By the 1930s, Shanghai was already a legend in its own time––the most modern, populous, and decadent city in China. The Shanghainese worshipped Western culture, and the stylistic Art Deco architecture was all the rage. High-rise buildings sprouted like mushrooms until there were more skyscrapers in Shanghai than anywhere else in the world outside of New York and Chicago.
Bridge House was a good example of these buildings. The eight-story hotel’s name derived from the North Szechuan Road Bridge that spanned nearby Soochow (now Suzhou) Creek. Built around 1935, it was an ordinary Chinese hotel, one of many in the growing metropolis. The architecture was typical for the period, with an off-white façade and Art Deco touches.
Despite its architectural details, this building at 478 North Szechuan Road was so ordinary as to be anonymous. Yet it was destined to be the most infamous and dreaded place in all Shanghai—the Japanese equivalent of the Gestapo’s Columbia-Haus in Berlin. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people were imprisoned here from 1937 to 1945, many suffering unspeakable torture at the hands of brutal Japanese captors.
The story of Bridge House is a harrowing tale of agonizing pain and obscene brutality but also of human courage and endurance in the face of death. Its first victims were Chinese, but after Pearl Harbor a steady stream of Allied civilians and POWs found themselves incarcerated there. The portals of Bridge House were unmarked but should have borne a legend echoing that of Dante’s Inferno: “Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here”
The International Settlement in Shanghai
This hellish hostelry cannot be fully understood without some background history. Shanghai, in the 1930s, was divided into three different entities. The International Settlement was a product of China’s weakness in the 19th century. Technically Chinese soil, it was really a separate enclave ruled by a 14-man Shanghai Municipal Council (SMC). There were five British councilmen, two Americans, two Japanese, and five Chinese.
The French Concession was, in essence, a colonial possession of France, adjoining the International Settlement but rarely cooperating with it. The rest of the city was known as Greater Shanghai. Before 1937 it was ruled by the Chinese central government based in Nanking (Nanjing), which appointed its mayor and other functionaries.
When the Sino-Japanese War broke out in the summer of 1937, Chang Kai-shek, the Chinese head of state, decided to make a stand against the invaders at Shanghai. The Chinese proved courageous fighters, contesting every inch of their soil, but after three months of bloodshed, the Japanese gained the upper hand. Battered Chinese divisions retreated up the Yangtze River, leaving the Japanese in control of Greater Shanghai.
Conquest followed the usual patterns. The Japanese established the Dadao (Chinese for “Great Way”) Municipal Government, a body that was supposed to be dedicated to reform. It was a transparent ploy, and even the simplest Chinese coolie could not fail to recognize the government’s true nature as a Japanese puppet.
In reality, the Japanese, like the Romans, had “made a desert and called it peace.” Whole sections of the Chapei District had been laid waste because of the fighting, while other districts were ruthlessly stripped of anything of value. Every pipe, appliance, and bathroom fixture that could be found was ripped out of buildings and turned to scrap.
But the Japanese could not take over the International Settlement without risking war with Britain and the United States. The Settlement became a “Lonely Island,” a small patch of unoccupied ground in a Japanese “sea.” Technically, the Japanese did have a foothold in the Settlement, namely the Chapei and Hongkew Districts. Hongkew in particular was eventually home to some 30,000 Japanese, so many that it was dubbed “Little Tokyo.”
The Anglo-American “core” of the Settlement, which included the famous Bund waterfront, was separated by a snaking waterway called Soochow Creek. It became a kind of unofficial international boundary, like the Rio Grande in North America, albeit on a much smaller scale. Several bridges crossed the creek, including Garden Bridge, where Japanese sentries patrolled one end of the span and British troops guarded the other, the “Bund” side.
The Bridge House Hotel: Secret Prison of the Kempeitai
It was probably about this time that Bridge House was established as a prison by the Kempeitai, the Imperial Japanese Army’s ruthless military police—Westerners called them gendarmerie. The hotel was certainly up and running as a clandestine prison by 1937.
