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China’s emergence as a superpower is unquestioned today. But less than a century ago, Old China breathed its last as the country faced a Japanese invasion, then years of civil war and turmoil. Peking, now Beijing, was a city on the edge in 1937 — a place of superstition, fraught with danger where Westerners sought out adventure. The brutal murder of British schoolgirl there on a cold January morning made international headlines. But the world soon forgot about Pamela Werner as China was plunged into the chaos of war. Diane and her guest explore the real-life story of murder and belated justice in Old China.
The name Peking reminds us of old China before the Cultural Revolution. The brutal death of an English girl in 1937 shocked the city as well as the world. Paul French’s new book, “Midnight in Peking,” tells the story of a forgotten murder set in a city and country on the brink of cultural change.
The Story’s Origins
French had lived and worked in China for about 20 years at the time he got the idea for the book. He was reading a book about Edgar Snow, an American journalist who wrote “Red Star Over China,” the book, French said, that introduced Chairman Mao to the world. There was a footnote in the book about the Werner family, who lived on the same street as Snow. The footnote included information about the murder of Pamela Werner in 1937. “I’ve got this theory that if you have a good idea, right, you know, don’t write it down, go to sleep and I trust my brain to sift the dross from the good stuff. And when I wake up in the morning, if the idea is still at the front of my brain, it’s good and if my brain has decided to put it in the little bin and click delete, then it wasn’t worth any of my time,” French said.
Who Was Pamela Werner?
Werner was a 19 year-old English woman, adopted, who came from a wealthy, well-respected family. Her mother died when she was quite young, four or five, and she traveled frequently with her father, and was eventually sent away to school. At the time of her murder, her father was a retired British diplomat. “Stalin did once say that “one death is a tragedy and a million is a statistic.” And Pamela almost becomes, for both the Chinese and the foreign community, this symbol of terror, this descent from civilization to barbarism. Everyone knew it was going to happen and the murder, the horrific murder of this young girl, becomes a symbol of that terrible future that is almost inevitable at that point,” French said.
French: Unsolved Murder “Unsettles Our Sense Of Natural Justice”
“One thing that’s interesting about both Eastern and Western culture is there’s something about unsolved murder that really unsettles our sense natural justice. You know, it discombobulates us, our ethics,” French said. He did come across documents in the U.K. National Archives that included a lot of information from a private investigation that Pamela Werner’s father had conducted to try to find out what had happened to his daughter. Before her father died, he believed he had discovered who had killed her. He sent the information to London in 1943, but, as French said, the British had other things to worry about at that time, and the case was largely forgotten.
You can read the full transcript here.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. The name Peking reminds us of old China before the Cultural Revolution. The brutal death of an English girl in 1937 shocked the city as well as the world. A new book tells the story of a forgotten murder set in a city and country on the brink of cultural change.
MS. DIANE REHMIt's titled "Midnight in Peking." Author Paul French joins me in the studio. Paul French is a founder and the chief China representative of Access Asia. He's also a columnist for China Economic Quarterly and the China Economic Review. I hope you'll join us as well 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to you, Paul, good to have you here.
MR. PAUL FRENCHGood morning, Diane.
REHMI must say this is a combination not only about the murder of a young girl, but also the history of China before the Cultural Revolution, combining really some of the most interesting facts about that place. Would you begin this program by reading for us from that first page?
FRENCHYou know, it's very difficult when you're English, doing a reading because the one thing we have is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to acting talent when reading so people have learned to expect the Royal Shakespeare Company, but I'll give it my best shot.
REHMAll right, that's great.
FRENCHIt's just a page. I can't go too far wrong.
FRENCH"The eastern section of old Peking has been dominated since the 15th century by a looming 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, superstition that meant the place was deserted at night.
FRENCHAfter 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.
FRENCHFew people ventured out early at this time of year, opting instead for the warmth of their beds. But just before dawn on the 8th of January, 1937, rickshaw pullers passing along the top of the Tartar Wall, which was wide enough to walk a cycle on, noticed lantern lights near the base of the Fox Tower and indistinct figures moving about.
FRENCHWith 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. 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 icy wasteland between the road and the tower the wild dogs, the huang gou were prowling curiously, sniffing at something alongside a ditch.
FRENCHIt was the body of a young girl lying at an odd angle and covered by a layer of frost. Her clothing was disheveled, her body badly mutilated. On her wrist was an expensive watch that had stopped just after midnight."
REHMAnd what intrigues me so is why and how this story got into your head.
FRENCHWell, I live in Shanghai and work in China and have done for 20 years or so. I was a student of Chinese before, so I do China for breakfast, lunch and dinner basically. And I was reading a book actually about a famous American in China, Edgar Snow, the journalist who wrote "Red Star Over China," the book that really introduced Chairman Mao to the world.
