PERSONAL NOTE: The Fleming brothers were both journalists: one reporting for The Times, the other for THE SUNDAY TIMES. Peter is less wel known than his brother who created the famous 997 James Bond in the movies…now you know. But Peter spent some time in China and wrote about it in his books. Steve, peace, usa, october 15, 2019 firstname.lastname@example.org blog – https://getting2knowyou-china.com
Peter Fleming, brother of Bond creator Ian Fleming, and his stories on China – it’s the stuff of spy novels
• The Briton was a writer in his own right, whose thirst for adventure took him to far-flung destinations, such as Brazil
• However, it was to China that he would return again and again
Published: 3:00pm, 13 Oct, 2019
It is well documented that
, the British creator of
, drew on his rich trove of experiences as a journalist, an intelligence officer during World War II and his days as a playboy. While Sean Connery may have brought the British action hero to life on screen, and his successors may have made 007 as recognisable a global brand as McDonald’s, the original James Bond books, starting with 1953’s Casino Royale, have sold well over 100 million copies.
Yet it is often overlooked that Ian’s elder brother, Peter, largely overshadowed his pre-war endeavours.
Peter – born in 1907, a year before Ian – and his three siblings were raised on a huge rural estate in Oxfordshire, in South East England, and schooled at Eton. Peter read English at Christ Church, Oxford – where he earned a first-class degree – and emerged into early-20th century England as the blue-blooded poster child of privilege. Yet Peter was less gregarious than Ian and many of his contemporaries. It was adventure, not money, women or booze, that he craved.
Exchanging the trappings of upper-class luxury or the security of a London career for the uncertainty of the road, Peter soon emerged as a bestselling travel writer, enchan¬ting the reading public with his exploits in far-flung desti¬nations. Peter’s autobiographical “hero” is indeed heroic, typifying the archetypal gentleman Briton romping through parts unknown in the twilight years of the empire long before Bond was cooked up in Ian’s books. And as a writer, it was to China that Peter was repeatedly drawn, and the stories he left behind detailing his trips through Japanese-occupied Manchuria were the stuff of spy novels.
Like the Fleming siblings, Manchuria evokes differ¬ent things depending on which Manchuria you are referring to – the ancient realm of competing Tartar kingdoms, the Jurchen-Manchu heartlands that forged the Qing dynasty of China or the Manchukuo of Japanese possession.
What is indisputable is the sense of scale and remote¬ness in a region that is five times the size of Great Britain and sparsely populated. When Peter Fleming rolled through the “wastes of Manchuria” on assignment for The Times newspaper in 1933, he described the landscape as mostly “illimitable light green plains, usually fringed by a formal jagged line of hills […] Duck in great numbers went wheeling up from marsh¬es into an emptiness which found reflection on the earth”.
Little appears to have changed. Today, the view from my train carriage is a spattering of frigid villages that corrupt the wilderness, tumbledown wooden houses backed by animal pens painted in last night’s snow, while a few circular Mongol yurts pepper the plains, their chimneys puffing coal smoke that disappears into the great void.
Eventually the train reaches Manzhouli, a prefecture-level city in Inner Mongolia.
It is perhaps hard to believe now, but China’s ailing rust belt was once sought-after real estate for two rival imperialist powers – the Japanese and the Russians. Each were laying competitive stretches of railway through northeast China. Obscure Manzhouli was brought to life by the Russians as part of the Chinese Eastern Railway, a segment of the fabled Trans-Siberian Railway. Fleming arrived from Russia on the tracks of Tsar Nicholas II’s grand Trans-Siberian Railway project long before it was the thing to do for a generation of travel writers.
It was on the Trans-Siberian and via Manzhouli that Fleming thrice arrived in China during this period, characteristically shunning the well-forged passage of other expats, south, all the way to Hong Kong.
Of Fleming’s first trip, in 1931, little is known, as his bio¬grapher Duff Hart-Davis writes, the assistant literary editor at The Spectator “set off as one of two honorary secretaries delegated by Chatham House to attend a conference being held in China by […] the Institute of Pacific Relations. This was his ostensible reason for the journey, but he planned also to stay with John and Tony Keswick – two brothers working in the family firm of Jardine Matheson in Shanghai – and the trip as a whole was designed to be what he later called a ‘swan’ – a general look round”. Fleming kept a diary throughout, though “he wrote scarcely a word about the trip for publication”.
