China Boat

Chapter 39


Desires Official Proof of New View of China and Envoy's Pledge to Cooperate


Ambassador's Soundings are not Believed to Be in Harmony With Army Policies

Wireless to the New York Times

LONDON, May 3. — The British Government waited patiently but somewhat skeptically today for some sign that Premier Senjuro Hayashi and the military rulers of Japan would support the diplomatic soundings recently taken here by Ambassador Sigeru Yoshida.

Until now no such signs have come from Tokyo, although the Japanese Foreign Office and the liberal elements in the country loudly approve anything Ambassador Yoshida is doing. Mr. Yoshida, is, as the British well realize, more international in his outlook than any of the army officers who have dominated Japan since the Manchurian adventure was begun in 1931.

Mr. Yoshida assured the British in his recent talks at the Foreign Office that Japan's cooperative spirit toward China and the rest of the world had been growing by leaps and bounds in recent months … 

* * *

Wednesday, May 5th, 1937
4:35 p.m.
The Cathay Hotel
Sassoon House
The Bund
Shanghai, China

"Well?" from Father, finally.

I looked up from his hand-written notes, his aide-mémoire to the meeting we both had attended earlier in the afternoon.

"This is very interesting, sir. You've remembered some details which I had missed, completely. This bit on lower interest rates for inter-bank loans, for instance — "

The hand holding his pipe waved, dismissively.

"That was implied, rather indirectly; one had to have had knowledge of the current rate, to have caught the reference. It is no fault of yours."

"Yes, sir."


We were closeted in Father's room in the Cathay, in the lounge area. His room looked a great deal like mine, unsurprisingly; it was luxurious, and ornate, with coffered ceilings, and heavy green drapes, and with cut-glass fixtures throughout, all in something of a French Belle Epoque style.

Unlike mine, it also smelled strongly of smoke; both pipe-tobacco, and cigaret smoke, old and new. Just now, the room was almost hazy with pipe-smoke; Father was well into his second bowl in just twenty minutes. His whole posture, his manner, suggested tension to me, as much as he worked to conceal it. I know him.

I wondered at it.


"I am frankly," he continued, "more interested in your perceptions as an outside observer … hmm." He picked up my own memorandum, written after the fact, and began re-reading it in detail, his pipe firmly clenched in his teeth. More pipe-smoke escaped into the room.

* * *

It had been an odd meeting, from the beginning.


It had taken place, this meeting of bankers, not in any bank board room, but in a conference room in the Customs House; the tallest building on the Bund, with its distinctive, thin clock-tower eclipsing even the Cathay. The bright conference room had big windows overlooking the Bund and the Whangpoo; the ceiling was elaborately and beautifully painted.

The conference-table had been equally elegant. And before each chair was a writing-stand, with a blotter, an old-fashioned dip pen, and a heavy crystal inkwell. The inkwells were perfectly full. Under the circumstances — complete confidentiality, no notes to be taken — I'd wondered if it was all someone's idea of a joke.

The chairmanship, through some process that was invisible to me, seemed to have been determined in advance.

"Messieurs," the Chinese chairman had started; "Si vous voulez — "


It had been odd, sitting in on a business meeting, without being able to take notes. For one thing, the question becomes, what does one do, with one's hands — ? I was used to taking notes in class, or doodling … I settled for keeping my hands clasped on the table, in front of me.

It had also been odd listening to the meeting, in French. French which was heavily-accented, with accents which were entirely foreign to my experience — 

Father had needed me. I had needed to clarify words, phrases, whole sentences, for him, in whispered asides.

I wasn't sure how I felt, about doing so. I was glad enough to help, and proud enough at being able to be of service … but at the same time, I did not want to be an indispensable assistant.

I very much did not want to be indispensable.

* * *

"Mmmm," from Father, thoughtfully, as he read. Then — "Your handwriting is very much like your mother's. It is neat, and precise." He said it absently.

I did not answer. I couldn't, for a moment, actually; the sudden reminder of Mother, in this very distant, very alien place — 

I have only a few scraps, of Mother's handwriting; a few letters, a few postcards, the loving inscriptions inside the front covers of books … They mean a great deal to me. They are Mother's words, in her own hand, in her own voice, undistorted by my treacherous memory … 

Father did not notice my silence.

"Mmm … " Two more puffs, on his pipe. Then he looked up at me, directly.

"Tell me; when Mister Ling spoke of the increase in his bank's deposits —remember, he represents the Bank of Commerce — what did you think of his manner? His demeanor — ?"

