‘Beware the Yellow Peril…’

…a turn of phrase which is politically unacceptable today – and for a good reason.

At the age of sixteen I spent over a year with my paternal grandmother and her unmarried sister in the biblical town of Nazareth, where we lived in two large connecting rooms with high ceilings but no kitchen facilities to speak of.

The lavatory was at the end of the garden, which was a real inconvenience especially at night during the winter months. Given also that we had no electricity, darkness was a problem we had to cope with the best we could. But life in general was pleasant enough and I spent most of my days reading books under the shade of a large pine tree which became my luxury place of repose, a breezy shelter from the burning sun during the summer months.

I read avidly any books I could get hold of, in particular by the American novelist Pearl S. Buck who wrote about China, where she spent a great deal of her time, a country that I longed to visit.

The memories of China as conveyed in her books stayed with me ever since.

Four and a half decades later my dream was to materialise when I embarked on my first trip to mainland China with Shanghai as my initial port of call.

This largely-built European city was as fascinating as I dared to imagine. My wife and I stayed at the Peace Hotel, constructed and completed in 1929 by the Sasoon family of Iraq and where Noël Coward wrote his play Private Lives.

Reading last Saturday’s newspaper I came across an item of news reminding me of that first visit to Shanghai. The story simply reported that ‘the Alcatraz of the Orient’, a notorious British-built prison that was once the largest on earth, is to be deactivated and turned into a giant business complex as part of Shanghai’s astonishing mutation into a twenty-first-century mega city.

Founded in 1903 by British authorities and also nicknamed ‘The City of the Doomed’, Tilanqiao is the oldest prison still operating in China – but with Shanghai’s population expected to rise to thirty million by the end of this decade and the downtown jail occupying valuable land, officials view Tilanqiao as an obstacle to development. More than a century after admitting its first inmates the prison is set to close.

Tilanqiao jail

‘We will keep what is worth keeping but urban renovation and development is the inevitable trend,’ said Ruan Yisan, an academic from the city’s Tongji University which is part of the team planning the prison’s conversion.

Planning officials have promised to preserve the prison’s ‘taste and flavour’ while transforming its three hundred and fifty-eight thousand square feet into a ‘multi-purpose complex housing business, culture and commercial official buildings,’ the Shanghai Daily reported.

Historians, however, feel the closure will destroy another chapter of Shanghai’s rich history. Han Sheng, a senior political adviser, has called on Tilanqiao’s developers to preserve the prison along the lines of the Tower of London.

‘We must think about how many of the city’s unique memories we have lost already and prevent this from happening again,’ Professor Hans told the global Times newspaper. ‘A city without a soul is a dead city.

Tilanqiao, which still houses about three thousand inmates, began life as the Ward Street Gaol – a British-run facility for criminals operating in Shanghai’s international concessions.

During the thirties, when this booming port was known as the Paris of the East, Tilanqiao was the world’s largest prison with more than six hundred and fifty thousand prisoners divided into six cell blocks and two thousand nine hundred and twenty-six cells, according to the historian Frank Dikotter. Overcrowded and often violent, the ‘City of the Doomed’ suffered frequent outbreaks of influenza and tuberculosis. But it did have a modern execution chamber where victims’ bodies would drop through a trapdoor into the mortuary.

A 1937 article in the Shanghai Times, unearthed by professor Dikotter, painted Tilanqiao as a den of iniquity housing ‘several thousand erstwhile opium consumers, hypodermic syringe wielders and purveyors of noxious red pills’.

In 1949 Tilanqiao was taken over by Chairman Mao’s communists who waged war on religion and consigned many of Shanghai’s leading Roman Catholics to the prison, including the city’s then bishop Ignatius Kung Pin-Mei. By the 1990s the prison had acquired another nickname, ‘The Monkey House’, and was filled with a mix of thieves, rapists, murderers, drug traffickers, petitioners and political prisoners.

A former British inmate who spent time there during the 90s and declined to be named, said prisoners were split into ‘work brigades’ and were forced to produce golf hats and cooking aprons for export.

Those who broke the rules were taken to the ‘punishment wing’ where they were handcuffed and had a grizzly medieval falconer’s hood placed over their heads.

Guards also used electric cattle prods to punish offenders.

The former inmate said, ‘They would often shave their heads, slap them about a bit and get the cattle prods out – but not in public. It used to interfere with the radio, you could hear it crackling. They would stick a wet cloth in their mouths and do it.’

Feng Zhenghu, a Chinese lawyer held in Tilanqiao from 2001 to 2003, said he had been tortured at the jail, which he described as ‘the most dictatorial place’. ‘I was forced to sit on an eight-centimetre-wide stool from 5am to 9pm every day as punishment for refusing to confess,’ he said.

Resident of the Alley community surrounding the prison recounted equally grizzly tales of prison life. ‘I heard there was one prisoner who tried to escape in the sixties by hiding under a truck,’ said sixty-six-year-old Yan Yingen, a retired special forces soldier whose garden backs onto one of the prison’s electrified perimeter fences. ‘He was caught and executed on the spot.’

Mr Yan said local people welcomed the prison’s closure and their community’s probable transformation into a car park. ‘We really want to be relocated – it is the only way for us poor to have a better life’.

China is certainly the next big dominant power in the world. Cities like Beijing and particularly Shanghai are mushrooming at such a pace it defies logic. What about Hong Kong also?

The might of China is just coming to the surface, as predicted by political pundits of the early twentieth century and popularised by William Randolph Hearst newspapers.

We must take heed and adapt our thinking to the new realities. Otherwise, trailing behind this enormous giant of a nation will cost us dearly.

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