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November 14, 2016

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Shanghai in 1930s: A melting pot of history and culture

IN 2012, when ex-cop Frode Z. Olsen visited his alma mater in Copenhagen, it put him on a journey that was to culminate in a book four years later.

“Not the Slightest Chance” was published in Danish last week and records the stories of nine Danish men who volunteered to defend Hong Kong on December 8 and fought the Japanese until their surrender on December 25, 1942.

The title is former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s response to Hong Kong’s prospects if it went to war against Japan.

There are plenty of stories of foreigners volunteering and sacrificing their lives to defend Hong Kong; Olsen’s book is the first one that offers a Danish perspective — a fact he was blissfully unaware until that eventful trip to his alma mater, Vognmandsmarken (present-day Kildevæld) in the eastern part of Copenhagen.

Walking around, he came to a wall dedicated to World War II veterans. As he scrolled through the names, one person caught his eye. It simply said he was a member of a Hong Kong volunteer defense team and was killed in 1942.

Olsen’s detective urge was understandable as he was posted in Beijing as a law enforcement liaison officer between China and five Nordic countries, and happened just a year before he was due for retirement.

The Danish cop went through a minefield of research that took him back to Denmark, and also Hong Kong and Shanghai.

In Shanghai, he uncovered more stories of Danes in the city — 343 of them until June 1934, a relatively high number.

“(But) it is hardly a surprise,” Olsen says. “Due to Denmark’s geographic location near the sea, Danes have always been sailors, and involved in maritime explorations over centuries. It also led Danes to be influenced by foreign culture a lot, and were always up to the date on the trends in the world.”

In the 1930s, Shanghai had about 152,000 registered foreign residents. Even today, it continues to attract foreigners with as many as 170,000 registered foreigners in a city of roughly 24 million.

Back then, Shanghai’s total population was 3 million.

“I believe Shanghai was more metropolitan than London, Paris, New York or Tokyo at that time,” according to Xiong Yuezhi, a local historian from the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

“Expatriates at that time were more localized than those living in the city today. Many identified themselves as native Shanghainese. They lived here, bought land, built houses, gave birth to their children, built schools, hospitals, factories, and considered Shanghai their homeland.”

The British and the Americans were the first to arrive after the city opened its port in 1843. Others followed soon afterward. Before 1910, British topped the number of expatriates in Shanghai, followed closely by Americans, and then French, German, Japanese and Portuguese.

Many came for business opportunities, especially British, American and German companies. Right after Shanghai opened its port in 1843, there were already five foreign companies in the city, and 11 more in the next year, all by British businessmen. By 1911, the number expanded to 643, among which more than half from the UK and the US.

Russians formed another major community in Shanghai after the October Revolution in 1917. They were known to local Chinese as white Russians, to be differentiated from the red Communist Russians who took over. Unlike most other immigrants who preferred to stick with their communities or other foreign nationals, many Russians lived and interacted with the Chinese communities.

Many memoirs and records have been published, especially in English and French, with many of them referring to themselves as Shanghailanders. As Olsen researched for his book, he dug out traces of the four Danish men who lived, survived or died in Shanghai and Hong Kong.

“I had probably seen that memorial wall and the names on it many times before, but I never thought of giving it a closer look,” the author and retired police officer says.

“It was probably because I was working in Beijing at the time, and traveled down to Hong Kong a lot. I was curious. Why did this man who went to the same school as I did in Copenhagen come to Hong Kong and get killed there at a very young age?”

It was later found that the man was working for the East Asiatic Company (EAC), a Danish shipping and trading firm in Hong Kong. The company still has office in Shanghai at Three on the Bund.

Many of the Danes in Shanghai were working for major Danish companies, including the Great Nordic Telegraph Company (GNTC) that was headquartered at No. 7 on the Bund (today’s Bangkok Bank). The company was founded in 1869 in Europe, and by summer of 1970, they had set up the Shanghai office. A year later, they put telegraph cables in the ocean that connected Shanghai to Hong Kong as well as Shanghai to Nagasaki in Japan.

Around 70 Danes were working in Shanghai for the telegraph company. Among them, Alec Damsgaard, captain of the GNTC cableship Store Nordiske, and Holger Christensen, a naval cadet, are both subjects of Olsen’s book, in which he recounts their heroic acts of helping a handful of Chinese and British officers escape on their boat on the night of Hong Kong’s surrender.

Among the passengers on the boat were Admiral Chan Chak, a legendary one-legged naval general who was awarded KBE (Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) in 1942. The boat was discovered by Japanese troops and fired upon, but miraculously most of the men managed to escape.

On a recent trip to Shanghai, Olsen traced Damsgaard’s footstep and located the house he lived on Lucerne Road — today’s Lixi Road in Changning District.

He also located Clement’s Apartment — named after a Belgian man Clement who built it — on Fuxing Road M. The five-house complex once hosted many foreign families, including two young widows who lived with their children — Lise Huttemeier and Karen Christensen.

Their husbands, Erik Huttemeier and Niels Osrkov Christensen, were good friends who fought in Hong Kong and were taken prisoners.

The wives were not allowed to visit their imprisoned husbands and forced to move to Shanghai where they settled down at Clement’s.

Christensen had started writing a diary before the war and secretly continued writing even when he was incarcerated. He died in the camp in 1942, barely 34 years old. His friend Huttemeier buried the diary in the camp and left it there when he was released in 1945.

Three years later, he returned to Hong Kong to recover the diary at the infamous Shamshuipoo camp. He gave it to his wife and returned to Denmark.

“It was through this diary that she learned about her husband’s last years. It was like having him back again,” Olsen recalls Karen Christensen’s words when he interviewed her at the age of 95.

“The diary was a major source of my book because he wrote in extensive details about how life was in the camp and after the battle.”


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