FRENCHAnd there was a footnote there that said that when Edgar Snow and actually his wife Helen Foster Snow, who I think was the better journalist of the two actually, were living in Peking, they lived on the same street the traditional alleyways, hutong, with the Werner family. And Edward Werner, the old man of the family, had been a former British diplomat and his daughter Pamela was murdered in 1937 when she was 19.
FRENCHAnd you know, this happened right on the street that Edgar Snow lived on and there was a few little hints in this footnote that a British detective had been involved with a Chinese detective investigating it and there was a little whiff of opium, a little hint that maybe some sex was involved somewhere, a lot of scandal in the foreign community and I thought, oh, this deserves a little bit of digging around.
REHMAnd you went to sleep that night and had a dream?
FRENCHWell, I don't know what you think, but I've got this theory that if you have a good idea, right, you know, don't write it down, go to sleep and I trust my brain to sift the dross from the good stuff.
FRENCHAnd when I wake up in the morning, if the idea is still at the front of my brain, it's good and if my brain has decided to put it in the little bin and click delete, then it wasn't worth any of my time.
REHMTell us about Pamela Werner.
FRENCHShe was a 19-year-old English girl. Technically, she'd been adopted. She was born in 1919 and she was adopted in China by Edward Werner and his wife and he had been a famous British Consul General, a diplomat.
REHMAnd was she Chinese?
FRENCHShe was not Chinese. She had gray eyes and blond hair so the theory was that she was probably Russian. Gray eyes and blond hair tend to be from Siberia mostly. Of course, 1919, that group of people that we don't talk about very much now, the White Russians who had left Russia in 1917 and trekked east. many had ended up in China living in cities like Harbin, Tianjin, Shanghai and Peking. So she was probably an unwanted baby left at an orphanage.
FRENCHShe was adopted, but she was, to all intents and purposes, English. The family was quite wealthy, quite well respected. But the father was somewhat unemotional, somewhat cold in the manner that I can assure you English fathers can be sometimes.
REHMAnd the mother?
FRENCHThe mother, unfortunately, died when Pamela was only four or five years old so she never really knew her mother and she lived with her father who traveled a lot, was involved in scholarship. She was sent away to school, another great British tradition there.
FRENCHShe was sent away to school in a nearby city called Tianjin where there was a traditional English grammar school there. She was, I guess, what we would nowadays call an expat brat. You know, she kind of had quite a bit of money. She ran around. She spoke Chinese as well as English...
FRENCH...and she was 19, which I think is a fascinating age for a woman. You know, it's when women suddenly find that they have all the power to attract and entice men along, but of course, they have none of the experience. They can't tell the good ones from the bad ones, right? And that's kind of where Pamela was at in 1937.
REHMHer murder was truly barbaric, though, and one wonders how much focus there was on it at the time.
FRENCHWell, the media at the time covered it massively, both the Chinese newspapers, the English language press in China and all around the world. This was the daughter of a British diplomat. This was a foreign girl, a white girl. To be quite honest, in China, this was not supposed to happen to foreigners. They were supposed to lead privileged lives.
FRENCHAnd don't forget, in January 1937, Peking was surrounded by the Japanese army. They were camped eight miles away from the city. It was no longer a question of if Japan would invade China. It was the question of when China would be invaded.
FRENCHNow, the interesting thing was, you know, I mean, I'm sure not many people quote Stalin on your program, but Stalin did once say that "one death is a tragedy and a million is a statistic." And Pamela almost becomes, for both the Chinese and the foreign community, this symbol of terror, this descent from civilization to barbarism. Everyone knew it was going to happen and the murder, the horrific murder of this young girl, becomes a symbol of that terrible future that is almost inevitable at that point.
REHMWas her father in the country at the time of the murder?
FRENCHOh, he was and he was expecting her home for tea at 7:30 the evening before.
REHMShe had gone out with a friend?
FRENCHShe'd gone out. She'd gone out ice skating at an ice skating rink that the girls all went to. She had cycled off on her own. There wasn't much street lighting in Peking at that time and friends had said, aren't you nervous cycling in the dark? She had said, I'm not worried. This is the safest city in the world, you know.
FRENCHAnd someone said to her, but do you want to cycle alone? And she said this prophetic statement, I've been alone all my life, meaning that, you know, she never really had a mother. She hadn't really known her extended family, which was back in England. Her father was quite cold and detached and those were her last words.
REHMYou have these quotes. How did you do your research?
FRENCHWell, a number of ways, obviously. I started off with the newspaper reports. I was very lucky that the autopsy was done at the Peking Union Medical College, which was founded by Rockefeller and was Rockefeller money and so all of the archives from there came back to the United States. Because a British detective ended up being involved, which is a sort of convoluted story itself, there's a lot of his notes.
FRENCHI managed to come across quite a lot of diplomatic documents in the UK's archives and I managed to find half a dozen or so people who were alive at the time and went to school with Pamela. So they're a very good age now, late 80s and 90s, but scattered around the world and still remember that.
REHMAnd who heard her last words?
