The ap­proach­ing storm

How the death of a young English­woman haunted Peking

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence Dog-day Afternoon At A Genoa C - PAUL FRENCH

THE east­ern sec­tion of old Peking has been dom­i­nated since the 15th cen­tury by a mas­sive watch­tower, built as part of the Tar­tar Wall to pro­tect the city from in­vaders. Known as the Fox Tower, it was be­lieved to be haunted by fox spir­its, a su­per­sti­tion that meant the place was de­serted at night.

Af­ter dark the area be­came the pre­serve of thou­sands of bats, which lived in the eaves of the Fox Tower and flit­ted across the moon­light like gi­ant shad­ows. The only other liv­ing pres­ence was the wild dogs, whose howl­ing kept the lo­cals awake. On win­ter morn­ings the wind stung ex­posed hands and eyes, car­ry­ing dust from the nearby Gobi Desert. Few peo­ple ven­tured out early at this time of year, opt­ing in­stead for the warmth of their beds.

But just be­fore dawn on Jan­uary 8, 1937, rick­shaw pullers pass­ing along the top of the Tar­tar Wall, which was wide enough to walk or cy­cle on, no­ticed lan­tern lights near the base of the Fox Tower, and in­dis­tinct fig­ures mov­ing about.

With nei­ther the time nor the in­cli­na­tion to stop, they went about their busi­ness, heads down, one foot in front of the other, avoid­ing the fox spir­its that were out seek­ing vic­tims.

When day­light broke on an­other freez­ing day, the tower was de­serted once more. The colony of bats cir­cled one last time be­fore the creep­ing sun sent them back to their eaves. But in the waste­land be­tween the road and the tower, the wild dogs — the huang gou or yel­low dogs — were cir­cling cu­ri­ously, sniff­ing at some­thing along­side a ditch. It was the body of a young wo­man, ly­ing at an odd an­gle and cov­ered by a layer of frost. Her cloth­ing was di­shev­elled, her body badly mu­ti­lated. On her wrist was an ex­pen­sive watch that had stopped just af­ter mid­night.

It was the morn­ing af­ter the Rus­sian Christ­mas, which was 13 days af­ter the Western Christ­mas, and the corpse be­longed to 19-year-old Pamela Werner, an English­woman who’d been born and raised in Peking.

When news of her mur­der broke it sent waves of fear through the city’s al­ready ner­vous for­eign com­mu­nity. Peking at that time had a pop­u­la­tion of some 1.5 mil- lion, of which only 2000, per­haps 3000, were for­eign­ers.

They were a dis­parate group, rang­ing from stiff-backed con­suls and their diplo­matic staff to des­ti­tute White Rus­sians. The lat­ter, hav­ing fled their home­land to es­cape the Bol­she­viks, were now of­fi­cially state­less. In be­tween were jour­nal­ists, a few busi­ness­men, some old China hands who’d lived in Peking since the days of the Qing dy­nasty and felt they could never leave. There was the odd world trav­eller tak­ing a so­journ from a grand tour of the Ori­ent, who’d come for a fort­night and lin­gered on for years, as well as refugees from the De­pres­sion in Europe and Amer­ica, seek­ing op­por­tu­nity and ad­ven­ture.

And there was no short­age of for­eign crim­i­nals, dope fiends and pros­ti­tutes who’d some­how washed up in north­ern China. IT was an old man named Chang Pao-chen who re­ported the body of Pamela Werner. One of the l aobaix­ing — lit­er­ally the ‘ ‘ old hun­dred names’’, the work­ing peo­ple of Peking — Chang was now re­tired and lived in a hu­tong not far from the Fox Tower. On that cold morn­ing of Fri­day, Jan­uary 8, he was tak­ing his prized song­bird for a walk along the Tar­tar Wall when he saw the corpse.

