Pawn Man: How a WWII photo album created a 'perfect storm' on social media

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Evan Kail, the owner of SLP Gold and Silver, became the center of an international media frenzy last fall. After he was sent a book of photos from WWII, Evan claimed on TikTok that the photographs were original images taken at the site of the Nanjing Massacre. The TikTok instantly went viral, even capturing the attention of the Chinese Embassy in Washington D.C. Here is Evan with Endless Thread co-host, Amory Sivertson, who interviewed Evan at his shop last September. (Courtesy Evan Kail)
Evan Kail, the owner of SLP Gold and Silver, became the center of an international media frenzy last fall. After he was sent a book of photos from WWII, Evan claimed on TikTok that the photographs were original images taken at the site of the Nanjing Massacre. The TikTok instantly went viral, even capturing the attention of the Chinese Embassy in Washington D.C. Here is Evan with Endless Thread co-host, Amory Sivertson, who interviewed Evan at his shop last September. (Courtesy Evan Kail)

Evan Kail is a wise-cracking antique dealer and TikToker. Last September, his world turned upside down when one of his videos ignited an international media frenzy. In his words, his TikTok created a "perfect storm."

The subject of the video? A photo album from WWII, which Evan believed contained photographs of the Nanjing Massacre — a horrific episode during Japan's invasion of China in 1937.

This episode is about historical memory, why the Nanjing Massacre is still an incredibly sensitive topic in China and Japan, social media virality, and the true contents of that WWII photo album.

A special thank you to Professor Daqing Yang of George Washington University and Professor Alexis Dudden of University of Connecticut for their expertise on Chinese-Japanese relations, East Asian history, and Imperial Japan.

Show notes

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Full Transcript:

This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.

Amory Sivertson: Ben.

Ben Brock Johnson: Shmamory. How you doin’?

Amory: I'm doing okay. How about you?

Ben: I'm okay. It's nice to be with you.

Amory: I know. Same. I was thinking that we would take a little trip back in time together today. Is that okay?

Ben: (Sings.) Take a little trip. Take a little trip with me, take a little trip with me.

Amory: (Sings.) Anyway, you want it, that’s the way you need it!

Ben: Take a little trip with Amory!

Amory: That's beautiful. Okay, so we're gonna go back to about six months ago when I was on a little road trip without you.

Ben: What? For fun or for work?

Amory: For fun? Turned for work, but still fun. Okay, so I was in Minneapolis

Okay. I just started a little voice memo up here. We're on Minnetonka Boulevard in Minnesota.

Ben: Mm. The breadbasket of America! I don't know what that means.

Amory: (Laughs.) I won't tell them you said that, just in case.

Ben: The punk rock cheese curds of America!

Amory: Sure. Okay. So I'm on this trip. And I get a text from a friend and a former colleague of ours.

[Endless Thread clip:

Jessica Alpert: Damn. That's interesting.]

Amory: That former colleague — Jessica Alpert — for any OG Endless Thread fans, and she sent me a story that she thought I needed to look into. But the crazy thing is, this friend had no idea that I just so happened to be in the city, where the story that she sent me takes place.

Ben: Mm. She was rubbing her crystals in the right direction.

Amory: She must have been! So, I'm in Minneapolis. I'm just about to start driving across the state of South Dakota from there. But this story centers on a particular shop in Minneapolis. And it turns out after a little Google Map Search, that that shop is just 10 minutes away from where I am in that very moment.

Ben: In the punk rock cheese curds of America.

Amory: Exactly.

Ben: So you had to go.

Amory: I had to go. No question. But because this was not a work trip. Initially, as we established I didn't have my usual recording equipment on me.

Ben: You don't just carry it with you wherever you go, Amory.

Amory: I try to travel light.

Ben: You never know when podcasts will happen.

Amory: It's true. But fortunately, our phones now do a pretty darn good job and in a pinch. So I got off the highway. I started recording and I headed on over to …

Amory: SLP Gold and Silver.

Ben: A gold and silver dealership? Where are you trying to get some bling? Amory, you want some rolled gold?

Amory: You know me, I can never have too much. But no, I was there for neither gold nor silver. I was there to meet a guy known on social media as Pawn Man.

[TikTok audio:

“Pawn man! Sharing crazy stories.”

“Pawn man! Sayin’ patience is a virtue!”

“Pawn man! Talkin’ thieves.”

