Spy Fever: The Keelung Incident

Had you visited Keelung (基隆), Taiwan in 1936, you most probably would have been subjected to making the acquaintance of one of these fellows (Japanese officials), and then bumped into them again, and again, and probably again (or at least colleagues of theirs). I got the pic from taipeimarc: http://www.taipics.com/

I have been meaning to write about the Keelung Incident (基隆事件) for a while. I'll put up some background first. I wrote this stuff before for something not related to my blog; I'll just repost it here to save some time. Then I'll bring up what went happened in Keelung in 1936:

On April 11, 1935, the captain of the Dutch tanker the Juno became the first Westerner in Taiwan in the lead up to the Second World War to be charged with espionage. After steering the ship, chartered by the Asiatic Petroleum Company, into the restricted waters off the Pescadores (澎湖), the captain was detained by Taiwan's Water Police. In his defense, he claimed his ship had been blown off course by a typhoon. He had had no choice but to set sail for the restricted ports of the Pescadores. Spurred on by a new brand of anti-foreign sentiment in Taiwan, officials roundly declared the captain of the Juno a liar and guilty, had him jailed and ultimately fined. Four days later, when a yacht called The Flying Dutchman, manned by a Russian, American and German, mosied into Keelung to get out of the rain, its crew was likewise arrested. That the American aboard was a lieutenant in the US navy did not help matters. In all, the three men spent two weeks in jail before being released with a fine of 200 yen. Both instances were unusual. In the past, the Japanese (and Taiwanese) had not usually made it a practice to detain the captains or crews of ship brought to Taiwan as a result of poor weather (in the twentieth century, that is). Now, within the space of two weeks, a precedent had been set.

The cases of the Juno and The Flying Dutchman showed how the colonial government was shifting to an increasingly protective, perhaps paranoid, stance: "For some years to come it is safe to say that any foreign vessel making unauthorized entrance into any but the four open ports of Keelung, Tamsui, Anping and Takao will find itself involved in considerable trouble," wrote the British Consul at Tamsui. Still, these were seen as diplomatic rows, based on Japan's exit or, depending on how we look at things, expulsion from the League of Nations and the world did not take them very seriously. In retrospect, we can see a hint of how Japan would conduct foreign affairs out of Taiwan. They were looking to shield secrets and put the locals on alert. As the Taiwanese followed along in the newspapers, on how their island was being besieged by foreign devils, etc., they were asking themselves: "Since when has Taiwan ever been overrun by Westerners?" Some knew the answer: twice, maybe three times in the history of the country.

An atmosphere of unease permeated Taiwanese society, a general feeling ramped up by the erratic behavior of the authorities. Average Taiwanese were trying to figure out the rules, where they could and could not go, with whom they could speak, how they might walk, what they might say, what time they needed to be in their homes and so forth so as not to provoke their increasingly sensitive rulers. According to one witness living in the Wanhua District (萬華區) of Taipei, "It was better to avoid them. You never knew what would set them off. Plus you just got fined for things you didn't know about." But fear mongering was paying dividends in making the ship as tight as a drum. Taiwanese were on the defensive: "We avoided Westerners because that was the way to stay out of trouble -- everybody did so," said the Wanhuaian. 

On June 26, 1935, the new British Consul C.H. Archer coined the expression "spy fever" for Taiwan in a confidential report back to London to explain the form of hysteria being whipped up by the colonial government. In the witch-hunt for spies, the most natural target was Westerners. "The foreign resident community of all sexes and ages, excluding Chinese, numbers less than a hundred [there were from 37,000 to 48,000 Chinese, mostly laborers, here], and the climate offers them little inducement to travel more than they must. Consequently, the sight of a foreigner in most districts remains a rarity; any individual who is eccentric enough to indulge in frequent week-end excursions is liable to excite suspicion, and no foreign resident of discretion takes an extended tour outside his usual beat without first informing the Government of his program and invoking suspicion," he wrote. 


Press articles attacking foreign residents and travellers in general, and foreign consuls in particular as accredited spies, have continued during this year . . . The anti-foreign feeling sedulously fostered by eighteen months' intensive preaching on the dangers of espionage had its inevitable sequel in the Keelung Incident.  -- C.H. Arthur, January 17, 1937

Here's how the Keelung Incident (基隆事件) unfolded:

1. Three British warships pull in at Keelung in October 1936; some crew members are detained after the ships' captains refuse to pay for a tow
2. The crew members are brought into the police station in Keelung for questioning
3. An officer intercedes and is, in the words of the British Consul, insulted
4. Upon gaining the crew members' discharge, it is discovered one detainee now has a compound fracture of the jaw
5. The British Consul in Tamsui protests. A "full inquiry" is conducted. It is concluded there are no broken jaws around here
6. The visit of Sir Charles Little's, Commander-in-chief in China, visit to Taiwan is postponed
7. Another Japanese enquiry reaffirms the previous verdict; clearly, the Brits are making up this stuff about the jaw 
8. Japanese diplomats are called in to explain in London. "Very restrained publicity" occurs there  
9. In response to #8, spokesmen in Tokyo and Taipei bring "vehement counter-charges." It seems everyone on board the three ships had been drunk. The behavior of the crew, especially to go around getting their jaws broken and the like, "proved gross deficiencies in discipline"

According to the British Consul C.H. Archer, the underlying cause of the "disgraceful affair" was that naval officers had been seen taking photographs from on board the ships. Cameras really seemed to have annoyed the Japanese. Prior to reporting on the Keelung Incident, the consul touched on this aspect of their personalities or training: "The position [on foreigners] has been aggravated by the new regulations issued during the summer, prohibiting photography from the air and from "high places." It is no longer safe for the foreigner to use a camera at all, except for portraiture within the home; and any with a taste for mountain walks need to step very warily indeed."

