An ordinary winter evening in the Legation Quarter of Peking, where foreign embassies and consulates were located, January 7, 1937. Cold. The heavy sound of Japanese armored cars, out on patrol down the busy shopping streets that flank the Forbidden City. (Japan would occupy the city seven months later.) The martial sounds and the crowds seem not to distract a couple of teenage girls as they make their plans to go skating for an hour or so, under the arc lights of the newly constructed French ice rink. They leave open the question of where they might meet later in the evening. There are parents to be alerted, supper to be eaten. Notes have been exchanged, hints dropped. Perhaps there will be time, a little later, for a girl to have a bit of an adventure with some fellow students, or perhaps with a few older men, who seem to think this is a good evening for a diversion.
Certainly that would be a change from the girls’ accustomed rhythms, dictated by the prescribed curriculum of Latin texts and the polite tyranny of their dowdy boarding school uniforms. But even with all the knowledge they have managed to store up in their short lives so far, none of this little group could have had the faintest idea how bad things were going to get. And least of all, perhaps, a girl called Pamela, destined within the next few hours to be savagely bludgeoned to death.
Over the last century and a half, scores of books have been written about the foreigners who chose—or tried—to live in China: they include teachers and financiers, traders and political agents, diplomats and musicians, scientists and military specialists, missionaries and surgeons. But in this book Paul French tells us a different kind of story about the sojourners and offers us a new frame in which to place them: his tale takes us into the worlds of the foreigners who had settled in Peking during the 1930s and created new lives for themselves, even if lives of a fragile or fleeting kind, on the edges of society, or else below it altogether.
Many lived in the “run-down lodging houses” that were jammed on the edges of Peking’s narrow twisting alleys. They were a constantly renewable and derelict class, living on tips or chance encounters, whose members “found work as doormen, barmen, croupiers, prostitutes and pimps.” French calls them “semi-destitute” foreigners. But not everyone in this uncertain world was on the skids: some had long-standing ties of family and residence; for this was a world of shifting associations, “from professionals to the destitute, from ostensibly upstanding members of Peking’s foreign community to those with lengthy criminal records.”
French shows how lodgings did not necessarily determine social class or comparative wealth: some “lived in…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.