In the 1930s, the Badlands was a tight-knit and incestuous rookery of vice located in Peking's eastern Tartar district. It had sprouted up in the late 20s on an area of open land that had been used for drilling foreign soldiers and exercising horses. Into the new, hastily thrown up constructions spilled a mix of stateless White Russians, other poor itinerants and petty foreign criminals who created a lightly policed nocturnal playground. Located between the grand European-style Legation Quarter and the colossal wall that circled the old Imperial City, it comprised little more than half a dozen hutongs filled with brothels, bars, dope dens, cheap restaurants and flophouses. It would never rival the scale or the status of the Shanghai Badlands, but it was bad to the bone all the same.
The various ways that the men and women who were to become the denizens of its Badlands reached Peking were legion. Tatiana Korovina had been raised in Shanghai by a White Russian family but became one of the leading dancers in the district's small and shady cabarets. Joe Knauf, the Badlands' major drug dealer, dropped out of the United States Marines in China to ply his sordid trade. Brothel madams such as Brana Shazker and Rosie Gerbert first arrived as trafficked girls from the poverty-stricken Russian Bessarabia, while countless prostitutes came from broken homes resulting from the White Russian exodus and the life of poverty that ensued in China.
Others were simply criminals on the run looking for a bolt-hole far from the beaten path, demobbed or permanently AWOL soldiers, or foreign sojourners who had arrived in Peking to see the Orient and lost themselves to the opium pipe, the bottle or just the sheer wickedness of the area. Together they formed a community of sorts, a colony of the sinful, the lost and the forgotten. Some survived the Badlands while others sunk into its depraved depths, never to resurface. A few left traces or told their stories, while others only live on in mouldering, seldom-seen police archives. Their lives rarely offer much hope, but they do tell the story of the mostly forgotten underbelly of foreign society in China between the wars.
My journey into the Peking Badlands began with research I conducted into the unsolved murder of a 19-year-old English woman named Pamela Werner, in January 1937. Right from the start, despite Werner being from an otherwise upstanding family, all the signs pointed to the heart of the Badlands. The answers to why she had been murdered and then brutally mutilated lay within this rabbit warren of alleyways which respectable foreigners were told to avoid and young girls forbidden from entering. In writing my book about that murder, Midnight in Peking - an attempt to finally bring resolution to the case - I discovered a lost world.
Travelling and talking about the book after it was published, I found that at event after event and in e-mail after e-mail I was asked for more on the people who had lived, struggled and died in the Badlands. Miraculously, more information - in the form of snippets, half-remembered anecdotes and rumours - appeared from former Peking residents, or their children, around the world, in Melbourne, San Francisco, Hong Kong and Sao Paulo.
It was all like a badly tuned television - the unintelligible screen would occasionally clear and an image would flicker through momentarily, only to dissolve again into confusion and obfuscation. Still, I steadily built up pictures of some of the Badlands' denizens, several of whom had appeared as minor characters in Midnight in Peking - the cabaret dancer Korovina, the madams, two prostitutes who lived unbearably tragic lives, their brutal pimp and a violent drug dealer. Most satisfyingly, I discovered a fund of stories regarding the greatest enigma of all - Shura Giraldi, a Russian hermaphrodite who some saw as nothing more than an effeminate teller of tall tales and who others (the police included) believed was the secret "king" of the Badlands. If the latter are to be believed, Giraldi's interests in the area included everything from running bordellos and bars to pulling off the largest bank robbery in Peking's history, in 1937, from which not a red cent was ever recovered. I wrote those stories up for a small collection entitled The Badlands: Decadent Playground of Old Peking.
But perhaps there's one more story, one more fragmentary and half-revealed life from the Badlands, which has been left untold …
EARLY ON IN THE investigation into Werner's death, a foreign man came to the attention of the police. He was in many ways a typical inhabitant of the Badlands; however, like everyone else there, he had his own peculiar story - of how he'd come to be arrested one freezing cold, January day in a rundown lodging house on the edge of the district. He lived there alone, in one small room with no toilet; the only natural light came from a single paper-covered window looking onto a back courtyard strewn with rubbish. And he went unnoticed there until his arrest made front-page news in the local Peking and Tientsin Times. His landlord, sick of chasing him for rent, had told the police he had seen a bloody knife in the man's room. When his arrest was reported in the papers they got his name wrong - Penfold, when it was in fact Pinfold. They got his nationality wrong, too, believing him to be English when he was actually Canadian … probably.
The man had worked hard at getting lost, falling through the cracks, doing his best to become a small, insignificant cog in the wheel that kept the Badlands turning. Pinfold was a composite of so many of the reasons foreigners ended up there - on the run from the army, the police, from his past, from his country. He was a palimpsest; his story had been constantly rubbed out, obscured, re-edited and retold until deciphering the truth of his past was almost impossible, maybe even to himself. With no documents or passport, even his age and true name were impossible to verify. He had, somehow, arrived in the Badlands and sunk into an impoverished life in filthy, freezing cold, bug-infested lodging houses. He survived on a few Chinese dollars and a handful of coins, his only possessions were tattered clothes, a cheap, cracked wristwatch and a hunting knife.
By the time the police got to him, he had reached rock bottom - sick, impoverished and broke.
