This is the sixth story in the “Tientsin at War” series, which delves deep into the terrifying years immediately preceding Japan’s invasion of the city. Imagine a bustling metropolis sliced into angry factions. The warlords have been beaten. Britain clings desperately to a dying empire and Japan tips the scales with smuggling rings, heroin and vice, shot straight into the Tientsin veins. Life in this city of nearly four million people can’t get much worse, until one spring morning in 1936 nearly one hundred young, male corpses float into the French Concession…
By C.S. Hagen
TIENTSIN, CHINA – On the eve of Japan’s invasion of Tientsin, the floating dead were the city’s first invaders.
Human bodies came in the hundreds, bloated and disfigured. They pressed into the Vichy French Concession’s banks near the International Bridge (now Liberation Bridge) during the spring of 1936. More than seventy bodies were counted in one week alone, according to the old Ta Kung Pao Chinese newspaper.
“Every morning floating corpses appear along the Tientsin’s Haihe [Hai River],” a 1936 article in the Ta Kung Pao reported. “All kinds of assumptions are being made, and the legends are breathtaking.”
“When I arrived in Tientsin early in June, 1937,” John B. Powell wrote in his 1945 book My Twenty-five Years in China, “I found the Chinese population absorbed in what the newspapers called the “Corpse Mystery. The sensation completely eclipsed local interest in the approaching war.”
At the time, newspapers prominently displayed announcements issued by the provincial governor, General Sung Chehyuan, that a reward of USD 5,000 would be paid for anyone supplying information concerning the floating corpses.
Some thought the bodies were suicidal opium addicts, reminiscent of a similar mystifying debacle that occurred during the last dynasty’s twilight years. Dozens of bodies washed ashore and could not be pulled out fast enough, reported an online audiobook’s true story called “Ghost Waters.” Locals claimed a monster lived beneath the murky Haihe, one of China’s most polluted rivers, but after an investigation headed by the local magistrate a culprit much more menacing surfaced.
Patna opium. All the victims died after smoking poisoned drugs inside a local opium den. Their bodies were buried shallow, in a secluded spot along the river. Summer rains washed the corpses free.
The floating dead in 1936 were different. All the corpses were relatively healthy, and between thirty and forty years of age. Not one woman or child was found among the dead and none appeared to have been beaten or shot.
“The bodies were all of the male sex, and ranged from twenty to forty years of age,” Powell wrote. “None of the bodies, it was said, showed evidence of physical violence.”
Recalling legends of river monsters and soul sucking fox demons, parents barred children access to the river’s edge. The Tianjin Daily reported in a recent analysis of the case that hair-raising rumors of gang warfare, Manchurian prisoners pushed from a ship, and of secret Japanese poison gas chambers flooded the city.
The Five Rivers Police Department, Tientsin and municipal authorities hurried to investigate, but the clues led them nowhere, and the floating corpses kept rolling in.
The Mighty Haihe
No Haihe, no Tientsin. The two are inseparable as the Jade Rabbit and the moon. Tientsin’s truest residents are river people, unyielding as an undertow yet pleasant as a summer’s swim, not unlike the Tong brothers of the Chinese classic Water Margin. They’re tenacious as leeches and lively as late summer hornets. They’re builders, pirates and fishermen, traders and dreamers. They build their roads to match the river, and nobody asks which way is north.
They’ve seen the world in crates and bundles, claim to know it all, and have no desire to see more because the river is their home. From beneath the Haihe’s murky-brown-sometimes-poisonous-mostly-green-and-slimy surface, silver carp, frogs and water snakes make delicious dinners and childhood pets. Seagulls are always on the watch for meals at its banks. Despite the water’s tremendous undertow, old river men still enjoy summer swims. Air is always cooler along its banks and at night, the Haihe’s sides are lined with fishing men and women, out more for an escape from humid homes and for idle gossip than a serious catch. Sampans and rickety fishing boats still dock in the shade of weeping willows, which thrive so close to the life-giving water.
For centuries, Chinese engineers have battled this Haihe dragon, which is the confluence of five rivers: the Southern Grand Canal, Ziya River, Daqing River, Yongding River and the Northern Grand Canal. The Haihe also connects to the Yellow and the Yangtze rivers before winding toward the Bohai Sea.
The Haihe, meaning “Sea River” was formerly called the Baihe (Paiho), or “White River,” but was originally named the Wudinghe, or “River with No Fixed Course” because it was constantly changing its course, and always left dead in its wake.
