Byron Theofanis: the charismatic Greek settler

In part one, we look at Byron Theofanis' journey to the far east, and his life in the Orient. Part two will be in Saturday 23 February's printed edition of Neos Kosmos

One of the most charismatic itinerant Greek settlers was Byron Theofanis, who was born in the township of Karlovasi on the island of Samos on 8 December, 1919. He was the youngest of eleven brothers and sisters in a well-esteemed family which was respected on the island for producing a number of clerics, merchants and teachers. Byron enrolled and graduated from the Public Commercial School of Samos, where he studied, among other things, accounting and commerce. When he graduated, he received news from his brother Platon in China that his expertise would be useful to their businesses in north China and Manchuria. Besides, the overall belligerent climate in Europe was affecting Greece and the political domestic anomalous situation triggered by the rise of the Ioannis Metaxas’ dictatorial regime in Greece (August, 1936), he decided to emigrate.
He commenced his long voyage to the exotic Far East in the spring of 1939. His first destination was Alexandria in Egypt, where two of his maternal uncles, the Veliskakis brothers, were affluent in practicing medicine and commerce. Byron was heading to China to join his brother Platon, his sister Maria, his brother-in-law Georgios Vakakis and his elder brothers, Emanuel and Themistocles Vakakis. The Vakakis Brothers had their uncles in China, the Inglessi brothers from the island of Samos, who were well-known ship-owners and merchants in wines, figs, raising and other Greek products in India, Korea, Manchuria and China.
In 1928, Georgios Vakakis visited his native Samos and married Maria Theofanis, before returning to Dairen via the Trans-Siberian Railway. The business was prospering for the Vakakis brothers. In 1932 they invited Maria’s brother Platon to join them in the management of their firm entitled Imports-Exports Firm Vakakis Bros. Co. Meanwhile, upon her settlement in Manchuria and especially after the Japanese invasion, Maria suffered from severe loneliness and nostalgia, as the only other family who was living in close vicinity in Dairen was the Charalambos Dukakis family, a pioneer Greek settler involved in the tobacco trade since 1896 in Manchuria. Her daily complaints emerging from the cultural shock she suffered from the new environment led her husband Georgios to invite her youngest brother Byron.
Byron Theofanis reached Bombay, Colombo and Hong Kong in May 1939 and arrived in the port of Shanghai (June, 1939)and was taken to close friend and associate, Alexandros Lazaridis and his wife Nina, residing in Shanghai. Lazaridis was the proprietor of a large vodka factory in Shanghai. His generous wife was Nina, a lady of aristocratic descent in Tsarist Russia. Her father, Fokion Kiousis used to be an affluent banker in St. Petersburg prior to the Revolution. In Darien, he was offered a clerical and assistant accounting work in the Import-Export Firm Vakakis Bros. Co. which was operated in partnership between the Vakakis brothers and his brother Platon. The main products of the company were canned goods, Californian fruits and raisins, green coffee bean, liquor and cigarettes. A year later, Byron was appointed salesman of the company and, having accumulated substantial experience, he moved initially to Mukden and then took up the management of the Harbin branch. In the early 1940s, in Mukden there were approximately 20 Greek settlers, amongst whom a couple of Greek Russian refugees, working as merchants and shop keepers. In Harbin, the number of Greek settlers was even larger and more cohesive as they were organised ecclesiastically and socially with the numerically strong Russian Orthodox community members. Some of them were ardent dissidents of the Moscow regime, several were persecuted as “enemies of the people”, while some were hounded because they were simply members of certain unfavourable ethnicities, primarily Jews, Armenians and Greeks.
“…Most of them were aware of the Greek civilization and were supportive of the social and economic initiatives that we were undertaken. During the War, in other occupying regions, the Japanese security forces were very harsh, driving many Europeans, including Greeks, into concentration camps and imposing cruel constraints. However, in Harbin and Mukden, their administration was more relaxed. After 1945, we were forced to survive on food rationing, and to report our activities to the local Japanese Security Forces by whom we were treated as “friendly” enemies. The Director of the Aliens Department of the Japanese Security in Mukden was even receptive to our requests, such as to hang on to certain censored items. I remember that we used to have a radio listening to the BBC War news from New Delhi and Colombo. This was initially confiscated by the security forces; however we managed to convince the director to return it to us. I recall that we learned about the sinking of the ships Repulse and Prince of Wales from Prime Minister W. Churchill himself listening to the BBC from New Delhi…”
(Byron Theofanis interview with A. M. Tamis, 31 January 2007, Dardalis Archives)
However, with the eruption of WWII, the Japanese occupying government imposed severe restrictions on imports. By 1944, as business conditions deteriorated and the trade was restricted to local business activities, Greek companies began to shrink, forcing many of them to restrict their sales on a few products. By 1945, the adverse business situation coerced many companies, among them Byron’s company, to liquidate.
He moved to Shanghai and worked in the Lazaridis Vodka Distillery before moving to Japan. In a relatively short period (1950-1955), having one false start in business, he managed to set up two companies with his brother Platon, whom he invited to Japan. Byron’s two business ventures, a travelling musical instrument company and a souvenir shop in Yokohama were both influenced by the American presence and the Greek expeditionary forces in the Korean War. During the period, Byron’s knowledge of Japanese assisted him to join a Jewish-American import-export firm, working in the finance section.
“…In Yokohama, we were receiving the Greek and Greek American soldiers on leave, who were fighting in Korea, usually for a couple of weeks. Together with our souvenir shop, we were eager to assist them with other practical social, recreational and spiritual needs that they had. We were selling Japanese and Greek products. The troops usually were placing their orders, they were disappearing for ten or fifteen days and then they were re-appearing to collect their orders. They were shopping almost exclusively for their sisters, fiancés and mothers. Some of them were also acquiring products simply to re-sell them for profit in the black market upon their return to Korea. During the closing stages of the war, one Greek Major General, Theophanis Alexander Christeas made a round in the airport and caught a number of them with our souvenirs which they bought to sell in the black market. The General confiscated the goods and prohibited any commercial transaction involving his soldiers with Japan, thus becoming increasing unpopular amongst his men…”
(Byron Theofanis interview with A. M. Tamis, 31 January 2007, Dardalis Archives)