“Pawn man! Holdin’ one of the rarest coins I’ve ever come across, holy s***!”]

Amory: Hi, how are you? I just started rolling. Well, I made a voice memo, because like I said. We're, we're on a, I'm on a road trip with my friend Claire, and I'm Amory.

Evan Kail: Very nice to meet you.

Amory: And what is your name?

Evan: Evan. Evan Kail. Yeah.

Amory: Evan Kail. Okay. All right.

Claire Kaiser: Nice to meet you.

Amory: Evan Kail, AKA Pawn Man, is tall and kinda lanky with a boyish face. He’s in his early 30s, he’s been a precious metal and antique dealer since 2019, and despite being known as “Pawn Man” to his 1.2 million TikTok followers …

Evan: So this actually isn't a pawn shop.

Amory: It’s not a pawn shop. I'm sorry.

Evan: No, it's okay. Because everybody ... 

Amory: Pawn man threw me off!

Ben: Pawn Man doesn’t run a pawn shop.

Amory: He does not.

Evan: It's a buy and sell. It's as simple as that. You come in with something to sell if I can legally buy it. You know, I don't do firearms or certain things I don't do. But if it's, you know, just to whatever item that doesn't have any law regulations around it, then I just make an offer, and that's it.

Ben: Which it turns out is different from a pawn shop which loans money to people who bring in a valuable item usually like a guitar. And they can get that item back when they pay back the loan.

Amory: Sounds like some personal experience in there. But yes, so Evan is showing me around his non-pawn shop. And he walks me up to one of several jewelry cases.

Evan: So I have this, is coins and currency either from a bygone era that was a bad one in America or just from terrible countries. So we have North Korea, we have Third Reich.

Amory: SLP also has a case full of jewelry, as you might imagine, various paintings covering the walls, including one that I particularly liked of this mustachioed, distinguished-looking general of some sort.

Ben: You know, when I hear silver and gold store Amory, I honestly think of like, a 90-year-old man with a giant beard, who maybe reeks of cigarette smoke, not a 30-something TikToker.

Amory: Yeah, it’s not like the hippest job. But Evan says he started out trying to be a writer, and then when the starving artist thing lost its “cute factor” as he told me, he went to work for a guy like the one you’re probably picturing, and he tried to bring this guy’s shop into the 21st century.

Evan: And the first thing I did was digitize his store because he was like a dinosaur. He literally wasn't on the Internet. So, I mean, an eBay account, and then COVID hit. And eBay is what saved him from COVID. And the eBay was massively successful.

Amory: Evan says that's when he started using social media to promote the gold and silver business. He was making these educational TikTok videos and YouTube videos. And in just a few months, his following grew to 200,000, which is amazing, except the owner of the store didn’t like Evan’s mix of education videos mixed with some kind of off-color humor.

[TikTok audio:

Evan: Boomer s*** is one of my favorite things I've done here on social media and one of my least favorite things to buy when it comes into my shop because I got to be the bearer of bad news that not only did grandpa die, but Cable Shopping Network absolutely f***** up.]

I walked out the door and they kind of laughed me out the door and I opened up this shop three weeks later and wow, actually, I've been, like, destroying them.

Ben: This sounds pretty, I mean, this is true. This is like an unscripted television series, rivalry situation right here. It almost sounds kind of like Shakespearean, this revenge.

Amory: Yeah. And Evan says he was winning in this Shakespearean battle, so he was doing great. His social media accounts, the Pawn Man accounts, were growing steadily. And then in late August of last year, someone brought an item into Evan's store that had him shaken.

[TikTok audio:

Evan: This is the most disturbing thing I’ve ever seen in my career and I desperately need your guys’ help.]

Amory: So he makes a TikTok video, and it takes off pretty much right away.

[TikTok audio:

Evan: I had a customer reach out and tell me, and it starts out OK.]

Amory: But as Evan keeps flipping through this photo album from World War II, the pictures start to take a turn from images of everyday life in China and Southeast Asia, to images of soldiers marching, warships, and then …

[TikTok audio:

Evan: And I had no idea. When I got that book on Monday and I opened it up and I got to that page, I screamed.]

Amory: I’m Amory Sivertson.

Ben: I’m Ben Brock Johnson. And you’re listening to Endless Thread.

Amory: We’re coming to you from WBUR, Boston’s NPR Station.

Amory: So Evan is thumbing through his newly acquired photo album from World War II, and when he gets past a certain page, he realizes ...