FRENCHOh, yes, yes, no. I mean, these were recorded and, of course, the inquest was held in the British Embassy in Peking because it was the death of a British national in China. And the people who heard those words got up and spoke and that was all recorded at the time so we know what her last words were. And of course, the body was dumped and it was found by a Chinese man out walking his songbirds in the morning, which is very Chinese.
FRENCHBut the police were called and her father had gone out looking for her all night and the actual place where her body was found was only about 150 meters from her house as the crow flies. It was direct. And her father looking for her stumbled across this mob of people crowded around somewhere, broke through the crowd and saw his own daughter lying there mutilated and dead on a freezing cold morning and instantly dropped with a partial heart attack. I mean, it was such a shock to him.
REHMReally, and of course, she had been with a younger friend, a 15-year-old when they had gone ice skating and then said to her friend, I have another appointment...
REHM...but never told her where she was going.
FRENCHNever told her what it was. So we know that the last time she was seen was about 7:30 in the evening before. The next time she was seen was when she was discovered dead early in the morning the next day. The question was, the whole investigation centered around, what happened to her in those, you know, ten or so hours in between when she was last seen and when she was found dead and that was what the investigation was.
REHMAnd we're talking about a new book, it's titled "Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China." Paul French is the author. Short break here, stay with us.
REHMAnd if you just joined us, Paul French is my guest. He is a journalist, founder and the chief China representative of Access Asia. He's also a columnist for China Economic Quarterly and the China Economic Review. He's written about a murder that took place in Peking in 1937. Her photograph, her very soft photograph of this young woman Pamela, is on the front of the book.
REHMThe subtitle is "How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China." Tell us about the reaction in China, in Peking when this murder was discovered.
FRENCHWell, Diane, in January 1937, as I said, the city was surrounded by the Japanese. Peking had almost become a little bit of a backwater. Chiang Kai-shek had moved the government to Nanjing, what was then called Nanjing about 10 years before, anticipating the Japanese attack on China. The money had already gone to Shanghai by that point, which, of course, everyone knows is this thriving city.
FRENCHSo, Peking was this ancient Chinese city with about three million people living there. About 3,000 of those people were foreigners, so a very small community. And the reaction was there is -- the phrase everyone always use was we're about to descend from civilization. And in China's case, you know, over three and a half thousand years of civilization into complete barbarism, where the country will have to fight for its life.
FRENCHAnd of course, we all know what happened after that. The city was, for foreigners in the city, for the 3,000 or so foreigners in the city, on one side there was diplomats, scholars, journalists, businessmen, the respectable foreign community. And on the other side, there was this other community which is much less well known. What were known as the driftwood and the ne'er-do-wells and there were two areas where foreigners lived.
FRENCHOne was the Legation Quarter, which is about a square mile or so in the center of Beijing, which you can still visit today, of Western architecture, European churches, European style buildings, European style boulevards. The only electric light in -- electric streetlights in Peking at that time, just outside, and almost into the Chinese city, was an area that was known as the bad lands.
FRENCHAnd that was bars and brothels and drug dens and so on that came alive at night and was full of people who would either gone to China to get lost. You know, I mean, it was as far as you could go without getting off the map. Europeans and Americans who had a little past they did not wish to confront, and a lot of these people who were stateless, the white Russians and an influx of Jewish refugees by that point as well, coming in from Europe looking for somewhere to get away from fascism in Europe.
FRENCHSo there were these two areas and there were these two distinct groups of foreigners. And they would have liked to have thought -- certainly the respectable ones, would have like to have thought that their lives was very separate. What Pamela's murder did instantly was lift the lid off of all the scandal, all that what we used to call white mischief that was going on in the foreign community and showed that the two worlds overlapped a lot more than anyone felt very comfortable with.
REHMSo how did the police react to her murder?
FRENCHWell, the first thing, of course, is that it was on Chinese soil. So it was given to the chief of the Peking Detective Bureau who's a man called Colonel Han who's a very experienced detective, who had been very well trained and been to Japan for training as well and spoke English. But it was the tradition that if a foreigner was killed in China, and it didn't happen that often, that a member of their -- a national of their country could help.
FRENCHIt would usually be a flunky from the embassy who would sort of turn up and help translate or provide paperwork. But this was such a scary time for China, such a panicky time. And Pamela was the daughter of a very well known, very high ranking British diplomat. And the murder was so horrific in terms of way her body was mutilated that they brought a British detective who was in China at the time, who was an ex-Scotland Yard man who came over and worked with Colonel Han.
FRENCHNow truth is always stranger than fiction. If this was a novel, Diane, and I told you that my Scotland Yard detective was born in the East End of London, flew a plane in the First World War when it was all spit and balsa wood crashed and was a war hero, worked, trained at Scotland Yard, was a detective in London and then came to China and his name Detective Chief Inspector Dick Dennis. Oh, you'd say to me -- you've over-egged the pudding. It's too much, but it's all true.
