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The haunted Beijing walking tour
Follow Paul French's new book "Midnight in Peking" to explore an unsolved murder in 1930s' Beijing
In 1937, Beijing was a city on the verge of imploding.
With nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek (蒋介石) ensconced in Nanjing and a Japanese military ring tightening around the city, foreigners were fleeing for their once-privileged lives.
On the frigid morning of January 7, 1937, the mutilated corpse of an English teenager was discovered on the fringes of Beijing's disreputable quarter.
Her skull had been bashed in, her chest cut open and her heart and internal organs ripped out. Her ribs had been cracked from the inside. Was she an innocent victim, or had the Sinologist's pretty daughter been lured into an evil sex cult? The subsequent murder hunt was to transfix China, even though the entire country was embroiled by war.
In “Midnight in Peking,” British author Paul French probes the murder of 19-year-old Pamela Werner shining a light on Beijing’s then sordid underbelly.
Together with French, publishers Penguin have devised an audio walk (download here) of Pamela’s Beijing as it was in 1937.
See where and how Pamela lived and died in what French chillingly calls the last days of old Beijing.
Read the book before the walk; if you go at night, the stroll is particularly spooky.
Editor's note: The following map highlights the route of the walking tour. Click the blue pinpoints to learn more about the stops. Use the gray bar at the bottom to roll left or right. The tour starts at the right-hand side of the map.
Where to buy 'Midnight in Peking'
Beijing: RMB 200 at The Bookworm, No. 4, Nan Sanlitun Lu, near Gongti Bei Lu 南三里屯路4号, 近工体北路, +86 010 6586 9507, 9 a.m.-10 p.m. (bookstore); 9 a.m.-2 a.m. (restaurant),beijingbookworm.com
Shanghai: RMB 255 at Garden Books, 325 Changle Lu, near Shaanxi Nan Lu, 长乐路325号, 近陕西南路, +86 21 5404 8728, 10 a.m.-10 p.m., www.bookzines.com
Then: Armour Factory Alley, Pamela's home
Now: Kuijiachang Hutong, Dongcheng District (东城区盔甲厂胡同)
Directions: The hour-long tour kicks off from Beijing Railway Station (北京火车站).
If you’re facing the front entrance to the station, walk 50 meters east, then left toward a building with a golden dome.
Look for the Tian Tang Yang Guang Hotel (北京天堂阳光大酒店); right before it is the entrance to Kuijiachang Hutong, 盔甲厂胡同, the street where Pamela used to live.
Traditional Beijing courtyard
Beijing’s hutongs are disappearing by the day, but the lane in which Pamela lived remains intact.
Though many foreigners chose to reside in the Legation Quarter in the 193os (使馆区) -- a gated, guarded Europe in miniature -- Pamela’s father, who was a Sinologist and former British consul, raised her in a traditional courtyard home at No. 1 Armour Factory Alley, a hutong that dates back to the Ming Dynasty.
The Werner's lane is so named because it was once the site of a munitions factory.
Today, their former home has been chopped up into several flats and also houses Chang Chang Printing Machinery Co. Ltd. (昌昌印刷机械有限公司).
Just as it was when the Werners lived there, the hutong is “a hive of activity with … knife grinders, repairmen, snack food vendors.”
Year-round, people sit outside and play cards and gossip, much as they did in 1937.
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Then: Fox Tower
Now: Dongbianmen Watchtower (东便门角楼)
Directions: The next stop is Fox Tower.
Walk to the eastern end of Kuijiachang Hutong and go right until you see a set of steps leading to the Er Huang Lu (二环路).
Turn right and walk under the bridge, and you’ll see the tower at the intersection of Chongwenmen Dong Da Jie (Chongwenmen East Avenue, 崇文门东大街) and the Dong Er Huan (East Second Ring Road, 东二环).
The haunted Fox Tower
At the base of the former Fox Tower, what was once wasteland is now a little garden.
