city that could compete with Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai and Hangzhou for economic and cultural activity.

In the summer of 1932, 21 consecutive days of torrential rain caused the Songhua River to flood, killing 250 people. Banks and businesses closed, telephone lines were cut, and refugees fled to nearby mountainous areas including Nangang and Xiangfang, sleeping among the elements, wrapping themselves in their few remaining garments, and living off whatever they could get their hands on.

Harbin after the 1932 flood

Harbin after the 1932 flood, image via ChinaNews

Because flooding ruined the harvests, food was scarce. The water was contaminated, and many died from cholera.

According to the American Public Health Association, not a single death was reported in the Jewish community. During and after the flooding, community leaders immediately organized the delivery of bread and water to families in need, and physicians made rounds by boat. Volunteers assisted the elderly and sick by bringing them food from a central soup kitchen until the water finally receded.

Avraham Kaufman, MD, the head of the Jewish clinic, led the fight against the cholera epidemic. Under his advice, community members boiled the contaminated water before using it all summer and ate only boiled and peeled vegetables and fruit. Doctors educated all community members in the best methods to prevent cholera and other diseases. The Jewish doctors used their boats to visit and treat cholera patients all over the city.

The Forgotten Story of
The Jewish pharmacy in Harbin, 1932, source Teddy Kaufman, h/t NCBI

Jewish-Japanese relations reached their lowest point when Simon Kaspéwas a musician who lived in Harbin, was kidnapped, ransomed for $100,000, starved, tortured (with methods including being kept in sub-zero temperatures, beating and having body-parts cut off) and eventually shot dead by a gang of fascist Russian criminals. The investigation into his death by Japanese authorities, who were attempting to court the White Russian community as local enforcers of their Anti-Communist sentiments, culminated in his murderers only serving a few weeks in prison due to their “patriotic” anti-communist motives.

Thousands lined the streets for Kaspéwas’ funeral to protest the injustice. This, along with the Great Depression, caused more than half of Harbin’s Jewish population to flee by the mid-1930s to Shanghai, the United States and other places that were not under Japanese control.

The Fugu Plan

In 1934, entrepreneur, politician, and Nissan-founder Yoshisuke Aikawa published an essay in The Japanese Diplomatic Periodical titled “Plan to Invite 50,000 German Jews to Manchuria”. The article was well received in Japan.

Yoshisuke Aikawa, who is today best-known as the founder of Nissan
Yoshisuke Aikawa, who is today
best-known as the founder of Nissan

This ambitious plan had several problems. Money was in short supply because of the worldwide economic situation; it was difficult for Japan to give incentive to its own population to emigrate there; and having broken the monopoly of Western dominance and, after stunning the world by withdrawing from the League of Nations with a defiant speech from Yosuke Matsuoka, the country was something of a pariah to the West.

It became apparent to some that it might be a good idea for Japan to form an alliance with the Jewish people. Jewish culture was held in particular high esteem in Japan since 1904 when American banker and tycoon Jacob Henry Schiff – incensed by Tsar Nicholas’ treatment of his people – extended loans to the Empire of Japan in the amount of $200 million (approximately $32.2 billion in 2016). This provided approximately half the funds needed for Japan’s success in the Russo-Japanese war.

Yosuke Matsuoka, whose impassioned speech to the League of Nations marked Japan's exit.
Yosuke Matsuoka, whose impassioned speech to the League of Nations marked Japan’s exit.

By this time, anti-Semitic movements in central Europe were in full swing, forcing many to flee from their homes. If Japan could provide sanctuary for the numerous engineers, lawyers, accountants and bankers forced into refugee status, it would also establish its image as a humanitarian nation.

That is not to say that the people behind this plan were not extremely racist. In the parlance of the day, Jews were seen as similar to Japanese fugu, or pufferfish: delightful if treated with care but highly toxic if handled unskillfully. The person in charge of what became known as the Fugu Plan was Imperial Japanese Army Colonel Norihiro Yasue.

A Russian-language specialist, Yasue was assigned as a young man to the staff of General Gregorii Semenov, an anti-Semite who distributed copies of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to all of his troops, along with weapons and rations. Yasue read and accepted the premises of the Protocols, and would allow this to guide many of his views through his later career.

After returning to Japan in 1922, Yasue worked in the Army Intelligence Bureau, translating the Protocols of the Elders of Zion into Japanese. His translation attracted the attention of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and he was sent in 1926 to Palestine to research the Jewish people. He became particularly interested in the emerging kibbutz movement, which he believed would be used to colonize the world.

By the 1930s, Yasue’s influence, and that of his comrades, grew, particularly among those who were frustrated by Japan’s relative lack of influence in global affairs. Yasue and his “Jewish experts” met the so-called “Manchurian faction,”. Yoshisuke Aikawa in particular was interested in Yasue’s ideas, and together they came up with the Fugu Plan. In 1939, Yasue recommended that Japan set up an autonomous Jewish region near Shanghai; by providing a safe place for Jewish refugees to live, and granting them the autonomy to live as they desired. He also arranged for Abraham Kaufman to be invited to Tokyo on a formal visit.

Yasue was central to the operations of nearly every aspect of the Fugu Plan. He coordinated everything from choosing and setting up sites for settlements, transporting people to the settlements, speaking with community leaders to gain economic and moral support, and working within the bounds granted him by the Japanese government. He organized missions to Jewish communities in the United States, and cultural exchanges with rabbis that stressed the similarities between Shinto and Jewish beliefs.

The population was to range from 18,000 to 600,000. Details finalized included the land size of the settlement and infrastructural arrangements including schools, and hospitals. Jews in these settlements were to be given complete freedom of religion, along with cultural and educational autonomy. While Yasue believed that the community needed complete autonomy to thrive and attract investment, it was ultimately decided that the community be closely supervised and guided.

Failure and Defeat

By 1942, the Fugu Plan had fallen apart. Japanese aid for Jews would not be tolerated by Nazi Germany, and attempts to shuttle refugees through Russia were halted when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. That same year, Gestapo chief Josef Meisinger was sent to Shanghai and began preparations to exterminate the population of the Shanghai Ghetto. This never came to fruition, as the community appealed to Yasue who revealed Meisinger’s intentions to the government in Tokyo and saw it prevented.

After Japan’s surrender, the protagonists behind the Fugu Plan had mixed fortunes. Yoshisuke Aikawa was arrested by American occupation authorities and incarcerated in Sugamo Prison for 20 months under suspicion of Class A war crimes. He was eventually acquitted.

Though his time in prison took a toll on his business, Aikawa played a key role in post-war economic reconstruction of Japan, and purchased a commercial bank to organize loans to small companies. He died in 1967 of acute gall bladder inflammation at the age of 86.

Yosuke Matsuoka was arrested by the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers in 1945 and held at Sugamo Prison. He died in prison of natural causes on June 26, 1946, before he was tried for war crimes before the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. In 1979 he was enshrined in The Yasukuni Shrine, together with 12 convicted war criminals of the Pacific War.

When the Soviet Union invaded Manchuria in August 1945, Norihiro Yasue did not attempt to flee. He arranged a formal farewell to his family, in which he announced he did not feel it would be honorable to flee from the damage he and his generation had inflicted through the war.

He allowed himself to be captured by the Soviet forces and died in 1950 in a labor camp in Khabarovsk.