The Broken City – Tientsin at War – Part X


This is the tenth story in the “Tientsin at War” series, which opens with the accounts of survivors of World War II, who called Tientsin their home before, during and after the Japanese occupation of the city.  Recalling Tientsin as it once was, they watched as children while Tientsin crumbled before Japanese troops, cried when their friends and neighbors were taken prisoner, rejoiced when US Marines liberated the city, and then once again, but as teenagers, watched as it fell before the communist armies.    


TIENTSIN, CHINA – Sophye “Fifi” Mavromaras saw Tientsin at its best, and a little paperbound guardian angel – her Greek passport – saved her from the worst of times.

Fifi, now surnamed Zoukee, was born in Tientsin, second generation China hand, and like other well-to-do children during the 1930s she frequented plays and movies at the Olympic and Odeon theaters, both of which her family owned.  An only child, she lived with her parents in the plush Victoria Building, safe from the horrors of civil strife, intrigue and war.  Classes under the moralistic watch of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary and ice-skating in a foreign club filled her winter months.  Summers were spent swimming and hiking along Beidaihe’s pristine beaches.  Sixty-two years after her family left Tientsin, Fifi still speaks perfect  Beijinghua, or Beijing dialect, and remembers the old days of Amahs and cocktail parties, rickshaw coolies and war with a nostalgic clarity.

“You can’t imagine before the war, how beautiful the British Concession was, it was really lovely in every respect,” Fifi said from her Florida home.  “It was a good life, and people were never bored.  I never heard the word ‘bored’ until I came to America.”

Tientsin, Victoria Road, before World War II - online sources

Tientsin’s main thoroughfare before World War II, known as Rue de France in the French Concession,  Victoria Road in the British Concession and Woodrow Wilson Boulevard in the former German Concession, which was inhabited by many Americans   – online sources

Protected within the British Concession barricades, she rarely saw the poverty outside.  Beggars were primarily organized criminal gangs, possibly offshoots of the historic “Dark Drifters” or hunhunr societies.  In Beidaihe, however, she befriended locals in a nearby village never realizing until years later that a man with no nose and another afflicted person with sores across his body were lepers.

“But we were never hungry, the Japanese took everything, the theaters and buildings, everything so we didn’t have any money, but there was no famine in Tientsin.

“If you had the money you could buy anything.”

The Cambridge History of China edited by John Fairbanks reported the lifestyles of foreigners in the concessions were envied across the world.  “A glittering life, all things considered,” the Cambridge History of China reported, “which makes it easy to understand why ‘old China hands’ guarded their privileges.”

Fifi recalled few details of Japanese atrocities in Tientsin.  “In Tientsin, they were a little bit more circumspect, but they terrorized people in the countryside.  I don’t know what they did to the Chinese areas of Tientsin, but what I saw at the French Bridge – they would search all the Chinese, and they would line them up and they would kick them, push them around with the bayonets.”

She stayed inside the familiar confines of the old concessions.  “There was no reason to go anywhere else.”

Gold was king, during the war years, and Marcel Leopold, an affluent businessman later dubbed the “number one gunrunner in the world” by LMS Newswire, once hoodwinked her mother.  “He was swindling everybody.  He told my mother and a lot of other people to bring him gold and he would store it and build interest.  So she gathered all her gold and gave it to Mr. Leopold.”

St. Joseph's School, Tientsin - online sources

St. Joseph’s School, Tientsin – online sources

Leopold paid out twice, and then the monies vanished.  Leopold built the Leopold Building, now called the Lihua Building, on Victoria Road, while his “investors” lost their entire fortunes.

When the Japanese struck in December 1941, her world cracked, but did not fall apart.  Being Greek, she was forced to wear an enemy armband, but was not interned.  Her father, however, lost his job and the family’s extensive holdings.  The Japanese confiscated all, and offered nothing in return.

As an only child Fifi and her parents survived the war years with help from friends and the Swedish Red Cross.  Her mother sold family paintings and personal jewelry to buy food.  Friends from unlikely places offered assistance, while old acquaintances forgot her family existed.

“There was one gentlemen, I will never forget him as long as long as I live, who was married to a French woman, and he came up to my father and offered oil, and after the war he said we could settle accounts.  The man was almost a stranger and yet friends of ours from before the war turned their backs on us.

“Because we had lost everything, you see.  We didn’t have our lavish lifestyle and parties anymore.  Some people are friends with you when you are up, then disappear when you are down.”