This is the exact spot in which an elderly Beijinger, taking his songbirds for a walk on that icy morning, spotted Pamela’s mutilated body.
Fox Tower was built in 1439, and right away the locals decided that the building -- filled with thousands of bats and surrounded by wild dogs -- was haunted.
It now costs RMB 10 to enter; you can visit Red Gate Gallery (红门画廊) or go up to the top for a sweeping view of eastern Beijing.
Look down now and you’ll see a railway line, but in 1937, the space was a pungent, trash-strewn canal.
French says that if you visit Fox Tower in the early morning, you may see modern-day Beijingers out walking their songbirds.
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Then: The Tartar Wall
Now: Er Huan Lu and Beijing Metro Line 2 (二环路, 北京地铁2号线)
Directions: Continue to the Tartar Wall by walking west for a few hundred meters until you reach a Western-style building with a red roof. This is a former railway station.
From here, the tour takes you along what remains of the old Beijing City Wall.
Beijing city wall
Though much of the city’s wall is now gone, it once towered 15 meters high, with grand gated entryways. It was built in the early 1400s and pulled down in the 1950s.
The Tartar Wall marked the southern boundary of Pamela’s Beijing and, at 12 meters wide, she would pass it to get from her home in Armour Factory Alley to the Legation Quarter, where many of her friends lived.
It was the quickest way to go while avoiding the sinful Badlands, the next stop on this tour and the seediest, most scandalous neighborhood in old Beijing. The Badlands is also one of the central focus points in the investigation into Pamela’s gruesome murder.
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Then: The Badlands
Now: Chuanban Hutong, Dongcheng District (东城区船板胡同)
Directions: To get to the Badlands, follow the wall until the corner of Chongwenmen Dong Dajie (Chongwenmen East Avenue, 崇文门东大街) and Beijing Zhan Xi Da Jie (Beijing Station West Street, 北京站西大街).
Follow the pavement, bearing right, until you see a zebra crossing.
Cross Beijing Zhan Xi Da Jie, look for a building that houses the State Grid, then turn right. Walk east past the entrance to Hougou Hutong (后沟胡同), and keep walking until you see Chuanban Hutong (船板胡同).
Beijing's dark side
French refers to Chuanpan Hutong, now Chuanban Hutong, as “the baddest and most depraved street in old Peking.”
The most riveting parts of “Midnight in Peking” take place in the Badlands, where the suspects and witnesses in Pamela’s murder spent their nights.
The bars and brothels are long gone, replaced by local families and delivery boys flying by on tricycles. But French encourages you to imagine “the days when the street teemed with touts, pimps and working girls, when you’d get heroin, opium, pornography and prostitutes here.”
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Then: Soochow Hutong
Now: Suzhou Hutong, Dongcheng District (东城区苏州胡同)
Directions: Onward to Suzhou Hutong.
If you’re standing at the end of Chuanban Hutong (船板胡同) facing Chongwenmen Nei Da Jie (Chongwenmen Inner Street, 崇文门内大街), turn right and walk past the entrance to Xiaobafang Hutong (小巴坊胡同) to the next one over, which is Suzhou Hutong (苏州胡同).
Turn in and take the first right.
This was the northern border of the Badlands and also where Pamela ate her last meal. It was and remains a food street.
The one-story wooden buildings still house restaurants, and chestnuts continue to be roasted in braziers on the street.
French suggests trying a cheap and filling bowl of noodles while you’re here. Pamela loved snacking in Soochow Hutong, and because she spoke fluent Chinese, she was able to easily navigate her way amongst the stalls.
Though nearly 75 years have passed, Suzhou Hutong has retained its special Chinese charm. The lane is always busy and is a wonderfully preserved example of what French calls “the old hutong life -- crowded, busy, [and] centered around the three most important things in Chinese life: business, gossip and food.”
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Then: The French Legation, French Club Skating Rink and Prentice’s Apartment
Now: Dongjiaominxiang Alley, Dongcheng District (东城区东郊民巷)
Directions: To get to the former French Legation, walk to the western end of Suzhou Hutong, turn onto Chongwenmen Nei Da Jie (Chongwenmen Innter Street, 崇文门内大街) and then cross over it.