FRENCHAnd as far as I know, this is the only time in Chinese history that a British detective and a Chinese detective worked together to try and solve a crime.
REHMHow long did they concentrate on the crime?
FRENCHWell, of course, this is a real crime. So unlike an episode of CSI, it can't happen in 24 hours, right? And there was no mobile phones or DNA or anything like that. And people had to write letters to get answers. They kept working on it and brought in a lot of suspects and worked out very quickly that this was not just a crazed Chinese killer or something. This was a crime within the foreign community that revealed scandals within the foreign community.
REHMLots of suspects.
FRENCHOh, lots of suspects. Lots of false trails and false leads because they kept uncovering layers of scandal in this otherwise sort of almost Victorian, you know, very proper, largely British, but also Americans community. And it kept taking another layer off and another layer off and it got murkier and murkier and nastier and nastier. But the problem was they were defeated by history.
FRENCHAnd in July 1937, the Japanese finally decided to invade China, which I think is really the point where, you know, as a European, I was thinking the Second World War starting in 1939. As in America maybe you think, you know, Pearl Harbor in 1941. But I think it really starts in 1937 with the invasion of China. At that point, you know, in Asia anyway, there's no going back after that invasion of China.
FRENCHYou know, they will then take China, that will leave the British Empire exposed in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaya will fall and that will leave two great powers on either side of the Pacific, Japan and the United States. And of course you and your listeners know how that one ended.
REHMAnd in fact, the invasion of China by Japanese forces really turned the investigation totally away from Pamela Werner.
FRENCHIt stopped overnight. Colonel Han was, of course, part of Nationalist China. He had to disappear very quickly. DCI Dennis, the British detective, was technically working in Tientsin where there was a British concession, which was under attack from the Japanese and he needed to get back to coordinate the British resistance to the Japanese there. So, Pamela, you know, almost, as far as I was concerned, seem to just slip from history again.
FRENCHYou know, the one tragedy suddenly turns into the million, which is a statistic. No one's got time for this one girl anymore. It's just forgotten.
REHMBut they did do something you described in the book, an autopsy, to find out how and why she died. What were the results?
FRENCHWell, the autopsy shocked people. Pamela had been murdered. I guess what we would now call blunt force trauma, she'd been hit on the head basically and killed. But her body had multiple stab wounds across it. I mean, you know, I don't want to shock people in the morning and I try not to in the book. I try to do it in a very documentary fashion. I don't want, you know, because it is quite gruesome.
FRENCHBut in order to understand later on why and how the murder was committed, you need to know that it was horrific. But yet some of her internal organs were missing and were never found. And they had been some sexual interference with her. But science was against people at that time. For instance, in 1937, you could not take fingerprints from skin. You could only do it if it was sort of on a glass or something, you know?
FRENCHYou couldn't take fingerprints from skin, you couldn't type dry blood. And, of course, we're still decade away from DNA. So, you know, all that the autopsy revealed was the horror and the frenzied nature of the murder and perhaps the attempt to cover it up by dismembering the body. It really wasn't able to give many clues because the science just wasn't there yet.
REHMHow valued was life in China at that time?
FRENCHWell, Peking was a place where life was not valued greatly at the time. The city was surrounded. But don't forget, as well the Japanese coming in and occasionally assassinating nationalist Chinese, the communists and the nationalists were still at war. I mean, they had a truce during the war. So communist secret agents were bumping off nationalists and nationalists were bumping off communists. That was going on.
FRENCHAlso, there was a massive influx of people from the countryside because the Japanese, when they took over parts of China in the north, they would burn all the fields, destroy everything, right? So everyone came in so there's all these people, so a lot of petty crime. The Japanese as well were also sending cheap opium and cheap heroin into China to sap the will of the Chinese people to resist.
FRENCHSo there was a big campaign going on rounding up drug dealers at the time who were summary justice. They were found guilty, and five minutes later taken out and shot. The poverty, I mean, you know, people were -- cops went around in the morning. It was freezing cold in Peking in the winter. Would go around and just pick up the dead bodies of the indigent that had frozen to death or starved to death overnight.
FRENCHAnd not just Chinese as well, a lot of these white Russians that were just unable to survive. They had no skills to survive. They were stateless. They had no embassy to call upon to help them. So Peking was really in quite a tragic state in January 1937.
REHMI have the feeling that you are telling such a good story and telling it in such a fascinating way that there is not a single person who wants to interrupt you by calling on the phone. But I do invite to call 800-433-8850. I promise you the one thing we are not going to reveal in this book is who killed Pamela. And it's still really theory, is it not?
FRENCHWell, I don't think so.
REHMYou don't think so?
FRENCHBecause, you know, what happened was that I thought I had a book where I could give you all of these wonderful characters. I could give you this incredible period in history and this moment in history in this incredible city as well. And then at the end, I would just say, look, you know, life is not like an episode of a cop show on TV. We don't wrap everything up in the last five minutes and say, now the news and weather. It doesn't work like that.
