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Orchid from the North - Part 2

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Yoshiko Yamaguchi as a teenager. Photo courtesy of John Shubert via the Yoshiko Yamaguchi blog, 2016. With deepest gratitude.

“Fengtian was my castle of dreams,” we heard Yoshiko say in our previous chapter, and she had myriad reasons to feel that way. Fengtian, also known as Shenyang (and Mukden to Westerners), was evolving into a marvelous new city. This very old place—which Qing Dynasty founder Nurhaci1 (1559-1626) made his capital in 1625, converted into the center of Manchu China, and promptly discarded—had become China’s fourth largest city and its most significant northeastern economic center.

During the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901), Russia lurched to occupy it. She held it in her clutches until March 10, 1905, when Japan ripped it away from her in one of the cruelest of modern battles. The ten-day Battle of Mukden, between a Western colossus and an Asian upstart, won the dubious distinction of being the most protracted, unrelenting, and bloody confrontation of the early 20th century.2 The Japanese cost for the win was 75,000 lives; Russia lost nearly 90,000.3 

After the expensive victory, and in anticipation of the area’s brighter future, Japan went about diligently modernizing Mukden. It could become a prized jewel—a central attraction of the “Co-Prosperity Sphere4.” Culturally it was a fantastic treasure, rich with the languages and traditions of several Asian and Russian cultures; moreover, the entire region around Mukden was an ideal land expanse where Japan could resettle its excess population.

In just a few years, the whole of Fengtian came to resemble a small independent state within the Japanese empire. It had become the property of the powerful business complex commonly known as the South Manchuria Railway, or Mantetsu. If this sounds familiar, perhaps it is because Japan was superbly learning from the West how to become a major power of the 20th century.

South Manchuria Railway launched significant urbanization, new construction, and total modernization of the area and its transportation systems.5 Along with new factories, new medical and business facilities at all levels were built to serve both the Japanese colonists and the native population. The area also fostered excellent institutions that provided quality education for both Chinese and Japanese speakers. The railway even offered free transportation to rural families for their children to attend the schools along the line.

Fengtian had attracted many Asians from other parts of the continent as well as a large number of White Russians, as the refugees from Communist Russia were then known. Because of this diversity, and the modernization efforts of the Japanese, the city enjoyed exceptional cultural facilities that offered attractions in different languages.6 Many Japanese newcomers fell in love with their new land and became very interested in learning its language and culture, while many original residents seemed tolerant of, if not content with, the new political order.

“In that big, colorful, international metropolis, everything I saw and heard came as an exciting discovery, whether it derived from Chinese, Western or Japanese origins,” wrote Yamaguchi about her “castle of dreams.” Little did she suspect that her family had actually entered a volcano of jingoism and hatred, masked by a fanciful noren7 of cosmopolitan urbanity, but ready to explode at the slightest political faux pass.8

The Yamaguchis lived in a house that Fumio’s old friend, General Li Jichun, had built adjacent to his main residence for his second wife. Li and Fumio had met many years before and worked together ever since. The two had developed a strong friendship, which, following the customs of that period, had been elevated to a blood brotherhood, which included many special privileges. Unbeknownst to Yoshiko, Li was a former warlord with a notorious past that included a major role in the establishment of the Manchukuo Empire. To her, Li was just a tall, affable, very affluent gentleman with a curious mustache, who cared a lot about her family and spoiled her as a child.9

Instead of rent, General Li asked Fumio and his wife to become guardians and all-around helpers for his young second wife, who could barely walk as a result of the traditional Chinese binding of upper-class women’s feet. The general also helped Fumio obtain a new position with the local county government.

To show his immense gratitude, Fumio asked Li to become Yoshiko’s adoptive father. The general and his second wife complied and went through the traditional ceremonies of adoption. Yoshiko received a new name, Xianglan, meaning “fragrant orchid.”10

Yoshiko was a beautiful teenager and an excellent student committed to learning the Chinese culture and language. These qualities made her father very proud and endeared her to her Chinese friends. Unfortunately, however, her health was rather frail.

One day, when she was about 12 years old, Yoshiko had to be hospitalized for nearly a month. During an exam, her doctor noted a slight infiltration in her lungs—a sign of tuberculosis. To beat the disease, he recommended rigorous modifications of the young girl’s lifestyle, including a heavy involvement in sports. But Yoshiko did not care for sports. To recover from her illness, she would have to take a six-month medical leave of absence from school.

Training in the domestic arts had not counted among the educational priorities Yoshiko’s college-educated mother set for her first daughter. Instead, Yoshiko was raised to be smart; to excel at Mandarin Chinese; to be sociable; to play the violin, the piano and the koto; and to excel at the school festivals, where she was always chosen to be lead singer. Wouldn’t teaching her to sing professionally add fun to her life while helping her fight her illness? The deep breathing exercises associated with singing practice would be wonderfully therapeutic—just what the doctor ordered!

Yoshiko’s father strongly suggested that she learn yokyoku, the traditional Noh singing method which required a lot of lung power, and which he enjoyed practicing with his visiting friends. For Yoshiko, however, the classical yokyoku chanting was too solemn; she was more interested in learning Western musical styles, which were more fashionable.

A friend of Yoshiko’s named Liuba came to the rescue. Her family knew a famous Italian operatic soprano named Madame Podlesov who lived nearby. She was the daughter of a professor at the Milan Academy of Music, the wife of a White Russian aristocrat, and an excellent instructor. Yoshiko could learn from a top professional with a distinguished career. Through Liuba’s intercession (i.e. pestering), Mme. Podlesov agreed to the deal, and thus Yoshiko used her medical leave to learn how to sing professionally under Mme. Podlesov’s rigorous coaching. The teacher extended the range of breathing exercises to help Yoshiko’s lungs heal, and her student progressed rapidly.11

How ‘bout singing for us?