Walk south on Chongwenmen (崇文门) until you see Dongjiaominxiang Alley (东交民巷), then turn right and you’re standing on what was once “the main East-West thoroughfare of the Legation Quarter” -- known then as Legation Street.
Former Legation Quarter
The former Legation Quarter is just a short walk from Suzhou Hutong but seems a world away. In 1937, armed soldiers guarded all entrances to the Quarter and would check the identity of anyone entering.
Today, anyone can stroll the tree-lined European-style streets complete with accompanying architecture, but many of the buildings now house government offices, so you will not be able to enter.
The “world-within-a-world,” as French calls it, has completely vanished.
But when Pamela was alive, this was a tiny replica of Europe, complete with “a profusion of clubs, hotels and bars that could just as easily have been in London, Paris or Washington,” plus banks, department stores and a cinema.
The skating rink was the last place Pamela was “officially” seen alive.
This section of the Quarter was also home to American W.B. Prentice, a prominent dentist who was also known to have a strong interest in nudism. Though he claimed not to know Pamela at all when questioned by the police, French says, “Prentice was a man with secrets.”
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Then: The British Legation
Now: Zhengyi Lu, Dongcheng District (东城区正义路)
Directions: You’re already in the Legation Quarter, so keep walking along Dongjiaominxiang Alley, past the Dongjiaominxiang Hotel (东交民巷大酒店) on your right to where the alley meets Zhengyi Lu (正义路).
Turn right at the intersection and walk north until you reach the Ministry of Public Security, the former British Legation.
When Pamela’s father E.T.C. Werner first came to China as a student interpreter in the 1880s, this is where he started off.
More than 50 years later, he was back in the British Legation for the official inquest into Pamela’s death.
These inquests were mentally and emotionally taxing; Werner correctly believed the police were not doing enough to bring the murderer or murderers to justice, and journalists shouting questions at Werner swarmed the Quarter’s gates.
The authorities were not able to solve the case in the end. Pamela's father used his own resources to solve it unofficially, but no one ever believed him. (We are not going to spoil whodunnit.)
Later, when the Japanese finally invaded Beijing, Werner was forced to leave Armor Factory Alley and take shelter at the Legation.
There’s a small park set in the middle of Zhengyi Lu should you wish to take a break.
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Then: Peking Railway Station and Chienmen
Now: Beijing Railway Museum and Qianmen, Dongcheng District (东城区北京铁道博物馆和前门)
Directions: To get to your final stop on the tour, turn around and walk south down Zhengyi Lu to where it meets Dongjiaminxiang Alley, then turn right and walk west.
Near the end of the street you’ll enter the former American Legation. Look on the left-hand side of the street for the entrance, which is marked by a sign that says Qianmen.
Outside Qianmen 23 is Qianmen Dong Dajie (Qianmen East Street, 前门东大街). Take the underpass and exit next to the Beijing Railway Museum.
Beijing Railway Museum
This is the last stop on the tour, although not the spot where Pamela’s father solved the mystery of his daughter's murder.
The original Peking Railway Station is now the Beijing Railway Museum, which houses some of the trains that ran during Pamela’s time.
In 1937, all Beijing’s trains arrived and departed from this station, including that of Detective Chief Inspector Dennis, the British detective from Tientsin (present day Tianjin) who was involved in the murder investigation.
You’re now standing at the southeast corner of present-day Tian’anmen Square, but in 1937, it didn’t exist.
The area was known as Chienmen, now Qianmen, and Qianmen Gate (aka Zhengyangmen, 正阳门) stands at the southern end of Tian’anmen.
This is a gate Pamela knew well. Dating back to 1415, it has survived “fires, battles, the Boxer rebellion and, so far, the ongoing redevelopment of modern Beijing.” The same cannot be said for so many other structures integral to Pamela’s life in Beijing.