Byron Theofanis: the charismatic Greek settler, Part 1 and 2

In Part 1, we look at Byron Theofanis’ journey to the far east, and his life in the Orient

Byron Theofanis: the charismatic Greek settler


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)


In Part 2, Byron Theofanis’ life in the Orient and his successful migration to Australia is explored

Byron Theofanis during an open house at his premises in Tokyo with other members of the Greek community celebrating the Greek national Day of 1953.

During his five-year sojourn in Japan, Byron Theofanis, having accumulated a rich knowledge and experience of the Japanese language and culture in Manchuria, became a de facto cultural ambassador of Hellenism in Japan. Via his activities, certain aspects related to the Greek mythology and the Japanese culture were promoted in the American social clubs; he closely collaborated with the constant inflow of Greek army officers participating in the Korean expedition, as well as with Greek American officers of the occupying forces in Japan, and Greek nurses organizing open-house socials and fundraising activities for the less fortunate among the Greek settlers in Tokyo and Yokohama. He christened Greek Japanese children, liaised with the incoming Generals of the Greek Army, protected many wounded Greek soldiers and visited Greek nationals in Japan.
He even narrowly escaped a famous marriage with a the elegant Japanese actress, Sugi Yoko, who finally migrated to Los Angeles, where she settled. Yoko was from a noble Japanese family. Her father, during the Japanese occupation of China, had been the Director of the Shanghai Customs Offices; however, following the Communists’ success he lost his entire wealth. Despite the approval of her mother, her father did not consent to his daughter entering a marriage with a foreigner. “He was a gentle and polite character, however he was ultra-conservative. Yoko was determined to accept our union on the proviso that I would settle in Japan. She had to financially support her purged parents. The dilemma was too great. I realized that there was only one way open to me: to exit the country”. In 2009, Byron and Yoko met again in Tokyo during a very emotional reunion and thereafter the couple maintained an affectionate communication.
While in Japan, Byron also managed to utilize his social skills in organizing regular social events at his residence, which he happily shared with the Honorary Consul of Greece in Yokohama, Anthony Papadopoulos. During his settlement in Japan, Byron also acted as an envoy-mediator for the Greek military personnel serving in Korea, who were frequently visiting Japan. Having the acquaintance of prominent personalities in the Japanese social spectrum and having the support of the powerful Japan-Hellenic Society, he liaised in many occasions with government authorities, benevolent societies and the military to secure high-ranking meetings, to organize important appointments and summits and to connect the Greek officers in the Korean War with their Greek American counterparts.
Byron’s invaluable services to the Greek Americans of Japan earned him the respect of his compatriots and that of the Greek state. In 1952, General Thrasyboulos Tsakalotos, Chief of the Greek Army, arrived in Korea and presented him the Greek Distinguished Services Medal, together with journalist and correspondent of the Vradyni newspaper of Athens, Kimon Skordylis, in the presence of General Tassonis, the leader of the Greek Army forces in Korea. Around this time, he became friends with Greek ship owner and politician Nikitas Venizelos in Japan, and later on in the USA and Greece. Byron recalled his relationship with Nikitas, his antipathy for politics, his desperate attempt to avoid the Korean War Front and his indulgence in life, more than half a century later:
“Nikitas had been a practical person with strong antipathy to politics. As a matter of fact he was teasing his uncle Sophocles, one of the promising post-War politicians and son of Venizelos the Great. Yet, afterwards he joined Greek politics and became the post-war re-founder of the Liberal Party in Greece. Nikitas was very much Americanized then, always sober, constantly clear-headed and very generous. He was maintaining relations with his extended family in Greece, visiting his father and his uncle Sophocles. In late 1951, several months after our first acquaintance and his return to USA, I received a telephone call, later in the evening. On that day, I was hosting a social evening at my home for approximately 20 Greek American and Greek army officers and three female nurses who were assigned to Korea. It was him, Nikitas Venizelos. I asked him if he was in New York. He replied in a rather anxious manner that he was in Tokyo, at the Yamato Hotel, conscripted by the USA Army, ready to be mobilized to the Korean War Front. I asked him to take a taxi and join us at home. Upon his arrival, I lent him one of my costumes and I introduced him to those present. My Greek American guests did not hide their admiration and respect for the grand-child of Venizelos the Great. I am sure that for many of their parents, who also took part in the Balkan Wars (1912-1913), the name of Venizelos possessed an enormous legacy. When he informed the Greek American officers that he was, as a matter of fact, conscripted to be sent to the front, they appeased him, promising to offer him another assignment. With the intervention of Frank Scolinos and the Japan Hellenic Society, Nikitas Venizelos, two days later was assigned to serve in a military office in Yokohama. This is the how he escaped the war front…”
