To my mind there’s little doubt that the late WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, the beautiful record of a rambling journey on foot through coastal East Anglia and the various and random thought paths the author was prompted to explore, is one of the best books ever written. Near the delightful town of Southwold Sebald notes the bridge crossing the river Blyth between Walberswick and Southwold which once supported a narrow‐gauge railway line bearing a train originally built for the Emperor of China. To this day I do not know if this story (which sparks a long and fascinating rumination by Sebald on Dowager Empress Xi Ci, opium, Anglo-Chinese relations, the Taiping) is true. Anyway, I blogged on it here back in July 2011 in some detail. I want to believe the story of the former Emperor’s train is true. If so then it features briefly in the recent documentary that examines Sebald’s Rings of Saturn – Patience (After Sebald) from the director Grant Gee. Discussing Sebald’s China rumination there is footage of the old Chinese Imperial train taking 19th century/early 20th century day trippers to Suffolk on a ride. Fleeting but fascinating if that was indeed once the old Imperial train. Below is, I think, a picture of the train concerned crossing the swing bridge over the River Blyth.
It’s official – writer, journalist and all round clever guy Chris Taylor is smarter than me!! I’ve got to admit as he solved my mystery around the book His Chinese Concubine and Graham Greene in my last post. Chris (I think correctly) has identified the book His Chinese Concubine as being by the French author Maurice Dekobra (1885-1973). It’s original French title was Tu Seras Courtisane and published in 1924 in French by Editions Baudiniere and in 1927 in English. Dekobra was extremly well known and popular between the wars and widely translated though he is all but largely forgotten now. He doesn’t appear to have a direct China connection but did serve in India with the French Army.
It does seem Greene was right to use the book as a symbol of his characters depravity, at least mildly. Tu Seras Courtisane was volume 4 of Dekobra’s “manuels pour adultes”. The book’s strapline was “You will be a Courtesan”.
Anyway, I might have the wrong Dekobra book but this all seems highly plausible and thanks to Chris Taylor – in return I can offer him nothing but a plug for his new book – Harvest Season – “When a travel writer retreats to an idyllic valley in the mountains of Southwest China where the weed grows wild on the mountain slopes, he finds his vision of paradise pitted against a new breed of travelers who want to bring the party to town. The scene is set for a clash that will change the valley forever.”
References to China pepper the works of Graham Greene although he never visited. Greene, as a young man, fancied a career in China (with British-American Tobacco), dreamt of China and even enrolled in classes to learn Chinese (from Lao She, when he was living and teaching in London in the 1920s, no less). However, he never wrote a China novel (though did write a now lost China play when young that he destroyed – see my post on that here). However, a taste for China never lost him.
Recently I re-read Greene 1936 novel of Greene’s – A Gun for Sale (known as This Gun for Hire in America), filmed in 1941 with Alan Ladd. In the novel Greene’s anti-hero Raven hunts down a man who has double crossed him by the name of Cholmondeley. Greene takes us briefly into Cholmondeley’s office and suggests that the man is corrupt both ethically and morally. One indication of his corruption is that his favourite book is something called His Chinese Concubine. Greene doesn’t tell us the author or the story though we are to believe it is salacious and decadent. The only problem seems to be that His Chinese Concubine never actually existed – it is a figment of Greene’s imagination…or perhaps not? If anyone knows different do let me know?
Those crazy Danes at Beijing Postcards have a new walk they’re offering – “The life and legend of Beijing’s most famous prostitute” (that’s Sai Jinhua, in case you were wondering)
In a fume of opium smoke (or maybe it was just the pollution), we have been walking in the tiny footsteps of the most famous prostitute of Beijing. And now finally after months of preparation we are able to present our new walk: “The life and legend of Beijing’s most famous prostitute: Sai Jinhua, a walk in Beijing’s old redlight district” -the story of a very unlikely hero with tiny Lily feet. For inquiries about the walks on May 5,12 and 26 please contact Bespoke Beijing on this mail:firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow us, in the small footsteps of a very unlikely hero with tiny lily feet, through old opium dens and brothels still standing, when we look for answers.