FRENCHCrime doesn't get solved. And one thing that's interesting about both Eastern and Western culture is there's something about unsolved murder that really unsettles our sense natural justice. You know, it discombobulates us, our ethics. But I thought that's where we were. But I was in London. I was in the UK National Archives where there are just boxes and boxes and boxes from the Second World War of official correspondence.
FRENCHAnd none of it matches being catalogued. One librarian there said to me, there's so much of it that we only catalogued the stuff with the two magic words in it, which is Winston and Churchill.
FRENCHWe, of course, catalogue all of that, frame it, sell it to American universities and pay for our health care system. That's the sort of strategy we've developed. But, you know, there's boxes and boxes and boxes. And I was looking through thinking there's a few loose ends, I'd like to find it. I never thought I'd find the answer. And I saw a box that said 1943 general correspondence British embassy Peking.
FRENCHAnd I thought, why is there a box with 1943? Pearl Harbor comes in December 1941, Britain and America instantly declared war on Japan. Japan of course takes over the whole of China and either our diplomats or they're put in internment camps for the duration. There shouldn't be anyone in the British embassy and they certainly shouldn't be writing letters. So I get this box. It comes out. It's got dust on it.
FRENCHAnd no one's ever -- no one's looked at it since 1943. And I opened it and I'm immediately disappointed because what it is, it's paperwork from 1941 that was set. And because of the disruption of the sea lines, it's taken two years to get to London. So it's signed as arriving in 1943. And it's boring. It's requisition orders for the stationary for the secretaries. It's the dry cleaning bill for the curtains at the embassy. It's nothing interesting.
FRENCHAnd the word Werner, Pamela's name catches my eye. And there was 150-page document which turned out to be a typed up version of a private investigation that her father had continued between July 1937 and December 1941. British and American nationals were able to stay free but highly constrained in Peking until we actually declared war on Japan. And her father had gone out there and used all of his life savings and had damaged his health as well and worked really hard to try and do a private investigation find out what had happened.
REHMHe would not give up and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Why do you think that this story has such significance now?
FRENCHWell, I think unsolved murders should -- the book should never be closed on unsolved murders. We should always go back into it. I think this is the very last gasp of an Old China. And we hear so much about the New China now and of course it's a fascinating subject. And I, you know, I'm right in the middle of it. But this is, you know, in July 1937, China goes to war with Japan.
FRENCHIn 1945, we finally win the war against Japan. But China goes straight into a four-year civil war between the communists and the nationalists. In 1949, Chiang Kai-shek goes to Taiwan. Chairman Mao declares the People's Republic of China the so-called bamboo curtain comes down and we never ever go back. That's the last days of that Old China. And that's absolutely where we were.
FRENCHOf course now, in the last few weeks, I could also say that the book's current because we've now got another engrossing murder mystery taking place at the moment that involves a dead Britain in China.
REHMThis is fascinating. You, I'm sure, have been following this.
FRENCHWell, it's an amazing scandal. Of course, it's all really about internal Chinese politics and this one Britain that's a very odd character seems to have ended up dying there. I mean, it's almost as if Graham Greene had come back from the dead and decide he was going to write the China book that he never wrote when he was alive, you know? It's like a Graham Greene novel, it really is.
REHMAnd it's all about this very powerful couple in China. And the woman comes off as somebody whose power is just extraordinary.
FRENCHOh, absolutely. I call her China's Jackie Kennedy.
FRENCHBut the thing that's fascinating to me particularly is that one of the issues in 1937 with the murder of Pamela Werner was that once it became clear that this was probably a British on British, it was certainly a foreign-on-foreign killing, that the Chinese weren't involved, the British government, in all its -- I'm sure your listeners will be shocked to hear that the British government can be quite pompous sometimes -- you know, decided they'd ask the policemen, the British policemen and applied pressure on the Chinese policemen to say we don't want this to come out if it's a foreigner killing a foreigner, because we will lose face.
FRENCHAnd this is a very heightened political situation and we don't want to lose European great power face. So find a Chinese, find one quickly, try them, shoot them and let's move on from this. We can't have this girl interfering with politics.
FRENCHRight now, we have a situation where the British foreign office, once again, doesn't want to talk about the murder of Neil Haywood, doesn't want to get involved in it because, you know, the British government thinks that China is going to be the one to save us from this economic recession by buying all of our Rolls Royces and Aston Martins and flying on Virgin planes and basically saving us from the economic recession.
FRENCHAnd the murder of one person shouldn't get in the way of the national interest. You know, this is the way the State Department or the British Foreign Office or diplomats think.
REHMDo you think it will?
FRENCHI think that, well, of course, what we have now is this incredibly investigative media.
