On TikTok, an Album Containing Old Wartime Photos Causes Havoc

On the morning of August 29th, Evan Kail, the owner of St. Louis Park Gold & Silver, a Minnesota precious-metal dealership, received a batch of packages containing valuables for appraisal. Throughout the day, Kail, who is thirty-three, picked through the haul, mostly assorted coins and jewelry. He noted the condition of the contents of each parcel and estimated the value, making a mental note of any interesting objects that could be filmed for his popular TikTok account, @pawn.man.

In the early afternoon, Kail arrived at a package that contained, to his surprise, an album of wartime photographs, featuring two embossed dragons rising out of a leather cover. The pictures inside appeared to have been compiled by a U.S. Navy sailor during a tour of the western Pacific in the nineteen-thirties, when American troops were sent to the region to protect national interests, particularly in the Philippines. As Kail browsed the pages, he remembered the message that he had received, three weeks earlier, from the book’s owner: “It’s kind of disturbing.”

Most of the initial photographs showed benign scenes and indigenous vistas: well-swept temples, captive elephants, and buffalo plowing Saigon fields. Around fifteen pages in, Kail turned a leaf and exclaimed, “Holy shit.” Human carnage filled the next five pages: the spilled remains of people caught in heavy bombings; the falling body of a decapitated man, his head already on the ground; the charred, slumped cadaver of the driver of a burned-out vehicle; and what appeared to be an image of a public execution via lingchi, the archaic method of killing known to Westerners as “death by a thousand cuts.” Many of the photographs bore the caption “Nanking Road,” the former name of a Shanghai street, which Kail said that he mistook at first for the city of Nanking.

On December 13, 1937, the Japanese Army entered what was then the Chinese capital city of Nanking—today known as Nanjing. Eyewitness reports by American missionaries and military officers, Nazi Party members, diplomats, and foreign correspondents describe a range of atrocities committed by the invaders. They killed P.O.W.s, disembowelled and beheaded Chinese citizens, and, according to the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, which was held from 1946 to 1948, raped an estimated twenty thousand Chinese women and murdered more than two hundred thousand people. (Many sources state that these figures are conservative.) One Japanese veteran of the invasion later said, “There are really no words to describe what I was doing. I was truly a devil.”

Despite a wealth of corroborating testimony from both victims and perpetrators, the events in Nanjing have often been overlooked and even denied. In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, some records were destroyed by the Japanese Army and others were lost by Chinese authorities. At times, Japanese leaders proved reluctant to admit to and atone for wartime wrongdoing, and the Chinese government initially stifled research into the massacre. Then, in the nineteen-eighties, a cadre of right-wing Japanese politicians and intellectuals attempted to whitewash the atrocities committed in Nanjing by rewriting school textbooks about the events. In 1994, Japan’s newly appointed Justice Minister, General Nagano Shigeto, told a newspaper that “the Nanjing massacre and the rest was a fabrication.” These compound factors had the effect of cumulative suppression. When, in 1997, the late Chinese American writer Iris Chang published “The Rape of Nanking,” it included the subtitle “The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II.”

Some of this history was known to Kail, who had majored in Japanese Studies at the University of Minnesota. If the photographs in the album he had received were authentic, he reasoned, they might provide additional documentary evidence of a controversial atrocity. For two days, he weighed his options. He estimated that the album could be worth more than ten thousand dollars, which made it an unviable acquisition for his business. “I don’t want to buy anything expensive that is going to sit here months,” he said. “I’ve made that mistake before with wartime memorabilia.”

Kail called the album’s owner. “I don’t think I can buy this,” he said. According to Kail, the man explained that the album had been given to his late father, a building contractor, as partial payment for a job in the nineteen-eighties. The client was a sailor’s widow. Her husband, Leslie G. Allen, Jr., had compiled the scrapbook during his wartime service, and left it to her when he died in 1964, at the age of forty-nine. The album then languished in the contractor’s attic until he died, Kail said, and it was discovered by his son, who contacted Kail. “I will help you find a home for it,” Kail promised.

He had started making TikTok videos while apprenticing at another buy-and-sell business in Minnesota. With a voice that is both mellifluous and urgent, he has proved well suited to the medium. He learned to bang his fist on the table during the first seconds of the video, to grab the viewer’s attention, then launch into an excitable description of the object in question. Within a few months, he had gained thousands of followers. Kail claimed that his boss at the time didn’t like this and asked him to stop posting. “I was, like, ‘No,’ ” Kail said. “I’ve caught lightning in a bottle here.”

Kail left his job and, in April of 2021, set up a rival business. He continued to post videos, filming the appraisal process. Viewers would then message him via Instagram, Facebook, or his private Discord server, with offers to buy what they had seen. Soon, he was spending a quarter of a million dollars each month buying antiques and valuables. Three days after he unpacked the album, Kail decided to make a TikTok video to appeal for help in contacting a museum. He struggled to find an appropriate tone. His usual formula—high energy, frolicsome, all fast cuts—seemed unfitting. “This is the most disturbing thing I have ever seen in my career,” he began, instead. “I’m not even going to say ‘Pawn Man’ in this video.” Then he flipped through the album’s early sheafs, stopping before the first page of violent images, for fear of breaching TikTok’s guidelines, while briefly describing the history of Nanjing.

The video, which Kail titled “PLEASE HELP ME,” contained, by his own admission, “powerful” language, and at least one key error: that the images supposedly taken by the American sailor clearly documented events that took place in Nanjing. “There’s people that deny the Rape of Nanking, and part of their argument for that is ‘Well, there’s such little evidence,’ ” Kail claims in the video. “Guess who just found some.” (Although the number of victims has remained a matter of debate, Nanjing denial is now discounted by all serious scholars; in 1984, when Chinese officials were hesitant to conduct historical inquiries for fear of provoking diplomatic rancor, it was a Japanese investigative team that pioneered research into the massacre.) Kail’s plea for help, however, was heartfelt. He uploaded the video, then headed to a bar with friends.

At three in the morning, he decided to see if the video had any hits. By then, the footage had gone viral in China. It had accrued more than three and a half million views. “I thought, What have I done?” Kail said. The next day, he awoke in the fury of an Internet storm. He had tens of thousands of new followers, many of whom had sent messages of support, criticism, or cynicism. “I actually can’t believe I’m this early for a huge historical revelation,” one commenter to the video wrote. “This is mind blowing,” wrote another, erroneously adding, “To this day Japan still denies that the massacre ever took place.”

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