“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
— Mark Twain

A Bit More on Chaonei No. 81

Posted: July 24th, 2014 | No Comments »

I’ve blogged repeatedly over the years (since 2008 I just realised) about Beijing’s Chaonei No. 81 (here, here, and here) which has acquired something of a reputation as a haunted house. Of course, unless you are a complete idiot who believes fairies leave money under your pillow when teeth fall out, blokes in red come down chimneys with presents and that there’s an old man with a big beard who lives in the sky, you’ll realise it’s just an old house that has somehow managed to avoid destruction (something of a miracle itself in modern Peking). Interestingly now, thanks to a film “Jingcheng No. 81” or, in English, “The House That Never Dies” apparently (haven’t seen it, don’t know if it’s any good I’m afraid – there’s a trailer here), according to Amy Qin in the New York Times young people are “swarming” to the place.


It is of curse lovely that upwards of 500 people a day are visiting the house, and hopefully they’ll enjoy it, but there seems to be no resolution to what the owners, the Catholic Diocese of Peking, are intending to do with the building. The added interest in the property is not improving it – indeed it has been neglected for years and when I last saw it there was obvious signs of weather and rain related damage (and dumb stuff like windows left open during bad weather, missing roof tiles not replaced etc etc). Th Diocese says its renovation plans await approval – two things here: 1) what are these plans, what’s the budget, where are the funds coming from for renovation etc? – because, as we all know, renovation in Peking can mean a McDonald’s or a Starbucks or worse! all done with faux materials and workmanship and 2) we are all aware of the long game of architectural destruction in Peking (and across China) that lets planning and renovation applications run and run, never quite being approved until a) the place falls down or becomes so dilapidated it cannot be saved or b) a big property developer comes along with a suitcase of cash that appeals more than a sense of history to the local officials.

Anyway, the saga of Chaonei No. 81 continues….



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Północ w Pekinie – Midnight comes to Poland

Posted: July 23rd, 2014 | No Comments »

Many thanks to Black Publishing of Poland for translating and publishing the Polish language edition of Midnight in PekingPolnoc w Pekinie.  Just 27.92 Zloty’s by the way!


Przeł. Stanisław Tekieli

1937 rok. Kolonialny Pekin. Pewnego dnia córka brytyjskiego konsula nie wraca do domu…

Szokujące morderstwo wstrząsnęło Chinami u progu II wojny światowej. Ciało Pameli Werner znaleziono blisko Lisiej Wieży, poza Dzielnicą Poselstw, w miejscu, które, jak mówią legendy, jest nawiedzane przez duchy zwierząt. Dla chińskiej policji martwa biała dziewczyna oznacza kłopoty, zwłaszcza że stan ofiary wskazuje na czyn brutalnego maniaka. Całe miasto huczy od plotek i podejrzeń. Ku rozpaczy ojca Pameli, śledztwo okazuje się trudniejsze, niż ktokolwiek mógł się spodziewać. Czy uda się je doprowadzić do końca, zanim Japończycy rozpoczną inwazję?

Paul French, historyk i znawca Chin, po wieloletnich badaniach ujawnia, co naprawdę wydarzyło się przed laty.

Książka została wyróżniona prestiżową Nagrodą Brytyjskiego Stowarzyszenia Autorów Powieści Kryminalnych i nagrodą Edgara Allana Poe w kategorii Best Fact Crime.

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From the Tsar’s Railway to the Red Army – The latest in the Penguin China World War One E-book series

Posted: July 22nd, 2014 | No Comments »

Mark O’Neill’s From the Tsar’s Railway to the Red Army is now available as part of the Penguin China World War One e-book series…Following his book on the Chinese “Coolie Corps” who worked on Europe’s WW1 battlefields, this short book follows those Chinese who worked in Russia and found themselves caught up in the Bolshevik Revolution…

From the tsars railway

It is a little known fact that during the First World War Russia received the majority of Chinese wartime labourers working overseas. Despite assurances that they would not be involved in the war, thousands of Chinese workers dug trenches and carried ammunition for troops on the Eastern Front under brutal conditions. Then, in 1917, life for the Chinese worsened with the Bolshevik Revolution’s arrival. Some of the workers signed up to fight for the Red Army and many were left stranded in Russia, unemployed and destitute. Their plight has been described as the most tragic episode in 400 years of Chinese emigration. The men had crossed the border into Russia with dreams of earning enough money to build a house or business for their family at home. None could have imagined the hell that awaited them.

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Russo-Japanese War Novels – Emile Driant

Posted: July 21st, 2014 | No Comments »

This year is of course the 110th anniversary of the Russo-Japanese War. Just as before with the Boxer Rebellion, the Russo-Japanese War inspired a raft of novels based on the war, the fear of invasion from the east (the Yellow Peril) and general concerns following the defeat of a European power by an Asian one.

Emile Driant (below) produced one of the best sellers in this quick fire post-war genre, L’invasion Jaune (The Yellow Invasion), published under the pseudonym Capitaine Danri. Driant was a French army officer and novelist of a decidedly nationalistic bent. The Yellow Invasion was published in 1905. The story depicts the surprise attack against the Western world by a gigantic Sino-Japanese army, covertly equipped with American-made weapons and secretly trained in the remote Chinese hinterland (so all the enemies – Japanese, Chinese and, of course, Les Americans too). The plot is hatched by a Japanese veteran of the Russo-Japanese War coming out of the conflict with a fanatical hatred of Westerners, he organizes a world-spanning secret society named the Devouring Dragon in order to destroy Western civilization.