Rivers flood. River people accept this. The Haihe’s most recent flood occurred in July of 2012 killing 673 people and affecting 120 million across the Hebei plains. And yet river people refuse to budge. Farmers salvage what they can and hope for a better crop next year. City people hike up their pants and skirts and wade to work. When a house collapses, they rebuild, and with the endearing courage of a struggling grasshopper in a bluebird’s beak, they refuse to let the river break them.
Historically, Tientsin’s Haihe seems to be more trouble than it’s worth. If the swiftly moving river wasn’t flooding, it was a watery road for gunboats, smugglers, opium and invasion. During the colonial period merchant ships and gunboats steamed directly into Tientsin’s heart for trade or “unfair treaties.” When Boxers stormed Tientsin in 1900, the river swallowed hundreds, if not thousands of victims, from both sides of the Boxer Uprising.
The Haihe has always had an open door policy, no questions asked, all 1,329 kilometers of it. Hungry? Snag a fish. Got garbage? No problem. Suicide? Sure, come on in. The water’s great. Gang war? Strap that bad man’s hands behind his back and give him a shove; the river will find a front row seat. The Haihe defied the British Empire when it demanded a fat, city chunk just as much as it repelled the Japanese Navy in 1937.
Some say the river pointed to where the floating corpses of 1936 and 1937 came from, and it eventually led investigators away from the opium dens in the Japanese Concession to a sewage drain at Haiguangsi.
The Red Poppy, White Flour and Anti-Aircraft Guns
Sun Tzu’s Art of War was not lost on the Japanese military before their invasion of Tientsin in 1937.
“To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”
Whether or not city gossip and newspaper stories of the time were accurate, the floating corpses were an excellent diversion from impending war. Investigators and the city’s attention first turned to Tientsin’s vast opium society for answers.
During the prewar years whole sections of the Japanese Concession were honeycombed with drug dens, known as yang hangs, or foreign shops, selling everything from Hataman cigarettes to heroin. “During these years,” wrote author David E. Kaplan and Alec Dubro in the book Yakuza Japan’s Criminal Underworld, “the Japanese Concession in Tientsin became the headquarters for a vast opium and narcotic industry.”
The cigarettes were called anti-aircraft guns, and were smoked pointing upward to avoid spilling. The heroin inside was nicknamed white flour. Highly addictive and debilitating, the Japanese used good product to entice new addicts, then weaned them to cheaper, weaker grades while charging the same price.
Yang hangs lined nearly every street of the Japanese Concession, according to Powell.
“I was told that the heroin habit acquired in this way was practically impossible to break,” Powell wrote. “I visited the streets named Hashidate, Hanazowa, Kotobuko, Komai and others in the Japanese Concession, where practically every shop was given over to heroin manufacture or sale.”
One terrible quick fix for heroin addicts in Tientsin came from roadside vestibules, where a customer would knock on a door and a small sliding panel would open. The customer simply stuck an arm through the aperture, with the appropriate amount of money, of course, and the customer would receive a quick hypodermic jab.
Beside the yang hangs and quick-fix vestibules, large hotels such as the Tokyo Hotel were places of interest for drug addicts.
“The smokers would come in, usually in pairs, frequently a man and woman. They would recline on the matting bunks facing each other, with the opium paraphernalia between them. An attendant, usually a little Korean girl about ten or twelve years old, would then bring two pipes, a small alcohol lamp, and a small tin or porcelain container holding the opium, which resembled thick black molasses. Taking a small metal wire resembling a knitting needle, the girl attendant would dip one end into the sticky opium and turn it about until she had accumulated a considerable portion on the end of the wire. She would then hold the opium over the flame and revolve it rapidly in order to prevent it from igniting into a blaze. After the little ball of opium had begun to smoke the girl attendant would quickly remove it and hold the smoking ball on the end of the wire directly over the small aperture in the metal bowl of the pipe.
“The smoker would draw a deep breath, filling his lungs with the sickeningly sweet fumes of the opium. They would repeat the process two or three times, until they fell asleep.”
Each ritual cost one Chinese dollar, approximately thirty cents in American money. If the house supplied the woman the price jumped to five Chinese dollars.
In the press, Japanese military authorities promised peace and order, all the while weakening Tientsin’s residents with narcotics and violence. In October 1935, Shigeru Kawagoe, a Japanese ambassador and consul-general at Tientsin, declared Tientsin needed a stable and reliable government. He later incensed the nation by making sweeping demands to suppress all anti-Japanese protests, and declared the Japanese Empire no longer recognized the Nationalist government, led by the Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.