After the Korean War, Nikitas Venizelos returned to the USA maintaining his relationship with Byron. In the meantime, the latter in November 1955, exited Japan aboard S.S. Arion, travelling initially to Victoria and Vancouver in Canada, and then for almost three months to New York as a guest of Nikitas Venizelos and his wife Katherine at Rye and of Byron’s older brother, Panagiotis, in Riversdale:
“I caught the Northern Train from Seattle to New York. Nikitas and Katherine were at the station to welcome me and take me to their home. I also visited the home of my brother Panagiotis, whom I met for the first time, as he migrated to the USA before I was born. I met my brother with his wife Alexandra and their two children. One of his children was a seaman and, at some stage in 1953, I had the opportunity to receive him as a guest in my house in Yokohama for almost three weeks. Panagiotis was running a family business then in Astoria, comprising of a shop and a small manufacturing warehouse and selling coffees to passing customers as well as to restaurants and cafés in New York. Nikitas was also very generous and an excellent host. He organised a reception at his place inviting prominent Greek Americans and his associates to meet me. He spoke very highly about me and my role in Japan, emphasizing my efforts to save him from the Korean War front. I stayed for almost three months encouraged by the hospitality of Nikitas and the loving care of my brother Panagiotis…”
In February 1956, he boarded the Greek liberty type cargo vessel, Arion that brought him to the USA, and three months later for Hamburg, Germany; from there, via railway to Athens. He spent almost eight months in his native island and Athens socializing with his relatives and starting to understand better the Greek way of life and the people there. After all, he had spent more time in the Orient than in Greece. At the beginning, it was a severe cultural shock. In both China and Japan his intellectual life was influenced by Confucian legacies, stressing his role as an individual to the society. His duties to the state, his high sense of loyalty to family and filial piety became standards of conduct in his life at all social levels. On the other hand, Greece was coming out of a civil war, and the destruction caused by unstable successive governments. Attitudes of independent rationalism and selfishness prevailed in public life. Under these prevailing attitudes, his determination to expatriate to Australia became even stronger. His brother Platon, and many of his acquaintances from China and Japan, had already settled in the Antipodes, embarking on a new settlement attempt. Byron had obtained a residential visa from the Australian Embassy in Tokyo; however, it had already expired. He easily renewed it in Athens as the Australian Ambassador was particularly selective of prospective high spirited and educated immigrants.
In July, Byron boarded the S.S. Kyreneia for Melbourne where he finally arrived just prior to the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games. On board, he met a number of Greek immigrants, including Polyvios Papandreopoulos, who played an important cultural and education role in Melbourne. Byron, upon his settlement, embarked on a campaign to identify the commercial prospects open to him. Eventually, he examined the possibility of entering a partnership with his brother Platon, who already owned and operated a fish and chips shop. However, he decided against such a venture, as he was well accustomed to the imports and exports trade. He first spent time in Melbourne, and in Sydney, investigating commercial avenues and searching for the best available option. His experience of oriental management convinced him that it was crucial for his commercial initiatives to focus on the general populace rather than on a local or even parochial clientele. After all his overall temperament and moral fibre was different from the majority of the Greek migrant community that settled in Melbourne as a result of the Australian government controlled migration system in 1952. The latter were mainly unskilled labourers and agrarians, who were compelled to survive in an unknown and often hostile industrial environment, and to build up opportunities for the socioeconomic and educational elevation of their children. Byron had always been a man with a fascination for the arts, articulate in his manners, eloquent in his preferences, constantly captivated by the atmosphere of the American and British social clubs in the Far Orient, at all times enchanted by the connectivity of the people around him, both in business as well as in social life. These tendencies were affordable to a man who accumulated a vast living experience in all five continents of the globe.
Byron maintained an excellent rapport with other Greek Chinese and Greek Japanese expatriates forming small colonies in Melbourne and in Sydney as early as 1948. This Greek oriental settlement in Australia coincided in the early 1950’s with the arrival of a large number of middle class settlers from Egypt and Romania. These settlers, most of them former company executives, merchants, shop proprietors and professionals merged with the vast Greek population of unskilled labourers and agrarian immigrants, balancing the socioeconomic milieu of the Australian Greek community. These new immigrants acted as supporting agents of a culturally and linguistically diverse community, assuming responsibility for the introduction both of new employment patterns and of new economic methods. They introduced requisite and expertise techniques and imported knowledge in commerce and trade brought from their old countries of settlement, from which they were uprooted only because of political turmoils. Most of them were adventurous businessmen, eager to succeed in the stable, primarily western oriented Australian society.