And there you have it….





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And talking Shanghai Balletomania….Boris Volkoff

Posted: July 19th, 2014 | No Comments »

Follwoing on from yesterday’s Shanghai ballet post….Several ballet companies and troupes had been formed in Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s including the Shanghai Variety Ballet, who’s company included Boris Vladimirovich Volkoff (1900-1974). Volkoff had started as a child star dancing, at just nine years of age, with his brother Igor on tour in Warsaw under their family name Baskakoff. After the Bolshevik Revolution he undertook a tour of duty in the Red Army where he was assigned to entertain the troops. He then attended the State Academy of Ballet and Choreography in Moscow, the school of the Bolshoi Ballet, and danced with the Mordkin Ballet. During a tour of Siberia he defected and eventually joined the Shanghai Variety Ballet composed of White Russians based in Shanghai and toured with them throughout China, India, Malaya, Burma, Japan, Hawaii and the United States. Volkoff later moved on to join the company of former Ballets Russes dancer Adolph Bolm in the United States in the late 1920s before becoming a leading figure in the Canadian ballet.



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Shanghai’s 1920s Balletomane Fad and Tamara Toumanova

Posted: July 18th, 2014 | No Comments »

Today, a ballerina…In the 1920s Shanghai, largely due to the arrival of so many White Russians, went through a balletomane fad. The future ballerina and inspiration to the choreographer George Balanchine (when she was one of the famous “Baby Ballerina’s” (1903-1984)), Tamara Toumanova, was a White Russian refugee child who saw her first ballet in Shanghai in the 1920s, though didn’t formerly study ballet until her family had moved on from China to Paris.


180px-1932 Tamara_Toumanova


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Save the Tokyo Okura, A Wonderful Modernist Hotel – Sign the Petition

Posted: July 17th, 2014 | 1 Comment »

I read with interest Tyler Brule’s recent Fast Lane column in the FT about the impending fate of Tokyo’s Okura Hotel. Apparently developers (probably with an eye on the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 – why is it Olympics lead to more destruction than just about any other mega-event?) want to start pulling down the hotel, which Brule rightly describes as ‘one of the most loved modernist hotels in the world’ in 2015 and replacing it with something that looks rather uninteresting, to say the least. The destruction of the hotel would be a major architectural loss to a city that has already lost much due to war, fire, earthquake and crazy urban planners.

Personally I have sheltered in the lobby of the Okura a number of times from both Tokyo’s cold and heat. It is a hotel of nooks and crannies and unexpected surprises, not least the geometric Seiko timezone map of the world (see below) – which could hang in a museum as a piece of art quite easily. The Okura was built largely for the Tokyo Olympics of 1964.

Monocle (Brule’s publication) has launched an online petition and microsite with some lovely photos of the hotel here.

It only takes a moment to sign and, if you’re in Tokyo, do visit the hotel, us the bar, wander the lobby, eat at the restaurants and generally enjoy the structure, just in case the worst happens….






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People Who Eat Darkness: Love, Grief and a Journey into Japan’s Shadows

Posted: July 16th, 2014 | No Comments »

It’s unfortunately taken me a while to get round to reading Richard Lloyd Parry’s People Who Eat Darkness, but after finishing Mara Hvistendahl’s excellent And the City Swallowed Them I took it down off the shelf. Even if you are not familiar with the terrible Lucie Blackman murder in Tokyo in 2000 and the manhunt and anguished family appeals that followed this book will draw you in. It is a truly amazing piece of writing and research about a victim, a murderer and Tokyo….


Lucie Blackman – tall, blonde, and 21 years-old – stepped out into the vastness of Tokyo in the summer of 2000, and disappeared forever. The following winter, her dismembered remains were found buried in a seaside cave.

The seven months in between had seen a massive search for the missing girl, involving Japanese policemen, British private detectives, Australian dowsers and Lucie’s desperate, but bitterly divided, parents. As the case unfolded, it drew the attention of prime ministers and sado-masochists, ambassadors and con-men, and reporters from across the world. Had Lucie been abducted by a religious cult, or snatched by human traffickers? Who was the mysterious man she had gone to meet? And what did her work, as a ‘hostess’ in the notorious Roppongi disrtic of Tokyo, really involve?

Richard Lloyd Parry, an award-winning foreign correspondent, has followed the case since Lucie’s disappearance. Over the course of a decade, he has travelled to four continents to interview those caught up in the story, fought off a legal attack in the Japanese courts, and worked undercover as a barman in a Roppongi strip club. He has talked exhaustively to Lucie’s friends and family and won unique access to the Japanese detectives who investigated the case. And he has delved into the mind and background of the man accused of the crime – Joji Obara, described by the judge as ‘unprecedented and extremely evil’.


With the finesse of a novelist, he reveals the astonishing truth about Lucie and her fate. People Who Eat Darkness is, by turns, a non-fiction thriller, a courtroom drama and the biography of both a victim and a killer. It is the story of a young woman who fell prey to unspeakabale evil, and of a loving family torn apart by grief. And it is a fascinating insight into one of the world’s most baffling and mysterious societies, a light shone into dark corners of Japan that the rest of the world has never glimpsed before.

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