The One in 1937 Beijing

Paul French, Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China (2012)

I sadly don’t remember exactly where I first heard of this book, but I suspect that it might be on the Sinina podcast. Someone spoke of or wrote about this book in glowing terms, and I’m quite grateful that it put me on the scent of this true-crime-meets-history-book. I rarely read true crime books (as you may know that I read little non-fiction anyway), but this one fascinated me, not by the criminal aspect per se, but for the historical and social depth it provided. It made 1937 Peking alive again, and it’s no small feat. You can hear the noises, smell the street food and see the fancy hotels as well as the most sordid slums and bars.

I lived in Beijing (that’s how we’re supposed to spell Peking) for several years in the early 2000s and I never even heard of the foreign legation quarters. (That I didn’t hear about this particular murder is not surprising, given that’s it’s more of a footnote of history). It’s not that the Chinese capital is totally oblivious of its past… it’s rather that it’s very selective about it. The Forbidden Palace, yes, the Temple of Heaven, yes. Everything that celebrates the grandiose past of the Chinese capital is preserved. Some carefully preserved old neighborhoods where tourists can do tours, as well. In the Old Summer palace, there are signs in front of ruins reminding that the French and British troops are responsible for this destruction in 1860 and in 1900. But the fact that foreigners did live in Peking in an enclosed neighborhood as late as 1937? I’d never even thought about it. A short note at the end of the book mentions that the cemetery for foreigners, where the young girl at the center of this investigation was buried, has been replaced by the Second ring road: I believe it says a lot, and I can only credit the writer for his thorough investigation.

Pamela Werner was a British high school student who studied at a boarding school for foreigners in Tientsin, but she came back to her father’s home in old Peking for the winter break. On one night in January, as the Chinese are preparing for the Chinese New Year celebrations and the Russians celebrate their own festival, she goes to the skating ring to meet with friends, but fails to come back home. Her body will be found the next morning in an awful state.

The murder of a foreigner, and a young girl at that, was a shock for the foreign community in Peking and was a nightmare for the Chinese police who had to deal with diplomacy as well as the investigation, which was led conjointly with a British policeman sent from Tientsin. The investigation didn’t lead to any arrest, and Pamela’s father later launched into his own investigation and arrived to his own conclusion, based on very dubious confessions by very dubious people. Whether you believe it or not is entirely your choice, and I don’t think that I was 100% convinced by French’s theory, even though he presented it convincingly.

1937 Beijing was on the brink of disaster. The Japanese forces were increasingly present and arrogant (the murder occurred a mere 6 months before the Marco Polo bridge incident which marked the beginning of the war). Countless Russian refugees who had fled the Soviets at the onset of the 1917 Revolution were at the end of their tethers and lived in abject poverty, prostitution and drug trafficking. One single dead girl, however horrific were her circumstances, soon weighed little when war started and most foreigners left the country.

This book highlighted my selective ignorance of some part of the history of China and Beijing. I’m even more curious to find some social history of 20th China, which would counterbalance my knowledge which is far too centered on very high-level events.