Japan’s Tientsin – Tientsin at War – Part 1

TIANJINThis is the first article in the “Tientsin at War” series, written as a broad, colorful sweep to the violence that was soon to encompass the world.  The violence, wars, treachery, and plots involved to control Tientsin corrupted all completely.  Innocents, by the tens of thousands, died.  From out of the ashes of a dying dynasty, warlords grappled for Tientsin’s lucrative port tariffs, bustling train tracks, and glittering night life, for to control Tientsin was to hold the key to the north.  A neighboring power, however, had different plans, and like chess pieces moved into place by a master’s hand, Japan baited, bribed, drugged, and plotted, biding its time…     

By C.S. Hagen

TIANJIN, CHINA – The bone-chilling Tientsin winter had passed.  Gobi’s desert breath had done its worst, whipping sand and toxic coal dust down chimneys, caking window cracks and turning skies yellow for days on end.  The quick-tempered year of the tiger gave way to the peace loving – albeit moody – year of the rabbit, and spring, the only truly pleasant time of year in Tientsin, had finally arrived.

Tientsin’s rose bushes bloomed.  The Hai River thawed, sending a fresh stench throughout the Settlement area.  Foreign children within the British and French concessions scrubbed and donned their Sunday’s finest for Easter services on April 9, 1939, while nervous parents feigned smiles after peeking through brocade curtains to survey the streets for roaming Japanese Kempeitai.  Rickshaws and coolies were harassed at concession borders, but a handful still waited alongside the city’s narrow, winding streets to offer rides to one of the many churches inside the Settlement’s relative safety.

A typical scene in Tientsin - 1939

A typical scene in Tientsin – 1939

Tientsin (天津), whose name means Ford of Heaven, is a large port city southeast of Peking (Beijing), the capitol of China.  The Tientsin Concessions stood on 3,475 acres of city land, and were shaped like a dragon’s teardrop oozed from the Hai River, one of China’s foulest rivers, which intersects the city and at one time allowed merchant ships and gunboats into the city’s heart.  Besides being an important commercial city, it also became the nodal point for railways, mining, textiles, furs, matches and salt, according to a 1928 report filed by the old Tientsin British Committee of Information.  The concession lands were relinquished by Qing Emperor Doro Eldengge during the Opium Wars to eight foreign nations.  England and France held the most land; Russia, Belgium, Germany, Italy and Austro-Hungary had their own smaller plots, (some like the Russian, German and Austro-Hungarian had already been retroceded), but Japan, the land of the rising sun, wanted it all.  In 1937 Japan sacked the city, but left the concession areas’ shops, schools, theaters, brothels and businesses to simmer in a fragile peace.

Sporadic battles had destroyed buildings, telegraph lines and the Tientsin-Peking Railway, but on Easter Sunday some semblance of business remained inside the cloistered concessions.

At the southern edge of the British Concession, bordering Nazis in their German mansions, American soldiers of the Marine Legation Guard, known as Devil Dogs by the local press, shook off their hangovers and went about their duties.  The British Volunteer Corps, a mixed group of poorly-trained foreigners, guarded entrances along the Hai River to the east, Racecourse Road to the south, the Rue Saint Louis to the north and as far as Glasgow Road to the west, (near present day Tong Lou).  During shift changes the British, stateless Jews and White Russians, Indian and Greek nationalities comprising the volunteer corps lit local Hatamen cigarettes and wished for gaspers, or unfiltered Woodbines.

Trade had become increasingly difficult as the war between China and Japan progressed.  Earlier in 1938 the West Australian reports Wang Chu-lin, chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, was shot dead while entering a motorcar after dining in the French Concession.  He was eighty-one and an advocate of better relations with Japan.  The Fifteenth US Infantry Regiment, which according to newspapers at the time, had been in Tientsin continuously since the Boxer Uprising in 1900, left.  Bombs were thrown into cinemas in the German and French concessions, killing no one but causing thousands of dollars in damage.  The Japanese Black Dragon Society hired two assassins to kill T.L. Chao, headmaster of a British municipal school.  Chao’s bodyguard, although wounded, captured the assailants, but the culprits refused to identify their principals.  Expatriates sucked in their collective breaths when late in 1938 Japanese military authorities ordered all Japanese banks, businesses and nationals to withdraw from the concessions.

The invasion was ready; Japan just needed an excuse.

With nearly five thousand expatriates “sticking it out” in Tientsin, schools kept their doors open.  The French Club at the corner of Rue de Baron

The manager of the Japanese-owned Federal Reserve Bank of North China, assassinated because of his pro-Japanese polices.

The manager of the Japanese-owned Federal Reserve Bank of North China, assassinated because of his pro-Japanese polices.