[TikTok audio:

Evan: Somehow, that guy who took those photos was present for the Rape of Nanking, and he took about 30 photographs that are unknown to history that are worse than anything I’ve seen on the internet in color and those photos are in black and white.]

Amory: The Rape of Nanking more commonly known today as the Rape of Nanjing, or the Nanjing Massacre. It was one of the most painful chapters of the [Second] Sino-Japanese War, leading up to World War II. It started in December of 1937, and for a period of about six weeks, Chinese civilians were raped, their businesses and homes were looted, and they were murdered by the Imperial Japanese Army.

Ben: The death toll at Nanjing is estimated to have been around 200,000. But it’s been contested and debated over the years. Japan’s role as an aggressor during World War II is also an incredibly sensitive topic to this day, both in Japan and all over Asia.

[TikTok audio:

Evan: I majored in Japanese studies and we covered the Rape of Nanking, and I remember my professors telling me that photographic evidence was mostly destroyed by the Japanese. There are very, very few photographs out there, and this guy took photos of things that I have read about in books that I didn't even realize that anybody had ever documented before.]

Amory: So how did a silver and gold store in Minneapolis end up with a photo album that seemingly contains some of the only photos of one of the worst atrocities of World War II? Social media.

Ben: A few days before Evan made that TikTok video, he was contacted by a man in New York who’d been following Pawn Man on social media for a while. The guy told Evan that his dad was given this photo album by the photographer’s wife.

Evan: So the story, as far as I understand from this person, his father acquired it as payment from a contracting job. So the person I think who took the photos.

Amory: What? That already is insane.

Evan: Yeah, it's very weird. The person who took the photos died and left it to his wife, and his wife didn't want it and hired this guy and somehow knew this guy liked militaria. And this person is also a service person. I said, Look, I can't pay you, but I got this book. I don't want it. It's really disturbing and you want it. So she gave it to him and he kept it for years and he recently died and left it to his son. And his son reached out to me so and I said, okay, I did not know what I was accepting.

Amory: Evan says he’s generally wary of World War II memorabilia, for good reason. People try to mail him violent photos of the Holocaust, of prisoners in the camps, and Evan turns these requests down. He says he doesn’t want to profit off of genocide. He didn’t realize how bad the book’s contents would be.

Ben: When Evan cracked open the cover, the first thing that got his attention was the quality of the photos.

Evan: It's like, holy s***, these photos are really good. Like, they're, they're just well-done. When you see photos from World War II, they're blurry, they're shaky. There's not a lot of depth. You know, it's, it's just not good quality. But this was something else.

Amory: As high-quality photos of civilian life turned into high-quality photos of war crimes and its casualties.

Evan: I couldn't even finish going through the book. I just, I closed and I put it in the back and I had I went home on Monday and I just was like, I don't want to do it this. I know what I can do with this. I almost mailed it right back to him, but I decided I'll put it in the back and I'll think about it.

Amory: As you're flipping through the book when did it when did you have a sense of what you were looking at?

Evan: Right away, because I majored in Japanese and I knew it was a massacre of Chinese people I was looking at.

Ben: But Evan didn’t know what to do with this book. And he wanted more information about it. So he takes to TikTok a couple of days later, on Wednesday. By Thursday, his video has 7 million views.

Amory: That’s when my friend sent it to me. By Friday, the day I walk into SLP Gold and Silver, the number of views has tripled. And mind you, as we heard Evan say in the video, he does not show the alleged photos of war crimes. This led some to wonder if they were what he said they were or if they even existed at all.

Ben: Articles in Rolling Stone and NBC had quotes from historians saying Evan was spreading misinformation. Comments on the video said Evan was being irresponsible. Some people called the video straight-up clickbait. Some accused him of making an inflammatory video just to publicize his business and get customers over to SLP Gold and Silver.

Amory: Evan made another video responding to the haters, talking about how his viral moment had impacted his business negatively.

[TikTok audio:

Evan: It’s completely upended my entire life, my entire business, everything. I am so freakin’ stressed out. I, well, it doesn’t matter.]

Ben: The media attention, phone calls, and visitors lining up to see the book forced Evan to take security measures. He says he always has a gun on him, attempted robberies aren’t all that uncommon in his line of business. But in light of the photo album controversy, he also started wearing a bulletproof vest.

Amory: And finally, after two days of chaos and controversy, Evan says he had to get the book out of his store for his own safety.