I thought for a moment.

"Since you mention it, sir — I thought it odd. He reported a twenty-five percent increase in his deposit base, in a year; but it was as though he was — embarrassed, perhaps. Not proud, certainly."

Actually — the whole meeting, I thought, had been fraught. The tension had been very thick. Much was being left, unsaid.

It had worried me.

"I thought so too; although I would have added, 'apprehensive'." Another puff on his pipe. "That is because the increase represents money fleeing from the North, from Peking; and it is highly likely that most of it is here temporarily, before going overseas, or at least to Hong Kong. And in the meantime, he needs to find secure storage for the silver; his own vaults are almost full … That is one of the reasons we accompanied a shipment of gold, by the way."

"Sir — ?"

"Gold is much more valuable, by weight, than silver; a shipment of equal value in silver would have weighed several tons."

Two more puffs on his pipe. I dared to ask a question.

"So … money is fleeing, from Peking — ?" I asked it, cautiously.

"Yes," from Father; his eyes still on my handwritten notes. "Yes … there is a conflict brewing up there, and it is looking increasingly inevitable … " His eyes flicked up to meet mine, and then back down again. "You have heard of the events of 1932, I presume — ?"

"Somewhat, sir." One of my goals for myself, was to find a good book on the subject.

"The treaty which ended the conflict — it was a short war, actually — gave the Japanese, and other foreign powers, rights to station limited numbers of troops along roads and railway lines near their own bases." Another puff. "The Japanese have interpreted the treaty terms quite liberally. They have based large troop formations near Peking, and they are bringing in still more by the day. It is rumored that they have Peking virtually surrounded."

Wars, and the rumors of wars. First Spain, and the special horror of Guernica; and now this. I wished it would all go away.

"I thought that the Chinese president — Chiang Kai-shek — ? I thought that he was unwilling to fight the Japanese — ?"

Father glanced up at me again, briefly; perhaps in slight surprise. It was something I'd heard from Mister Grey.

"He will have to fight this time, I'm afraid. Even though Peking is no longer the capital, it is still immensely important; no Chinese leader could cede Peking to Japan without a fight, and expect to remain in power." His face grew bleak, and more tense, again. "It is largely because of the situation in the North, that we are here. It is why we are engaged in these talks. Partly I am to assess the resulting risks to our Bank, of course; but — and this is privileged information — I am also to see what the Bank can do, to help maintain the current flows of liquid funds in North China." Another two puffs. "A healthy banking system is essential to the economic life of any country."

I blinked at that.

"Yes, sir."

I do not much like banking. I think banking practices brought about the Depression, and made millions destitute around the world. But banking is Father's whole life, and his passion; and, I thought, perhaps in this field, he knew better than I.

His eyes flicked back down to my notes. Another few puffs, on his pipe.

"Father — ?"

"Hm — ?"

I proceeded, carefully. "The potential for conflict, over Peking — may I ask, is this a common rumor, here — ?"

"Oh, yes; it is much discussed. I heard the same thing from two entirely different sources, in our first two days, here."

"I see, sir."

What I saw, was that I now had a piece of 'inside' information, which I could pass on to Mister Grey with a perfectly clean conscience. It would be interesting to watch his reaction.

Father's eyes flicked up again, to meet time.

"You do realize, of course, that Peking is eight hundred miles away from us? We are perfectly safe, here, in the International Settlement — and regardless, in the event, there are many safe havens in Asia nearby; Hong Kong, Manila, and Singapore, for example."

I was chilled, twice over. First, because Tom's father would enjoy none of these protections in the field, and Tom and his family would not have the option of running to Singapore — 

I remembered Mister Grey's story of hotel guests, watching fighting in the Chapei District, just blocks away, from their hotel roofs.

But I was also chilled by the implications of Father's words. That we might be in Shanghai long enough for such contingencies to become necessary … 

And then, I was immediately ashamed of myself, for thinking about my own dilemma. Tom and his family — his father's safety — came first. But I could not help my feeling of dread.

Father went back to reading my notes, in silence. Twice, he stopped to close his eyes, and to rub the bridge of his nose, between thumb and forefinger; I knew, then, that he had a headache. Eventually, he put my notes down on the little table beside the chair.

"Your observations are excellent. I had forgotten, in particular, the comment by Monsieur Leveque, of the Banque de L'Indo-Chine." He paused, to massage between his eyes, again. "That is the value of having two observers, in such confidential proceedings."