Gros and Rue de France still offered some of the best entertainment the city had to offer.  Brothels on Bruce and Taku roads were thriving.

Tientsin’s Grand Theatre, which squatted next to the Gentleman’s Club a stone’s throw away from Victoria Park, was still showing movies popular enough to attract the attentions of the manager of the Japanese-owned Federal Reserve Bank of North China, Cheng Hsi-keng, and four Chinese assassins.  Cheng was gunned down inside the theater while watching Gunga Din, starring Cary Grant and George Stevens.

Japan snarled, for Cheng was their prized puppet, but more importantly Japan demanded the disuse of the local fabi currency and demanded all Chinese silver reserves stored in British banks be transferred to the Yokohama Specie Bank.  Great Britain snarled back, adamant that the six Chinese accused of the murder were innocent and refused to discuss Tientsin’s silver reserves.  The United States shook its fist, but Japan, who was biding its time to take the Settlement land and expel all foreigners from China took matters into its own greedy hands.

Japanese gunships poured into the Hai River, blocking off all trade, food, foreign reinforcements and supplies.  Searchlights crisscrossed the skies searching for British planes loaded with much-needed food crates from the aircraft carrier Hermes.  Two US Marines injured Japanese police in an altercation at the Tientsin Railway Station.  Chinese Nationalists attacked the Japanese garrison, losing 1,200 and killing 309 Japanese, and an artillery duel ensued.  Stray bullets killed fifteen people in the French Concession and the Asiatic Petroleum Company was destroyed by fire.  A Chinese mob demolished the offices of the British-owned International Export Company.  Butterfield and Swire, Britain’s largest shipping company, canceled sailings north of Shanghai.  Prices skyrocketed.  Butter, when it could be found, cost nearly $7 a pound, which according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is the equivalent of $117 today in 2014.

Japanese propaganda picture of the strip search - Life Magazine

Japanese propaganda picture of the strip search – Life Magazine

Hell broke loose.  Tientsin was nearing ochlocracy.

Japanese soldiers began strip-searching men and women at the concession barriers.  One Englishman, named H.J. Lord, was ordered to strip.  With proper British pride he refused, and was struck in the face with his passport – three times.

“Thank you,” Lord said each time he was struck.

He lost the battle of wills, however, and was made to stand naked at a busy intersection for fifteen minutes.  Later, five British youths were manhandled and forced to strip, according to the Daily News.  Massive numbers of Chinese refugees were allowed into the British Concession, but were not allowed to leave.  The British escort vessel ironically named Sandwich arrived to help, and other ships scheduled for departure stayed moored.  The concession’s volunteer corps was on full alert.

“All people are treated alike,” a press release from the Japanese military authority said.  “But are dealt with according to their individual merits. Britons are typically arrogant.”

A British merchant named G.A. Smith was beaten and arrested on June 18.  A New Zealander named Cecil Davis, who lived in Tientsin for thirty years was also assaulted by Japanese soldiers.  Three hired Chinese gunmen kidnapped H.F. Dyatt, chairman of the British Chamber of Commerce, but he was found relatively unhurt a month later, gagged and bound and thirty miles east of Tientsin.  A British woman, Mary Anderson, was ordered to disrobe at a barricade, but she evaded the soldiers by running back into the concession.

Japanese officials swore to continue the blockade “as long as Great Britain aids the Chinese.”

“I have decided on all the necessary arrangements to resist the Japanese to the death,” Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek said from the ruins of Chongqing, the third Nationalist capitol.  The Generalissimo’s promises did little to alleviate the suffering of Tientsin’s foreigners and Chinese.

Thirty miles of electrified wire was placed around the British and French concessions, taking one Chinese person’s life near the US Marine barracks on Shansi Road and trapping everyone inside.

The Great Tientsin Flood of 1939

The Great Tientsin Flood of 1939

The Japanese poured more troops into the concession areas and continued to blockade the city for two months.  All expatriates inside the concessions were confined to their houses for fear of the Japanese soldiers prowling the streets.  Temperatures soared.  Japanese soldiers forced eighteen Chinese farmers to kneel by the roadside on June 13, 1939, with petrol lids over their heads.  Six of the farmers died from heat stroke.  British pride was stretched to its breaking point, and in June they released four of the six assassins back to the Japanese military authority to be executed and negotiated a compromise on the silver reserves.

Foreigners breathed a little easier.  Trading resumed once again.  And then in July, the summer rains came and flooded Tientsin for thirty miles in all directions.

“Hordes Drown at Tientsin,” reported the Daily News on August 23, 1939.

“Hundreds have drowned, thousands are missing.”  The concessions lost all power; Japanese soldiers gave up attempts to repair the electric perimeter but delayed foreigners at the barriers.  British troops manned sampans to rescue the endangered.