Evan: I feel bad. Literally just got it out of here, like, an hour ago.

Amory: Really? Yeah. I missed it by an hour.

Evan: Like you called me right after I sent out of here.

Ben: I have to say, Amory, like some of the details of how he dealt with this, make me a little, you know, like some of the hairs on the back of my neck went up. Do you know what I mean?

Amory: Mhm, yeah, I think that's fair. I think that's why, even though I was about to leave for South Dakota, I was like, you know, I should just go see what I can see and learn what I can learn about this, because ...

Ben: And then you get there and he's like, “Oh, you just missed it.”

Amory: Yes, but the book was not gone, gone. Evan was having it digitized where the book went. Okay. And I have to say, and maybe this goes to some of the hairs on the back of your neck, like I was a little relieved, actually, that the book wasn't there, because I don't want to see photos of war crimes. I really, I don't, I mean, I don't want to turn a blind eye to any atrocity that's happened in history.

Ben: But all your nerve endings haven't been crisped by the internet like mine have?

Amory: And no, they haven't been. So I would have been really nervous to see what was inside. But instead, I got to bear witness to something else because while I was there, a handful of Chinese people came into the store to just express their appreciation to Evan for using his Pawn Man platform to talk about the Nanjing Massacre. People like Siwei Zhu and his wife who came into the store holding a bouquet of flowers for Evan.

Siwei Zhu: Just want to say thank you to you. You know why?

Evan: Yeah.

Siwei: I'm a professor. (Bouquet of flowers rustles.)

Evan: Jesus Christ.

Siwei: At the Minnesota State University, but I’m Chinese. But I'm Chinese. So that’s why. Thank you so much for saying that. Post that video. You know, you really blow the entire Chinese media away.

Evan: Yeah, I heard. I’m a little overwhelmed.

Amory: Just can you just tell me why you're here?

Siwei: Because this video, like all my friends, talk to me. Do you know there's a guy in Minnesota? He posted something on TikTok. We are Chinese. We know the history. But this is my first time to hear an American, concurred very clearly, explained the situation, the Rape of Nanking.

Ben: By this point, there were strong opinions swirling around about what should happen to this photo album. A lot of people felt that it belonged in China. Siwei and his wife acknowledged the tough position Evan was in.

Siwei: My wife just keeps asking me, is, I still don't put, don't push and come up.

Siwei’s wife: We don’t want to put pressure on you. So but just want to let you know that we are we appreciate that.

Siwei: We appreciate it.

Evan: All right. And you guys, it's really kind.

Amory: I also met Zixiang, a student at the University of Minnesota, who’d learned about the photo album through a Chinese news outlet and had come to SLP that day hoping to do a school assignment all about it.

Zixiang: And it's very, well that's so positive. I say thanks to him. Lots of Chinese people want to say thank you.

Ben: Thanking Evan for bringing attention to an event in history that some feel has gotten buried among the narratives of World War II. This book potentially confirmed what many Chinese people grew up hearing about.

Amory: And it was important not just for ordinary citizens. When I was at Evan’s shop, he got this phone call.

(Phone rings.)

Amory: All right, that's okay.

Evan: Yep. I just gotta get this.

Evan: Gold and Silver. Yes, this is him. Yes, but I don't have the book here. No. I had to get it out of here. It's someplace else. It'll be back here on Wednesday if you wanted to check it out.

Evan: He's from the Chinese Embassy.

Amory: Whoa. Huh?

Evan: Yeah. They kind of vaguely threatened me yesterday.

Amory: How so?

Evan: They used some strong wording about how it needs to be returned to China. So there's a lot of photos of China, but it also has a very heavy American perspective because it's this guy's perspective, you know, going through.

Amory: Oh, interesting.

Evan: And I just, I would hate to give it to a Chinese museum and have them only pull out the bad photos and throw the rest away.

Amory: Evan said, at that point, he really wanted to book to stay in America. This was a book photographed by someone in the American Navy during World War II, and he wanted its current presentation preserved.

Ben: But was the book what he thought? Were these original photos taken at the Rape of Nanjing?

Amory: That’s coming up, in a minute.


Ben: Are we good?

Professor Alexis Dudden: I think we are.

Ben: Cool cool.

Ben: To understand the intense media coverage Evan’s photo album caused around the world we called up two experts.

