In the first half of the 20th century, Peking paid little attention to Christmas. By then, the resident Chinese were already busy preparing for Lunar New Year. But in the strictly demarcated Legation Quarter, at the heart of the city’s foreign community, yuletide memories were invariably fond. Beyond imposing gates and armed sentries with signs ordering rickshaw pullers to slow down for inspection was a haven of Western architecture, commerce and entertainment: embassies, hospitals, churches and blocks of flats serviced by a profusion of clubs, hotels and bars. It could just as easily have been London, Paris or Washington. Just outside the quarter were the commercial streets of Hatamen and Morrison (now Chongwenmen and Wangfujing, respectively), with the Grand Hôtel de Pékin (now the NUO Hotel Beijing) on the corner of Morrison Street and Changan Avenue. Close by, Houhai and Beihai lakes provided ice-skating opportunities. This was where Christmas was celebrated by the 2,000 to 3,000 foreigners who lived in Peking between the world wars. During Christmas 1931, Peking experienced the worst weather on record. Sub-zero temperatures, dust and snowstorms killed many homeless people in the city’s streets and hutongs. Rail and road links were snowed under and the bad weather spread as far south as Shanghai, Nanjing and Hankou, cities not used to such freezing conditions. Adding to Peking’s isolation were invasion fears after the Japanese annexation of Manchuria, while refugees flooding into the city from the north created a housing crisis. By December 1932, the situation had calmed somewhat and the quarter was preparing for Christmas as usual. It seemed like the whole colony was reading the new Ann Bridge novel, Peking Picnic , which was full of Legation Quarter gossip, decoding its intrigue and affairs. Lit up with festive lights, Hatamen and Morrison streets were crowded, despite the bitter cold. Kierluff’s General Store was thronged with shoppers buying perfume, leather goods and all manner of imported gifts, as was Sennet Frères, the best jeweller in northern China. Families arranged their annual portrait sessions at Hartung’s photography studio and the ladies of the quarter prepared for lavish parties at private homes and embassies by placing themselves in the trusted hands of the Russian émigré beauticians at La Violette’s. Enterprising Chinese stallholders at Dongan Market, on Morrison Street, sold Christmas trees and cheap, locally made decorations and toys for stocking fillers. Christmas holidays in Peking ran long into the New Year. Russian Christmas, on January 7, according to the Gregorian calendar, was celebrated by many, not just the Russian community. Some nationalities took their Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve and others on Christmas Day, either at home or at one of the hotels within or near the quarter. A multi-course sit-down dinner was offered at the Grand Hôtel de Pékin and a day-long Christmas buffet could be had at the Grand Hôtel des Wagons-Lits. Meat-filled sandwiches and beer were laid out on the bar at the Hotel du Nord, located just outside the quarter in the eastern Tartar City and popular with the foreign colony’s young bachelors. During most festive seasons between the wars, Peking received at least three inches of snow, enough to enjoy without the city grinding to a halt. E. Lee’s General Store, on Hatamen Street, at the eastern end of Legation Street (now Dongjiaomin Xiang), stayed open late supplying goods essential to the favourite seasonal pursuit of young foreigners and families – ice skating, a nightly activity in the run-up to Christmas. There were several ice rinks, including Houhai and Beihai lakes, where both foreigners and Chinese skated. Rinks at the YMCA and the French Legation had food and drinks available, coal-fired braziers to warm up next to and staff to mop up the meltwater on the ice and help novice skaters. Locals and parties of younger foreigners preferred the frozen lakes, which were larger and offered secluded, romantic spots for courting couples and space for family winter picnics. Menus of the era show Christmas Day fare in the quarter changed little between the wars. Much of it was sourced locally, including game hunted by the diners themselves in the nearby Western Hills or the mountains of Hebei province. Other items were imported from Europe at great expense or, like caviar, brought in on the Trans-Siberian Express. It was a common lament that turkeys could not be had. Though not entirely unknown (turkeys arrived in China not long after the discovery of the Americas), nobody bothered to farm them as the meat was considered coarse and unpalatable by Chinese diners. Refrigeration methods that would allow turkeys to be shipped didn’t yet exist. So roast turkey and all the trimmings remained a nostalgic memory for the foreign colony. For those born and raised in China, it existed only in the pages of A Christmas Carol . In most well-to-do Legation Quarter homes, Christmas was a grand affair, one that called for dinner jackets and evening gowns. Young Shanghai-born Englishman Denton Welch, who would later become a renowned writer and artist, spent Christmas 1932 in Peking with his Uncle Harry and Aunt Dorothy, who famously maintained a blue theme for the festive season, with lacy blue paper Christmas crackers decorated with dyed-blue feathers, spun-sugar baskets full of blue-hued spun-sugar fruits, blue linen napkins, cobalt-blue glassware and traditional Chinese blue-and-white china. Welch’s Christmas Day recollections match those of other Legation Quarter memoirists. The long lunch would start with aperitifs and hors d’oeuvres of glistening black Siberian caviar on star-shaped toast with little circles of hard-boiled quail’s egg and miniature gherkins, circulated on silver platters by white liveried Chinese servants. The measure of a good table was how many courses were served and how well each was paired with wine, or orange cordial for the children. Christmas soup with locally caught hare was accompanied by sherry, which old China hands would (for some reason long forgotten) pour into the soup rather than drink separately. This would be followed by deep-fried sweet-and-sour mandarin fish blanketed in orange-hued sauce and paired with German hock. Next would come two entrées: a “white entrée” of the popular and traditional bouchée à la reine (literally the “queen’s morsel”), a large vol-au-vent