The approaching storm
How the death of a young Englishwoman haunted Peking
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).
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