Local Chinese also became some of her family’s closest friends during World War II.  Once, while living in the Butterfield & Swire Mansion, a Chinese doctor operated on her father’s eye on top of a kitchen table.

“They were wonderful people, really wonderful.  They were top notch doctors.”

A rare picture of the French Bridge opening up for a ship - from a friend

A rare picture of Tientsin’s French Bridge opening up for a ship – from a friend

During the war her family was moved to a large house in the former Russian concession to an apartment on Hong Kong Road.  Later she was forced to move to Racecourse Road, then to the Butterfield & Swire Mansion and also the Jardine & Matheson Mansion, next door to the Nazi German Consul Fritz Weidemann.  She recalled German Nazis and Italian fascists frequently wearing their brown and black uniforms, and liked to hang swastikas out their windows.

“I used to see Weidemann every day,” Fifi said.  “They were all very proud of Hitler and Germany and didn’t make any bones about it.”  Weidemann, she said, was friendly and bid her good morning while walking his dogs.

“We wore armbands, and we were very proud of our armbands.  We looked down on the French who collaborated.  When the war was over, the Nazis came up to us and asked us to hide their jewelry, and we said ‘absolutely not.’”

Even at the height of Axis success, when Hitler swept through Russia and the Japanese appeared invincible across most of Asia, she never stopped believing the Allies would win.  Despite Japanese restrictions on foreign news, information trickled into the former concessions through letters and secret short wave radios.

“It never entered our minds that we wouldn’t come out victors of the war,” Fifi said.  “We knew at the end of the war we would be victorious.”


Marines entering Tientsin, 1945 - Gutenberg

Marines entering Tientsin, 1945 – Gutenberg

Tientsin Marines

Marines training in Tientsin - courtesy of The China Marines website

Marines training in Tientsin, near present day Machang Road and a block or two away from the Foreign Language Institute – courtesy of The China Marines website

In October 1945 a sea of jubilant Tientsiners flooded the former British Bund to welcome, for the first time, a “barbarian” invader – the US Marines.

Fifi didn’t see the Marines land, but she heard the celebration from her home blocks away on Hong Kong Road, now Munan Road.

“That was one of the biggest regrets in my life that I didn’t go downtown.  I saw them, these young men, all these strangers.  You can imagine their surprise seeing a white girl walking down the road, and they all came to talk to us.”

It was a day of celebration, she said, a time impossible to forget.  “The Chinese really went overboard with welcoming them, with banners and this and that – after nine years of occupation.”

Her old school friends began to return, bringing stories of their experiences in Japanese prisons.

“They all came back.  We were so happy to see each other.  People were very resilient then.  Nobody moaned and whined or cried.  They took it all in stride.”

Watched over by chaperones, she attended soirees held by the Red Cross, where she learned new dances, such as the jitterbug.

“The Marines were very, very nice, very respectful.  We had such a good time, dancing, laughing and joking.”

“After the war, things were even better,” Alex Liu, also a Tientsin native who later immigrated to Australia, wrote.  His father was Chinese, and a high-ranking maritime official.  His mother was a White Russian.  “They [Marines] had parties every night and we had many, many Marine friends.  We would all pile into Major Dunlap’s jeep and head for the Country Club, where Coca Cola and ice creams were free.  Watched many a ball game there too.  It was truly an idyllic time for me.”

Although the US Marine Corps had a long-standing presence in Tientsin, dating back to the Unfair Treaties and the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, foreign soldiers were unsurprisingly met with defiance, at times violence.  On the same day Japan launched its surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Tientsin’s token Marine contingent numbering forty-eight men surrendered to the Japanese Kwantung Army without firing a shot, spending the duration of World War II in Japanese prison camps at Woosung, near Shanghai, and later Kyushu, among other places.

After four years of shame, the US Marines Corps returned to Tientsin as liberators.

The Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek's picture hanging on the Forbidden City in Peking - Mao Zedong's picture now hangs in the same place - Scuttlebutt

A Marine standing before the Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s picture hanging on the Forbidden City in Peking – Mao Zedong’s picture now hangs in the same place – Scuttlebutt

“We were the victors,” Jack Blagman, a former Marine wrote in a September 2002 issue of the China Marine Scuttlebutt.  “We conquered the Japanese, we were the saviors of China and the world.”

