Impressions of Shanghai, 1937 (III)

Best Overend (1909-1977) was one of thousands of foreigners living in Shanghai on the eve of battle in 1937. He left a memoir of great expressive powers, describing the atmosphere of one of the world’s most exotic, and most violent cities. No one knew it at the time, but it was a world rapidly approaching its end. The Japanese empire, harbinger of change, was already present throughout the city and during the summer months of 1937, it was a source of growing tension. Once Japan had unleashed its military power over the city, there was no returning to the days of old. Ahead lay a dozen years of war and revolution.

What follows is the third of three installments of Overend’s Shanghai memoirs. 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 November, 2012 issue of Quadrant magazine ( and is reproduced here with the kind permission of Quadrant and Best Overend’s son Tronn Overend. Place names are given in their modern form.

The anniversary of the incorporation of Greater Shanghai is a time of great local excitement. The Chinese celebrated with their various lantern processions through the Settlement. In the Chinese Territory, where the imposing Municipal Chambers were built, the usual Mayoral Parade and reception are held. When the Japanese heard of this, they freely rumoured that the Chinese were to quietly kill some prominent Japanese resident. Naturally there was a concentration of Japanese troops in the area. To start another incident the Japanese (similar to the short war over Shanghai in early 1932, ed.) sent two hundred ronins, or Korean loafers, to the Municipal reception. Actually the Chinese acted with promptness. Unexpectedly they arrested half of these people before their object was realised. The Japanese then turned up in force with twelve army trucks loaded with armed troops and circled the Municipal Square as a flagrant gesture of insolence. Again, the Chinese scored, for immediately arrived twelve Chinese armoured cars, complete with machine guns and troops. Each parked between a Japanese Army truck.  Honour was satisfied.

This was the day after the Japanese had sunk a Soviet gunboat on the Amur (in June 1937, ed.), and had forced, by diplomatic measure, the Soviet troops to evacuate the Amur Islands. After continual friction, bickering and actual fighting, the Japanese staged ‘night manoeuvres’ around the Chinese fort on the Marco Polo Bridge outside Peiping. Of course there were ample apologies, as mere politeness required. And it was during this evening, as we were sitting in the cocktail bar on the third floor of the Park Hotel overlooking the Racecourse and Shanghai, that the two million dollar godowns went up in flames. It commenced at eight, as we were sipping the Brandy Special with olive. The red glare seemed just across the Racecourse. The windows were rattling in the gentle evening breeze, and it looked as if the Shanghailanders were in for another grand dress-circle play. It seemed an omen, the shooting flames foretold of shell fire. Events were moving slowly and majestically to war, and we were the audience. Belligerent and confident, in the afternoon the Japanese demonstrated their force with troop-loaded army trucks. One soldier swung his loaded rifle at the head of my rickshaw coolie. The coolie ducked, for his head, if not his life. The troops on the truck were amused. We waited at the side of the Bund, in the International Settlement, for the Little Yellow Prussians to pass. And we were angry at them. It was some weeks before we saw actual fighting and killing.

They never pestered you. This was unlike the whining half white fortune tellers, who stood at your elbow if the boss was out and there was only a boy behind the bar. They talked to the air about their starving sick children, the wealth of the gentleman drinking and that the cost of the drink would provide his whole family with food for a day. While he whined he didn’t look at you and you didn’t look at him. You began to feel that you hated him because, what he said was all very true, if only he had a wife who was ailing and a little daughter in the hospital. So in the end you threw him twenty cents, without looking, and he fawned away to the next bar. It would be unwise to bawl him out, for he would be well in with the ronins and the loafers, who were ganged into territories. If late one night you were drunk, or asleep, in the rickshaw it might be just too bad what sort of accident happened. That is why it is illegal for a rickshaw man to be seen with a man sleeping in his carriage. He must wake him up or tip him out.

Leaving Shanghai was as dramatic as arriving. Those heading for Japan gathered in Nanking Road, joined a Japanese bus which travelled through their lines in Hongkou, down the River Huangpu, to where the Nagasaki Maru was berthed. This district had born the fighting of the first few weeks, and there was little left to see except a red road threaded through heaps of debris. This had once been buildings. There were bodies burning in piles too; the flies had been terrible, and gallons of Shelltox were used, but they liked it. Footpaths, for a mile or so, were covered with horses, and the gutters were used as a continuous depositary for grass hay. The motorized units of this modern army were useless in the mud of China and the crossword puzzles of her canals. The fires smoked all round the Bund and you could hear and see the shells bursting. Japanese planes droned round in their endless circles dropping bombs, always at the same point of the circle. You could see them leave the plane, and most certainly hear them explode after the little mushrooms of fire and dust shot into the sky. Down in my cabin, the worst in the ship because all the best were naturally devoted for Japanese Nationals, was a neatly printed notice in both Japanese and near English. Passengers were cordially requested to present, within five hours of the ships departure, a stool for examination. It was official. Shanghai was now a cholera district.

Categories: Battle, Memory

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