filled with either chicken or ham; and a “brown entrée”, invariably aspic of quails, with the small birds sitting in jellied meat stock. One meat course would not be considered sufficient at Christmas. In many households – and definitely all the English ones – roast beef was served first. If the beef was not of the best quality, so-called “French roast beef”, a sort of curried beef served with rice, might be offered. Older residents particularly liked this dish as it had been staple fare during the 1900 Siege of the International Legations (with donkey famously substituting at times), lending it oddly sentimental overtones. The wine, heavy reds by this point, would continue to flow. A final course of traditional plum pudding and brandy sauce would be accompanied by imported dessert wines and followed by digestifs and cigars for the men. Most memoirs casually note an alarming amount of alcohol being consumed at Christmas. Welch’s aunt and uncle didn’t offer champagne, but many self-respecting Legation Quarter homes did. Those with lesser financial means, such as American journalists Helen and Edgar Snow, opted for Asti Spumante instead. The Snows were a fund of knowledge on how to avoid a heavy vintner’s bill in January. With Christmas coming, the couple would visit a French monastery in the Western Hills that had a profitable sideline in making liqueurs, which the Snows would cheekily decant into empty bottles of more expensive crème de menthe or Cointreau, claiming nobody could tell the difference. In general, Peking followed Shanghai in preferring the stengah (whisky and soda) to the more tropical gin and tonic. English scholar and aesthete Harold Acton lived in a delightful courtyard home at the southern end of long, narrow Gongjian Hutong, near the home of famous Chinese opera performer Mei Lanfang and close to Beihai Park. Acton didn’t mind paying for imported spirits, but Edgar Snow, objecting to the prices, developed a taste for baijiu (which Helen used as an accelerant for lighting fires) and cheap Russian vodka with canned grapefruit juice to temper its petrol-like edge. While many diners were unable to move after a Legation Quarter Christmas meal, others walked off the feast. It was common for younger people and visitors to be whisked off in chauffeured cars to see the sights, the Temple of Heaven and the Forbidden City were particularly atmospheric in the snow. Weather permitting, others would stroll on the Tartar Wall, a popular route for walking, cycling and pony rides. Chinese were forbidden on the wall where it ran directly alongside the quarter, from Qianmen Gate, on what is today Tiananmen Square, all the way east to Hatamen Gate. Hollywood screenwriter Harry Hervey, who wrote the original treatment for the Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong film Shanghai Express (1932) , visited at Christmas in the 1920s. He wrote of the walk: “[…] everybody who was anybody used to ogle each other after sundown. After dark – well, it wasn’t exactly comme il faut , as the French say, to be caught on the wall after dark […]” For most adults, the evening was spent at home with a supper of leftovers. Mahjong, whist and bridge were the preferred evening games while neighbouring children visited each other to compare presents. Hot chocolate was a final bedtime treat for the children. After his Christmas visit, in 1932, Welch left Peking on Boxing Day to return home on the Shanghai Express. In his memoir, Maiden Voyage , written in England a decade later, he recalls driving through the city past “low grey-roofed houses that seemed like large crouching mice”. Of the Legation Quarter, where he had spent almost his entire time in Peking, he wrote: “[…] sentries smacked their rifles […] smooth lawns flowed round clumps of spiky fir trees which half concealed the stout Victorian houses. A wing showed here, an arched verandah there.” A magical place to observe Peking at Christmas was from the rooftop of the Grand Hôtel de Pékin, which opened in 1915 and was elaborately decorated for the holiday, with paper chains running along its seemingly endless corridors and a giant Christmas tree in the lobby. It was a popular stop for tiffin and, later in the day, for post-Christmas shopping cocktails. Within the hotel, Henri Vetch’s French Bookshop and Helen Burton’s The Camel’s Bell emporium of curios, jades, furs and Chinese furniture were popular for last-minute gifts. The rooftop, accessed by two American-made Otis elevators (the first lifts to be installed in Peking), had a spacious garden with a bar, bandstand and dance floor. In winter, braziers provided warmth. During dances, a local radio station would broadcast live from the roof. For years this was the highest rooftop for miles around, offering commanding vistas over the Forbidden City, Legation Quarter and Western Hills. On a good day, so it was claimed, you could see for 80km in every direction. On Christmas Day 1924, a young American woman named Wallis Spencer was staying at the hotel, though her funds were running low. She had fled an abusive husband stationed in Hong Kong with the United States Navy and, after a couple of weeks on the town in Shanghai, was wondering what to do with her life. That year the northern warlords were fighting each other for control of the capital, a mortally sick Sun Yat-sen was trying to hold the country together and there was a major typhoid outbreak in the countryside surrounding Peking. The city was snowed in and shivering in viciously cold winds sweeping down from the Gobi Desert. Yet up on the roof of the Grand Hôtel, beneath decorative strings of coloured lights, the braziers were kept stoked with coal, and guests swaddled in cashmere blankets drank mulled wine. Gazing out across the city contemplating her uncertain future Spencer serendipitously met an old friend in an encounter that would change her life. She bumped into Katherine Rogers, who was sojourning in Peking with her new millionaire husband. Spencer was invited to move in to the Rogers’ sumptuous courtyard home on Shijia Hutong, not far from the quarter. She became a popular fixture at the Peking races, embassy balls and chattering Legation Quarter salons, before leaving China for her native Baltimore. From there, she moved to London and married a man surnamed Simpson, fell in love with the Prince of Wales, who was to become King Edward VIII, and eventually, after his abdication, became the Duchess of Windsor.