The Settlement’s bearded Sikh guards and untouchable colonial police were gone, so were the electrified fences and the ‘No Chinese Allowed’ barriers.  Tientsin’s customs office was firmly in the hands of the Chinese after nearly ninety years of British colonial dominance.  The barbed wire barricades that once divvied the Settlement into nine separate spheres of influence, replete with their Gothic spires, pristine parks, medieval crenellations and towering rock fences melted at long last into one city – Tientsin, the “Ford of Heaven.”

The first Marines to disembark on to Tientsin’s Bund did not know what to expect, but the welcome they received was intoxicating as the copious crates of beer and bourbon that followed.

Japanese soldiers awaiting repatriation - Gutenberg

Japanese soldiers awaiting repatriation – Gutenberg

“The crowds erupted in wild cheers and frenzied waving,” Australian journalist David C. Hulme wrote in his book Tientsin.  Royal blue Corsairs and torpedo bombing Avengers came first.  The American fighter planes buzzed the tops of Tientsin’s buildings flying low enough for onlookers to see the pilots waving from inside their cockpits.  “The noise was a thundering racket, fearsome, deafening and absolutely thrilling.”

Then came the leathernecks, hard, veteran soldiers, and behind them rolled the tanks, Jeeps, artillery and much-needed supplies.  They came in tugs and in bullet-riddled launches.  Children laughed and scrounged excitedly for tossed cigarettes and chewing gum as Marines stepped from their landing crafts, boots still lined with Okinawan mud.  Liberated parents cheered wildly, many waving miniature US flags.  A sea of smiling faces – unknown tens of thousands – both black-haired Chinese and brown, blonde or red-haired foreign residents – welcomed the liberators with opened arms.

Motoring without impediment across the Hai River’s jaundiced waves US Marines quickly set to work.  Allied forces did not want the city falling to the Russians, who were sweeping south with vengeance through Manchuria, nor did the Allies want Tientsin to succumb to the “Balu Bandits,” or the Eighth Route Army, which had been an ineffective military force comprised of communist and Nationalist soldiers during World War II.  Mao Zedong, the future chairman of China, took control of the army after the Japanese surrender, and with renewed vigor was on the march to stake his claim across the country.

More than 30,000 Marines arrived in Tientsin with a political agenda: to oversee Japan’s surrender in North China, repatriate more than 630,000 Japanese soldiers and civilians to Japan, protect the railroad between Peking and Tientsin and to ensure the city’s protection from communist forces by helping the Nationalists, led by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.

“Led by a pair of advanced-party Jeeps, the battalion marched, at a snail’s pace due to the throng, through part of the Chinese city and into the former concession area, down Victoria Road, [Jiefang Road] into Meadows Road, [Qufu Road] then right again into Elgin Avenue,” [Nanjing Road] Hulme wrote.  “The streets were packed all the way… They were a very different sight to the Marines of pre-war years, but they filled the role and enjoyed a delirious welcome.

“It was just the beginning.”

The old Italian barracks, which housed US Marines after World War II - photo by C.S. Hagen

The old Italian barracks, which housed US Marines after World War II – photo by C.S. Hagen

The Marines flooded Tientsin with supplies.  Trade flourished, with the US dollar taking a firm lead as legal tender.  The Chinese yuan inflated, but the old French Bazaar sputtered back to life.  Coffee and chocolate, powdered milk and lime, flour, rice, sugar and trinkets lined shops’ shelves once more.  Canned cheeses, canned hams, tinned beer and boxed American cornflakes replaced Japanese wakame seaweed, mochi rice cakes and kadomatsu, a festive Japanese decoration once readily available in all Tientsin shops.  Rundown shacks became taverns, selling American Jack Daniel’s and beer.  Marines found lodging where they could, in places such as the Italian and Japanese barracks, the French Municipal Building, the racetrack on Racecourse Road and the Japanese Girls’ School.

The III Amphibious Corps withdrew from Okinawa to Guam and then to Tientsin, according to John V. Gardner who was one of twelve men assigned to Tientsin and trained in teletype communication by the Army Signal Corps.  According to a Scuttlebutt article Gardner arrived in Tanggu, Tientsin’s eastern deep-water port, in September 1945, then traveled by boat west into the city along the Hai River.

“The trip up river was most interesting, and was uneventful even though the banks of the river were lined with Chinese waving flags, and Chinese communists and Japanese soldiers, just standing and watching.  None of us had any idea what to expect, but upon arrival at Tientsin there were crowds on the docks waving and cheering.  Many white faces in the group and we were interested to find out that these were the nationals from Russia, Italy, France … that had been living in China throughout the war.”