In a May 12, 1936 “Top Secret” memorandum meant to be destroyed, written by M.S. Bates to Sir Alexander Cadogan, deputy under-secretary for Foreign Affairs in London, Bates declared that the Japanese treated Chinese worse than dogs.
“In the common thought and attitudes of ordinary people, there has been built up a most unfortunate picture of China and the Chinese. They generally feel that the Chinese people are disorderly, untrustworthy, ignorant, scheming to injure their neighbors. A further misfortune is that practically no Japanese have personal friends among the Chinese with whom critical questions can be talked over, and who could steady emotional attitudes in times of crisis.”
The smuggling business was good for Japan’s war machine. In 1935 the Bank of China estimated the total value of Japan’s illicit goods smuggled into the city at USD 63 million, according to British Consulate records at Tientsin.
A 1936 Tientsin Customs report entitled “Smuggling in North China – Whole Customs Structure Undermined” reported the smuggling rings were well organized, and that Tientsin’s East Railway Station was a center for smugglers in North China. Most goods arrived by ships, which due to their large size could not traverse the Hai River. Small boats known as “puff puffs” transported the illegal goods from the ships to waiting sampans, which brought the merchandise inland.
“That Japanese-inspired smuggling activities, audaciously carried on despite official protests, have lately assumed alarming proportions in North China,” the customs report declared. Due to a new demilitarized zone surrounding Tientsin, customs officials were no longer allowed to carry sidearms, and quickly became helpless against Japanese-led gangs of violent Koreans wielding cudgels, daggers and rocks. The gangs refused to pay tariffs and attacked British officials whenever possible. Rayon, artificial silk, white sugar, cigarette paper, sundries and most importantly gasoline for manufacturing heroin were the smuggling rings main products.
Both British and Chinese governments denounced the illicit trade, but local police refused to intervene. Students took to the streets in protest and some Chinese generals and politicians demanded resistance to Japanese products. In May 1936, the Nationalist Party issued a statement, which belatedly bolstered its ranks.
“Our territory is the heritage from our revered ancestors,” said Chang Chun, a prominent Nationalist advisor. “We have to live on it. To feed the enemy with it is national suicide. We therefore insist that not an inch of our territory north of the Yellow River should be alienated.
“There is an old Chinese adage which says that feeding the enemy with territories is like feeding a fire with firewood. Just as the fire demands the last piece of firewood, so will our enemy demand the last slice of our territories.”
Programs and monies were prepared to help addicts overcome their addictions. Laws were mandated to end all narcotics sales, but Japan was untouchable, and generals Tomoyuki Yamashita and Yoshijiro Umezu responded by pouring more troops into Tientsin. Japanese and Korean gangsters prowled Haihe’s docks, frequently beating Western custom officials and freely moving their trade. Japanese garrisons needed expanding as well, and dungeons became too small.
At Haiguangsi, according to many Chinese newspapers, the Japanese secretly conscripted “watercats,” itinerant coolies not native to Tientsin, to make repairs to their garrison and dungeon.
By the time Chinese investigators began combing the Haihe’s banks for the source of the mysterious bodies, the floating dead became too many to count. By spring of 1937, more than 500 bodies had been dragged from the river. Most Western media still pointed to opium addicts, but stranger news began leaking out.
“In Tientsin scores of Chinese corpses have been found floating on the river recently” reported The Straits Times on May 26, 1937, “giving rise to all kinds of conjectures. One belief is that the men were drug addicts, while a more widely believed theory, in view of the comparatively well-built bodies, was that they were victims of poison gas works.”
In an attempt to shift blame away form their secret projects, newspapers reported, Japanese military authorities rounded up Tientsin’s heroin addicts and turned them over to the Tientsin Municipal Government Police Bureau.
Dead Men Tell No Tales
Tientsin reporter Wang Yanshi broke the floating corpse story in early 1936, according to the Ta Kung Pao. He published follow-ups until August 1937, counting 490 dead.
The Liberation Weekly, a communist mouthpiece, feared the numbers were much higher, as many of the bodies could not be retrieved and floated east toward the Bohai Sea.