"Yes, sir." I said it neutrally, and without enthusiasm.

"I will draft a cable to the Bank, and do the initial encoding, this afternoon. You can do the secondary encoding tomorrow morning."

"Yes, sir." I gathered myself, ready to stand. "Will you be needing me, for the rest of this afternoon — ?"

"No. You are free to go … No; wait." He looked at me, his attention clearly focusing back on me, rather than upon the cable he'd just been contemplating.

"Sir — ?" I subsided in my armchair.

"Speaking of safety, as we were just a moment ago — I have been made aware, that I have been somewhat remiss, in giving you the free run of the International Settlement." He regarded me, expressionlessly. "It seems that the Settlement is not quite as safe, as I was originally told. The streets are not without danger; and organized criminal gangs operate here."

I raised an eyebrow.

"The police are everywhere, on almost every corner, sir … Sikhs, for the most part, and they seem well-respected. They carry large wooden staffs, and they are not afraid of using them." Primarily on miscreant rickshaw-pullers, I did not add. I'd seen two such beatings, already. It had been extremely disturbing.

"That does not necessarily make the streets safe. As I said, organized crime is said to be quite active, here."

"I am a New Yorker, sir," I pointed out. Dryly.

I was rewarded with a wry twitch, at the corner of his mouth. It was the most human reaction I'd had from him, in days.

"Point taken. Nevertheless. Going forward, I must ask you — when you are alone — to confine yourself to the Bund, and a block or so inland; to Kiangse Road, say. You may, however, use Nanking Road as far as the Recreation Ground; Mister Kaufman tells me that would be safe enough, and I expect you might like to go running, there. However, you are not to attend the racetrack proper, unaccompanied. Of course."

I tried not to gape at him.

"Father — that does not leave much of Shanghai available to me. Just a few blocks, in fact."

He went on as if I'd said nothing.

"I also want you to stay south and west of Soochow Creek, when you are without adult company. Is that understood — ?"

I blinked at him. Soochow Creek is a — rather dirty, and crowded — creek which runs into the Whangpoo, just past the British Consulate, and the Public Garden. By making that my northern and eastern limit, he was cutting off my access to a huge part of the International Settlement; a part which I had not yet seen, actually.

I objected.

"Father," I started; then I paused, and then I continued, speaking slowly, for emphasis. "The main Post Office is north of Soochow Creek." I paused, again. "And so is the Hospital. And so is the Astor Hotel."

The Astor was the Cathay's chief competitor, for opulence and prestige, in Shanghai.

Father raised an eyebrow.

"And if you have a legitimate reason to visit any of those institutions, of course you may. But the Hongkew District proper is on the other side of Soochow Creek, further down the river; I am told that it has become relatively disreputable, and perhaps even dangerous. It is filled — crowded — with refugees from the fighting in 1932, and the poorer refugees from Europe; and apparently it is policed primarily by the Japanese. It is said to be a little bit wild. That, supposedly, is why the American Consulate moved to this side of the Creek. I believe they would have stayed, if they could; the Hongkew is where the old American Concession was, before we and the British merged our holdings to create the International Settlement."

"Sir — " I began; ready to press forward with my objections — 

Father raised his hand.

"I did not say you could never go to the Hongkew district, or the rest of Greater Shanghai, for that matter; I said you were not to go alone, without company. In fact, I would like to send you to the Hongkew, quite soon."

"Sir — ?" I blinked at him.

He paused, to puff on his pipe again; and his gaze shifted downward, back to my handwritten notes.

And under my eyes, he grew — uncomfortable. Visibly uncomfortable. It wasn't terribly obvious; I don't know if anyone else would have noticed, even. But I know him, as he does me.

"I have a package — or I will have a package — which I wish to have hand-delivered to an address in the Hongkew." He paused. "It is a very important package; I shall want a receipt from the man to whom it is addressed; and I will want a full description, from you, of this man, and of his circumstances, and your own opinion as to whether he is to be trusted in — an important business matter."

A moment's silence, between us.

"I see, sir."

I most definitely did not see.

Father cleared his throat.

"I have arranged for the services of a comprador, to act as your guide and escort. If you find him satisfactory, we may engage him for other trips about the city which you might want to undertake. In fact, we both may find quite a bit of work for him to do; so passing on his qualifications and performance will be an important part of your task."

"A 'comprador', sir?" I kept my tone neutral.