As a growing, well-administered city, Fengtian was also trying to attain recognition as a modern center of culture. Toward that end, many significant social events were organized. The best would take place in the Grand Hall of the centrally located Yamato Hotel, which belonged to the South Manchuria Railway. Mme. Podlesov’s yearly concert there was one of its biggest attractions. The regular attendees were not just the Japanese notables, but also persons of distinction from the Chinese, Russian, and other communities—the upper crust of local society. Mme. Podlesov chose the 1933 event to introduce her new, prized pupil, Mademoiselle Yamaguchi; Yoshiko would open the recital and Mme. Podlesov would close it.

For Yoshiko’s debut, Mme. Podlesov selected a Japanese song, Moon over the Castle Ruins, since her pupil was Japanese, along with three songs by Schubert, Beethoven, and Grieg. The concert was a total success.12

One of the attendees was Azuma Keiso, Chief of Planning at the Fengtian radio broadcasting station. The following Saturday, he appeared at Mme. Podlesov’s house during Yoshiko’s practice. After introducing himself and commending Yoshiko for her Yamato Hotel performance, Azuma invited the girl to sing for the station. The management was trying to increase its Chinese audience and promote Japanese-Manchurian friendship with a brand new program of “songs of the land.”

The station had actually been looking for Mandarin-speaking Chinese girls who could also understand Japanese and be willing to perform in a new series featuring modern arrangements of traditional Manchurian and Chinese songs. Thus far, the search had failed. Aware that Yoshiko was quite proficient at Mandarin, Azuma came up with the idea of featuring her as the show’s star.

After much discussion, Yoshiko’s family agreed to let her sing for the broadcaster. She did not have to appear in public, the details of her identity would not be revealed, and she would be introduced as Li Xianglan, the name she had received from her godfather, General Li. The public could easily assume that she was a gifted Manchurian girl. She could pre-record all her songs, which would leave her all the time she needed for her personal development. Thus, as she neared the age of 14, Yoshiko found herself entering the Chinese world of entertainment through a simple charade, which was not uncommon in the entertainment industry.

As part of her parents’ plans to prepare her for potential jobs assisting politicians or businessmen, Yoshiko/Xianglan needed to continue her studies at a prestigious Beijing girls’ school. Her sponsor would be her father’s second blood-brother, Pan Yugui, a Chinese man who was very involved in politics. Yoshiko would move to Beijing and live in Yugui’s home as his adoptive daughter.

A few discordant notes

Yoshiko had to say goodbye to her dear friend Liuba. Since this seemed to be the most momentous of the many times they had taken leave of one another, Yoshiko decided to go to her friend’s home for one more hug. When she arrived, she found that the entrance and windows to Liuba’s house were “all boarded up with nails.”

“Peeking through a crack I saw that the inside of the house had been ravaged and left in a complete mess… Liuba and her family had suddenly disappeared. Standing frozen on the spot I shouted: Liubochka! Liubochka! and started to cry. The military police looked at me suspiciously and drove me away from the scene just like a dog.”13

Yoshiko/Xianglan had just stepped into a new world, which for years would block her from her real self.

Part 3 >>


1. An alternate spelling of Nuer-hachi.

2. Japan: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1993.

3. Battle of Mukden, (wikipedia.com, accessed June 25, 2016).

4. The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere: Dai-tōa Kyōei ken (大東亞共榮圏) was essentially, Japan’s own colonial plan, crafted along the lines of those of America or any European nation of the 1900’s, but enriched with serious efforts to create, with Japan as top power, a political, economic and cultural East Asia unit capable of dislodging European domination from the entire region. For the best treatment of the issue, see Fay Yuan Kleeman, In Transit: The Formation of a Colonial East Asian Cultural Sphere (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. 2014).

5. Boyle, John Hunter. China and Japan at War, 1937-1945. Stanford: Stanford University, 1972.

6. See “South Manchuria Railway and Its Work.”

7. Noren: a Japanese fabric divider, used mainly between rooms or between the outside and the entrance to a business, displaying its logo, crest, or monogram. The noren also has other dividing functions.

8. In 1931, about two years before the Yamaguchis moved to Mukden, ardent Japanese militarists from the Kwantung Army had staged the Manchurian Incident, which later triggered the most horrendous of all conflicts, the Pacific War. On September 18 of that year, Lt. Suemori Kawamoto of the Kwantung Army exploded a small amount of dynamite on the railway line owned by Japan's South Manchuria Railway, in the suburban area of Lake Liutiahou. The damage was so minimal that rail traffic continued without any interruption. However, the Kwantung Army made a big public fuss about the event, which they blamed on Chinese banditry. A massive propaganda campaign followed, and the incident became “the reason” to occupy Manchuria and establish the Manchukuo Empire. The Japanese charade, not dissimilar to acts previously committed by Western nations for colonial purposes, was highly criticized all over the world, and led to the scandalous exit of Japan from the League of Nations two years later, in March 1933. See Drea, Edward J., Japan’s Imperial Army. Lawrence: University of Kansas, 2009, 168.

9. For a detailed account of the general and his activities, see Yamaguchi, 310.

10. Yoshiko’s adoption was never recorded in family records, and her name was never officially changed to Li Xianglan. For a charming remembrance of how the adoption process went, see Yamaguchi, 20.

11. Yamaguchi, op. cit. 23-27.

12. At the insistence of Mme. Podlesov, Yoshiko made her debut dressed in a formal Japanese kimono. Since she owned no such luxury, her mother rented an exquisite one from a local pawnshop, just for the performance. Ibid.

13. Ibid; 29.


© 2017 Ed Moreno

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