A Mystery Endures in Beijing’s Old Legation Quarter
On a freezing January morning in 1937, the mutilated body of a beautiful 19-year-old British woman was found lying at the base of Fox Tower along old Peking’s Ming dynasty protective wall. Her heart had been ripped out, her face slashed with a knife. Her head lay to the west, her feet to the east. Strangely, there was little blood.
The Fox Tower, now known as the Dongbianmen, where Pamela Werner's body was found in 1937.
The murder of Pamela Werner, the adopted daughter of a retired British diplomat, shook the high-living expatriates and the seedy gangs of Peking, as Beijing was then known, in the era before World War II. Although the murder was never definitively solved, her father believed that it was the work of a prominent American expatriate who traveled in the circles of Beijing’s high society and its underworld, too.
For those of us who live in Beijing, and for visitors curious about the city’s past, the mystery of Pamela’s death conjures the jittery period just before the Japanese invasion, when the Communists were a band of guerrillas in faraway mountains, and the foreigners indulged in a fin de siècle existence of booze-infused parties and squadrons of servants.
About 700 Americans lived in the city, including the journalist Edgar Snow who introduced Mao Zedong to the world with his 1937 book, “Red Star Over China,” and his wife, Helen, also a writer. In her 1984 autobiography, “My China Years,” Ms. Snow wrote: “Peking is the last stronghold of the good old tradition of entertaining on the least provocation.” She described “a paradise for foreigners,” taking special notice of the European women, with their elaborate evening dresses and ermine fur stoles worn to formal dinners.
当时这座城市里居住着大约700个美国人，包括记者埃德加·斯诺(Edgar Snow)和妻子海伦(Helen)。斯诺1937年出版的《红星照耀中国》(Red Star Over China)把毛泽东介绍给了西方社会，他的妻子也是一位作家。斯诺夫人在1984年出版的自传《我的中国岁月》(My China Years)中写道：“北京是不以刺激为乐这一美好传统的最后要塞。”她说北京是“外国人的天堂”，特别提到了那些欧洲女人，她们参加正式宴会的时候会穿上精致的晚礼服和貂皮披肩。
The Snows were neighbors of E.T.C. Werner and his adopted daughter, Pamela. Both families lived on a narrow street not far from the 15th-century Fox Tower, in Chinese-style houses just outside the sterile Legation Quarter, where imposing gates kept the Chinese out, and the privileged foreigners in. In those days it was an easy walk, or bike ride, between the neighborhood of the Snows and the Werners, and the diplomatic quarter.
Now, even amid the relentless rebuilding of Beijing, you can take a leisurely 90 minutes to peer into the two worlds of Pamela, who unlike most European residents spoke fluent Mandarin and glided seamlessly between the Chinese and the Europeans.
An excellent account of the crime, the places and the characters is at the center of “Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China” (Penguin Books, 2012), by the British writer Paul French. He has also recorded an audio tour in which he delivers a rollicking commentary that dives back 400 years to the origins of the walls of Peking, fast-forwards to the 1930s and, for context, gives some barbed insights into the current state of affairs in Beijing.
对那起谋杀案、那些地方以及那些人物的精彩描述是英国作家保罗·法兰奇(Paul French)的《午夜北平：英国外交官女儿喋血北平的梦魇》（Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China，企鹅图书，2012年）的主要内容。他还录制了一个语音导览，滔滔不绝地追溯400年前北京城墙的起源，又快速跳跃到20世纪30年代，并对北京的现状发表了一些不无讽刺的见解。
Surprisingly, many of the landmarks of Pamela’s life, including the house she lived in, still exist. The Fox Tower, an imposing fortress with upturned eaves, still stands. Its interior has been remodeled, the original pillars brushed with dark red paint. Some of Pamela’s favorite haunts are now tucked behind high walls. But with imagination, and Mr. French’s voice in your ear, you can re-create Beijing before the glass and steel towers.
I was lucky enough to enjoy the author’s enthusiasm during a personal tour in the summer. But Mr. French says he is no longer a guide, so as winter approached I retraced our steps with a Chinese friend, using the audio tour. The walk is prettier in summer with trees in full green, but more authentic in the steely gray of winter, the season when Pamela died.
The directions on the audio are immensely helpful in sorting out Beijing’s confusing street names. But be warned: Beijing changes so fast that from my first walk with Mr. French to my second, a building central to Pamela’s last hours had been knocked down. And one of Beijing’s best restaurants, Maison Boulud, housed in the old American Embassy in the Legation Quarter, was our destination in the summer. It closed in December. More on that later.
Here are some high points from the audio and the book:
After following Mr. French’s directions from the Beijing Rail Station to the narrow street called Armor Factory Alley, you will come across the red-painted door of No. 1, where Pamela and her father lived. The number of the house stands out on a chipped iron sign above the entryway. The door is imposing, although the grandeur of the house is difficult to judge. A recent, roughshod one-room addition juts onto the street, a perfect example of the haphazard planning in what is left of Beijing’s old alleyways, commonly known as hutongs. On the other side of the street, the Snows lived at No. 6 (although in her book, Ms. Snow says their house was No. 13). Here, too, it is difficult to gauge the vast scale of their home; according to Ms. Snow’s account, Edgar sat in the study near the gate for six months and wrote “Red Star Over China.”