Although the Japanese had surrendered six weeks earlier, remnants of the Kwuantung Army still stood watch, keeping the peace and protecting the city from the communists, frequently referred to as the “Balu Bandits,” but officially known as the Eighth Route Army.  After the communist victory in 1949, the Eighth Route Army changed names again, to the commonly known People’s Liberation Army.  Leftover Japanese soldiers gawked as thousands of US Marine soldiers, tanks, artillery and machine gunners spilled across Tientsin’s docks.

While the Marines returned victorious, shamed Japanese officers committed hari kiri, or ritual suicide in the streets.

“On Rue de France, [Jiefang Road] right in front of French Police Headquarters, a Japanese general in full military regalia, with his two sons, spread out a clean rug,” Hulme wrote.  “An agitated crowd, mostly Chinese, quickly gathered.  The general sank to his knees, the two young men flanking him in similar posture.  Without ceremony or delay the defeated soldier emitted a mighty ‘Long live the Mikado!’ and plunged the long blade deep into his belly.  The sons did likewise… The general was still moving the gory hilt of his dagger when he saw his sons collapse on either side of him.”

Lieutenant General Ginnosuke Uchida, commanding the Japanese 118th Division, signs the surrender documents for Japanese forces in the Tientsin, North China area during ceremonies on 6th October 1945. Major General Keller E. Rockey, Commanding the III Amphibious Corps, whose Marines had occupied Tientsin at the request of the Chinese National Government, accepts the surrender. - Scuttlebutt

Lieutenant General Ginnosuke Uchida, commanding the Japanese 118th Division, signs the surrender documents for Japanese forces in the Tientsin, North China area during ceremonies on 6th October 1945. Major General Keller E. Rockey, Commanding the III Amphibious Corps, whose Marines had occupied Tientsin at the request of the Chinese National Government, accepts the surrender. – Scuttlebutt

Japan’s surrender of Tientsin took place in front of the French Municipal Building, which still stands today.

Once again, Tientsin changed hands.  Since the collapse of the Qing Dynasty the growing metropolis was considered a lucrative gem to warlords, Nationalist and communist commanders, to drug lords and violent gangs, and finally to the Japanese.  Those that knew how to work the system became rich while thousands of refugees starved.

For most Marines life in Tientsin was a cultural shock they remembered to the end of their lives.  All soldiers were given liberty time, which was spent roaming the city for bars such as the Golden Shoe, the Little Club and the Victoria Café, or various bathhouses and brothels. Furs, jade and jewelry could be found for shockingly low prices.  Children and women were for sale across the city.

Pimps, or mawang, would sneak close to Marine quarters to whisper their wares – saltwater girls in rickety sampans.  Corporal James D. Seidler made his first stop at Tanggu, and wrote about the experience in a Scuttlebutt article.

“Hey, Marine!  You like nice China girl, very nice.  Chop, chop!” A voice came from the waters below the ship in which he was sleeping.  “Quite a few of us took advantage of the situation, climbing down the anchor chain onto a sampan.  It was dark inside the sampan, so whether the “ladies” were fifteen or eighty-five, I cannot say.”

In Tientsin Seidler’s favorite eatery was a restaurant run by White Russians.  Anything on the menu was available, from Peking duck, beef steaks, (which according to some reports was actually dog meat), chicken, lamb, coffee and apple pie for the equivalent of $1.25.

“It was a good duty, day on, day off, except when we rode as train guards to Tanku [Tanggu] and back to Tientsin, with the ‘Chicoms’ taking pot-shots at us.  What ticked us off was we weren’t allowed to shoot back for fear it might cause problems with the big shots of our two countries.”

A sauna, bath and massage cost two dollars, Seidler remembered.  “Getting a bath at a bathhouse was a must.  First came the sauna, cold shower, sauna, then a warm bath with a pretty China gal washing you all over with a soft sponge, (no hanky-panky, strictly business,) a warm shower, then a twenty-minute massage… left feeling like a million bucks.”

A Tientsin bar - Scuttlebutt

A Tientsin bar called Both Cats, the sign reads: “Welcome Allies Troops, Special Cheap Price” – Scuttlebutt

Phil Stehle was a horn blower with the First Marine Division Band and lived in the former Italian Concession while stationed in Tientsin.  In his liberty time he frequented restaurants and nightclubs, such as the EM Club, he wrote in a Scuttlebutt article.  Locally distilled vodka cost fifteen cents a pint.