The wrap-up for the Keelung Incident isn't clear. I suspect the British kept a stiff upper lip, got the heck out, let it go and tried to keep a distance. The Russians, annoyed by similar instances, started to pick off Japanese ships near their waters as a way of fighting back. The US pretty much, from what I can tell, ignored spy fever. People back home didn't have much use for what is going on elsewhere and you have to realize this sense of being tuned out was only heightened by the Great Depression and a policy of international isolationism.

Getting back to the prohibition on cameras: can you imagine transporting some of the more hard-core Japanese (and Taiwanese) officials seventy-five years into the future? The Internet, especially Facebook, Flickr and Google Maps, would have caused an aneurysm or two. 


Anonymous said...

Keelung incident was such an insignificant matter compared to 228 incident, no wonder I kept googling and nothing showed up.
You might not know that there were armed soldiers continuously guarding all bridges in Taiwan under the martial law. No one is allowed to stop and observe the details of the Taipei bridge 台北大橋 nor making sketches or taking pictures. At that time, it is a serious matter to take any picture that we turn our heads and look all around before snap it, always afraid that we might accused of doing espionages.
The habit followed us all the way to the States. One day in 60s, we boarded U.S.S. Enterprise, the nuclear powered aircraft carrier at navy base and asked a sailor if it was all right to take a picture, "why not?" he answered with a strange expression, then he lined up with us for the picture taking.

Patrick Cowsill said...

228 wasn't an incident, but rather a massacre. Of course, people have tried to downplay it, calling it an incident. A lot of people have written about it. That you googled Keelung and nothing showed up makes it a worthy topic for writing about. You will be able to google lots of Taiwan's history without it showing up because it has been ignored, perhaps purposely, as the government has prioritized the history of other places over an accounting of Taiwan.

"You might not know that there were armed soldiers continuously guarding all bridges in Taiwan under the martial law."

I saw them guarding the bridges in the nineties, after martial law had ended. I always wondered about that; who would want to steal a bridge?

I was invited on warships in Keelung by my classmate, an officer, while I was in grad school at NCCU. We were also allowed to photograph them.

John Scott said...

Reading about the restrictions on phtography makes me appreciate even more the amateur street photos I have seen that survived from the Japanese colonial period and the Martial Law period, apart from the typical "postcard" views.

Here's an issue that this topic brought to mind, which I have often wondered about.

Back in the 1930s, I wonder what types of diplomatic personnel were assigned to Taiwan? In other words, how prestigious a posting was it, relatively speaking? Were capable and driven people sent to Taiwan? Or was the job somewhere between Bermuda and Andorra on the scale of relavance?

I don't want to cast apersions on the diplomatic personnel of any particular countries today (especially seeing as how nations today are not required to consider Taiwan as a real, actual, genuine national entity), but from my limited interaction with the representative office (in Taipei) of a certain Scandinavian country, my guess is that the Taipei office is where they send people straight out of university, or people who may only have served as assistants in other embassies. If they handle themselves exceedingly well in Taipei, they can hope to get an assignment someday in Palau or Burkino Faso, or some other "real" embassy at the lower levels of relevance. Or it might be a "consolation prize" posting for someone who decided to put in a few more years before retiring.

Diplomatic professionals who were assigned to Taipei can probably never aspire to any kind of position at their country's embassy in Beijing. If they were considered capable, serious, and career-minded professionals in the first place, then they would never have been assigned to Taipei.

Has it always been like that?

yankdownunder said...

The Russians, annoyed by similar instances, started to pick off Japanese ships near their waters as a way of fighting back.

What does "pick off" mean?

Patrick Cowsill said...

"Back in the 1930s, I wonder what types of diplomatic personnel were assigned to Taiwan? In other words, how prestigious a posting was it, relatively speaking? Were capable and driven people sent to Taiwan? Or was the job somewhere between Bermuda and Andorra on the scale of relavance?"

I don't know the answer to that. I feel, just by reading through their reports going back over the years, that they did a good job; they were not lacking in common sense. They advised some of the nut bags here, see Mackay, to calm down or on how to steer out of situations that his temper and pride landed him in. From where I'm standing, they did a good job of assessing things.

I do think the Chinese officials posted in Taiwan during the Ching Dynasty were, as a general rule, awful. I've brought up their incompetence from time to time on this blog. Their service was one of the main reasons there were 159 uprisings in 212 years of Ching rule and public works (railways, for one) were left incomplete.

Oh ! My Dear MM said...


我幾年前曾寫過一篇"一九三六年英國海軍訪問基隆之研究"談的正是基隆事件" Keelung Incident" ,


Patrick Cowsill said...

Dear Mr. Huang,

Do you have an exact link to your paper? "1936 English Naval Excursion to Keelung" that you can give me? That would be interesting to read. BTW, on the website that you've provided, do you think there are some 17th to 19th century maps of Wanhua? I've been trying to find some.


Patrick Cowsill said...

Oh, I see your report on the page provided after all. It's third from the bottom. Thanks!