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Murders of Old China

Narrated by: Paul French
Length: 8 hrs and 32 mins
Categories: History, World
4.5 out of 5 stars (27 ratings)

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Summary

One country rich in history, 12 unsolved murders. Reopening the archives on China’s long forgotten past.  

Why did a remote police station, built to combat pirates, find itself at the centre of a murder-suicide after a constable went on the rampage? How did Chinese gangsters avoid conviction after serving a deadly dinner to Frenchtown’s elite? And why is the Foreign Office still withholding a key document to solving a murder that took place in the Gobi desert in 1935?

By delving deep into 12 of China’s most fascinating murder cases, Murders of Old China delivers a fast-paced journey through China’s early 20th-century history - including its criminal underbelly. 

Uncovering previously unknown connections and exposing the lies, Paul French queries the verdict of some of China’s most controversial cases, interweaving true crime with China’s chaotic and complicated history of foreign occupation and Chinese rival factions. 

An illuminating new perspective on China’s murder archives, perfect for fans of Peter Frankopan, Simon Sebag Montofiore and Simon Schama.

©2019 Paul French (P)2019 Audible, Ltd

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True Crime, History and the world of Old China

What I really enjoyed about this Audiobook is the way the author narrates the story as if he were sat beside you having a dram whilst lounging in a comfortable leather chair in front of a log fire. He adds the smallest details, so in a sense it becomes almost like a vigorous discussion on various murderous scandals. Twelve true stories of violence, betrayal and murder that took place in the 20th century.

A Very Awkward Death in Tibet (1907)
The first big murder case tried by the American court for China in Shanghai. It was an attempt by the POTUS (Roosevelt) to extend American justice and punishments to its US citizens in China. A white foreigner killed a Chinese national. It was unheard of in times of white supremacy and patriarchy that a white man would stand trial with the possibility of death.

The Death of a Rickshaw Man (1908)
In this case a white man is tried by a jury. Once again a white foreigner kills a Chinese national. This time a British national, which meant it even made the news in Britain. The accused denied the charge and claimed self-defense. No wonder the Chinese thought the deck was stacked against them when having to abide by foreign rules in their own country.

Trafficked to her Death - Eliza Shapera (1907)
In a time when rumours of White Slavery were abundant. When gossips spoke of white women being tricked into prostitution in foreign countries. The real outrage caused by the thought that non-whites were having sex with white women. The body of a European woman was found - a prostitute.

A Deadly Rampage in Tai-O (1918)
It's safe to say that not all the evidence or factors leading up to this tragedy were reviewed at the time. Colonialists being reluctant or unable to take issues such as inequality, racism into account and the corruption in this remote location. There is no doubt about victim or perpetrator, but perhaps the reasons for the rampage would have shed a different light on the matter.

The Irritating Betram Lennox Simpson (1930)
French wonders how Simpson managed to attract so many enemies in so many different fractions. Perhaps his part in the looting, which the in China born Simpson always denied. His machinations and loud protestations both written and vocal made him a contentious person to everyone.

A Deadly Dinner in Shanghai's Gangster Mansion (1932)
Shanghai represented the power position of France that equally their rival Britain. Shanghai was often known as the Paris of the East or the Whore of the Orient. The Green Gang was a well-known criminal operation both in China and overseas. The leader or crime boss of this gang at the time, Big-Eared Du invited the most senior and important French officials to a dinner at his fortress like mansion. It became the most vicious of lessons in authority and power plays.

Slain by His Best Friend - Two Tragic Deaths in Shanghai (1932)
Did a personal dispute really cause one man to kill the other over something as trivial as a job promotion? Why did the two friends end up in such a contentious relationship? Or was the disagreement that ended in the death of one of them born in a more base emotion like greed?

Gareth Jones - The Man Who Knew Too Much (1935)
The death of the investigative journalist looked like another kidnapping gone wrong by bandits out for quick profit. However his investigations appeared to have hit a goldmine when it came to the political pulse of that era. He was an intelligent young reporter with an interest in current affairs, an interest that probably led to his death.

The Shanghai Long Drop: The Case of The Sikh They Couldn't Hang (1935)
A straightforward crime and conviction - a death sentence. The story really starts after the death sentence is pronounced. The guilty man was transported to a hellhole, six thousand prisoners in a space equipped for two thousand prisoners. One could argue that physics play a big role in this story and perhaps not 'luck' per se.

The Good Doctor Colbert - Wife Poisoner? (1936)
Interesting how poisoning was considered an alternative to ridding oneself of a wife or husband. Divorce, especially for women, was synonymous with scandal. This is also the only story where the victim is actually able to watch the trial herself. It was a case that caught the attention of not only China, but also the US.