The communist threat was real, he wrote.  While traveling through communist territory he noticed the bed of his truck full of empty carbine shells.  “Each time we hit a serious pothole the jar would cause the carbine bolts to actuate,” he wrote.  “A big lot of us were packed in tightly and with weapons ready to fire.  I yelled at the driver to slow down.  His answer, ‘I aint going to get shot by no gook.’  I waved my carbine at him and told him he was going to get shot by me.  Travel quickly became more comfortable.”

While billeted at the former Italian Barracks Stehle would climb to the roof where he could watch the communists and Nationalists firing artillery at each other.

When local Tientsiners turned on their captors, Marines came to the rescue.

A favorite childhood haunt for Liu was the British Bund, where he watched steamships belch acrid smoke into the air.  He also survived Tientsin’s occupation, and remembered the anger bent toward the Japanese after the war.

“When raging crowds of Chinese attacked Japanese civilians in Tientsin on October 13, riot squads of the First Marines waded into the fighting to rescue the Japanese and quickly quelled the disturbances before serious damage was done.  Here, as in Tsingtao, the city’s unruly element was given a sharp warning that the Marines would act strongly to prevent disorder whenever local authorities failed to do so.”

Although much of the Marines’ time was spent on guard duty and managing raging crowds bent on retaliation against the Japanese and former sympathizers, North China duty

The Mickey Cafe, now long gone, but was once a popular eatery - Scuttlebutt

The Mickey Cafe, now long gone, but was once a popular eatery – Scuttlebutt

was a posting most soldiers wanted.  Despite the city’s squalor and beggars, fine dining establishments such as the Mickey Café offered steak sandwiches and plenty of beer.

“China duty had been coveted in the prewar Marine Corps, and, for the men who garrisoned the major cities in 1945, a China assignment still had much of that appeal,” Henry I. Shaw Jr. wrote in The United States Marines in North China 1945 – 1949.

Blagman was assigned to a land based naval support unit, Gropac 13 in Tientsin and had just turned eighteen when he was sent from San Francisco to “Ivan,” the Navy’s code word for China.  He arrived during one of Tientsin’s coldest winters, and had to double up with a fellow soldier in one sleeping bag for body warmth at night.

“Wherever we looked squalor and cheapness of life were an ominous presence.  Like a dark, hovering cloud, life was truly cheap in China.  There was universal starvation, especially seen in the cities.  Large cities were crowded with the desperate, untold thousands having been displaced by the Japanese devastation, famine and crop failures.”

Blagman hired a “number one boy” for fifty cents a month, who worked as a personal gofer and valet.  Fifty cents could also buy an unwanted nine-month-old baby girl, which one fellow soldier purchased, Blagman wrote.  The soldier cared for the baby until she was discovered by the commanding officer and he was forced to return the baby back to her parents with an additional sum of five dollars.

Most soldiers, according to other Scuttlebutt reports, found their own Chinese girlfriends.  Some married.  Those prone to one-night stands could hire a girl for one dollar, and these girls soon became some of the richest people in the city.

“All of us had an air of condescension,” Blagman wrote.  “Marine and sailor alike.  Although no one speaks of this today, we looked down on the Chinese.  I remember an editorial in the North China Marine or similar paper that demanded we be more courteous to the Chinese – and less aggressive.  The paper was shocked and editorialized against Marines who spat at Chinese traffic police when trucks passed them on the streets.  I cannot tell of the hundreds of incidents I saw of Americans denigrating or degrading the Chinese.  But for that matter, we felt that way about everything not American.

“As ‘conquerors’ our sense of superiority was manifest, from our equipment to everything we said and did.”

Tientsin’s initial good will soon soured.

Nationalist armies, due to corruption, crumbled before communist advances, surrendering by the hundreds of thousands, and the Eighth Route Army fought closer to Tientsin.  The communists grew bolder, attacking Marines on convoy and in trains, kidnapping soldiers when possible, once even, while several Marines went duck hunting east of Tientsin.

“They soon were plagued by incidents involving blown tracks, train derailments, and ambushes, which were to be the lot of Marines on duty in the midst of the Chinese civil war,” Shaw wrote.

