Spies, Lies & False Advertising: The Gripping Story behind a bizarre Press Photo

Cover of the Japanese Magazine "The International Graphic", 1941. From the MOFBA collection.
Cover of the Japanese Magazine "The International Graphic", 1941. From the MOFBA collection.

A Westerner with Swastika armband stands in front of a building with Nazi flags & is surrounded by Asian soldiers. What is going on here!? Sit back & enjoy an unbelievable story that has it all: The Shanghai underworld, Japanese, Jews, double agents & false advertising.

From the inscription visible above the entrance in this photo, we can discern that the building in question is the Yunyao Electric Light Co power plant (永耀电力股份有限公司) in Ningbo, China. The coastal city in the province of Zhejiang lies around 200 km south of Shanghai and was one of the first five Chinese treaty ports opened by the Treaty of Nanjing, signed in 1842, at the end of the First Opium War between Britain and China.


These treaty ports including Shanghai, Guangzhou, Fuzhou and Xiamen became quasi-colonial cities that the Western powers took over as trading posts and where they built European-style houses, factories and developed the public infrastructure.

Not so much in Ningbo though, where in May 1914 influential native entrepreneurs including Sun Hengfu (孙衡甫) and Zhou Yangshan (周仰山) raised funds to develop China’s first and only power plant at the time owned by Chinese. The most prominent investor in the venture and chairman of the board however was Yu Qiaqing (虞洽卿). Born in Ningbo to a poor family, he moved to Shanghai at a young age where he worked himself up to become a business tycoon, social activist and ultimately chairman of the Shanghai General Chamber of Commerce. 

The Chamber together with the secret society-cum-gangster organization of the Green Gang wielded immense power over Old Shanghai, controlling the city's destiny and, some might argue, that of all of China. It is no coincidence that also China’s Generalissimo, Chiang Kai-shek, was born in Ningbo and that his kingmaker, the Green Gangs most notorious boss, Yuesheng “Big-Eared” Du (杜月笙), maintained very close ties with Yu Qiaqing and would later also sit on the board of the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce with him. Yu Qiaqing would later also be member of the Municipal Council – the highest administrative body of the Shanghai International Settlement.

But first let’s get back to our mysterious Nazi electricity plant in China. The initial generators for the Ningbo power station were purchased from the British General Electric Company, but as German influence grew in China in the late 1920s and as the plant expanded its capacity, it was increasingly equipped with machinery from the German Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft AG or A.E.G. – at that time the largest electrical company in the world. By the late-1930s however Germanys relationship with China became complicated. Originally, Germany had a very close connection with the Chinese nationalist government, even providing military aid and assistance to the Republic of China. 

Relations soured after the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War on 7 July 1937, and when China shortly thereafter concluded the Sino-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact with the Soviet Union. Notwithstanding the superior Sino-German economic relationship, Hitler decided that Japan would be a more reliable geostrategic partner and chose to end his alliance with the Chinese as the price of gaining an alignment with the more modern and militarily powerful Japan. The two countries ties went as far as Nazi Germany's government including the Japanese people in their concept of "honorary Aryans”. 

On the eve of World War II also A.E.G.’s mission in China changed. The company was no longer a purely commercial enterprise but the extended arm and an important liaison of the Nazi government, responsibly for sourcing materials for the war effort in Europe, gathering intelligence and increasing German influence in China. Since 1929 A.E.G. Chinas headquarter in Shanghai was controlled by the shadowy Dr. Helmut(h) Woidt, who would soon be appointed “Wirtschaftsstellenleiter der Landesgruppe China der NSDAP und Generalbevollmächtigter des Reichswirtschaftsministers für Ostasien.”, or in English Head of Economic Offices of China for the National Socialist Party and General Plenipotentiary of the Reich Minister of Economics for East Asia. Quite a mouthful for a man about whom surprisingly little is known. 

When the Japanese attacked China in late 1937, the powerful Ningbo guild in Shanghai struck a deal with Woidt or people close to A.E.G. to secure their properties and interests in their hometown. In January 1938 the North China Herald reported that the Yungyueh (alternative spelling) Power Company in Ningbo had been purchased by German business interests and that “since December 26 the premises are now flying German national flags”. An analysis of historical documents however reveals that this was mere window-dressing – the company seems to have remained nominally Chinese and actual control appears to have never changed. From Chinese reports we find that a mere six months later, in July 1938, the Yunyao Power Company’s management was taken over by a Nationalist Government Wartime Management Committee. This management however almost drove the company into bankruptcy and in June 1940, the committee was disbanded and the company was once more in private control. 

On October 27, 1940 Imperial Japanese forces attacked Ningbo with a biological warfare bacterial germ strike consisting of corn and cloth dropped from airplanes and infested with fleas carrying the bubonic plague. A storm of the city seemed imminent. Once more it appears, the Ningbo clique in Shanghai turned to the Germans for protection. This brings us to the striking photo, which we can now reveal as the cover of the Japanese magazine “The International Graphic”, from our collection. The caption reads in Japanese: 

“A Swastika flag flies over the doorway of a power plant in Ningbo, a coastal city in eastern China, as the German manager meets soldiers of Axis power Japan arriving on April 20, 1941. The German manager treated the Japanese soldiers with hot tea and guaranteed operation of the plant to secure electricity supply for the city".