Professor Dudden: I don't actually do TikTok And so I'm very grateful when my students bring the real world to me in this fashion. And they were just like, “Oh, Professor Dudden. Oh my God, you won't believe this is happening!”

Ben: Professor Alexis Dudden teaches 20th-century East Asian history at the University of Connecticut.

Professor Dudden: My specializations are modern Japan, modern Korea, and the legacies of the 20th century that linger into the present.

Ben: Ooh. I like that. That the legacies of the 20th century that linger into the present. I like that a lot. What does that mean?

Professor Dudden: It's the blowback that's actually encapsulated by the denialism at the heart of, I think, the conversation we're having about this photograph album even. It's the tensions between Japanese society with itself over how best to narrate the disaster that was the collapse of the Japanese empire and the devastation that was visited upon Japan during the war.

Amory: Professor Daqing Yang teaches at George Washington University, and focuses primarily on Chinese-Japanese relations. And for him, this work is personal.

So you grew up in Nanjing, which has its own kind of rich and turbulent history.

Professor Daqing Yang: Exactly.

Amory: Tell me about that and about what you grew up knowing and learning.

Professor Yang: In middle school, I learned about what is called the Nanjing Massacre. So it was a rather late discovery for me, and that is a major reason for me to be interested in how historical memories are constructed and passed on.

Amory: Professor Yang discussed some of the photographs he saw in Evan’s TikTok. One of them shows a street sign that says Nanking Road. Evan assumed the photograph was taken in Nanjing. But no. Nanking Road is actually one of Shanghai’s busiest and most well-known streets, even back in the 1930s.

Professor Yang: Some of them, for example, were scenes of, uh, a horrific scene in Shanghai, I believe, after a bombing raid, I believe with the same one, actually, a Chinese bombing raid that has gone wrong, whether it's due to ground fire or not, a bomb was accidentally dropped into the international concession and there were dozens, if not more, corpses in these photos. Anyone with some minimal historical knowledge should be able to put these photos in context.

Ben: By the time we sat down with the experts, a lot of Evan’s claims had been debunked. According to many historians who contacted Evan or posted their findings online, the images in the book — the ones Evan claimed were originals — are actually easily searchable through Google Images. One such photograph was of a public execution that took place in Beijing during the Qing Dynasty era called ling chi, which is translated as “death by a thousand cuts.” Literally. The practice was outlawed around the early 1900s.

But we also wanted clarity on another claim that surfaced in the wake of Evan's TikTok video: that Japan “never apologized” for the atrocities at Nanjing. Here’s what Professor Dudden told us.

Professor Dudden: It's really tricky. I mean, Japan officially, various prime ministers have issued various apologies and then another prime minister will come in and kind of pull the rug out from the apology.

Ben: Hmm.

Professor Dudden: So on the one hand, there are very specific words that address a broader sense of responsibility. And yet there has been no specific, for example, a specific imperial apology, for example, because remember, the emperor of Japan at the time was not only the head of state, but he was also the commander in chief. There's never been an emperor apologizing for the Nanjing Massacre.

Amory: The Nanjing Massacre and other Japanese war crimes during World War II have been debated and — in some cases — openly denied by various Japanese leaders over the years, which has caused friction with its neighbors, like China and Korea. And to Professor Yang, it makes sense that this friction would translate to online virality.

Professor Yang: The mass, uh, response on the internet doesn't surprise me. This thirst for new, ironclad proof that something like Nanjing Massacre happened has been very, very strong among many Chinese people.

Ben: Professor Dudden says events like the Nanjing Massacre have been controversial in recent memory too.

Professor Dudden: Former Prime Minister Abe was arguably the most divisive leader Japan has had recently within Japan, precisely for his views over Japan at war, in particular the atrocities Japan committed during its quest to conquer Asia. He was also very specific and clear about what was driving him. As he wrote in his autobiography, to give back honor to his family name, specifically his grandfather, Kishi Nobuo, who was a former prime minister of Japan, and also prior to that had been designated a Class A war criminal because of his role in building and leading the industrialization of Manchuria when it was a Japanese occupied territory known as Manchukuo.

Ben: Both Professor Dudden and Professor Yang talked about tensions created by nationalism. When China started to transition in the 1980s from a Soviet-style planned economy to embracing state capitalism, the country’s patriotic identity began to shift too. Schools began teaching kids about China’s “Century of Humiliation” which lasted up until World War II, when the country had to cede territories to European powers, and was eventually invaded by Japan in the 1930s.

