“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
— Mark Twain

The Famous Newsreel Wong Bombed Baby Photos from 1937 Shanghai

Posted: August 6th, 2009 | No Comments »

Since my history of foreign correspondents in China – Through the Looking Glass – was published a couple of months ago I’ve been meaning to post about the Newsreel Wong bombed baby controversy of 1937. Most people know the classic picture Wong got of a distraught Chinese baby at the Shanghai South Railway Station after a Japanese attack in 1937 and the controversy that has raged about whether the photo was genuine or staged.

In my book I included the famous photo but did not get release rights for the other photo that indicates the shot may have been staged somewhat – not that a baby wasn’t caught in the raid and left distraught in the Station but that the baby may have been repositioned or encouraged to stay in place while a photo was taken.

Below I’ve added the section from the book on the photo and ensuing controversy as well as both pictures. Judge for yourself as far as possible. My own opinion is that Wong was using his craft and the situation to create a justified image that shocked many, particularly in America, into a realization of what the Japanese were doing in China and that they should support China against Japanese militarism and invasion. That seems justification enough – Japan was bombing and raping Chinese cities, babies were being killed daily, people dying – Wong captured that horror. I’m on Wong’s side with the photo, disinterest among people around the world was aiding nobody except Japan – but I suspect the row will continue anyway.

NA005626 - newsreel wong baby shot‘Newsreels were not without controversy, however. One of the most famous incidents involved Newsreel Wong. He filmed the Japanese bombing of Shanghai’s South Station in September 1937, a reel that included a now-famous scene of a crying baby sitting on the tracks amid the rubble of the station. The scene became one of the most celebrated symbols of the Asian conflict and over 136 million people were said to have seen it, not least due to the fact that it appeared on the cover of Life magazine, as well as 25 million copies of various Hearst publications and a further 1.75 million copies of other newspapers globally, including 800 American newspapers alone. The photo had a profound impact, its release leading to the Japanese government placing a price of $50,000 on Wong’s head.

But many people were suspicious of the photo: Wong was known to have leftist sympathies and was a close friend of Edgar and Helen HU006529 - newsreel wong photo 2Snow; and others simply remembered William Randolph Hearst’s well-known phrase: “You provide the photographs, I’ll provide the war”. Questions started to be asked almost immediately. What was the baby doing sitting alone on the tracks inside the station building? Having taken still photographs of the baby, Wong also filmed the scene. Is it possible that the distressed little baby would have sat still for that long? Soon another picture appeared in the 21 December 1937 issue of Look magazine. This was of an Asian man, probably Wong’s assistant Taguchi, carrying the infant. It does seem that Wong staged the photo for propaganda purposes; and it had a devastating effect too at a time when support for the Nationalist army was rising and dislike of Japan increasing. The arguments still continued over the photo, with people debating shadows, sight lines and lighting almost as much as the famed Zapruda footage of the Kennedy assassination. For his part, Wong never fully committed to either conclusively denying or admitting the rumour. He wasn’t the only newsreel reporter accused of a little exaggeration in pursuit of a good story or personal image.’

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