A Dance With the Dragon: The Vanished World of Peking's Foreign Colony
by Julia Boyd
Anyone with adult memories of European life in pre-war China is now - at the very least - in their 90s, and first-hand recollections of personally lived experience during that time are almost extinct. Imaginative recreations gleaned from these sources are all that can help us understand a very different time and place.
This book vividly explores the lives of Western expatriates in the Chinese capital from the time the city opened up to foreigners (after the Treaty of Tientsin) until the communist assumption of power in 1949. Well-researched and sympathetically written, Julia Boyd mostly avoids the sneering tone that often mars contemporary works of this kind.
To be best understood and appreciated, former times, and the people who lived in them, must be explored and described on their own terms rather than viewed through the sometimes-sanctimonious prism of our own.
Boyd has skilfully incorporated memoir accounts with diaries and letters. The picture of life she builds up charms and beguiles, and is enough to make any contemporary visitor to the city feel bereft for what has been lost to runaway modernity. Those foreigners who went to live in Beijing were mostly drawn by the compelling aesthetic of the place; a gently fading, beautiful former capital city where living costs were low, moral standards appealingly flexible, and personal reinvention easy to achieve.
Besides legions of aesthetes such as Harold Acton and Cecil Beaton, chancers abounded. Probably the most extraordinary was Helen Burton, who for decades operated The Camel Bell, a curio shop in the Peking Hotel. Originally from North Dakota, she arrived in China after a stint in Honolulu, swiftly saw an opening in the tourist market and never looked back. As Boyd shrewdly notes, 'In Helen Burton's seamlessly entrepreneurial world, there was little distinction between home and business, friend and client, family and employee.' Not a lot has changed in 80 years; China's foreign communities continue to attract - and help create - many contemporary Helen Burtons.
Another characteristic Beijing figure was Henri Vetch, who established the Librairie Francaise in the same building. As well as a bookseller, Vetch was a successful publisher. He moved to Hong Kong after the communist takeover and helped establish the Hong Kong University Press.
While the communist takeover provides a suitably dramatic end-date, concluding the book there misses a fascinating post-script opportunity; a smaller foreign community persisted in Beijing long after 1949, and only finally evaporated during the Cultural Revolution. Described by former British ambassador Sir Percy Cradock as 'the twilight brigade', these stay-behinds provided continuous links between the free-wheeling interwar period and the early years of the People's Republic.