FRENCHAnd we have never had a story like this in China before. I mean, we are really through the looking glass on this one in terms of what's going on in Chinese politics. We're seeing the clan nature of it, the back-biting nature. This idea that the Chinese would like to present of consensus within the party, that everyone thinks alike, everyone agrees everything clearly is not quite true and this phenomenal character's up in Chongqing.
REHMPaul French. His new book is titled "Midnight in Peking." Short break here. When we come back, we'll open the phones. I look forward to hearing from you.
REHMAnd it's time to open the phones. Your questions, comments for Paul French on his fascinating new book it's titled "Midnight in Peking." First to Key West, Fla. Good morning, Harry.
HARRYWell, I was fascinated and wondered whether a movie had ever been planned on this or was there a documentary or news reel footage in Britain at the time? Was it an international scandal around the world and are there any plans to do a film on it presently?
FRENCHWell, good question because it was a scandal around the world, certainly. Now, the book has been bought by a U.K. TV production company that works a lot with the BBC producing things and we're looking at doing it as a three- or four-hour, you know, three or four one-hour episode show. Hopefully, as a co-production with the Chinese TV so that we can get over there and really go and film it at the locations, some of which exist and in the hutongs and the watch towers and on the wall of Beijing.
REHMDo you think they'll accept that?
FRENCHOh, no, they don't have a problem. I mean, this is 1937. It's 12 years before the People's Republic of China. You know, if the murderer, which I'll give this one away, the murderer of Pamela Werner was not a member of the Chinese Communist Party. And if he had been then we wouldn't be there, but, you know, this is a scandal among foreigners in China. They're quite interested. The Chinese make some, you know, they have great film sets over there and great ways that we can really make it look good.
REHMSo if the BBC is going to do it and, presumably, we'll have it here.
FRENCHWell, you know, like most of these things, I guess, turn up on American television over here at some point, yeah. I'm saying it's going to be Downtown Abbey goes to China. So if as many Americans watch this as watch "Downtown Abbey," then...
REHMYou're in good shape.
FRENCHI'll be doing well, yeah.
REHMAll right, to Sarasota, Fla. Good morning, Sarah.
SARAHGood morning, Diane, welcome back.
SARAHThank you, Mr. French, for your book. Just a very brief comment about 70 years old when -- I know relatives one generation ago and I'm of Jewish ancestry and then there's a great hole because of the Holocaust. I'm very hungry -- I didn't realize this until today -- for books like yourself and for hearing you speak because I have absolutely no sense of continuity. And I have to say something one day to my grandchildren.
SARAHNow, what happens with books like yours when you mention the -- about the (word?) Jews and the other presences of cultures in Europe, you bring the past to life and you help me understand how things were. You're bringing history to life. You're putting it into some perspective. And I thank you from the bottom of my heart.
REHMSarah, thank you so much for calling. That must make you feel good.
FRENCHWell, yes, it is and also, you know, I think history is written by the winners as they always say. But history is also written by people who bother to write it. So the history of that period in China, there were endless memoirs by diplomats, by business people and, of course, by missionaries that were there in China, as well. And all of that's very interesting, but what I wanted to get to was the lives of those who, number one, were trying to get lost, right, the criminals that went there, the ne'er-do-wells, the drug dealers who don't write their memoirs. They're a lot more difficult to recover for history. You've got to go and track them down. They do leave footprints, but they're very, very light.
REHMWhy did you decide to go to China?
FRENCHOh, well, I originally went there as a language student to learn Chinese. But I was always interested in these people that had gone there, particularly to Shanghai and to Beijing who were kind of, you know, the low life Europeans, as well, because there's so much written about the famous people that went there. I wanted the lowlife. And also I think, you know, there is this incredible story about China which is as a haven for refugees. People forget -- I mean, I actually live on the edge of what was the Jewish ghetto in Shanghai and some people don't really realize that during the Second World War there were 70,000 Jews, refugees mostly from Europe.1`
FRENCHThere was an earlier community that had come from Russia and an earlier community than that that was very rich, the Sassoons, the Hardoons, who were part of the British Empire movement there. There were 70,000 Jewish refugees from Europe in Shanghai. And there were some in Peking and other cities, but Shanghai was where they were. And the Japanese they created what they called the haim, the ghetto, and they stayed there. And the Japanese not that they particularly treated them well or anything, you know, they didn't -- but they did not hand them over the Nazis.
FRENCHAnd the Nazis were in Shanghai asking, you know, well, we want them and we want to deal with this. But the Japanese didn't really get it, right. They're just, like, well, they're just white people, right. We don't understand what you're talking about when you dislike this group more than this group. And so they survived. And at the end of the war they were, sort of, sent all over the place.
FRENCHYou will find communities of the Shanghai Jews. San Francisco is a big center of them. Sydney and Melbourne down in Australia because a lot were sent to America and a lot went out through the, sort of, Anglo world to, sort of, Canada and Australia and New Zealand and so on. And there's little communities of them all around.
REHMSo you went to study the language. Why did you decide to stay?
