Category Archives: Travel

Book Review: Midnight in Peking by Paul French

Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old ChinaMidnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China by Paul French

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A friend who lives in Beijing recommended this book to me on the occasion of my visit there. I like to read about places that I plan to visit, so I picked it up eagerly. The atmosphere of pre-war Peking is vividly drawn, the author’s attention to detail is exhaustive, and I found myself caring about Pamela’s fate and wanting to know what happened next. Unlike some other reviewers, however, I found the writing style and pacing to be rough going. The events unfolded in repetitive fashion and since we knew from the get-go that the case remained unsolved, there wasn’t much suspense. The lack of a clear protagonist or viewpoint character added distance, compounding the distance already afforded by time and space.

Parallels beg to be made between the story of Pamela Werner, a complex young girl–both beautiful and dark–who was brutally murdered, and the city of Peking itself with its residents brutalized under wartime occupation. I felt that most opportunities to draw such parallels were missed, although perhaps they were just too subtle for me and my scant knowledge of the history of the period.

In general I thought that the author assumed more historical knowledge than most of his readers are likely to possess. Certain descriptors were repeated so often that they became monotonous, but given little context or explanation. For example, I had to google the term “White Russian.” The entire first page of hits for this term was about a cocktail. Its wikipedia entry is a bit more helpful, but even that claims that the term can refer to one of four different possible groups of people, including members of the “White” movement during the Russian Civil War, ethnically “white” emigres fleeing the Russian Civil War, people from Belarus, or a religious group also called Old Believers. I suspect the author meant the first of those four, but it should have been clearer and made more of a difference. I was also brought up short by the many repeated references to “DCI Dennis” and “ETC Werner.” I would have preferred that these men were referred to by their given names.

While I understand the objections to the evidence collected by Pamela’s father in a study that purports to be objective, I don’t think those concerns matter for the purposes of telling an entertaining story and giving Pamela her small measure of justice. The author admits to being himself convinced by Werner’s evidence; he might as well go all in and not hedge. So, in my opinion, the author should have told the story from Edward Werner’s point of view, and started the narrative from the point where the police gave up on the investigation and Werner picked it up on his own. The false starts and trails gone cold followed by the police could be told in interspersed flashbacks as Werner works the case, confronts the alleged killer in prison, and eventually returns to his home, defeated but in another way unbowed.

The Fox Tower, where Pamela’s body is found, is believed in Peking folklore to be the home of the King of the Fox Spirits. The legend held that on a nocturnal visit to a cemetery, a fox would exhume a deceased body and then balance a skull upon its head. It then bowed reverentially to the God of the North Star. If the skull did not topple from the fox’s head, the fox would be transformed into a spirit who would live for eight to ten centuries.

I enjoyed the stories about the Fox Spirits so much that I plan to visit the tower when I visit Beijing. The book’s website has an interesting and very readable article about the tower, which warns visitors that if you let a Beijing taxi driver know that you want to go to the Fox Tower and “you will be met with a blank look and perhaps a gruff shenme difang’r delivered as a tu hua challenge.”…

This is just the kind of thing the book itself needed more of.

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Guard Tower

I was traveling this week on Monday, so I will do the Mundane Monday Challenge on Friday this week. A theme that interests me for this challenge is to photograph man-made objects in the middle of nature. The natural frame gives them a beauty that they do not otherwise possess.

From Seoul yesterday we toured the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). This is a stretch of land 2 km on either side of the border between North and South Korea that is devoid of buildings and military equipment (but there are land mines and tunnels buried beneath).


First we toured one of these tunnels, known as the third tunnel, unearthed in 1978. It was built by North Korea as a way to invade the South and discovered by chance by the South Korean military. No pictures were allowed in the tunnel.

Panoramic view from South to North
Panoramic view from South to North
A later part of the tour took us to an overlook, where we could see into North Korean territory. Propaganda music played on a loudspeaker as we tourists put coins into pay binoculars and took panorama shots on iphones and androids. This guard tower looks north, as the ivy encroaches.PanoramawithTower

My teenage kids were there; this tour reminded me a bit of a tour I took of East Berlin and Checkpoint Charlie when I was close to their age, a city divided, before the Berlin Wall fell. Uniformed guards, barbed wire, stories of harrowing escapes and families torn apart.

The last stop on the tour was the Dorasan train station, built to connect the north and south by rail. On February 20, 2002, US President George W Bush visited the station together with South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and gave a speech in support of Korean unification.

Railroad tie at Dorasan Train Station
“I see a Peninsula that is one day united in commerce and cooperation, instead of divided by barbed wire and fear. Korean grandparents should be free to spend their final years with those they love. Korean children should never starve while a massive army is fed. No nation should be a prison for its own people. No Korean should be treated as a cog in the machinery of the state.”  –President George W Bush, February 20, 2002
But the shiny new-looking station still sits largely idle, waiting for trains and passengers that never come. The tragedy is that while Germany has reunited and inched onward, in fits and starts, into the 21st century, Korea remains mired in the cold-war past. The guard towers, barbed wire, and bunker jokes told by the tour guides have become mundane. Meanwhile grandparents grow old and pass on, never knowing their grandchildren.

The Hope
The Hope

Thursday Doors: Seoul Walk

I am a few days into a trip to Asia. We started out in Seoul, Korea and will be traveling on to Beijing, Xian, Shanghai, X’ian, and Tokyo. I have wifi in at least some of the hotels, but my posting frequency will be spotty for the next 3 weeks.

I have found that focusing on doors, for Thursday Doors, gives me a different perspective on picture taking. Left to my own devices, I tend to like to photograph trees and other natural phenomena, but focusing on doors makes me think more about people, civilizations, and how societies are structured.

The first installment comes from our first morning in Seoul, walking through streets and alleyways to a small local park called Tapgol Park. The park has some traditional architecture, with walls and gates, separating it from the noise and bustle of the neighborhood:

There was also a thoroughly modern electrical box:


It looks like there might be a geocache under that box (red lid on the right), but we haven’t had great luck with geocaches so far in Seoul. We’ve found one a day to keep the streak alive, but DNF more than we find.

Later, on our way to Changdeokgung Palace, we walked down some small alleyways that were lined with what looked like the back doors to restaurants, a hostel, and some other mysterious wooden doors, with writing.

Back on the main road, we saw a more modern rendering of script on a door:


Let me know if you read Korean! Duolingo Korean isn’t out yet. I love the Korean word for milk, uyu, which looks like two little people holding hands. 우유

The Bicycling Violinist

We are the World LogoIt’s already the last Friday of the month, time for the We are the World Blogfest! The #WATWB seeks to infuse social media with good news. This month’s hosts are Emerald BarnesEric Lahti, Inderpreet UppalLynn HallbrooksPeter Nena, and Roshan Radhakrishnan. Please stop by and say hello!    Continue reading The Bicycling Violinist

Wild and Precious

Last Sunday the UU church I joined in December, the UU Fellowship of Sunnyvale, held a service called the Our One Wild and Precious Life service. The title is inspired by the last lines of Mary Oliver’s poem, The Summer Day.

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Thursday Doors: Candy Cane Lane

Back in Belmont MA, there were two houses right next to each other near a highway exit that went all out with decorations for Christmas. During the rest of the year one of them kind of looked like our house: a standard white colonial with black shutters and a red door. But a few days after Thanksgiving it started, and continued into January: trees, snowflakes, and blinking lights, framing the door and welcoming Christmas visitors.

Continue reading Thursday Doors: Candy Cane Lane