The Pittsburgh Post Gazette reported on August 28, 1939 that all foreigners who could possibly leave were evacuated, and that the Japanese blockade of the British concession had been relaxed.  More than 600,000 Chinese were marooned, and upward of 1,000 bodies had been recovered from flooded areas.  White Russian women were seen poling wooden bathtubs through the water-filled streets begging for alms.  Dysentery was rampant, and fungus infections that started in the feet resulted in many cases of blood poisoning.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the flood had affected more than three million people.

“Facing fresh perils of flood, starvation and epidemics, the residents of the British and French concessions at Tientsin are fighting a grim battle against rising waters,” the Sydney Morning Herald reported.  Companies and individuals pooled money and functions were arranged to raise monies for the Tientsin Flood Relief Fund, according to the Singapore-based The Straits Times.

Ada Hanson, a Tientsin journalist for the North China Star at the time, wrote in a letter that the flood was nightmarish.

“That first night was the worst.  Chinese who did not have second-story houses were clinging to roofs shouting for help.  Explosions lit up the water since fires were raging in all parts of the city.”  She and her newborn baby boy survived on goat meat and coarse flour pancakes for a week until the floodwaters subsided.

School buildings, such as the Tientsin Grammar School and the Tientsin Jewish School became shelters for the homeless.  Huge caldrons of gruel

Stopped at a barricade in Tientsin

Stopped at a barricade in Tientsin

were prepared by missionaries to feed those with no food.  US Marines gave out typhoid and cholera shots.  Slowly, the city returned to a normalcy that continued to catch headlines across the world.

First, Japan imposed trade sanctions that according to the Courier-Mail was tantamount to another embargo.  Then, Japanese Zeros bombed the French Indo-China Railway and took the city of Nanning, near Guangdong Province.  Japanese military forces seized American property in Tientsin, and conscripted 500,000 Chinese for slave labor in northern Manchuria, where the puppet Qing Dynasty Emperor Henry Pu reigned.  Imports and exports on sugar, tea, oil, steel, cotton, wool and of course opium, plummeted, threatening the international stock market.

A wave of nationalism spread throughout the Settlements.  Children eagerly joined patriotic groups such as the Noble Order of the British Spitfire, to raise money for the Royal Air Force.  Anthems such as “There’ll Always be an England” replaced hymns at school.  German boys in brown shirts and black shorts swinging swastikas sewn on to their upper arms sang “Horst Wessel” while marching down Victoria Road (now Jiefang Street).   In the schools it was Englander verses the Jerries, but everyone kept a sharp eye out for the Kempeitai.

For nearly two years Japan played a game of cat and mouse with the West, until at dawn, two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese troops quietly entered the British Concession, marched down Victoria Road, seized the Tientsin Volunteer Armory, the Astor Hotel and Gordon Hall.  Japan’s military machine completed its occupation of Tientsin by noon.

Japanese Arisaka rifles and Nambu light machine guns replaced the British Enfields at the concession barriers.   British and Canadian citizens were ordered to wear red armbands with the Chinese character ying (英) printed in black.  Ying stood for England, including Canada, but is also the symbol for hero and brave.  Other “enemy nationals” were assigned similar armbands but with different characters.

When the yellow dust storms came again in 1941, it arrived with the Japanese Imperial Third Fleet, which sunk a British gunboat, and with a warning for all British people to leave, according to a notice in the Peking and Tientsin Times.  Many refused.  A large billboard on Racecourse Road boasted a map of Southeast Asia and the western Pacific with plaques hammered into the countries Japan conquered.  A Japanese truck cruised the concession tirelessly, announcing victory after victory.

Many who had money to leave, left, including

The old Butterfield & Swire offices on Victoria Road - photo by C.S. Hagen

The old Butterfield & Swire offices on Victoria Road – photo by C.S. Hagen

Germans, whose emptied houses left a unique vacuum for Jews escaping pogroms and Hitler’s “Final Solution” to occupy.  White Russians and Hitlerites attempted a Tientsin pogrom, which failed, and Jews were not safe across the Hai River in the former Russian Concession area.

The Japanese Black Dragon Society sought collaborators, assassinated school principals and leaders who were anti-Japanese.  The Talati House, now the First Hotel or Fengguang Restaurant on Victoria Road and Cousins Road, became a hotbed for espionage and counter-espionage as well as the Brooklyn Café on Dickinson Road.  According to recently opened secret documents of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) called the “Tientsin Card Files” Tientsin was filled with unsavory characters, all on a wanted list.