FRENCHOh, I mean, I think, you know, once China gets under your skin, it's pretty hard to walk away from it. And also, once you've made the effort to learn Chinese -- it's not one of those things -- it's not like learning history or something where you can go away and read books. I mean you want to make use of it.
FRENCHI also thought, you know, to me, China is like the best book I ever read. And to walk away from China now, both in terms of writing about its history, but also looking at its contemporary rise, would be like walking away from a book before it's finished. You know, if I'd walked away from China a year ago, you know, I would have walked away before I turned the page and this (word?) like scandal suddenly broke through.
FRENCHAnd I would have walked away saying, oh, you can never do anything with Chinese politics. No one will talk to you. You can't know anything about it. And then, all of a sudden, you know, a Shakespearean play suddenly starts happening up in Chongqing, you know.
FRENCHSo you never walk away from it.
REHMAnd speaking of Shakespeare, here's a question from Hannah in Casselberry, Fla. good morning to you.
HANNAHGood morning, Diane, thank you for taking my call.
HANNAHYes, I'd like to know why it is that this father who was so incredibly wealthy was willing to spend his fortune to find out what happened to his daughter when he spent no time with her.
FRENCHWell, yes, I've been going around America trying to explain this one to people. He was an unemotional man. He was rather wrapped up in his career. He did not show a lot of open affection to his daughter. And before I knew that he had done a private investigation and dedicated his life to I thought well, I can write about him because I know that sounds terrible, but, you know, that's kind of an English father, basically.
REHMAnd, you know, a lot of us are sent away to school at quite a young age. We don't have that level of affection and contact and everything, you know, that I know Americans are much better at than we are. We can't switch off quite as easily with that sort of thing. So then you see this investigation where he spends all of his money and he loses his health, as well. And, of course, by staying and doing the investigation, he did not leave China, which meant that in December, 1941 he was still there when the Japanese invaded and when we went to war with Japan and so he was interned in his 70s...
REHMI see, I see.
FRENCH...in a pretty brutal civilian internment camp for the duration of the war.
REHMHe did survive?
FRENCHHe did. He survived through to the end. He was a man of great tough constitution, but, you know, he could have got out of China, gone back to England and sat out the war in a comfortable village somewhere. And he didn't. He ended up being interned. So he really dedicated it. So I would say, at the end of the day, despite the lack of obvious affection and, you know, he didn't, you know, all the kissing and cuddling and everything that now modern parenting likes to do. You know, judge the man by his actions not necessarily by his words because he dedicated his life to justice.
REHMAnd do you believe he knew before he died who her killers were?
FRENCHOh, yes. And I can tell you that when everyone was interned in what was called Queshin (sp?) camp, which was up in the north. If people have seen the film or read the book, you know, "Empire of the Sun," which is all about internment -- the Spielberg film, you'll know the kind of camp I'm talking about. That some of the people who certainly were suspects in the murder of his daughter were also interned in the same prison camp.
FRENCHSo he lived in this hothouse, terrible environment where everyone had to live in close quarters, you know, in bunkhouses and so on with the people, some of whom he believed to have been behind the murder of his daughter.
REHMHe believed, but did not have proof.
FRENCHWell, he believed he had proof and he believed he'd sent it to London. The problem was that, you know, it didn't get to London until 1943 and to be fair to the British in 1943 London had other things to worry about, right.
FRENCHIt was the Blitz. We still had Hitler to defeat.
FRENCHSo it was signed and put in a box to deal with later. So quite a, you know, I mean just try and imagine the situation of being put in, you know, a small prison camp where you've got to survive every day by relying on other people -- with people that you believe murdered and mutilated your daughter.
FRENCHThat's almost impossible to imagine.
REHMTo Cincinnati, Ohio, good morning, Bob.
BOBHow you doing?
REHMGood, go right ahead, sir.
BOBI wondered about the warlord situation in Peking at the time. Chiang Kai-shek was always competing with the warlords for control of areas of China and Northern China, the old capitol, Peking was often in the hands of a warlord. And I wondered if that conflict hampered the Chinese investigation. And the second question that occurred to me was could this death have fit into Stalin's great terror in which he was looking to eliminate real and imagined enemies? Could she have been connected with that since you seem to think that she was of Russian origin?
FRENCHWhoa, Diane, your readers are quite -- your listeners are very clever, aren't they? They know their history I must say. No, look the warlord situation was true. China had been wracked by warlordism with people taking -- you know, these warlords ran territories of China the size of significant European countries, you know. It was very well organized. Peking was in the hands of warlords during this time but they were sympathetic to the nationalist government and Chiang Kai-shek so there was a sort of an agreement.
FRENCHThe problem with warlords is that they aren't really government. And so the powers of the police and what they can do and what they can't do and who's really in control and who's allocating budget and time and everything is all a bit of a mess. So it certainly didn't help the investigation.