"A comprador is — I suppose you could say, a facilitator. He is a Shanghainese who speaks excellent French and English, who helps arrange business matters between Westerners and the Chinese." Another puff on his pipe, as he regarded me, now, closely. "This particular comprador's family name is Chen; I do not yet know his personal name. He is the son of the Bank's most senior comprador, here in Shanghai. Businesses here, as I have mentioned, tend to run on family ties."

It was a slight, pointed reminder of why I was in Shanghai, with him, I knew. I chose to ignore it.

"And yet, sir … I am to be the one to deliver this package. Rather than he." I said it as a statement, rather than the question it was.

"You are." Another two puffs on his pipe; and I could see the subtle signs of his discomfort returning. But, to his credit, this time he did not look away.

"As I said, son, this is an important package … I had planned, and would have strongly preferred, to deliver it myself. But it is essential that the delivery be made — discreetly; this matter is of a very private nature. And, there has been a complication."

With that, Father withdrew a folded sheet from underneath my notes; and he handed it to me.

The sheet proved to be a newspaper — a newsletter, would have been a more accurate description — entitled, 'Shanghai Financial Weekly' … 

And on the front page of the newsletter, there was a photograph of Father. Above an article, discussing the general nature of his business in Shanghai, and a partial list of the banks which had been represented at the two meetings which we'd had, so far. There was even a passing reference to the gold bullion which we had accompanied.

I read it through quickly, and looked up at Father; shocked.

"How — ?"

He shrugged, and waved the pipe in his hand, dismissively. "It is, as I've feared all along, an attempt to move stock prices; for short-term gain. It was, perhaps, inevitable. It will be interesting, tomorrow, to see who are the larger buyers and sellers of local bank shares on the Shanghai exchange … if the identities of the participants are not in fact disguised. They probably will be."

I looked down at Father's photo, again; and then back up, as a horrible thought struck me.

"Father — I hope you know, I've discussed our business with no-one. Not a soul." Nor had I; all Tom and Mister Grey knew, was that I was acting as a Confidential Secretary in 'business meetings'. I had said nothing about the nature of those meetings.

"I know, son." He said it simply, and took another puff on his pipe.

A silence between us, then; and I re-read the article.

"You know, Father, there's an error in this … the Yokohama Specie Bank was not represented in either of our meetings."

"You caught that." Another puff from his pipe. "You are correct. But a representative from that bank will be at our next meeting." A pause, and another puff. "Only a handful of people, here and in New York, are aware of that fact. It has given me," he went on, dryly, "food for thought."

Another pause.

"Yes, sir."

For the second time, I considered telling Father about my cabin on the Hoover having been searched … and for the second time, I decided against it. If he had indeed been the one to read Jack's letters, I very much did not want him to know that I was aware of the fact.

Another, silent, pause.

How did we get ourselves to this pass? I wondered.

"In any case," Father continued, "you can perhaps see why I am — unsuitable — as a candidate to deliver this package, now." Another puff, on his pipe. The room was even smokier, now, than before. "And for that, you have my apologies. But again — it is too important a task, and too important a package, to entrust to a hired messenger; and, discretion is critical, in this instance." Another puff. His eyes flashed at me, briefly. "Incidentally — you are to be congratulated, in keeping your name out of the 'North China Daily News', at our landing."

I wondered if he was being sardonic.

"Thank you, sir. It wasn't easy."

"I know; I was there, I saw the whole affair, from start to finish. You were quite adept, at slipping away from the newspaper reporters. I meant my congratulations quite sincerely. It is a skill which might serve you well, later in life."

I tried not to wince, at the idea.

"Thank you, sir … " I paused for a moment, before plunging on. "Father — ?"

"Hm — ?" from him, from around the stem of his pipe.

"Is there anything I should know about … this package, which I am to deliver — ? Or the business it concerns — ?" I chose my words carefully.

His eyes came up to meet mine; and his face was closed, and expressionless.

"Only that the entire matter is confidential; and that I will be grateful for your complete discretion in its execution. And, as I said, I will also be grateful for your candid opinions about the recipient." He set my notes aside. "Now if you will excuse me, I will begin drafting my cable. You are free until tomorrow morning."

"Yes, sir." I felt my own face closing down, in reaction to the dismissal. "Will I see you at dinner, tonight?"

"I believe I'll be dining in my room. I will be busy."

"Very well. Goodnight, then, sir." I rose.

"Goodnight," from him, absently.

For a moment, I'd thought I had re-established some sort of contact, some sort of human intimacy, with Father. Obviously, I had been mistaken.

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