The British-controlled North China Daily Herald of course captioned the Associated Press photo slightly differently, suggesting that the German was a fifth column aiding the Japanese invaders. Regardless, we are left with the question of who this mysterious lone "token foreigner" was, depicted here, handing out hot tea to combat troops with a cigarette nonchalantly dangling from his mouth. It certainly took some chutzpah to pull off this stunt in an active war zone! Was he a “good Nazi” hired by the Ningbo guild to protect their power plant from destruction or a collaborator of the Japanese?

German-Soviet double-agent Richard Sorge
German-Soviet double-agent Richard Sorge

An obvious candidate would be A.E.G.’s enigmatic China manager and the NSDAP’s top commercial liaison offer in China Helmut Woidt. Woidt’s story is complex and could fill an entire book, but in short, he was far from who he appeared to be. Under his German code name “Walter” or “Kommersant”, as the Japanese had him on file, he in fact worked for both sides and cooperated with the most famous double-agent in Asia, Richard Sorge. Unfortunately, though, Woidt was a slightly older “Herr”, than the man depicted in our picture and he had already left his post at A.E.G. in Shanghai in 1940 to relocate to Beijing. Therefore, it is unlikely that the man in the photo is him.

Another suspect is the secretive Wolf Schenke. Schenke moved to China in 1937 and was officially known as the correspondent for the Völkische Beobachter. In reality however, he worked under the direction of the Tokyo Office of the DNB (Deutscher National Bund). Schenke was also a representative of the Abwehr, the German secret service, and a direct military advisor to Chiang Kai-Shek. In 1941, he was active in Shanghai as an agent of the Gestapo. However, Schenke was also known to be outspokenly anti-Japanese and was suspected by the Japanese to be a spy against them. From the rare two surviving photos of Schenke in China, he also appears to have been quite skinny and youthful looking at the time. Therefore, as with Woidt, it is highly unlikely that the man in the iconic power plant photo is Schenke.

Our investigation has narrowed down the list of suspects to just a few more people from the A.E.G. crew in Shanghai. These include the long-time technical manager Stephen Halas, commercial manager A. Weidemann or electrical engineer Bottke.


None of these three though, turns out to be our man but we are thrilled to share that we have actually identified a very likely candidate. 

But before we reveal his identity, let us briefly introduce you to another fascinating figure, Herr Ivar Lissner. Born to a German-Jewish father, Lissner was a Baltic German of Jewish ancestry. Lissner managed to conceal his Jewish background by forging an Aryan certificate for his family and in 1933, joined the Nazi Party (NSDAP) as a cover. In 1938 he worked for the Abwehr and moved to China where his brother worked as a businessman in Shanghai. It was said that Ivar Lissner became the best – if not the only – German spy the Abwehr had on the Soviet Union and the Far East. 

Dr. Percy Hermann Lissner
Dr. Percy Hermann Lissner

Less is known about his brother Dr. Percy Hermann Lissner. What we do know is that he was also an NSDAP member, escaped to Shanghai in 1937 with the help of A.E.G. and in fact briefly succeeded Helmut Woidt as head of A.E.G. Shanghai.


We also know that he had a penchant for striped shirts and checkered ties -the very same that our man in the power plant picture wears and who has an undeniable resemblance to Percy Lissner.


However, this theory has one catch. In late 1939, the forged Aryan certificate of the Lissner family was exposed in Germany and Percy Lissner was expelled from the NSDAP. Soon after also A.E.G. Shanghai was pressured to terminate his employment. 

But nonetheless, there you have it: The man who most likely on his own behalf falsely advertised a power plant as Nazi German-owned to the Japanese in China, was in fact… a Jew!


Do you agree with our conclusion or if not Lissner, who else could have been the mysterious man featured in this bizarre photo?

P.S. On the night of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941 Imperial Japan invaded the Shanghai International Settlement, disbanded the primarily British-controlled Municipal Council and took over the administration of the city. Soon after all foreign residents of the Allied Powers were interned in camps. However, not the citizens of neutral countries and of the Axis Powers including Germany. Percy Lissner, it appears was rewarded for his role in brokering a deal between the Japanese and the Ningbo clique and served as “Assistant treasurer“ in the Financial Dept. of the now Japanese Shanghai Municipal Council until 1944. After the War Percy Lissner served as „Finance Officer“ in the Agricultural Division of the FAO in China from 1947 until 1949. 

P.P.S. Despite their dubious activities, all of the suspects we covered miraculously managed to survive the war. However, Percy Lissner's luck eventually ran out. In 1955, he met his demise in Saigon, Vietnam, allegedly at the hands of KGB agents who ran him over with a car. Just like his life, the circumstances surrounding his death remain mysterious, and it's unclear who he was working for at the time or what brought him to Vietnam.

A big thank you to Dr. Ghassan Moazzin, Katya Knyazeva and Dr. Thomas Kampen who all contributed to this research and a very special thanks to Dr. Clemens Jochem, the nephew of Dr. Percy Lissner!

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