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Jazz in Occupied China: Black Jazzmen at the Japanese Prison Camp in Weihsien, China during World War II

Desmond Power, a third generation British subject born in Tientsin (now Tianjin), China in 1923, was incarcerated along with 1,500 other foreign nationals in 1943 in Weihsien, a Japanese Prisoner of War camp in North China during World War II.  In the article below, Power recalls Earl Whaley and other African American jazz musicians who were placed there as well and how their music lifted the morale of the prisoners.

I do not write this as a historian, nor do I have sources to which I can refer readers. I write simply as a contemporary and close comrade of some black jazz musicians with whom I was incarcerated in a Japanese prison camp in China during World War II. The war ended 67 years ago, yet most of my memories of the time and place remain intact though somewhat generalized.

Few need reminding that the Shanghai of the 1920s and 30s was called the Paris of the Orient for its profusion of extravagant nightclubs, cabarets, casinos, and bordellos, and that while the US was dragging itself out of the Great Depression, Shanghai was enjoying a boom, its nightlife going full tilt, attracting big names in the U.S. jazz world eager to cash in on the opportunities there.

As jazz band leader Earl Whaley told it, by the time he arrived there in 1934, most of the big names had come and gone, but there was no stopping him from cashing in. His seven man group, the Red Hot Syncopators, that had set Seattle, Washington’s jazz world ablaze was now doing the same at St. Anna’s Ballroom at 80 Love Lane, close by the Shanghai Race Course.

His popularity zoomed, not only with jazz lovers among the city’s 100,000 foreign residents, but also with the modern set among the local Chinese. For three long years, everything went Whaley’s way. Money was good, living cheap, and the racial demeaning of blacks so common in the U.S. at that time, was practically unheard of.

Then in 1937 disaster struck when Japan began its subjugation of China. Japan was not quite yet ready to take on the U.S. and its Allies (that would happen 4½ years

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