Upon his settlement in Melbourne, Byron became active in attending socials and creating opportunities for social integration. It was customary in those early days for former Greek Chinese settlers who formed their small colony in Australia to invite each other to get-together evenings sharing their nostalgia of the good old days in China and Manchuria. In one of those socials, he later (January 1958) met at Charalambos Dukakis’ residence in Brighton, Melbourne his fiancé Golpho Giannakopoulos, whom he married and they lived together, raising three children, Irene, Vasilios and Christina, until her death in November 2000. Golpho had been invited to settle in Australia by her sister Georgia and her brother-in-law Ioannis Smyrniotis (John Simon) who used to have the Tarax Restaurant in Swanston Street in the city. Byron concentrated on his business and family life, whilst he also joined the Australian Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA) in 1958 serving its membership as President of Aristotle Lodge and later on as State President. Following his retirement from business life, he became active in propagating the Hellenic legacies and supporting cultural and educational activities. In 2006, he became a great benefactor of the then National Centre for Hellenic Studies and Research (E.K.E.M.E.) in Melbourne, a world class research institution (1997-2008), offering a bequest of $100,000 for scholarships and awards in the memory of his wife Golpho.
The sizeable Greek Chinese colony which was transplanted in Australia remained socially cohesive and financially affluent. For example, Charalambos and Elisabeth Dukakis transplanted into Melbourne their tobacco and importing business brought from north China and settling in Brighton. Their three China-born daughters, who were married to non-Greek professionals, resided in Melbourne, thus transferring their exotic experience of the orient into the Antipodes; Themistocles Vakakis from Harbin and Mukden set his house up in Brunswick, Melbourne with his family, following Platon Theofanis’ invitation; Vladimiros Stefanidis settled with his wife Maria in Melbourne. His son Nicholas, his son-in-law Platon and his daughter Claudia followed a few months later. China-born brothers’ Aristeidis and Omiros Paradissis, with their mother Adamantina, settled in Melbourne from Chefoo and Shanghai. Eventually Aristeidis became a lecturer of French literature at La Trobe University whilst Omiros made a successful career as a public servant (see relevant segment). Other Greek Chinese and Greek Japanese immigrants, including Pontian Demetrios Triantafyllidis, the Kanellakis and the Bouhoutsos brothers, settled in Sydney and other large urban centres of the NSW and Queensland, as this has been the case with the descendents of the Kanellakis brothers and Antonios Papadopoulos and his family.
Byron Theofanis, upon his return to Melbourne cleared though Customs a number of machines that he brought from Japan and a few months later he established his coffee company Oasis importing raw coffee and selling its manufacturing products. More than fifty years later, after setting up one of the most successful companies in Australia, he assessed his business achievement in a modest fashion:
“…all you need to begin with was a grinder and roaster. I did not have any substantial provisions, only this basic equipment and a few furniture items that I brought from Yokohama. Most of my social contacts were discouraging me to enter such a tough competition against large coffee companies, including Bushels, Robert Timms and Griffiths. However, I was left with not many options. Melbourne was the industrial capital of Australia. I paid a short visit to car manufacturing giant General Motors in Port Melbourne seeking some sort of employment. I was disappointed as my entire life was spent in pursue of various trades. I commenced my coffee company in the back yard of my brother’s fish and chip shop in Victoria Street, Brunswick. Two years later I moved to Balwyn, upgrading the production equipment and increasing the produced quantity. I was selling both to restaurants and cafés as well as retail. I started employing people to distribute the Oasis coffee around Melbourne. It was 15 years later when I decided to enter a partnership with a former bank employee, Christos Gregoropoulos, a refined and high-minded person. We started importing large quantities of coffee from Latin American countries as well as from Ethiopia and Tanzania. We were compelled to move to a larger building establishment in Burwood. In 1984, Christos and I decided to sell the company to Peter and Denise Patisteas and Paul Theodore, who used to run one of my retail coffee shops…”

One thought on “Byron Theofanis: the charismatic Greek settler, Part 1 and 2”

  1. I accidentally came across this sight when searching for the poet Byron. I was supprised to see my father’s name,Themistocles Vakakis who passed away in 2003 at age 103.My father appeared in this newspaper being the last surviving person in having participated in the 1919-1922 Greco Turkish war.I believe we handed to this newspaper three of the original war documents he received for bravery,These have not been returned to us yet. My name is George Vakakis and I wonder if they are in good hands and weather it would be possible to view them. When i was in Tokyo many years ago, I met Mr Skolinos the then chief prosecutor of Japanese war criminals who spoke highly of Mr Byron.


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