Who Killed The Baron of Frenchtown (1941)
A murder, an assassination that remains unsolved to this day. A murder with motives that draw from long before a pre-war time and culminate in wartime. The Baron opposed the new regime and wrote favourably about the prior one. He was highly critical of the way the powers that be let crime run rampant. His opinions may have made him a potential target.

The Death of a Shanghai Gold Dealer (1947)
As an East meets West city, Shanghai became a melting pot of refugees, peasants looking for a better life and ex-soldiers. Eight long years of war and occupation had left their mark on the city that once was its own jewel in the crown of China. Greed and coming to the attention of people who were interested in making a profit to restart their lives back home was the downfall of the Gold Dealer.

I think what shines through in the majority of these old cases is just how oppressive and unjust colonialism was. It's really no surprise that there is a general sense and feeling of mistrust towards predominantly white regimes that believed themselves to be superior above all others, especially to non-whites. Was there really any justice for victims of crime when the victim was a native, and indeed if the roles were reversed the punishments were harsher for non-whites.

This is a must-listen for readers or listeners who enjoy true crime and like their crime to be factual rather than fictional. French does an excellent job of melding history, politics, social structures and culture together with well-researched crimes that have been buried and forgotten with the passing of time.

French narrates with passion and power, and opens the door to the world and captivating history of China, albeit just a small part His voice draws readers in as he tells the tragic stories of debt, theft, abuse, violence and murder. He brings in all of the documented evidence that is available and gives life to the men, women and children who have become mere blips in history.

6 people found this helpful

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Fascinating historical true crime

Paul French’s Murders of Old China covers the first half of the twentieth century. It tells the story of twelve murders where foreigners were the accused – and sometimes the victims too – and through them, provides an insight into the complex nature of relations in the country at the time.

In the opening chapter, French gives some context. In the aftermath of the Opium Wars, Britain imposed ‘treaty port’ status on a number of areas including Shanghai. This meant British citizens could only be tried by a British court established in China. Other Western nations had their own courts.

This brought to the fore the whole issue of justice for different nationalities and the way that Chinese people were disadvantaged in their own country when it came to crimes that involved both foreign and Chinese citizens.

This was also a time when people of all nationalities and none could come to Shanghai without showing any papers (European Jews and White Russians who were stripped of citizenship came, but then were unable to leave). It was a place of refuge for some but it was also a place rich in opportunity for traffickers and people leaving behind their criminal pasts.

It took me a while to get into the book but when I did I was hooked. It’s quite a different experience from, say, Serial or West Cork. Each chapter is about half an hour long so, although French has uncovered new information about the cases and the backgrounds of the protagonists, you don’t have the same twists and reversals as those longer form stories. However, taken together they build a fascinating picture because they illustrate different aspects of China and the people who made their home there.

Many of the crimes take place in Shanghai but other places feature including Hong Kong, Tibet and the Gobi Desert. They range across classes and nationalities: from the kidnap of a British investigative journalist with political connections, to the death of a sex worker whose nationality and even name can’t be confirmed with any certainty, from an American high society doctor accused of poisoning his wife in a story worthy of Agatha Christie, to the gruesome story of a Sikh police officer whose execution didn’t go to plan. They highlight both what was unique about this period and judicial system, and what makes it like crime everywhere – brutal acts motivated by sex, money and power.

The stories also highlight how the international courts undertook their difficult task. They wanted to be seen to be administering justice but there were also strong vested interests in protecting their citizens, as well as the racist and imperialist motives that underpinned their very existence.

Murders of Old China finishes with an interview of Paul French by his producer, where he talks about how he came to the stories and his career-long focus on this period across his journalism, books and broadcasting. (As someone who flits between interests I’m always intrigued by that level of commitment.) French explained how online archives and search methods have brought him evidence which would not been available to the courts at the time even if the political will had been there. He also said that because of his specialism in this subject he is often contacted by people with information about family members who were in China at that time.

French points out how China is a key part of all our lives, yet we know little about it and do not routinely learn about it at school. He expressed his hope that in offering entertaining stories about the country he will also help to bring us some more knowledge and insight. I certainly feel I got a deeper understanding of China in this period and it made me want to learn more.
*
I received a copy of Murders of Old China from the author.