Professor Dudden: There is a very well-known phrase that, you know, more Japanese soldiers have died on Chinese television sets and movie theaters than during the wars. It's the war itself. And at the same time, the atrocities were real. And so the Chinese government, not unique to national cohesiveness or building a national identity, uses the memory of being overwhelmed by extreme violence to try to bolster a notion that China can be powerful today.

Amory: Professor Yang and Professor Dudden also spoke about the need for people between the two countries to have face-to-face exchanges. Things like tourism, students studying abroad, and business partnerships can help establish more positive international relations. But those exchanges have been nearly impossible during the pandemic.

Professor Dudden: It really does boil down to education, education, education. And if you've got textbooks that are in classrooms that just don't even mention the Nanjing Massacre when that person is older, they're going to wonder, “Why didn't I learn that and why are you yelling at me?”

Ben: Has all of this inspired you to spend more time on TikTok?

Professor Dudden: No, no, I really personally don't do any of the social media, not only because I would embarrass my child, but I get a lot of death threats on just plain old email and snail mail.

Ben: What do you get them for?

Professor Dudden: I say that the Nanjing Massacre happened and I say that Japan bears state responsibility for forced militarized sexual slavery.

Ben: And, it's that consistently …

Professor Dudden: I get called …

Ben: … To say that stuff.

Professor Dudden: I get called a liar, all sorts of great names. It's not that I've gotten used to it or accustomed to it, but I have learned a pretty important ratio, which is for every ten emails of hate, I get two or three totally unsolicited notices from, let's just say I, you know, regular Japanese people will write me or email me and say, “Keep doing what you're doing.”

Amory: The day after I met Evan in early September, he got a lawyer, he was advised to stop speaking to journalists until he had made a decision about what to do with the book and it was no longer in his possession.

Ben: But Evan assured us he would eventually be able to tell us more. And a couple of months later, in December of last year, Pawn Man was ready to Pawn Jam. If by that I mean talk to us.

Amory: The photo album was no longer in the U.S. Evan had decided to donate it to China through the Chinese Consulate in Chicago.

So the last time I spoke to you, we were in your store in Minneapolis. You had a bulletproof vest on and a gun on your hip. And while I was there, you got a phone call from someone at the Chinese embassy who wanted to see the book.

Evan: Yeah. And it, you know, I got calls from everyone that day, and I thought you were sitting there. My phone was ringing off the hook.

Amory: Evan said that the Chinese visitors who came into his shop changed his mind about keeping the book in America.

Evan: What was so striking about it is most of the people that were coming in here were very young, younger than me. And yeah, you know, I kind of thought that my generation was the cutoff, you know, for, for talking to people from World War II and having that impact. And I was just so surprised that these young Chinese people were, you know, the war was, was so real to them still.

Ben: So, in September 2022, Evan began taking steps to send the book back to China. It would be a long, complicated process involving lawyers and the Consulate General in Chicago.

Evan: You know, what people don't seem to understand is I can't just call up a foreign government and say, hey, I got a little something, something that could shake up geopolitics. You guys want to meet in a parking lot? I'll give it to you. Like, I needed to get a lawyer and do this carefully.

Ben: Evan says that the video and the accusations that the photo album was a hoax damaged his credibility. Historians from universities and museums withdrew their offers to look at the book. The ones that did agree to verify the book’s contents only did so anonymously.

Evan: The allegations that I used a war crime to get famous, which is such a heinous accusation, it just is so damaging and destructive and bad. A lot of people attacked me, but, hey, you know what the end result of this? It's. It's come full circle. And I think I’ve proven that I didn't stage this. I created a perfect storm of words with a TikTok. It was an accident. I'm not going to lie that that, you know, I didn't intend that this was going to happen. But once it did, this was the best way I could think of owning it.

Amory: Evan did not shy away from talking about the mental and physical toll going viral took on him. He said he lost weight and started seeing a therapist.

Evan: There's a very special club being in this, you know, the video that goes viral and you get picked apart a million ways from Sunday. But again, it's not about me and I wouldn't do anything different. I really think that I did a good thing here and I just, the education I provided I think is really valuable.

Ben: That’s something that came up again and again. Even though the photos were not really of the Nanjing Massacre, Evan’s original TikTok video about it spread awareness about a dark chapter of World War II history that isn’t all that well known outside of Asia. Here he is in a follow-up video.