  • Kachiwara – a Japanese disguised as a Chinese person named Ho Wen-chih, who traveled in secret searching for collaborators.
  • Mrs. Minako Nagata – fifty-three years old, but looked twenty-eight, chief of Japanese propaganda
  • K. Kondo – in charge of the Japanese garrison, chief consul for the Japanese Consulate in Peking
  • Masaji Shogi Kageyama – Black Dragon Society, part of an assassination group
  • Second Lieutenant Ito – sponsored and promoted secret organization of the Japanese Military Police, had an assassination group consisting of eleven members
  • First Lietenant Ogawa – of the Tangu-Taku Peace Preservation Corps in Tientsin, formerly worked for the Kempeitai
  • Iocoiama – a lawyer, forty-four years old, married a French woman and was considered third top ranking Japanese spy, receiving special schooling few had ever received

The Japanese had their local recruits as well, like a man named Liu Yingshi, who worked as chief of Foreign Section Chinese Puppet Police.  Liu was wanted on extortion and bribery charges, was forty years old, weighed approximately one hundred-eighty pounds and was extremely wealthy.

Amongst the stateless White Russians, however, the Japanese found their greatest assets.  A Russian fascist group named the “Forty-Seven Group” was originally from Harbin, but traveled back and forth on a train furnished by the Japanese.  Vladimir Goltzeff was one of the Forty-Seven Group, and was helping Japanese dispose of arms, cameras and stashing money, for a hefty fee.

White Russian spies often met at the “Seven Sinners” café and bar in the former Russian Concession, and occasionally clashed with Red Russian spies, as in the altercation that occurred at the intersection of Meadows and Taku roads, (Qufu and Taku North roads) where Ivan Petrovich Kaznoff, a White Russian, choked an unnamed Red Russian to death.  Kaznoff spent three months in jail and then was released to work with the Kempeitai.

Despite the pressures of war, hunger and persecution, there were many more foreigners who would not kowtow to the Japanese occupation

DCI Dennis with British ambassador at Tientsin. Dennis was also one of the investigators into the mysterious Pamela Werner murder in Peking (Beijing).

DCI Dennis with British ambassador at Tientsin. Dennis was also one of the investigators into the mysterious Pamela Werner murder in Peking (Beijing).

troops.  Men like DCI Richard Harry “Dick” Dennis, a former Scotland Yard detective before becoming Tientsin’s Chief of British Municipal Police, stayed true to the end.  The Japanese attempted to break him by throwing him into a small cell, restricting water and food and forcing him to sign a confession before driving him throughout the city for all to see in the back of a truck.

Another hero is Eric Liddell, the “Flying Scotsman,” preacher at Tientsin’s English Anglican Church and gold medalist of the men’s 400 meters at the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris.  Along with hundreds of other uncooperative foreigners he was taken in 1943 to the Weihsien Internment Camp in Shandong Province where he died of a brain tumor.  His life was portrayed in the 1981 Best Picture and Best Screenplay film Chariots of Fire.

Angela Cox Elliott was born at the Weihsien Compound, known as the Courtyard of the Happy Way.  Although she doesn’t remember much more than what her mother and friends later told her, the camp created their own laundry, hospital, kitchens, library, a classroom and sanitation crews.

The civilian prisoners even had their own black market where they smuggled letters and messages out through Chinese farmers.  On Victory in Europe Day the camp’s bell clanged at midnight, calling everyone out for roll call.  Searchlights swept the yard.  Guards were shoving and pushing and counting and someone from Block 57 said they were all going to be taken out and shot.

Eric Liddell's victory march after 1924 Olympics - The Guardian

Eric Liddell’s victory march after 1924 Olympics – The Guardian

No one was shot.  On August 17, 1945, after more than two years of incarceration, American paratroopers liberated all 1,400 civilian prisoners, many of whom were old Tientsin hands, in a mission called “Operation Duck.”

By October 1, 1945, Tientsin was liberated.  American soldiers marched once again down Victoria Road, freeing 2,900 Allied captives, disarming more than 232,000 Chinese puppet troops and guarding 200,000 Japanese civilians and soldiers.

On that day, and perhaps one of the only times in Chinese history, tens of thousands of Tientsiners lined the Hai River Bund to welcome American troops.



Tientsin Incident - The Australian Women's Weekly  pictorial

Tientsin Incident – The Australian Women’s Weekly pictorial – 1939


  1. Great story with fascinating detail and pictures. Great work! Would love to see more like this about our old stomping grounds…

  2. Thanks brother. This is just the first story, more of an introduction. All the juicy little tidbits in this story will be expounded upon in further issues – Jews, Nazis, White Russians, spies, Japanese colonels who were cannibals, etc… and ALL in Tianjin.

  3. Very interesting! Should send it on to Jerry

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