Back in 2013, I decided that 2014 was going to be the Year of Reading Books. I had all these books I wanted to read jotted down on random scraps of paper, or in some virtual notepad on my laptop or phone, or on my Amazon wishlist, and I realized that the only way I could get organized was by reading them all. One of those books was “Midnight in Peking” by Paul French, which is the true crime story of the murder of a young British woman in Beijing in the winter of 1937, right before the Japanese invasion. While the unsolved case is interesting in and of itself, the book also provides a snapshot of Beijing itself — the atmosphere, the politics, and a way of life that seems every bit as foreign and exotic to people living in Beijing today as it probably did to Westerners back then.
Beijing in the 1930s was still a walled city and a remnant of the capital city it was under the Qing Dynasty. It lacked prestige and was much overshadowed by Shanghai and even its neighbor, the port city of Tianjin, which were open to Westerners and therefore much more cosmopolitan. While the Nationalists had moved the capital south to Nanjing, foreign governments still operated bases in a small designated area just inside the central southern gate of the city. Most foreigners living in Beijing at the time — mainly government officials or other connected and established persons — also chose to live in or around this area as well. On the other end of the spectrum were poor, stateless people, such as the rapidly growing population of White Russians.
And so it was on one beautiful weekend last month, when the smog had gone on holiday, that Boyfriend and I went on a walking tour to reconnect with this part of the past.