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Disappointing

This had the potential of being a really good book
But the narration is terrible if the Constant swallowing doesn’t drive you nuts the long exaggerated pausing will
I did listen to the end and felt that the last two chapters could have been left out as they added nothing new to the book which had already used to many google searches as research and not enough Actual researching in it

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Too much swallowing and breathing into mic

The content was intriguing, but the narrator (author too I believe) REALLY needs to stop smacking his lips and tongue and swallowing into the mic. It's gross and distracting... or the production should at least edit it out. otherwise he has a good voice and his emphasis/delivery is quite good.

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Old China never sounded so good

Really enjoyed this, almost like a podcast series with each murder just shy of an hour. Although self-contained, a distinct historical thread (several actually) ties the whole lots together. I listened to them each time I went jogging, I was averaging about one murder per jog which was pretty good going. Keeps me young.

If you've read Paul French's other China crime books you'll already know how he he's able to bring alive interwar Beijing and Shanghai. His narration is excellent too - London English with a hint of Bob Hoskins.

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Old China’s History

Murders Of Old China by Paul French: An Audible Original Release

Hello again everyone! What can I talk about this time? I keep on meaning to talk about something more light hearted…but every time I try…something odd or outside of my usual interests grabs my attention.

As you might be able to guess from my introduction this time around, I’m not the usual reader or listener for true crime books. I am a fan of Thomas Grant’s true crime style legal case books – Court Number One being a personal favourite – but they aren’t part of my usual ‘to listen’ pile. I found out about the existence of Murders Of Old China thanks to marketing on Audible’s part but before I review the release let’s discuss the Audible Originals.

The Audible Originals are audio releases that are exclusive to Audible and Amazon and in most cases are at least partially funded by Audible themselves. Examples include a radio drama style adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s Unseen Academicals, the adaptation of Jeff Wayne’s musical version of War Of The Worlds that was my very first review on The Orkney News and an audiobook release of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein narrated by Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens which I personally highly recommend and may well be the subject of a review someday.

Murders Of Old China is an audiobook which discusses twelve different cases in pre-communist or late period colonial China from 1907 to 1947. Several of these cases take place in Shanghai although we do have some in other locations such as Tai-O – a very rural area isolated from Hong Kong – Tibet and The Gobi Desert. French attempts to interweave the true crime investigation and discussion – including uncovering some documents and pieces of information unknown to the original murder enquiries – with information lost to time.

Much about ‘old’ China has been buried under modern history and this audiobook does a rather enjoyable job of melding and mixing history of China as it was then with the culture of the time. As well as the murders themselves and how that influences the verdicts in those cases where a verdict was handed down. Be it the murder of a rickshaw man in 1908 or a Tibetan monk in 1907 or the case of Gareth Jones ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ in 1935. The complete release is a very gripping audio and I will admit that when I reached the end I felt like I had to track down some other audio releases by French. The release ends with French and his producer discussing Murders of Old China and the author answering some questions regarding his writing and research process and various other interesting queries.

The audiobook is both written and read by Paul French and he does so with enthusiasm. At times it feels more like a discussion with a friend over a dram by the fire. You can tell from his narration he is fascinated by the subject and finds the cases under discussion utterly enthralling. Which makes sense for an ‘Old China Hand.’ An Old China Hand being the name for those foreigners who have significant experience of China – and in the majority of cases – have lived in China for a substantial period of time with the time factor being very important to the moniker. His narration utterly gripped me as I listened and I actively struggled to put the book down. Quite honestly? I hope that future audiobooks by French are also narrated by him as his interest is infectious. If any of my listeners have any interest in China or True Crime as a genre? Then I highly recommend this audiobook.

If you aren’t invested in the genre or history I can’t promise it will grab you like it did me but I still recommend taking a chance on it. When I approached the end I honestly felt quite sad it was over. If that isn’t an endorsement I don’t know what is!

In conclusion I hope some of my readers will join me in opening the vaults of China’s murder inquiries, be it the death of a Shanghai gold dealer, the irritating Bertram Lennox Simpson or the Sikh they couldn’t hang. Old China has much left to teach the world and I’m glad I listened. Now…what will I review next?

Sayonara!

Nephrite

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Wow

Amazing book, it really grabs you. This is not just a book about murders, its a fascinating look at a world that many of us know very little about. Well done to the author.

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Fascinating

I don't read True Crime, in fact, I believe this is the first I ever listened to/read. I am a bit on an Asian kick at the moment and the reason I picked this one up, was that promised a view of history through the lense of some notorious murder cases. And it did that. I certainly had not been aware of many of the things that were discussed and it gave me an idea what type of books or rather what bits of Chinese history in the early parts of the 20th century, I want to find out more about. If you like podcasts, you will certainly like this as it is essentially a series of 12 podcasts. My husband has now started to listen to it while drawing and he is also enjoying it.