Yet try as anyone might, erasing all traces of one's existence is nearly impossible. People remember, institutions file away information, paper trails persist despite repeated lies and dissembling. The Canadians thought they knew who Pinfold was - a deserter from the Canadian Army during the first world war who the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Security Service in Ottawa had never closed the file on. The Americans thought they might know him, too - quite probably the same man who had earned a criminal record in Chicago, skipped town, reached San Francisco and taken a boat to China, via American-controlled Manila, in the Philippines.
Washington's experiment with being a colonial power in the Philippines after 1898 was always problematic, not least because American criminal interests moved into the vice and gambling scene in Manila at the same time. Chicago and San Francisco gangsters found Manila a second Havana, with few restrictions and enough bribable officials to make sure hardly any of their number ever saw the inside of the city's imposing Bilibid Prison.
Brothel keepers had to come up with hush money for venal officials; opium use was arguably more entrenched in Manila than even in San Francisco; and licensed prostitution remained legal until 1918. Even when it was outlawed, American newspapers described the streets of Manila as swarming with American and European streetwalkers. And all those casinos and brothels needed muscle on their doors - perfect work for former soldiers with few scruples. On the run from the army, skipping town ahead of the Chicago cops - for a man like Pinfold, in the process of losing himself, Manila offered the perfect sanctuary
But it couldn't last - since the days of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, Washington had been trying to clean up Manila. In 1918, the American authorities finally kicked out of town most of the foreign (American, European, Japanese and Chinese) prostitutes. Pastures new were sought. Many favoured Shanghai but the city was a treaty port - an international settlement with foreign courts and a foreign police force that just loved to find and repatriate AWOL soldiers on the lam. Peking seemed perfect: Chinese China, with opportunities aplenty and no cops interested in white guys on the run.
Those opportunities, for a man like Pinfold, could be summed up in a word - warlords. And his employment as a bodyguard by one such warlord was how the Peking police came to know him. With their own private armies, these self-appointed leaders vying for rule in northern China were rife in Peking in the years before the Japanese arrived in Manchuria to finish off the last few stubborn holdouts. It was a time of chaos when territory changed hands and allegiances shifted quickly.
Which warlord hired Pinfold is lost to history - perhaps it was Duan Qirui, the leader of the Anhui clique, maybe Cao Kun of the rival Zhili clique, or Chang Tso-lin, the so-called Mukden Tiger. Between these three factions, wars were fought and power won and lost. All acquired arms from foreign dealers and all employed foreigners in their armies. They soaked up veterans of the Russian White armies, battle-hardened by service to the Tsar and in the long and losing fight against Bolshevism. Other guns for hire - an international melange of mercenaries - found employment, too; including Pinfold. Nervous and paranoid warlords, the sands of fealty always shifting under their feet, liked to hire foreign bodyguards with no ties to any clan - men who were loyal, as long as they were paid.
At this time, Pinfold was still fit, strong and keeping it together. His warlord employer had commandeered a large courtyard residence that extended almost to the Tartar Wall. The police mention Pinfold in their records many times, observing him guarding his master's property from high up on the Tartar Wall. But then that particular master disappeared - as they all would eventually - to be replaced by another or swept away by Chiang Kai-shek's Northern Expedition of the late 1920s, the main objective of which was to rout the scourge of warlordism and unite China under the Kuomintang. Pinfold was out of work.
The Badlands were emerging at that time and Pinfold appears to have happily retreated into them. It seems he developed a weakness for opium and smoked to forget the past, as much as to keep out the biting winter cold. His money must have run low and he switched from opium to the cheaper, nastier heroin pills that flooded the Badlands in the 1930s, courtesy of the Japanese army, keen to sap China's will to resist and oust the foreigners who made a living dealing. The main opium dealer was former US marine Knauf, who Pinfold occasionally worked for in return for drugs. If these two men ever knew anything approximating true friendship then, for a time at least, Pinfold and Knauf were friends. They hunted together, both in the hills for snipe and duck, and in the Badlands - for desperate addicts and victims. For a time Pinfold provided useful muscle for Knauf, but it didn't last.
By 1937, Pinfold was a shadow of his former self, thin and underfed; his dry, pallid skin was recorded as loose and pockmarked. He was out of shape, wheezing like an asthmatic. Under arrest in connection with the murder of Werner, he chain-smoked and displayed the unmistakable signs of a heroin addict denied his fix. The police noted his rotten teeth, his tobacco-stained fingers, nails chewed to the quick and knuckles covered with hard skin. He remained inscrutable, declined to answer questions and refused to reveal his identity. The British Legation, which held a register of suspicious persons, told the police he was strange and withdrawn, a loner who had been seen attending the public executions that took place on the edge of the city - something few foreigners did.
Pinfold was eventually released due to a lack of evidence - the pathology lab tests came back indicating the blood on his knife was that of an animal and not human. He was released. Nobody saw him leave Peking's Morrison Street police station, either by the back entrance or the front, where the press had gathered but failed to get a picture. Any photograph taken of him in custody has been lost. He went to ground in the Badlands.
And that is the last record of him. He slipped from history and sank into the bowels of the Badlands with-out a trace. It is almost certain that, if not directly involved, Pinfold knew who had killed Werner. Many believed that those involved in her murder had rewarded him for his silence with money and a ticket out of Peking - to Tientsin, Shanghai … perhaps even out of China. However, it is more likely he retreated into a Badlands flophouse or opium den, perhaps with a little hush money, and succumbed to the pipe or the pills, becoming just another unidentified foreign corpse, shorn of all identity and left out for the carts that patrolled the back streets of Peking collecting the cadavers of the destitute and lost.