For inquiries about the walks on May 5,12 and 26 please contact Bespoke Beijing on this mail: email@example.com
I have long been a lover of the great Hobson-Jobson Dictionary of Anlgo-Indian terms – great to see a new edition. An excellent book to have by the bed for a word or two at random every night – also obviously an essential book should you want to be Amitav Ghosh and write a trilogy full of Hobson-Jobson terms….
Hobson-Jobson is a unique work of maverick scholarship. Compiled in 1886 by two India enthusiasts, it documents the words and phrases that entered English from Arabic, Persian, Indian, and Chinese sources – and vice versa. Described by Salman Rushdie as ‘the legendary dictionary of British India’ it shows how words of Indian origin were absorbed into the English language and records not only the vocabulary but the culture of the Raj. It encompasses aspects of the history, trade, peoples, and geography of Asia in entries that are at once authoritative and playful. Like the Oxford English Dictionary, Hobson-Jobson included illustrative quotations that were drawn from a wide range of travel texts, histories, memoirs, and novels, creating a canon of English writing about India. The definitions frequently slip into anecdote, reminiscence, and digression, and they offer intriguing insights into Victorian attitudes to India and its people and customs.
A second quick London-related posting and also related to some postings I did a while back on early Chinese restaurants in London (see here, here and here). An interesting story then that involves the once well known the Nanking Restaurant on Denmark Street, off the Charing Cross Road. In November 1934 Indian activists in London (many later to become communists) including MD Taseer, Mulk Raj Anand, Jyoti Ghosh, Pramod Sengupta and syed Sajjad Zahir met in a back room at the Nanking to form the left wing and anti-imperialist Indian Progressive Writers’ Association.The Nanking is often described as being in Soho (but is not, to me anyway, as it’s slightly east of Charing Cross Road) though Denmark Street was London’s original “Tin Pan Alley”, though in 1932 the street was mostly Asian restaurants. Here’s a little more on the Nanking from The Queenslander newspaper in 1932 that reviewed the London Chinese restaurant scene….
“….enter Denmark Street, which is now almost wholly given over to Chinese and Japanese restaurants and emporia. Undoubtedly the most amusing of these places is The Nanking, presided over by Mr. Fung Saw. Mr. Fung is some thing of a politician, and to his restaurant come many of the more youthful of the budding Parliamentarians. These, together with composers and song writers, their publishers and film artists, comprise the chief of Mr. Fung’s clientele. The hall of feasting is reached by long, steep steps, which lead to an exceptionally large, light, and lofty basement. There is another and a mere prosaic entrance through a hall door on the ground floor, but somehow no one ever seems to notice it, and so we descend the more picturesque steps. Inside, the decorations are reminiscent of a Chinese junk, and the walls are decorated in vermilion and in greens and yellows, which only a Chinese artist is able to use to Oriental perfection. On the opposite side of the road are two Japanese restaurants, and just round the corner we can enter the banqueting hall of Wah Yeng, who contents himself with catering, to the exclusion of everything else. Mr. Yeng explained that he had a largo back room, which he reserved for Chinese business men, but as Chinese merchants do not so often come to London the hall at the back is usually thrown open to all.”
Sadly I have no picture of the old Nanking or Denmark Street in the 1930s (any offers out there?) but here’s Denmark Street today (ish)
A long and interesting piece from Simon Rabinovitch in the Weekend FT on the continuing destruction of Beijing’s hutongs. Most important to note that the planned destruction of the Drum and Bell Tower area is back on and they seem determined not to let this area stay intact and to clear and out and flatten the hutongs around the area. This would be a crime against world culture – no other way to say it – and a new and massive dent in the number of surviving hutongs in Beijing which is now perilously few. Were hutongs an animal species we’d be very, very worried by now. However, it appears Beijing’s masterplanners are determined on extinction.