FRENCHThe second part of your question is very interesting. It wasn't really because she was of Russian origin. It wasn't really Stalin that was involved, but the one was Helen Foster Snow who lived two doors down from the Werner family and it was the wife of Edgar Snow. In January, 1937 Edgar Snow was sitting in his house doing the final edit on his book, "Red Star Over China."
FRENCH"Red Star Over China," I'm not sure everyone appreciates this now, was an incredible book at the time because it was the first book that said, hey, there's these guys in China called the communist party. They're led by this buy called Mao and, you know, he might actually be quite progressive. And the nationalists might be quite corrupt. And this could be the coming man in Chinese politics. You might want to place a bet or two on this guy.
FRENCHNow, Chiang Kai-shek and the nationalists did not want that message going out to the world. Madam Chiang Kai-shek and all her connections here in Washington and everything certainly didn't want that going out to the world. And the nationalists did have their own secret police called the blue shirts that was, actually, bumping people off. Helen Foster Snow in her memoirs talks about this murder and says that she, for a while, thought it might have been a bungled attempt to threaten her to get Edgar to stop putting the book out.
FRENCHShe later admitted that afterwards because of the heightened frenzy of the time that she really panicked about this. Edgar Snow was worried enough to hire two big Chinese guys with swords to stand on the door of the compound where they lived. And my British detective, DCI Dennis, went there and talked to them, as well. Helen Foster Snow was very, very worried. And I have a picture of her in the book.
FRENCHAnd although she was ten years older than Pamela, they were roughly the same size, roughly the same skin coloring. They had their hair roughly the same way. They both rode their bicycles along the wall in the same streets at night to get from the legation quarter to where they lived. It could have been a case of mistaken identity.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And to St. Louis, Mo. good morning, Chris.
CHRISGood morning, Diane, thanks for having me on.
CHRISI'm calling because my grandfather and grandmother were from Ireland and my grandfather got a job as a doctor at Yenching University in Peking in the '20s and then so my father and uncle were raised in Peking as boys and then they had to get out. And I believe they left in '36 and I was actually talking to your reception person when I think that Mr. French was talking about the Shantung compound.
CHRISBut I kind of wanted to link up because I know that kids that were at school with my dad including the theologian, Langdon Gilkey, ended up in the Shantung compound. And I sort of wanted him to clarify that period. And then also my grandfather has a photo of the Japanese doing exercises in Peking right next to the legation area that Mr. French referred. And if they left in '36 that means the Japanese must have been in Peking a little earlier than '37. Is that a possibility?
FRENCHWell, I'll take them back to front. Yeah, there's a picture on the front cover, actually, of the book showing the Japanese marching into Peking. Of course, the Japanese were there before. They were a power. They had an embassy and they had soldiers to protect their embassy the way the British had the Royal Saris and the U.S. had the Fourth Marines to protect their embassy. So the Japanese were definitely there, although, of course, you know, they came in aggressively in '37.
FRENCHLangdon Gilkey that you refer to is very interesting. The Shantung compound is Queshin camp, which is one of these internment camps where people were. And Langdon Gilkey wrote a very interesting book about everyone that was there and all the rest of it. If your grandparents -- parents, I can't remember if it was parents or grandparents -- if they got out in '36, that was a very wise decision that they made. Otherwise they would have ended up in that camp.
FRENCHBecause that camp was where all allied nationals were there.
REHMHow many were there at the time?
FRENCHWell, I can't remember. I mean, there was a lot because they took all the allied nationals from Tianjing and Peking and all the little smaller allied nationals or missionaries who were around in the north of China at that time. It was an old school compound, an old Presbyterian mission, basically, but the conditions, although it was a civilian camp and they called it a civilian assembly camp, it was just the same as a prison camp.
FRENCHThere wasn't enough food, it was freezing cold in the winter, boiling hot in the summer, people were treated very badly. If you broke the rules you could be killed. Some Americans fliers who were shot down were imprisoned there and were tortured very badly as well. It was not a pleasant way to spend the war.
REHMWill you be working on the television program?
FRENCHYeah, I hope so. We've been talking about it. I'm not a screen writer and it's good to get a professional in to do that, but I'm hoping that I can be there. I just want to make sure that we get as much historical details correctly.
FRENCHYou know, I mean, I have to say, Diane, not to be too nationalistic here, but I think British TV is really good at that kind of historical drama.
REHMI do, too.
FRENCHAnd getting every little bit absolutely correct. And everyone's very insistent that you're able to sort, you know, if someone's wearing a piece of jewelry, you've to know that that piece of jewelry -- a piece of music has to be the right era and all the rest of it. And I would love to be involved in that because I'm quite anal about all that sort of thing, you know. You know, I like to get all those little details right. I think if you get the details right, everything else will follow, you know.
REHMWell, you've clearly got the details right in this book. It's titled, "Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China." Paul French is the author. I congratulate you.
FRENCHThank you, Diane. This has been an honor and a privilege to be here.
REHMThank you so much. And thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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