On April 7, 1947, communist “Reds” killed five Marines twenty-two miles southeast of Tientsin at the old French Armory, according to The Argus and the Examiner.  The Reds managed to steal artillery shells and detonated part of the ammunition supplies before disappearing shortly before sunrise.

Two months later a Marine convoy traveling from Tientsin was ambushed outside of Peking, according to The Daily News.  Three Marines were killed and seventeen were wounded.

“As the convoy slowed down at a communist road block, armed Chinese suddenly appeared from cornfields on both sides of the road and threw several hand grenades,” The Daily News reported.  “The Marines instantly took cover and a pitched battle began.”

“The fight continued throughout the afternoon, many Chinese being killed or wounded.”

Communists, according to IIIAC WarDs (War Diaries), always dragged away their dead and wounded, making a tally of the dead difficult to count.

“There is a great bitterness against the communists among the wounded Marines,” The Daily News reported, “but so far it is uncertain whether the attack was by communists or by bandits.”

Major armed clashes between Marines and “Reds” from October 1945 to May 1947 left ten Americans dead and thirty-three wounded, according to IIIAC WarDs (War Diaries).  Two sentries were killed and nine wounded, and more than twenty-two airplanes were destroyed.  At least thirty Balu Bandits were killed and thirty-three more wounded.  Marines and the Balu Bandits rarely had pitched battles; the communists worked as guerillas, raiding supply dumps for ammunition, ambushing trains and patrols, bridges and reconnaissance parties and motor convoys.

Another attack was reported in the Scuttlebutt magazine by David W. Mervine, of Headquarters, 3rd Battalion, Seventh Marines, First Marine Division.  He was sent to protect the coveted Kailian coalmines in Tanggu, just outside of Tientsin.

“On one particular run between Tangshan and Chinwangtao [Qinghuangdao], the Chinese communists blew our train out from under us.  We experienced heavy enemy fire, which ripped through the wooden sides of the train in which we were hiding.  We hit the deck and crawled down the aisle to the door.  Once outside, we returned their fire and within 15 to 20 minutes the situation was well in hand.”

Tensions exploded when a 20-year-old girl claimed she was raped by two Peking Marines.  All soldiers were ordered off the streets when thousands of students, in Peking and in Tientsin, turned anti-American, marching in protest and demanding the withdrawal of American troops.  The situation was aggravated after the fatal beating of a Chinese worker near Tientsin by marines while celebrating Christmas, the Morning Bulletin reported on January 1, 1947.

One of the Marines accused of rape admitted that he had relations with the girl, but on a “professional basis,” the News reported on December 31, 1946.  “While communist propaganda is partly responsible for the popular feeling… the Chinese public has deeply resented the increasing number of incidents, particularly accidents, in which Chinese civilians have been killed and injured by American military vehicles,” the News reported.

Mei Baojiu () left with his mother Mei Lanfang (), both famous opera singers.

Mei Baojiu (left) with his father Mei Lanfang, who played a woman’s part in Peking Operas, both were famous opera singers.

Fifi dated a nineteen-year-old Marine, she said, and believed the charges against the marines at that time were pure communist propaganda.

“That was a lie,” she said.  “A complete lie.  First of all nobody in North China in the middle of winter would rape somebody outside.  You would freeze to death.  Nobody in Tientsin believed it either.  It was a communist plot.  The marines were all very respectful, very pleasant.  We have nothing but good memories of them.”

The final clash between Marines and communist forces occurred shortly after withdrawal plans had been formed on April 1947.  In a well-organized attack, communist forces raided the Hsin Ho ammunition supply dump outside of Tientsin.  Five marines were killed, and communist soldiers captured cartloads of ammunition.  By June, most Japanese had been repatriated home.  The US Marines’ mission was completed.

“They were there one day and gone the next,” Fifi said.  “They slowly sort of disappeared from Tientsin.”  By the time the Marines had gone, she had developed other interests, and was studying Western Literature at Peking University.  She also befriended the famous opera singer Mei Baojiu (梅葆玖) son of Mei Lanfang (梅兰芳), both of whom were held in high regard by the communists for defying Japanese law during World War II.


“Liberation 1949”

Nationalist soldiers executing communists in Shanghai - photo from a friend

Nationalist soldiers executing communists in Shanghai – photo from a friend

The battle for Tientsin raged for two days before the Eighth Route Army took control.  Concrete pillboxes built with forced labor and machine gun barricades dotted the city for weeks before the attack began.  Tientsin’s Nationalist commander, Chen Chang-chieh, had less than 130,000 troops, and he was determined to fight to the last man.  A large area outside the city was flooded to block the communist advance, which had an overwhelming force of 890,000 soldiers and were riding the waves of victory in Manchuria.  The communists did not attack Tientsin immediately; they were patient, encircling Tientsin before their advance began.

