All things old China - books, anecdotes, stories, podcasts, factoids & ramblings from the author Paul French

Peking 1918: Panic, Pneumonic Plague & Masks

Posted: June 30th, 2022 | No Comments »

In the spring of 1918 a pneumonic plague epidemic swept through nothern China and close to Peking. Few cases were reported in the city itself though new arrivals from the countryside were eyed warily and the Legation Quarter prepared to slam shut its gates in a quarantine from the rest of the city. Quarantine and disinfection camps were established city-wide and railway stations temporarily closed to limit spread. Still there were some cases. Controls on foreigners were considerably less than on Chinese peasants arriving in the city and so three Russian travelers who lodged at the Hotel des Wagons-Lits in the Legation Quarter without inspection died. Alexis Leger (also known as the poet Saint-John Perse) was a secretary at the French Legation at the time and wrote:

‘As a matter of fact, this pulmonary plague, which is the most serious (he reports that the recovery was so low that some men sat with loaded revolvers ready to kill themselves if infected and avoid the horrors of the disease), is also the easiest to avoid individually. B y simply wearing a mask you can avoid catching it even in a particularly infected area. Real danger exists only for the teeming masses plodding along the roads.’ April 9, 1918, Peking…

And here is a Japanese soldier on duty at the Japanese Legation in Peking wearing a mask…

Messrs. S. J. Bentines & Co., Peking

Comrade Aeon’s Field Guide to Bangkok in Paperback

Posted: June 29th, 2022 | No Comments »

Just noticed that the new UK Paperback edition from Granta of Emma Larkin’s Comrade Aeon’s Field Guide to Bangkok uses a quote from my South China Morning Post review (here) on the back cover…


Shanghai’s Rather Forgotten Dachang Airfield

Posted: June 28th, 2022 | 2 Comments »

Looking back at Shanghai’s history we mostly all remember Longhua (Lunghwa) Airfield (and the adjacent Civilian Internment Camp) to the south, Hongqiao (Hungjao) Aerodrome to the west, Jiangwan Airfield to the northeast, and the far flung Pudong much later. But rarely do people remember Dachang Airfield to the northwest around Baoshan (Paoshan). For a long time the airfield remained and was used occasionally as an emergency runway, a test runway and by the air force. As the Baoshan/Zhabei area rose up as a nest of hi-rises the airfield remained controlled by the airforce, annoying both the local politicians who wanted the land to build on (and so enrich thesmelves and their property developer cronies, such is the basic land/profit/Party nexus of Shanghai, and locals occasionally woken by randomly landing and taking off planes.

Of course visits to Shanghai are a bit tricky at the moment so I when i was looking at a 1985 guide to Shanghai the other day i wondered if Dachang has survived or been swallowed up with more Ballardian hi-rises? Anyone who knows please do drop me a line…


My Lotus Year – Wallis Warfield Spencer’s China time….

Posted: June 27th, 2022 | No Comments »

I’ve been working on scripts, longreads & audio projects for a while. But now it’s time to get back to books. Been wanting to do the little known story of Wallis Simpson’s ‘Lotus Year’ in China (1924/25) for ages & now it’s happening thanks to Aitken Alexander Associates & St Martins Press…From Publishers Marketplace


Literary Cosmopolitanism in the English Fin de Siècle

Posted: June 24th, 2022 | No Comments »

Stefano Evangelista’s Literary Cosmopolitanism in the English Fin de Siècle looks interesting and, for those with Asian-related interests, has a good chapter on Lafcadio Hearn. Of course it was the cover image that caught my eye – Japonisme…In this case the Norwegian painter Oda Krohg’s (1860-1935) A Japanese Lantern (1886) held by the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo.

The fin de siècle witnessed an extensive and heated debate about cosmopolitanism, which transformed readers’ attitudes towards national identity, foreign literatures, translation, and the idea of world literature. Focussing on literature written in English, Literary Cosmopolitanism in the English Fin de Siècle offers a critical examination of cosmopolitanism as a distinctive feature of the literary modernity of this important period of transition. No longer conceived purely as an abstract philosophical ideal, cosmopolitanism—or world citizenship—informed the actual, living practices of authors and readers who sought new ways of relating local and global identities in an increasingly interconnected world. The book presents literary cosmopolitanism as a field of debate and controversy. While some writers and readers embraced the creative, imaginative, emotional, and political potentials of world citizenship, hostile critics denounced it as a politically and morally suspect ideal, and stressed instead the responsibilities of literature towards the nation. In this age of empire and rising nationalism, world citizenship came to enshrine a paradox: it simultaneously connoted positions of privilege and marginality, connectivity and non-belonging.

Chapters on Oscar Wilde, Lafcadio Hearn, George Egerton, the periodical press, and artificial languages bring to light the variety of literary responses to the idea of world citizenship that proliferated at the turn of the twentieth century. The book interrogates cosmopolitanism as a liberal ideology that celebrates human diversity and as a social identity linked to worldliness; it investigates its effect on gender, ethics, and the emotions. It presents the literature of the fin de siècle as a dynamic space of exchange and mediation, and argues that our own approach to literary studies should become less national in focus.


“Millionka” – Vladivostok’s Lost Chinatown – My Piece in the South China Morning Post….

Posted: June 23rd, 2022 | No Comments »

The lost Chinatown of Millionka is a place I’ve wanted to write about for quite some time…finally got thr chance in the South China Morning Post weekend magazine – click here to read…


Mapping the Great Game: Explorers, Spies and Maps in 19th-Century Asia

Posted: June 16th, 2022 | No Comments »

Riaz Dean’s Mapping the Great Game….

In the 19th century, the British and Russian empires were engaged in bitter rivalry for the acquisition of Southern Asian. Although India was the ultimate prize, most of the intrigue and action took place along its northern frontier in Afghanistan, Turkestan and Tibet. Mapping the region and gaining knowledge of the enemy were crucial to the interests of both sides.

The Great Trigonometrical Survey of India began in the 18th century with the aim of creating a detailed map of the subcontinent. Under the leadership of George Everest—whose name was later bestowed to the world’s tallest mountain—the it mapped the Great Arc running from the country’s southern tip to the Himalayas. Much of the work was done by Indian explorers known as Pundits. They were the first to reveal the mysteries of the forbidden city of Lhasa, and discover the true course of Tibet’s mighty Tsangpo River.

These explorers performed essential information gathering for the British Empire and filled in large portions of the map of Asia. Their adventurous exploits are vividly recounted in Mapping the Great Game.


Endlessly, endlessly down the river they drifted, toward Shanghai…

Posted: June 15th, 2022 | No Comments »

A melancholy opening line of a chapter from Frederic Prokosch’s curious and rather forgotten 1937 novel of Turkestan, Kashgar, exile and China, The Seven Who Fled