Chinese history

On the trail of Midnight in Peking

Chinese history

Tamara is a SACU member living in Houston, USA. She has previously lived in China and Germany and has written for China Daily and Asian Fortune as well as China Eye. Tamara recently read a gripping true-crime story that took place in Beijing, Paul French's ?Midnight in Peking: The Murder That Haunted the Last Days of Old China?. A young Englishwoman called Pamela Werner was brutally murdered in Beijing (Peking) on a cold January day in 1937. Pamela was the nineteen-year-old daughter of famous Sinologist E.T.C. Werner. . This article is reprinted from China Eye magazine (2016).

While first flipping through the book, two grainy photos caught my eye: one of Pamela playing netball in the Tientsin (Tianjin) Grammar School and another one of her looking like a movie star on the silver screen, the glamorous "studio portrait." The photos haunted me, and, I admit, played a role in my buying the book. As a current expat in China's capital myself, I was also curious about expat life in Beijing several decades ago. Plus, who can resist a good mystery?

French unveils the protagonists of the story in a mosaic-like way, tile by tile. As his book reveals, Pamela appeared to have at least two sides ? plain-Jane school girl and a more worldly, free-spirited side that liked to explore. Moreover, she had one foot in Western culture and one foot in Chinese culture, as she spoke Chinese fluently and had local friends and acquaintances. Her father was also immersed in both cultures, and had an adventurous streak, going on expeditions to search for Genghis Khan's tomb. But unlike his outgoing teenage daughter, Werner was stuffy and led a hermit-like existence upon retiring from the British diplomatic service, devoting himself exclusively to his scholarly studies on Chinese culture instead of socializing with Beijing's other expats. Werner has secured an ongoing legacy for himself as his books are still available on Amazon: Myths and Legends of China, China of the Chinese, Chinese Weapons, A Dictionary of Chinese Mythology.

Peking Park 1978

Pamela was Werner's adopted daughter, murdered in a crime that remains unsolved almost 80 years later ? officially at least. French, an old "China hand" and British expat who has lived many years in Shanghai, offers a solution to the mystery after unearthing Werner's meticulous and conclusive research into his daughter's murder and including it in his book. French relied on Werner's numerous notes to the Foreign Office in London describing his hard-nosed private investigation after the case was officially closed in July 1937. Werner's research, French wrote, brought "more to light than the official inquest ever did," and French appears to agree with Werner's identification of the killer. With the grip of a Doberman Pinscher, Werner refused to let go of his daughter's murder case after both the Chinese and the British failed to close it.

It has been suggested that Werner's misanthropic attitude proved counterproductive to his private investigation of his daughter's killer, but according to French's book, protecting White, British "face" in China was a factor as well. Indeed, Werner was persona non grata among the British expat community in China; he was more interested in studying Chinese dialects on a houseboat while stationed in the Chinese hinterlands than in drinking and fraternizing with fellow Brits. Werner is described as "eccentric" by a contemporary, and French calls him "rebellious," with a "damn-the-consequences attitude."

As a subplot to Pamela's murder and her father's private investigation, French writes about the half-hearted collaboration between the Chinese and British investigators Colonel Han Shih-ching and Detective Chief Inspector Richard Dennis, an ex-Scotland Yard employee. Their efforts are stymied by both red tape and oscillating, on-and-off trust between both sides. What French describes as "a unique occurrence and a potentially fascinating collaboration" between British and Chinese gumshoes was botched by "confused and overlapping jurisdictions and agreements between the Chinese and the foreign powers."

I wanted to get a sense of Werner's and Pamela's Beijing and so this February I visited some of the sites featured in the book, which are close to Beijing's Railway Station, including the Fox Tower (also known as Dongbianmen Watchtower, 东便门角楼) and the Tartar Wall as well as No. 1 Armour Factory Hutong (盔甲厂胡同), where Pamela had lived with her father. In fact, most of the locations mentioned in the book still exist today ? which is surprising, considering the alarming rate at which Beijing's hutongs are being torn down.

There is a Midnight in Peking Audio Walk on the book's official Penguin website that will guide you through some of the book's major sites, but being more into DIY, I decided to strike out on my own. Indeed, to those willing to dig, Beijing is like a curiosity cabinet and time capsule rolled into one. "Armour Factory Alley, although in the Tartar City, was certainly no place for poor foreigners. Grey courtyard residences, or siheyuan, sat behind ornate gates along both sides of the alley. Werner's house was built on a traditional north-south axis, with a raised step at the entrance to ward off ghosts. In the courtyard a century-old wisteria climbed the walls, and an ancient poplar tree stood amidst a small rockery."

When I arrived at the door stoop of No. 1 Armour Factory Alley, I saw no sign of the ancient wisteria and tree, but I didn't have time to discreetly poke around the modest residence it is today because an elderly lady approached me and struck up a conversation. An energetic 88-year-old, Ms. Hu now lives in Pamela's former home and invited me in; when I pulled out my copy of Midnight in Peking and explained that this was the former home of the book's protagonist, I got no reaction whatsoever. Apparently, she had never heard of the book. As French wrote, the Werners' former courtyard house is now subdivided with different families occupying them.

Interestingly, American journalist Edgar Snow, author of Red Star Over China, and his wife Helen Foster were neighbours of the Werners. The Snows' former residence is only several houses away and is now a hotel, which is preserving the Snows' legacy with statues of the famous couple, commemorative plaques and staff that are happy to tell you more about the Snows and Red Star Over China.

