A Chronicler of China's Seedy Past

Paul French, a Shanghai-based consultant, has made a name for himself writing about the dark underbelly of old China.


A glimpse of Nanjing Road, Shanghai's busiest shopping street, from the 1930s. (Wikimedia Commons)

Paul French has a gleam in his eye. "I've done a lot of work on prostitutes in Shanghai," he says. And then he laughs.

But the truth is that this Shanghai-based author has made himself into a one-man show chronicling the prostitutes, drug dealers, murderers, hermaphrodites, drunks, gang members and low-lifes of China's pre-revolutionary days. Not to mention a few philandering hacks.

His most recent obsession started with the 1937 murder of 19-year-old Pamela Werner, the daughter of a prominent English counsel and scholar in Beijing. Pamela, it turned out, had a taste for the wild life, an urge all too readily indulged by a city that set apart its foreign quarter and looked the other way when the Russians, English, Americans, Germans, and French came to China to escape their past and live the kind of life that would land them in jail in other countries.

Tracing the story of Pamela's murder, which French stumbled upon when he learned of a cache of documents left behind by Pamela's father in trying to uncover his daughter's murderer, led to his big hit, Midnight in Peking. The 2012 book landed on the New York Times bestseller list and is being made into a television series in England. It's also a candidate for an Edgar Award in the "Best Fact Crime" category, given by the Mystery Writers of America. Midnight, says French, "has been far and away the most successful book I've done."

The publication of Midnight drew people who remembered some of the other characters of Beijing's badlands, a lawless place adjoining the Legation Quarter that made Casablanca look like Disney World. That new material led to his latest book, The Badlands: Decadent Playground of Old Peking. Besides bringing even more colorful characters into the story, The Badlands will add details to the U.K. series being filmed by the Kudos production company.

The story of history's losers, liars, and refugees is rarely recorded, French says. The missionaries, diplomats, journalists, and historians have all chronicled their lives in China in painstaking detail. "My thing is uncovering the lost side of the foreign story in China, the underbelly," he says. "You can only find little whispers of them, little traces of them, and you have to build it up from there."

His newest book brings readers a cast of characters that include a White Russian named Shura Giraldi, a hermaphrodite who lived a double life, running one of Beijing's most successful nightclubs and dance troupes. He was "sometimes an anonymous man in a suit lost in a crowd, sometimes an eye-catching, head-turning femme fatale in a tailored dress with ruby-red nails, jet-black hair, and a smile that could melt a man's heart at forty paces," French writes in Badlands.

French leads walking tours through the remnants of Beijing's badlands, and says that the fascination with the bad boys and girls of Beijing's past comes from several places. "There is a perpetual interest in the underbelly of societies and the lost characters of history," he says. Add in unsolved murders and "the notion of Europeans and Americans being bad abroad" and you've got a heady -- and profitable -- mix.

The badlands is not the first topic for French, 46, an expert on Chinese consumers for the market research firm Mintel. He's lived in China for about 16 years and produced a kind of rogue's gallery of material on old China, including North Korea, the Paranoid Peninsula (2005), Carl Crow: A Tough Old China Hand (2006), and Through the Looking Glass: China Foreign Journalists From Opium War to Mao (2009). And, under the aegis of his consulting work, he's co-authored One Billion Suckers: Accessing Asia's Consuming Passions After the Meltdown (1998), Oil on Water: Wankers, Pirates and the Rise of China (2010), and Fat China: How Expanding Waistlines are Changing a Nation (2010). (No one can accuse the man of boring titles.)

But it's French's predilection for the underworld that seems to resonate most. Badlands paints a wrenching picture of the lives of prostitutes Marie and Peggy, girls from White Russian families who were tricked into the life by their fathers and boyfriends. "The customers were sometimes violent, often drunk and dirty, and there might be six, seven, eight of them a night - double that on weekends and holidays," French writes.

"The rooms stunk, and were typically bare but for an iron bedstead with an old mattress, a small table and chair for the man to hang his clothes over, a jug of water and a bowl, an ashtray, a single light bulb with no shade. The windows were never opened, the sheets rarely changed."

In conversation, French gets even deeper into topics that would make a longshoreman blush. Of his research into Shanghai prostitutes of the early 1900s, he explains in vivid detail how they met their end: "What actually got them -- because they could check for syphilis and things like that -- was that after each of these people, they would try if possible to douche, and what would often get the girls was not the sex diseases, it was because the douching breaks down the -- you become prone to infection. You're getting rid of the necessary germs."

The necessary details are an integral part of the French oeuvre. "I think it's nice to try to capture what things were like. As a writer, that's what's always infuriating: You can get a sense of what places looked like, and of course you can look up what the weather was, but you can't ever get a sense of what people smelled like."

French's next book is on the badlands of Shanghai. It wouldn't be terribly surprising to learn that by that time, he has figured out just what the gang members, the drug dealers, the pimps, and the prostitutes smelled like.