An eerie sensation suffocated the city, The Liberation Weekly reported. Some of the bodies appeared to have been strangled, and yet others had hands bound behind their backs. All of the corpses were young, fairly healthy males, and because of their naked, bloated conditions, appeared to have been buried or had been in the river waters for quite some time.
Powell wrote in his book that Chinese authorities were offering USD 5,000 dollar rewards for any information that would lead to arrests.
“When I arrived in Tientsin early in June, 1937, I found the Chinese population absorbed in what the newspapers called the ‘corpse mystery.’ The sensation completely eclipsed local interest in the approaching war.”
One man, Powell wrote, after being fished from the river “became alive.” After hospitalization Chia Yung-chi said that he had gone with friends to the Japanese Concession to smoke opium and heroin. He purchased an anti-aircraft gun cigarette, and that was the last thing he remembered.
As Tientsin investigators ran from one rumor to the next, in 1937 nearly half the new floating corpses turned out to be opium addicts. And then, according to the Jinwan Bao, a Tientsin newspaper, the investigation could go no further for it ended at the sewage drain coming from the Haiguangsi Japanese garrison.
Investigators feared Japanese reprisals.
According to a June 3, 1936 article in The West Australian, the growing belief in Tientsin was that hundreds of men working on secret Japanese fortifications had been murdered, because “dead men tell no tales.”
The Auckland Star, however, on September 4, 1937 reported that although the floating dead of 1936 may have been victims of the “dead men tell no tales” theory, the more recent corpses of 1937 were primarily drug addicts.
“Officially no one knows why more than 300 bodies of Chinese coolies were found floating down the Haihe River here last year, or why 150 more have been found this summer in Tientsin’s floating corpse mystery. It is still classed as a mystery, most observers believe, only because it is a by-product of a great international narcotics traffic. Tientsin, thriving crossroads of Far Eastern narcotics dealings, has recently been called the narcotics capital of the world.”
In a case matching Powell’s version of the story, The Auckland Star reported one victim was dragged from the Haihe alive, and was
able to gasp out the story of his migration from a village in search of work, his gradual inclinations toward narcotics, and his ensuing enfeeblement. As death neared he was turned over to his pallbearers to be consigned to the Haihe at a fee of 12 cents; the cheapest coffin in Tientsin costs at least 50 cents.
“While this man’s case may not have been typical, the sensation his story caused was followed by a wholesale cleanup campaign by the Japanese concession authorities. While strenuously denying that Japanese had anything to do with the floating corpses, they rounded up hundreds of Chinese beggars and narcotics addicts about Japanese and Korean dens and shunted them into the Chinese city. More than 1,000 of these vagrants are now housed by the Chinese authorities.”
Nankai University students took to the streets, shouting “Down with Japanese Imperialism,” and demanding an answer to the floating corpse case, the Tianjin Daily reported about the still baffling case in 2013.
The online audiobook reported in its rendition of “Ghost Waters” that Japanese soldiers had used watercats for secret projects, then buried the bodies in a large pit, which, once again opened up into the Haihe after heavy summer rains, washing the bodies downstream. Such a theory, the audiobook proposed, would answer the corpses’ bloated conditions.
Another theory proposed by the Tianjin Daily was that after the watercats finished their jobs, Japanese soldiers strangled them, then sent them down the sewage drainpipe, which led directly into the Haihe.
At the height of confusion, the Japanese invasion of Tientsin began. The floating corpse story no longer took front-page news. Anti-Japanese publications were shut down. Thousands of Tientsiners were sent north to Manchuria for slave labor.
Slowly, Tientsin forgot the floating corpses, and seventy-eight years later the case remains unsolved.
If the Japanese war machine was behind the floating corpses, either by direct strangulation, gas or other means, or was indirectly involved through heroin sales, then the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal executed one of the culprits, and a second died of natural causes while in prison.
Tomoyuki Yamashita, the “Tiger of Malaya,” was assigned to northern China where he commanded the 4th Division of the Japanese Army. Yamashita was hanged in Manila on February 23, 1946, according to records of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal.
“Various indelible stains that I left on the history of mankind cannot be offset by the mechanical termination of my life,” Yamashita said before he was hung.
Lieutenant General Yoshijiro Umezu, the “Stoneman,” was the commander of the Japanese army’s Tientsin command. He was found guilty of multiple counts of crimes against peace, an accomplice in conspiracies for domination of China and countless deaths of “many thousands of civilians,” The Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal reported.
While in prison Umezu converted to Christianity and died from rectal cancer in 1949.