Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Badlands: Decadent Playground of Old Peking - Paul French - Penguin (Kindle Edition)

In January 1937, a 19-year-old’s mutilated body was found at the bottom of the Beijing Fox Tower. Pamela Werner, the daughter of a respected British sinologist, had had her ribcage broken and her heart torn out. Police investigations led to nothing. The case was closed as the Japanese invasion of China engulfed the foreign community.
Paul French explored the mystery 75 years later in his book “Midnight in Peking,” tracing it all back to the Peking Badlands, a block of alleyways near the tower. Here, the down and out and downright dirty congregated to do illicit business.

His latest book “The Badlands: Decadent Playground of Old Peking” breathes life into this formerly forgotten world. The slight volume sketches out the lives of a handful of Badlands residents, from the dancer Tatiana Korovina to the hermaphrodite and “King of the Badlands” Shura Giralidi.

Paul French has expanded on his historical research for Midnight in Peking to create a tiny but powerful glimpse into the world of a dangerous, seedy neighbourhood in ’30s Beijing.
In a series of short vignettes, we are introduced to the Badlands—a haven for vice that stretched from Wangfujing east past Chongwenmen and to the old City Wall—through the lives of eight foreigners who lived and worked there. Some portraits are more complete than others, like Tatiana Korovina, a Shanghai-born dancer whose parents fled Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution. Tatiana’s granddaughter contacted French after reading Midnight in Peking, and her stories and those of her global network of other White Russian families make up the bulk of the book’s content. Their input, together with archival documents, guided French to paint a particularly vivid portrait of Shura Giraldi, a gender-shifting, benevolent gangster known as the “King of the Badlands.”
But some characters, namely prostitutes-turned-heroin-addicts Marie and Peggy, are almost entirely fictional—their names are real, but their tragic stories are only based on likely scenarios. We applaud French for bringing historical data to life so engagingly, but we wish there were more true stories, and more photos. The 69-page book can easily be read in an afternoon, and even then some chapters seem to be fluffed out.
Page by Paul French - The Badlands: Decadent Playground
of Old Peking
French addresses this shortcoming of what he admits to be a “slender volume” in the introduction. It seems there is little to no recorded information of life in the Badlands that has survived time, travel and political change. But the author stands his ground in regard to how the stories he has found are worth telling, especially given how unknown they are even to the Beijing expats of today.
Foreigners, especially those who remember the old Sanlitun Bar Street, will want to look for comparisons to today, but the Badlands of 1937 were far scarier. Girls were sold into brothels at the age of 13, where insects crawled the walls and the sheets were never washed. Drug use was rampant, and heroin and opium addiction was supported by the occupying Japanese. The majority of foreigners were exiled Russians, who lived without passports, victims of the political turmoil of the time. China was at war. In many ways, The Badlands helps illustrate just how much Beijing has transformed, materially and socially. In comparison, things today are very harmonious indeed.
But, of course, there are moments we can all recognize. An image of an advertisement for Whisker’s Girl House in Shanghai entices clients with language reminiscent of today’s outcall massage ads. And, in a rare happy ending for this book, we also come away with the story of Tatiana and the half-Chinese, half-British cinema manager she fell in love with. There’s even a photo of Tatiana posing with his motorcycle, on which they whizzed around Beijing.
I left hungry for more, but excited to head out with the book’s map to try to see if I could still recognize vestiges of the Badlands left in Beijing.

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