… this is the story – as I remember it – the way our father (Mr. Pander, C.E.O. of the Belgian Bank in Tientsin) told to us … many years after the war.
He came to China from Belgium after World War One ― in 1924 as a young banker and started his professional life in Peking. At barely 30 years old, he was manager of a Bank in Hankow. He was very open to all the different cultures and customs of the time and became an expert in the art of compromise and discretion. I remember that when he was a retired man … in Belgium, long after having left China forever, we all asked him to write the memoirs of his personal experiences in China. He refused to do so, pretexting that he knew too many secrets.
Let us come back to our story:
In 1941, Mr. Pander was the manager of the Belgian Bank in Tientsin and the assistant Manager was Mr. Pétiaux. Both of them were married with two very young children and the two families lived on the top floors of the bank.
The bank itself, was a three storey massive building built in 1922 (Belgian architect: Mr. Gustave Volkaert). The ground floor and the basement were exclusively reserved to the bank. The first floor held the Manager’s apartment and the second floor (under the roof) was for the Assistant Manager and their respective families. Like on a cargo ship: they lived where they worked.
Now, the facts:
Tientsin, December 8, 1941 – 7 o’clock in the morning …
… the two managers were brutally awakened by the coming of many Japanese soldiers. The Japs were there to take over the Belgian Bank – they said -- in the name of their Emperor, Hirohito …
Quite rapidly, the tragedy of PEARL HARBOR became known to all, and the Japanese were very proud of the success of their surprise attack designed by Admiral Yamamoto. They proudly divulged the news to impress the Chinese population as well as the foreigners. The Pacific War was beginning.
… And now, a little bit of history of the overall situation in Tientsin as far as we were concerned:
Tientsin, December 1941.
On December 8, the Japanese military occupy all the key positions: administrations, banks, tramways etc.; seize or insinuate themselves into all the affairs of the powers considered to be enemies of Japan: America - England - Holland - Belgium.
France - Germany - Switzerland - Sweden - Italy, keep their privileges as neutral countries or allies of Japan (Axis: Berlin - Rome - Tokyo).
The Belgian government of London had sided with the opponents of Japan, we become "the enemy" and subject to the Japanese military dictatorship with other countries. France will benefit from doubt, during all hostilities, with the presidency of Marshal Pétain at its head.
The Japanese had already infiltrated the northern part of China since 1937. The regions of Peking and Tientsin were therefore administrated by the Japanese military power and thus, no resistance of any kind could be opposed against them at that time.
This was not the case in Shanghai and especially Hong Kong, where resistance occurred. The reprisals were bloody and terrible. To the military fury of the Japanese was added their racial hatred of the whites. The Hong Kong military forces resisted against the Japanese invasion by the way of arms and the Japanese fought back by killing without discrimination. Military as well as civilians – killing and raping.
These atrocities, if any, were very rare in the cities of Peking, Tientsin, and the regions of the North already under Japanese civil guardianship.
But prudence and obedience to regulations and defenses were of course advised.
All "enemies" had to wear a red armband with the black sign indicating their nationality. Prohibition to leave the concession that one lived. Curfew. Obligation to submit to all kinds of vaccines. Passes needed. Requisition of cars, pianos, rugs, refrigerators.
Sentinels were posted at the entrances of all the important buildings, including the banks. All the enemy banks were therefore occupied by the Japanese and their "gold" seized in the name of the Emperor.
On the first day of occupation in the Belgian Bank, when the managers had gone downstairs, not yet fully dressed, it was too late. The enemy had already invested the Bank, and Japanese soldiers with Arisaka Rifles and bayonets were requesting to take over the whole building in the name of their Emperor.
The administrators had to comply but adopted the style of hypocrite politeness in regard to our captors.
Of course, the sensitive parts of the Bank were sealed such as the vault in the basement and all of our customers’ coffers. The Japanese requested all keys to be handed over to them including all duplicates if any. As my father, Mr. Pander and the other members of the staff had previously agreed that no duplicates existed … none were given. They pretexted that it was a peculiarity of the Belgian Bank and the Japs believed us.
Long after the closing time of the Bank and in the silence of the night, the two managers and the Comprador creeped down into the basements and thanks to Mr. Wei’s skills, set free the Japanese seals of the afternoon and opened the vault with the spare keys they possessed.
A strong tarpaulin was spread on the vault’s pavement and the coffers of all our customers were opened and emptied of the gold ingots they contained. The action went as fast as possible and in silence. The tarpaulin was then dragged out of the vault and the chamber was closed. The seals retrieved their original state thanks to the comprador’s know how. The tarpaulin was painfully hauled to the upper floors and the contents hidden all over the place. My father told me that many ingots were hidden in the flush tanks of the toilets … amongst others!
Dad did not tell me if they were disturbed by Japanese guards so I guess that on account of the managers' rapid action – early after the Japanese takeover – the Japs' organization was not yet optimum or maybe that the guards, outside, were drowsing at their posts!
All was not over yet.
This mountain of gold could not stay in the apartments at the Bank.
Discreetly the owners of the coffers were notified. When told, they did not believe their ears, considering their gold to be lost and already in the hands of the Japanese Emperor.
Slowly and surely, each client recovered his due.
Of course, considering the exceptional situation, no receipt could be required, a fact well understood by both parties.
Each of our Chinese clients gave his word of honor to confirm after the war that they had received the contents of their coffers. Three years later, none failed.
This is a true story!
Later in the year 1942, we no longer lived at the Bank. The Japs had the two families transferred to another location in Tientsin and we lived there, very uncomfortably, under house arrest.
Mr. Pétiaux was requisitioned by the Japs to work for the Tientsin Tramway Co. (It was a long time Belgian contribution to Tientsin). Dad had received the same kind of proposal but refused to work for the Japs and his family was thus herded into a Concentration Camp for the duration of the war.
We lived in Weihsien for two and a half difficult years – 873 days.
Even after the war and a very long time after, Dad always refused to work or make business with or for the Japanese.