About a 10-minute walk from Armor Factory Alley — down a set of stairs and under a bridge — the base of the Fox Tower, now known as the Dongbianmen, a mammoth gray brick wall with a watchtower on top, looms in front of you. This is where Pamela’s body was found in the early morning of Jan. 8, 1937, by an old man walking his songbird. The ditch where she was dumped is now near one of the city’s main ring roads.
The Red Gate Gallery, which opened in 1991, occupies the first floor of the tower. It is worth visiting for the contemporary Chinese art, and the Ming dynasty interior. Brian Wallace, the Australian founder, and one of the most knowledgeable art experts in the city, is often on hand.
From there, it is a short stroll into the ramshackle area, known in the 1930s as the Badlands, where Pamela was murdered. You must cross a busy intersection into today’s Chuanban Hutong; you know you are in the right spot when you see a food shop at the entrance of the street with sacks of flour on the floor, bamboo containers of steaming fresh buns, and a smiling woman offering her goodies for less than a dollar apiece.
About 200 yards down the street, past a barber and the National Red Noodle Shop, stands No. 28 where Mr. French writes that Pamela was murdered. At the time, the place was a flophouse run by White Russian madams. Mr. French tells us that Pamela had been lured to the front room on the right by a longtime resident of the Legation Quarter, an American dentist named Wentworth Prentice, and some male companions. She was attacked with a wooden instrument and, based on an investigation conducted by Pamela’s father, the author concludes that her body was drained of blood and then taken by rickshaw to the base of the Fox Tower, where it was dismembered. Descendants of Mr. Prentice dispute Mr. French’s account, and have opened a website. They claim that archival evidence contradicts the conclusion of “Midnight in Peking,” and also question Mr. Werner’s capacity to conduct the investigation.<-->纽约时报中英文网 http://www.qqenglish.com<-->
Last summer, No. 28 existed in more or less its original form. The grimy, low-slung building opened into a series of single-room apartments. Old bicycles leaned against the walls of a passageway strung with laundry. By December, the building had been demolished, replaced by modern apartments.
From the scene of the murder, walk to the end of the alley and cross six-lane Chongwenmen Nei Street and, keeping Tongren Hospital on your left, take the first right into Dongjiaomin Alley (previously Legation Street). You are entering the Legation Quarter. Toward the end of the street on the left stands a European-designed red brick gabled apartment complex with dormer windows and “Romeo and Juliet” balconies. This was the home of Dr. Prentice; it is now a Chinese government building hidden behind a high wall.
At the corner stands the pretty Gothic-style St. Michael’s Church, built by French missionaries at the beginning of the 20th century. The stained-glass windows and handmade pipe organ were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. The church was partially restored and reopened in 1989.
Around the corner, down the main street to the right, lies the old British Embassy, where the European Community holed up during the 55-day siege of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.
The French embassy, where Pamela used the skating rink hours before her murder, is a little friendlier. The neo-Classical entrance gates with a pair of lions at either side of an open archway give way to gardens with graceful trees. It is fun to imagine Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia, the stalwart friend of China, during his long stay here at the end of his life in 2012.
Beyond the French Embassy lies the grand edifice of the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China, built in 1919. It appears to be in fine shape though no longer operates as a bank. A wide public stairway beside the bank takes you down to one of Beijing’s main thoroughfares, and when you turn left past a row of shops selling shoes and cheap airline tickets, you come across a large sign — Chi’enmen 23 — carved into a stone wall. Walk behind the wall and before you stands the handsome chancery of the first American Embassy in Beijing, built in 1903. Most recently, it was the home of Maison Boulud, the China anchor of the chef Daniel Boulud’s empire. Sadly, the restaurant closed in December, the victim of a dispute between Mr. Boulud and his Chinese partners.
By now, Pamela Werner no longer figures in the walk. But continue to the American Embassy because it stands out as a piece of Washington architecture transported to the Chinese capital in 1903, when the Legation Quarter was rebuilt in the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion.
George Kates, an American living in Peking during the 1930s, wrote “the buildings of each Legation ... looked as if lifted bodily from their own country to be set down here in China.” The American Embassy was “of a stately colonial-renaissance style” constructed from lumber imported from the United States. The bricks were made in Beijing under the supervision of the United States government architect Sidney H. Nealy, who designed the building.
20世纪30年代在北京居住的美国人乔治·凯茨(George Kates)写道，“每个使馆的建筑……看起来都像是从自己的国家整个搬到了中国。”美国大使馆是“宏伟的殖民主义复兴风格”，所用的木材是从美国进口的。砖石是在这幢大楼的设计师、美国政府建筑师西德尼·H·尼利(Sidney H. Nealy)的监督下在北京制造的。
To compensate for the demise of Maison Boulud, a delicious meal awaits at Lost Heaven, a restaurant with the light cuisine from Yunnan Province, in a building adjacent to the old American Embassy.
At times a visitor yearns for the street vendors, rickshaw pullers, White Russian gangsters, the intrepid Snows, the opinionated missionaries, the Peking of Pamela’s time. But wandering the small streets where neighbors play board games, and along the boulevards of the old Legation Quarter, more than a whiff of the old period — and of the continuing mystery of Pamela’s murder — endures.