As opposed to the Snows' posh residence with its gramophone and silk-covered cushions, the Werners' residence was austerely furnished with only a telephone indicating it was the 1930's. French described Werner's home as filled with traditional dark Chinese furniture and objets d'art from Werner's expeditions arranged in a museum-like fashion. "It felt like an old man's house, not something a nineteen-year-old girl would enjoy," French wrote.

Fast forward: Ms. Hu's two-room hutong house is modest with a utilitarian feel. She lives there with her grandson, with each occupying one room. In Ms. Hu's room, 寿, the Chinese character for "long life," was hanging in a frame on the wall. There were mounds of comforters on her bed. Photos in color of Ms. Hu when she was only several years younger smiled back at me. A microwave and a bottle of orange juice sat on two separate tables. In her grandson's bedroom, there was a picture of a rooster (a nice coincidence when one considers the symbolic meaning attached to roosters in Western culture, resurrection, and the animal's universal significance as a time-keeper).

As I was sitting next to Ms. Hu, I wondered: Which room had this been when Werner and Pamela occupied the courtyard? Werner's study perhaps or Pamela's bedroom? Or maybe the servants' quarters? Ms. Hu and I engaged in small talk, and despite her robust appearance, things weren't always smooth for her health-wise.

不要太老” (“Don’t become too old”), she told me, and “活一天,算一天” (“take it day by day, live in the present”). How ironic, when one thinks of Pamela’s tragic, premature death and French’s emphasis in his afterword that Pamela be remembered. He even dedicated Midnight in Peking to her. “From the start, I thought it important that Pamela Werner not be forgotten, and that some sort of justice, however belated, be awarded her.” Thanks to French’s book, Pamela continues to live on, in a sense.

And so does the world French depicts in Midnight in Peking, if one takes the time to explore. French vividly describes Beijing's expat community in the 1930's, with its upper-class members such as the Werners enjoying ice skating, tiffins, socializing in swanky hotels, and shock! a nudist colony in the Western Hills. Beijing's rich expats lived largely segregated from the poorer foreigners and the Chinese. Indeed, the Legation Quarter, where most of Beijing's more affluent foreigners resided (except for the more adventurous ones such as the Werners and Snows), appeared to be a parallel universe to the rest of the city. Both microcosms experienced an upheaval as the Japanese occupied the city soon after Pamela's death in 1937, and French also reveals the fates of his book's protagonists after the Japanese occupation.

Green Lake

Only vestiges of the hutongs in the Werners' old neighborhood remain. Trains run directly alongside those few hutongs huddled next to the Beijing Railway Station. Parts of the Ming Dynasty wall, also called the Tartar Wall, on which Pamela liked to ride her bicycle, are still standing in that area as well as the Fox Tower, which was believed to be haunted by fox spirits (狐狸精). It was the base of that tower where Pamela's body was found, badly mutilated. The tower, which now houses the Red Gate Gallery, also includes an exhibit on Beijing's city gates, complete with mini models.

At the bottom of the tower and along the adjacent Tartar Wall is a park where Beijingers like to walk their dogs. An old Beijinger who was taking his caged songbird for a walk on January 8, 1937, had discovered Pamela's body. Although the tradition of 遛鸟 (bird-walking) is still alive and well among elderly men in Beijing, I only encountered dog walkers at the base of the Fox Tower when I visited. The "Badlands," which French refers to as "foreign Peking's sinful side," is only a stone's throw away from the Fox Tower, Tartar Wall and the Werners' former home. "Lying in a narrow strip between the Legation Quarter and the Tartar City, the Badlands was a network of twisting hutong devoted to sin and vice," French wrote, with the area seeing most of its action during the night. (French also authored a slim volume on that area of Beijing, Badlands: Decadent Playground of Old Peking).

The Badlands hutongs mentioned in the book, Soochow Hutong (苏州胡同), Pamela's favourite snack street, Hougou Hutong (后沟胡同) and Chuanpan Hutong (船板胡同) still exist today under the same names. These hutongs feature a lot of cheap inns and noodle shops. However, I stumbled upon a beautiful little Protestant church in Hougou Hutong called Chongwenmen Church, which was built in 1870. When I entered and sat down to reflect with my back to its stained glass windows featuring Biblical figures in candescent robes, I found it hard to believe that almost next door, there was a lot of prostitution and drinking going on about eighty years ago!

When I asked a local for directions to Chuanpan Hutong, she said there was nothing really interesting there. To those who haven't read Midnight in Peking, that may be true. But in the book, Chuanpan Hutong was hands-down the most vice-ridden alley in the Badlands, and the suspects in Pamela's murder case liked to "hang out" there and indulge in clandestine activities.

What a pity, I thought, that Pamela wasn't alive today. She would have been nearly a hundred years old. She might have moved to Britain, as her father had planned before she died, or perhaps stayed in Beijing as a "bridge" between two cultures, who knows? At any rate, she would have had a lot of stories to tell about old Beijing. And perhaps, just perhaps, she would still have had the energy to knock on Ms. Hu's door and speak to her in fluent Chinese, or enjoy a bowl of noodles and take a stroll around her old Beijing neighbourhood.

Note: Tamara Treichel is currently living in Beijing and you can read more about her adventures on her website

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2016, reprinted from SACU's magazine China Eye Issue 50, 2016

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