The Kempeitai acquired a sinister reputation as time went on. Chinese staff and hotel guests were presumably evicted, and the rooms were converted into cells and torture chambers. Bridge House became not just a prison but the regional Kempeitai headquarters for Shanghai.
During the “lonely island years,” 1937-1941, victims were Chinese. Most Westerners were completely unaware that the hotel was now a prison even though it was a mere two blocks from Shanghai’s classically designed Central Post Office, an impressive landmark even today. People bought stamps and posted letters (though there were Japanese censors on the premises), little knowing that others were being tortured to death just a three-minute walk away.
The Kempeitai’s War on Journalists
Temporarily safe on neutral ground, courageous Chinese, American, and British journalists exposed Japan’s atrocities and lust for conquest. One of these was John Benjamin Powell, editor and publisher of the China Weekly Review and China Press. Outspoken and unafraid, Powell was pro-Chinese and made no apologies for it.
Hallett Abend, correspondent for the New York Times, was another thorn in the Japanese side. Abend exposed Japanese aggression and was not shy about naming names.
Major General Saburo Miura, who headed the Shanghai Kempeitai from 1939 to the end of 1940, took a particular dislike to Abend. Two armed thugs invaded Abend’s apartment in Broadway Mansions, searching for materials the American had written allegedly “insulting the Japanese Army.” His apartment was ransacked and Abend himself was brutalized and badly beaten. It was a foretaste of what was to come.
Ironically, Broadway Mansions was in Hongkew, in the Japanese-dominated section of Shanghai. Knowing this, Abend was in the process of moving to the other side of Soochow Creek when the assault occurred. In spite of his grievous injuries, Abend was lucky. He lived on the 16th floor, and the Kempaeitrai agents could have flung him out the window to his death.
Abend finally left Shanghai in the fall of 1940, so was spared the terror to come. In July 1940, the Japanese issued a blacklist of foreign and Chinese journalists who were earmarked for “deportation;” John B. Powell’s name was on the top of the list. Shortly thereafter, a Japanese agent tried to assassinate Powell near the American Club on Foochow (now Fuzhou) Road.
Powell was hit in the back by a foreign object, nearly knocking him over. The editor discovered to his horror it was an unexploded Japanese hand grenade. In his haste, the would-be assassin had failed to fully pull the pin. Thereafter, Powell worked largely at night.
Others were not so fortunate. It was open season for Chinese editors foolish enough to take an anti-Japanese stand. Tsai Diao-tu’s severed head was found in the French Concession with a note tied to it that read, “Look! Look! The result of anti-Japanese elements.” Many more assassinations followed, no doubt orchestrated by the Kempetai.
The Japanese Invade the International Settlement
The hell of Bridge House was revealed after December 8, 1941, the day the Japanese took over the International Settlement in the wake of Pearl Harbor. Since Japan was at war with the United States and Great Britain, there was no need to observe diplomatic niceties, or render even lip service to international law. The Kempeitai, called “Japan’s Gestapo,” seemed hell bent on living up to the comparison.
The Kempeitai had several categories of victims. First on the list were British and American journalists, men who had dared to insult the Japanese nation by exposing the truth about its Army’s brutal activities.
Next were bankers and corporate executives—mostly American, British, and a few other nationalists—who had been living in Shanghai when war broke out. If they were financiers or bankers, they could be forced to cooperate, or even be tortured to reveal “hidden funds.” Foreign businessmen were suspected of espionage, and torture might loosen tongues to gain “information.” The vast majority of these “espionage rings” were products of Japanese paranoia and fantasy that bordered on the delusional.
As the months progressed, Allied POWs were incarcerated in Bridge House. Usually there were “in transit,” destined for another prisons, but they suffered beatings and privations while at 478 North Szechuan Road. The last category of inmate is perhaps the strangest of all—Japanese soldiers who were “insubordinate,” or had refused duty.
For the first few days after the Japanese takeover of Shanghai, all was fairly normal. It was a deceptive calm before a terrible storm. Most of the men marked for apparent arrest still remained at liberty. Lulled into a sense of euphoria by this sudden turn of events, the Anglo-American community breathed a collective sigh of relief.