[TikTok audio:

Evan: Even if it turns out these photos are not genuine, this video and what I’ve done here has educated so many people about what happened during WWII. So many people didn't even know that. I was shocked reading comments like, “Wow, I never knew.” Yeah, Japanese are just as bad as the Nazis.]

Amory: Now that the book is back in China, Chinese academics may or may not release its findings to the public. But in the meantime, the Consulate General thanked Evan and gave him a gift as a sign of gratitude.

Evan Kail signing paperwork at the Chinese Consulate in Chicago. This agreement between Evan, his lawyer, and the Consul General of the PRC in Chicago, officially relinquished the photo album to the Chinese government. According to Evan, the book is now in China and being inspected by historians. (Courtesy Evan Kail)
Evan Kail signing paperwork at the Chinese Consulate in Chicago. This agreement between Evan, his lawyer, and the Consul General of the PRC in Chicago, officially relinquished the photo album to the Chinese government. According to Evan, the book is now in China and being inspected by historians. (Courtesy Evan Kail)
Evan's gift from the Consul General of the PRC in Chicago, Zhao Jian; a yellow vase. (Courtesy Evan Kail)
Evan's gift from the Consul General of the PRC in Chicago, Zhao Jian; a yellow vase. (Courtesy Evan Kail)

Evan: So they sent me a new contract, I signed that at my attorney's office with them, met with them, read them a letter. We shook hands. They presented me with a letter, and then they gave me a parcel in Vegas, which I have come to learn this vase they gave me. They only give to like heads of state and like top dignitaries. It is like the greatest gift they can give a foreign person from the government.

Amory: So Ben, I've been thinking a lot about an object as a piece of history, a teaching tool, a window into a time period in history. And we've spent the whole episode talking about the book, but with this vase that the Consulate General gave to Evan, which is like a very delicate, beautiful porcelain vase. It's yellow, it has this blue bird on it sitting on some sort of lovely dainty branch. I'd like to think that someday many, many, many years from now, after Evan’s shop has closed or changed hands, that vase will be sitting in an attic, or maybe prominently on display. Who knows? And someone's gonna come across it and be like, this is beautiful. Where did this come from? What is the story of this vase, and that's gonna lead someone else down a whole rabbit hole, maybe long after TikTok is, is gone. And we've moved on to other platforms. And they'll have that question of what is this? And why is it important? And we'll see which podcast decides to make an episode about that.

Ben: Which VR cast which chat-GPT cast?

Amory: Which alternate reality?

Ben: Which fourth dimension podcast? I like that I think that's a really nice, you know, positive thought. I also want to say like, I think I guess this story had me thinking about the impact and implications of denying a trauma happened. And like how that can reverberate through generations of people, and how there's something really powerful about a group of people like recognizing and saying out loud, like, No, this happened. You know, this is a part of history that I have, I know very little about. But I think what this story tells me is that no matter how hard you may try to deny that something that actually happened, happened, it will live on in generational trauma. And until we recognize that and like, try to heal it through acknowledging it, it will continue to exist, no matter how hard you try to hide it, or deny its existence.

Amory: Back to Shakespeare, the truth will out.

Ben: That's right. That's right. I don't know what to do with that. But I hope that people, it sounds like people got some solace from at least the conversation that this raised on TikTok. And I think that sounds like a good thing.

Amory: Here here.


Ben: Endless Thread is a production of WBUR in Boston.

Amory: This episode was written and produced by Megan Cattel.

Ben: It was co-hosted by me, Ben Brock Johnson …

Amory: And Amory Sivertson. Mix and sound design by Emily Jankowski.

Ben: The rest of our team is Quincy Walters, Dean Russell, Nora Saks, Grace Tatter, Amy Gorel, Matt Reed and Paul Vaitkus.

Amory: Special thanks to WBUR alum Jessica Alpert for tipping me off about Pawn Man and the photo album at the most opportune time, and to my friend Claire Kaiser for being up for a little detour along our road trip to meet Evan.

Ben: Endless Thread is a show about the blurred lines between digital communities and your local gold and silver store. And this episode was the epitome of an untold — or at least under-told history, an unsolved mystery, and a wild story from the internet. If you have one of any of those that you want us to tell, hit us up. Email Endless Thread at WBUR dot ORG.

Megan Cattel Freelance digital producer, WBUR Podcasts
Megan Cattel was a freelance digital producer for WBUR Podcasts.



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