Liu was home from college when the Red artillery barrage began.

“On New Year of 1949… the siege of Tientsin began in earnest,” Liu wrote.  “All through the nights one can hear the distant booms of the artillery and the staccato barks of the machine guns and sounding louder night by night.”

Liu lived in the former Tientsin Steamship Company building, a former customs house on Woodrow Wilson Road (now Jiefang Road) when the Reds invasion began.

“At around noon on January 15, 1949, a Saturday, an artillery shell exploded nearby, knocking out the windows and the plaster ceiling came crashing down.  We all scrambled down to the cellar.”

Artillery shells thumped closer, and each blast sucked the air from his lungs.

“Then someone shouted the building was on fire.  We received permission from the Kuomintang troops outside to move across the road to a German couple’s house.  Outside it looked like half the city was alight and thick, black smoke can be seen billowing from the north and northeast.”

Communists Get TientsinWhen the explosions stopped, hand to hand fighting ensued.

“That night and the next morning we smelled the heavy, choking cordite and heard the street to street fighting (shouts, grenades, automatic weapon fire).  From the windows, I saw the communist soldiers laying down field telephone lines, marking the pavements and others running with stretchers completely soaked with blood.

“But by evening it was all over.”

Bricks, glass, debris and torn Nationalist bodies were strewn across the streets.  Blood pooled, trickling slowly into drains.  Ash rained like snow.  No communist corpses lay on the streets, and yet the cemetery built to hold their dead numbered more than 20,000 graves.  When the dusts settled, Liu and his family walked to what remained of their home, skirting the frozen corpses.

“There were many dead Nationalist soldiers lying where they fell, and one was in a sitting position with his unseeing eyes still open.  Of course, there were no dead or wounded communist soldiers to be seen.  We were glad to be back home and luckily only the central part of our building was hit and caught fire.”

When the Reds bombardment began, most of Fifi’s friends had already left.  Her family remained because they did not want to travel to Australia or back home to Greece, both of which were foreign places to Fifi.  She remained inside her family’s home on Hong Kong Road when the invasion began.

“We were all hunkered in our homes, and when we heard the balu jun [Eighth Route Army] were here, we went out in the streets and saw them hanging around in the streets.”  She watched the soldiers, dressed  like peasants in their thick fur hats march through Tientsin.  Their welcome was hesitant, although few people feared the soldiers.  Corruption among the Nationalist political system had become so rampant most people wanted change.

“People were very wary of the Kuomintang,” Fifi said.  The soldiers weren’t being paid, which forced them to take what they could, when they could, thereby creating an army of soldiers hardly better than bandits.

Communists troops did not live up to their notorious reputation as brigands, and immediately began cleaning up the city.  Students followed the soldiers with whitewash, painting slogans along city walls.  No cases of rape or pillaging were reported.

“They were very, very respectful, they didn’t loot,” Fifi said.  “They didn’t mistreat anyone.  The communists were fine until they started the sanfan wufan.”

The Three-and-Five-Anti campaigns, which targeted corruption and enemies of the state, threatened Fifi’s family’s livelihood.  Spearheaded by Mao Zedong, the campaign began in 1951.  Neighbors became spies.  Landowners were arrested, tortured and executed.  Media encouraged compliance to the new policies targeting bribery, theft, tax evasion, cheating and stealing state information.  Toward the end of the campaign the communist party revealed it would no longer protect private property and businesses, sending Fifi’s family, once again, into destitution.

“We couldn’t’ graduate, but we got all the credits.  Everyone was sent on land reform,” Fifi said.  “There was a lot of reform in 1952, a lot of turmoil.  It wasn’t as bad as Cultural Revolution but it was the beginning.

“When the Chinese were jumping into the river, we knew it was time to leave.”