Caged song­birds were an an­cient Peking tra­di­tion, and ev­ery morn­ing old men like Chang could be seen car­ry­ing lac­quered wooden cages draped with blue linen cov­ers. All Pekingers, Chi­nese and for­eign, recog­nised the dis­tinc­tive sound of these swal­lows, which were let out of their cages with flutes at­tached to their tails to go whistling through the morn­ing air, soar­ing across the hu­tong, the For­bid­den City and the Fox Tower be­fore faith­fully re­turn­ing to their masters. Chang came to the Tar­tar Wall ev­ery day, to smoke, drink tea and talk song­birds. The cold didn’t de­ter him, nor the strong, bone- chill­ing winds. He was a Pekinger born and bred and he was used to it.

That morn­ing, shortly af­ter 8am, he was fol­low­ing the Tar­tar Wall eastwards to the Fox Tower when he no­ticed two rick­shaw pullers squat­ting be­low, point­ing across the waste­land to­wards the rub­bish-strewn moat at the base of the tower. The area was in­vari­ably quiet at that hour, and what­ever was down there couldn’t be seen by the traf­fic us­ing the City Road, which ran par­al­lel to the wall from the Fox Tower down to the Chien­men Gate.

Chang drew closer, wary of the huang gou, but while the scabrous mutts had a fear­some rep­u­ta­tion, the old man knew they rarely at­tacked hu­mans. Like many a poor Pekinger, the dogs were hun­gry, home­less and des­per­ate.

Later, ac­counts of what Chang saw were dis­puted as the lo­cal ru­mour mill swung into ac­tion, ex­ag­ger­at­ing the scene with each telling and retelling of the tale. But there was no doubt­ing that the wo­man he found at the base of the Fox Tower was dead, and not just any wo­man, but a for­eigner. A laowai. More­over she had been ter­ri­bly mu­ti­lated — beaten, cut and sliced all over her body.

Old Chang was shocked, even though dead bod­ies in the open weren’t rare that win­ter, with the econ­omy in col­lapse. Sui­cide, too, had be­come al­most an epi­demic, with slashed wrists or opium the most com­mon meth­ods of end­ing the or­deal. Ev­ery morn­ing, the city sent out carts at day­break to col­lect the frozen corpses.

More­over there’d been a rise in po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated mur­ders. The Kuom­intang’s en­forcers and se­cret po­lice clashed with turn­coat Chi­nese, those who be­lieved that Tokyo would in­evitably crush Nank­ing as well as Peking, and were keen to be in a po­si­tion to profit early from the [Ja­panese] oc­cu­pa­tion. There were also shootouts be­tween ri­val fac­tions, and out­rages com­mit­ted by Ja­panese ronin and their Korean al­lies from the north.

But old Chang hadn’t come across such a corpse per­son­ally. As a younger man he’d seen the city rav­aged and looted by the for­eign armies that had come to rout the Boxer rebels, and then, in the 1920s, he’d seen the heads of war­lords’ vic­tims on dis­play. Now there was an­other war of sorts un­der way in Peking, be­tween the na­tion­al­ists, the com­mu­nists and the Ja­panese agents — the pa­pers were full of it ev­ery day.

But a dead white wo­man, that was some­thing else. Dead for­eign­ers were al­to­gether a rarer phe­nom­e­non on Peking’s streets.

Chang Pao-chen re­mem­bered that on a cold win­ter’s night in 1935 a White Rus­sian emi­gre had walked to the Fox Tower and taken from his threadbare coat an ex­quis­ite, ivory- han­dled cut­throat ra­zor. He had rolled up his sleeves and slashed both his wrists, slump­ing to the ground by the tower wall as the life slowly drained out of him. He had been found in the morn­ing by pass­ing rick­shaw pullers.

Was this an­other sui­cide? It didn’t look like it, and what­ever it was, it wasn’t good. With his caged song­bird, old Chang ran back along the Tar­tar Wall to the near­est po­lice box, as fast as his aged legs would carry him. This is an edited ex­tract from Mid­night in Peking by Paul French (Pen­guin/vik­ing, $32.95).

PIC­TURES: FROM THE BOOK BY PAUL FRENCH

Peking’s Lega­tion Quar­ter as re­built af­ter the Boxer Re­bel­lion at the turn of the 20th cen­tury

Pamela Werner in 1936

Bri­tish diplo­mat Ed­ward Werner was Pamela’s fa­ther

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