Eyewitness to the Battle (III)

Among the thousands of foreigners who witnessed the 1937 battle of Shanghai up close was Best Overend (1909-1977), an architect and a member of the Shanghai Volunteer Police Force (first from the left on the photo; image courtesy of his son Tronn Overend). What follows is the last of three installments of his dramatic recollections from the battle, describing the brutal treatment meted out to looters. Poisoners, real and imagined, were even worse off, believed to be paid by the Japanese in the Hongkou district to carry out their murderous activities among the city’s civilians.

It is an edited extract from Tramp to Shanghai: a young man’s tale before the war, by Best Overend and Tronn Overend available as a free iBook from the iTunes store. The extract was first carried in the June, 2013 issue of Quadrant magazine (www.quadrant.org.au) and is reproduced here with the kind permission of Quadrant and Tronn Overend. The modern pinyin versions of place names are given in brackets.

The thing seemed too close to say who was right and who was wrong. Only was it essential in Shanghai minds for the war to stop or move along a little. At night, on curfew duty, I observed the Chinese streets were strangely quiet. The moon came up over the scene of drunken houses and narrow winding streets polished of traffic; and each change of breeze brought a different stink from the Soochow (Suzhou Creek), or from the back alleys. All of them were Chinese and unpleasant. But for them you would have thought you were on a stage set. After a while you didn’t notice, and when you left China you probably asked what the strange smell was before you realised that it was just fresh air.

It was dangerous to sit down against a shop shuttered to the footpath because the fleas hopped along the stone entrance step. There were millions in the rice shops, clambering all over the bins. The narrow gutters were also within their range. The traffic islands were safest, because there you could see the cockroaches slide quickly across the surface of the bitumen. Although they avoided you, you could shove or stamp them away. In any case, you shouldn’t have been sitting down. From the narrow overhanging Gardens of Babylon, which were the verandahs cantilevering out in odd Chinese curves and manners, people peered over at you. If they saw you watching they ducked down. You were the foreign member with a party of five Chinese police; and you yawned most of the night unless you were near a Settlement boundary. There the courageous looters came over the bridges half doped with opium. The Chinese police rushed, stripped them and searched them. They almost always had an enormous bunch of rusty keys and some opium wrapped in a piece of grease-proof paper. Inside their bundles were the scraps and miscellany of household objects which looters take. After you had collected four or five, they were taken to the Station with a short rope around their arms. One looter was tied to each Chinese policeman. They carried the spoils as evidence and the whole moonlit caravan was escorted by a foreigner to ensure that there might be no collusion. At the station they were kicked into the cells and you were instructed to shoot next time and not to bother bringing them in. In any case, they were handed over to the Chinese authorities outside the Settlement for summary execution in the morning.

Sometimes they nearly got away with things of value. If they had been able to break into a store, perhaps this was rice; sometimes it was a box of silvery paper stuff that is burnt for the propitiation of spirits; and sometimes just candlesticks or a broken metal clock. That they were half-crazed there was no doubt, for how else could they summon up the courage necessary to risk the constant sniping of both Japanese and Chinese marksmen, and the almost sure police detection over the bridges. Silently, the odd bullet came over the bridges into the Settlement. You could only hear the ‘pi-i-i-ing’ as they passed you, before they smacked into some building along the road. The remarkable thing about these people was their apparent stoicism. They seldom gave voluble explanations when caught and they almost always resigned peaceably. They were beggars with nothing to lose. They had been caught in the act and what else. To eat they had to do something. And if paid, they would naturally carry poison or germs into the Settlement to drop into the tea urns of the shops, into the water troughs of the rickshaw coolies or the public water supplies. If they tried it during the day, they were sometimes caught by the crowd. The remains, after the mob had finished with the alleged culprit, were difficult to remove from the footpath. The police usually got there within a minute or so, but it was always far too late. Perhaps half the time it was a genuine poisoner who got caught. Half the time it was some poor unfortunate who gave offence to some passerby. The dreaded shout had the crowd about in a second or so, a mob of two thousand forms before you can turn your back. Other unfortunates, who looked like Japanese, had a similar fate if they ventured out of doors. Here the shout was ‘Japanese eyes’. As often as not, the victim would be a Chinese against whom someone had a grudge. Unless the police arrived, this was an opportunity to eliminate them without danger to yourself.

Members of the Shanghai Volunteer Corps.

The first night of curfew duty found one of these ‘poisoners’ standing against a wall. Because our party proceeded very slowly along the deserted streets – we had at least eight hours to fill – the sharp eyes of the Chinese policeman saw the fellow drop a piece of paper rolled into a ball. He stood quite still and waited. Under interrogation, and the flat slaps from the Chinese police, he pretended to be dumb. He was stripped and searched and found to be carrying several packets of whitish powder. It was only after two or three suspects had been found that it was suggested that they should be made to eat the powder. The beating proceeded slowly and methodically. It left practically no mark. Finally he talked, the paper that had been dropped contained an address and a telephone number in Hongkew (Hongkou). It was damning. He said that he was paid sixteen dollars a month for the work. It was with difficulty that the Chinese were prevailed upon to take him to the Station rather than execute summary justice on the street. During the half hour that the interrogation lasted many heads peered out. Two policemen searched the shop outside which he was standing. A tremendously serious pantomime was made over pretending to shoot the traitor. Mausers were ostensibly loaded – although they were already crammed with cartridges – the man was forced to kneel while cold muzzles were forced into the back of his neck and into his ribs. His composure could have been nothing but a drugged one.