(left) Tientsin residents marching against the Xikai (西开) Catholic Church during the Three-anti Campaign. (Middle) Demonstrators at the doorsteps of the Xikai Catholic Church, originally built by Jesuits and named the MG Church, then St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church, which was rebuilt in 1913 (Right) Demonstrators looting the chuch - photos from a friend

(left) Tientsin residents marching against the Xikai (西开) Catholic Church during a protest. (Middle) Demonstrators at the doorsteps of the Xikai Catholic Church, originally built by Jesuits and named the MG Church, then St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, which was rebuilt in 1913 (Right) Demonstrators looting the chuch – photos from a friend

Wealthy landowners, professors and those accused of being American spies were paraded down city streets wearing dunce hats.  “It was horrible.  I saw denunciations at Tientsin.”  A favorite Chinese professor who taught psychology was once forced to kneel before students, who accused him of being a spy.

“I felt sick, I really felt sick to my stomach when I saw that.”

Each time she came home from university she had to check in to the police station on arrival, and repeat the same process in Peking.  “Once in Tientsin, at a main police station, I had to get a new resident permit and I remember a Catholic priest came in who had no money.”

The new Tientsin police would not listen to the priest’s pleas, and Fifi paid out of her own pocket.

“I like to think I made brownie points with God as I helped pay.”

(left) A communist soldier or protestor standing before the Xikai Catholic Church (middle) Priests being denounced as spies in front of their church (right) The aftermath - Today, two mammoth shopping centers shadow the church to both sides, a walkway between them is filled with Starbucks, Haagen-Dazs ice cream and a Watsons

(Left) A communist soldier or protestor standing before the Xikai Catholic Church (Middle) Priests being denounced as spies in front of their church (Right) The aftermath – Today, two mammoth shopping centers overshadow the church to both sides, a walkway between them is filled with Starbucks, Haagen-Dazs ice cream and a Watsons – photos from a friend

A year after the Three-anti Campaign began, her family could take no more and left Tientsin with all that remained of their once extensive holdings – twenty-five dollars.  She has not seen her birthplace since.

Fifi and her family traveled to Hong Kong where her linguistic skills in English, French, Greek and Chinese helped procure a job.  Later, Fifi traveled to Japan and became a “grey lady,” a Red Cross nurse who helped take care of wounded men from the Korean War.  She met her former husband there, a Greek American, and married at the American Consulate in Yokohama.

In Tientsin today, remnants of the colonial period remain.  Local government in recent years has stopped tearing down the city’s concessional areas.  The Five Big Roads, a former British neighborhood, is protected as a tourist spot.  Horse carriages clop down the old streets.  Many couples prefer having their wedding photographs taken against a colonial-styled background of  buildings where the Empress Dowager once stayed, or where favorite warlords used to live.  Much of the Russian, Belgian and German concessional houses are gone, but the old heart of colonial Tientsin can still be seen.  The former Italian Concession has become a hotbed for hungry or thirsty tourists.  Banks have returned to the old Victoria Road, now Jiefang Road.  Two original bridges are still intact, although the seams have been welded shut.  Steamships are no longer allowed to sail the Hai River.

Tientsin, 天津, meaning the the “Ford of Heaven,” is much more than a tourist city today, in fact, few people choose the city to visit for its history is troubled and has been mostly lost, or lies hidden in forgotten books and missionary accounts.  The city is China’s northern powerhouse for manufacturing, and holds more than 11 million people, but until recent years has been eclipsed by Beijing, which was formerly spelled Peking, China’s capitol.

Some say Tientsin’s retreat into obscurity from 1949 until the early 1990s was punishment for embarrassing the nation by relinquishing lands to “barbarian” invaders, time after time.  Others say the city simply needed healing, like dry land from too much farming, and is now more fertile than it has ever been before.


  1. Tientsin Youth

    April 22, 2014 at 3:04 am

    That house in your U.S.M.C. photo is still there. It is now used by the Tianjin Bureau of Public safety A.K.A The Police.

  2. Your vivid account of a past era now so long
    ago brings it all back into focus of such
    changing times … what a period it was & there
    are still memories of the Marines left behind
    never to be forgotten … the ghastly war
    occupation but liberty came with great

    • Thanks Angela! Your help was invaluable. As you say, these times should not ever be forgotten, especially now, as Putin “clones” Hitler’s moves into the Ukraine as the mustachioed madman did into Austria.

  3. Hi, I was there as a child from Shanghai with my Dad, Dick Keet. I am a descendant of Paul Splingaerd, my grandfather was his son Alphonse and my mother, his daughter Madeleine.
    The story is well written and acknowledged by my cousin Angela Elliot

  4. It’s an amazing post in favor of all the internet visitors; they will get benefit from it I am sure.

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