The Guide

Unraveling the Mysteries of Beijing’s Past

TOM O'MALLEY  •  PHOTOS BY ELIZABETH PHUNG  •  DEC 12, 2017

Unraveling the Mysteries of Beijing’s Past

TOM O'MALLEY  •  PHOTOS BY ELIZABETH PHUNG  •  DEC 12, 2017


Best-selling author Paul French takes us on a journey to the past in forward-looking Beijing.

One of the world’s ancient capitals, Beijing has earned a reputation of late for its futuristic architecture. Still, vestiges of the city’s tumultuous past remain, if you know where to look. A Londoner who’s made China his home for nearly two decades, writer Paul French is a seasoned wanderer of Beijing’s hutong alleyways and hidden nooks. When he stumbled across the story of a grisly Beijing murder from 1937, he reinvestigated the unsolved case, using it as the back story for his 2011 New York Times Bestseller novel Midnight in Peking (a miniseries based on the book is in the works at Britain’sKudos Films).

Here, he reveals his favorite historic corners of the capital, where the chimes of Old Peking still echo today.

The Fox Tower (Dongbianmen Watchtower)

Built in 1564, this is the only remaining corner tower of the old Tartar Wall that encircled central Beijing. “It failed as a fortress early on because soldiers refused to garrison there, on account of the nearby graveyards,” says French. “Chinese believed fox spirits inhabit cemeteries, appearing at night in the guise of a beautiful woman to steal your chi and render you impotent,” he explains. “The tower looms large in French’s novel as well: it was here in 1937 that locals discovered the murdered body of a young English girl. “Today the Tower receives surprisingly few visitors, but from the top you can look out along the only surviving portion of the old city wall and down towards the train lines running from Beijing station, once the route of the Grand Canal into the city’s granaries.” He also recommends The Red Gate Gallery, the first private contemporary art gallery in Beijing, which occupies the Fox Tower and represents 20 contemporary local artists.

Legation Street (Dong Jiaomin Xiang)

“If London, Paris or New York had a three-quarter square mile of genuine Qing Dynasty architecture it would be packed with tourists. Yet the Legation Quarter, the former foreign embassy district of Beijing, is one of the loneliest places in the city. Legation Street was once the central drag, and most of the European-style buildings are post-1900, rebuilt following the Boxer Rebellion. Start from Chongwenmen Street at the eastern end and admire the Western-style apartments that could just as easily be in Bloomsbury as Beijing. Continue to the Gothic St. Michael’s (Dongjiaomin) Catholic Church, which is still in use. Cross Taijichang Street to admire the gates of the former French Embassy, next door to the former International Post Office, now the Jing Yuan Sichuan restaurant. The corner of Zhengyi Road and Legation Street offers up the amazing former Russo-Asiatic Bank building, before opening out into the vast open parade ground that once formed the centre of the American Legation (now the Chi’enmen 23 complex).”

 

Shijia Hutong

“It would be an awful shame if one day all that remains are museums recording streets and alleyways long vanished,” notes French. “Sadly, as each year passes there are fewer and fewer hutongs in Beijing. The Shijia Hutong Museum, halfway along Shijia Hutong itself, curates the history of this vanishing architectural form. The street was once a prestigious address—Wallis Simpson lived there for a time in the 1920s, and writer Ling Shuhua and her modernist husband Chen Xiying were among many writers, bohemians and aesthetes, both Chinese and foreign, to enjoy life on this once tree-shaded thoroughfare. Still retaining some of its historic charm, especially compared to over-commercialised Wangfujing around the corner, Shijia Hutong is a reminder of Beijing’s former elegance.”

Yuetan Park (Temple of the Moon Park)

“When I first spent time in Beijing in the early 1990s I always stayed in this area on the west side of the city—it was so much cheaper than the foreign hotels close to Tiananmen Square—and I got to know the criss-crossing alleyways around Yuetan Park quite well. Most are long gone but the park remains, and despite being home to many buildings from the Ming and Qing dynasties, it is little visited compared to other parks in the city. Like most green spaces in Beijing it has been enthusiastically landscaped, so there are many winding paths along which you can stroll, alone, should you happen to find yourself in a contemplative mood.”

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