It was brutal, it was, unashamedly, horrible. But it was, to the Chinese and to every other person living in the Settlement, treason. He was endangering the lives of the people that crowded into Shanghai. Inside the Station the treatment was the same, only more direct. Later that night, at four in the morning, we slept for half an hour on the floor of a large bank building on Peking Road. The janitor had let us in the back. Stretched out, it was remarkably comfortable on the linoleum after seven hours on the slow beat without a break.  Inside the metallic knocking of the machine guns was not so apparent. At night, when all is still within a city crammed with people, these guns have a beautiful and mad rhythm. Sometimes, when they were red hot or incendiary, you could see the shells passing over the Settlement. With terrible swiftness, the short matt-red streak was immediately followed by a flash that lit the entirely clear sky. It is easy to light a cloudy sky, but to light a clear one you need a large gun. In five or six seconds there was the explosion that gave the shell its flash and its shuddering whistle. It had already broken and killed and had passed. An elementary knowledge of acoustics told you how near you were. It was just across the Whangpoo (HuangpuRiver) in Pootung (Pudong, the part of Shanghai east of HuangpuRiver).

The introduction of queuing was always considered an unwarranted interference by the Chinese pushing for their rice. Yet, if this was not strictly enforced, the crowd very quickly became unmanageable and there was always trouble. The five Chinese policemen patrolled in the front of the rice shop armed with .38 colt automatics, the foreigner with a .45 colt automatic. The .45 was preferred because of what is known in police circles as the ‘stopping power’. With the .38, the bullet passed through the man. It did not necessarily stop him or bring him down. With the .45, in addition to nearly breaking the arm of the firer, the enormous bullet would, even if it only struck the arm of a looter, spin him around and around and throw him to the ground. It would also probably render the victim unconscious by concussion. In a hostile crowd this made him manageable.

Seemingly oblivious to war, thousands of people milled in the streets. Pigs were driven along and pregnant women passed in rags. In the French Concession, a mother was stripped and the child forcibly born by the detonation of a bomb. Reports stated that the child was doing well, but that the mother was killed by the explosion. The poorer people – and these were inconceivably poor, for the average Chinese family income is one and a half pence per week – swept up the grains of rice from the filthy  footpath in front of the rice shops. Very little fell from the frugal hands of the owner and the Chinese purchaser. One has to have only heard the Chinese national anthem of hawking throats to appreciate the probable condition of the rice mixed with street dust.

The Chinese medical missions deserve tremendous respect, a respect and an honour that they certainly didn’t get from the natives. The ambulances rushed past, horns blowing continuously. Open trucks, covered with branches for protection from planes and from the sun, were loaded with the dead and dying. It seemed that the foreigner in the Settlement was left with the care of the Chinese wounded. There was little or no provision for them in the arrangements of the Chinese army in Shanghai. Hospitals were naturally full to overflowing, the steady stream never stopped. Most of the trucks went back piled high with coffins. The Chinese stretcher bearers sat on these talking and laughing as they went about their errand of help.

And all the while the letter writer sat and droned in front of his tray of writing utensils. The librarian, with his stock of paper covered books, leant against his rack leaning on the wall. The cook shops continued to do their savoury and transient business in the gutters. The Chinese boys and girls crowded along too, watching curiously through their dark eyes. Their heads were more often than not covered with festering sores. The barber, a boy, walked slowly through the crowd with his little stool and basin slung over his back. The street sweet man, always followed by a gang of urchins, sometimes set down his portable counter with its doubtful gambling games for children to risk their pennies for equally doubtful sweets. The pastry cooks kept their sweet-smelling fires crackling under their portable bamboo shelters. The tinsmiths banged and clattered by the side of the roadway with the rickshaw coolies shouting and cursing each other. Lone women burnt joss papers on the footpath in front of the joss shop. Everybody shouted and spat, and the guns were almost deafened by the clamour. But above it all was the steady droning of the planes, and every now and then everybody stopped to watch the anti-aircraft shells bursting overhead. Then there was a rush for the empty shell when it fell on the road freakishly missing the milling peoples. More often than not it hit someone, and then a wailing went up. You had to break up the gathering, perhaps exercising your baton as well as your prerogative to obtain the evidence for the Station. Or do you collect souvenirs too? All the coffin shops were open in Shanghai, and there was no whisper of a depression amongst their proprietors.

Categories: Battle

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