He doubtless encountered a smaller and presumably less gaudy frontier town than we see today, with its neon-lit Russian hotels and Mongolian karaoke parlours. It was more “a small, windswept village, lying in a vast, but naturally no less windswept plain”, and he soon faced challenges of his own, having arrived just as the Japanese tanks rolled in to claim Manchuria.
Fleming made it out of the Japanese-occupied territory and on to Beijing and Shanghai before eventually leaving China after a more than three-month sojourn. Details may be thin regarding his “swan” but, in retrospect, it resembles some¬thing of a reconnaissance trip, when, as Hart-Davis writes, Fleming “acquired for China an affection that never deserted him”.
In correspondence with a close friend from the time, Fleming writes, “There is the best part of a war going on here, though not the best from my point of view since it achieves the inconvenient but falls short of the spectacular.”
Two years later and months before his bestseller-to-be Brazilian Adventurehad left the printers in 1933, a 26-year-old Fleming was heading eastward again via the Trans-Siberian Railway, this time as special correspondent for The Times.
Before he had even left London, he expressed concern regarding his route. He writes in his travelogue One’s Company: A Journey to China (1934), “the immediate future looked uncertain […] For Manchuli [Manzhouli] is the junction, on the frontier between Russia and Manchuria, on the Trans-Siberian and the Chinese Eastern Railways; and the latter line had recently been announced as closed to traffic, its ownership being in dispute between Moscow and the Japanese-controlled government of Manchukuo.”
Despite a derailment near
, in Russia, and further delays at the Soviet customs house just beyond Manzhouli, the “typically Chinese” bureaucratic affair of being taken to a passport office by horse and cart, Fleming manages to roll into the “brand new kingdom” of Manchukuo with the characteristic cool of a proto-Bond. Pulling into Harbin after 14 days of travel, 10 of them spent on a train, he quips, “I was glad to stretch my legs.”
“with a great deal of not easily definable character”, noting its pervasive “Russian influence” and the eclectic characters who inhabit its crowded streets, from Chinese coolies to white Russian women who have “grown fat on the luxuries of Nostalgia”.
Arriving by high-speed train at Harbin West, I am keen to see if any residue of Fleming’s 1930s Harbin remains. First impressions are not impressive as this hastily scribbled excerpt from my diary expresses: “Every sign-post leans, every step is cracked, every wall is flaking, even the trees struggle to stand up straight.”
I head downtown to Zhongyang Dajieē (Central Avenue), where the old nickname “Little Moscow” is evoked with pleasing rows of European-style buildings shaded in pastel colours, some bearing bulbous onion domes. Though much of the historic heart has been renovated, there are enough authentic old properties in the surrounding area to conjure a real sense of Fleming’s brief stint in Harbin.
What is absent from the scene are the Japanese soldiers nosing through the crowds in armoured cars, maintaining order through what Fleming calls “a reign of terror”.
Author¬ities have since razed almost all the Japanese buildings. Among those that survive are the laboratory and prison where people were kept for experiments by the notorious Unit 731, the Imperial Japanese Army’s covert biological- and chemical-warfare research unit. One portion of the complex is now a museum.
Despite the occupation, Fleming felt far freer than he did in Soviet Russia and was happy to inform people he was on assignment for The Times. He gets about town quite nimbly, swimming in the Songhua River, or exploring the city’s underworld establishments, confiding in his readers that, “in Harbin I entered for the first time the portals of an opium den”.
Jilin province’s capital, Changchun, is known as “China’s Motown” on account of its car industry rather than the R&B scene. The wheels started turning in 1956, when four-tonne, Soviet-style Liberation trucks began rolling off the assembly line at Changchun’s First Automobile Works. Progress was glacial until the party powerful began sweet-talking foreign car companies to sign up for joint ventures in the 80s. Nowadays, First Automobile Works produces Volkswagens and Toyotas as well as some derivative models of its own.
When Fleming visited, Changchun was more of an obscure railroad junction than a Chinese Detroit, though the Japanese had rebranded it Hsinking, or Xinjing, meaning “New Capital”.
“Hsinking is the new capital of Manchukuo, and the youngest capital in the world,” he writes before explaining the logic behind the administrative relocation: “in addition to being more geographically central […] they chose Hsinking […] because it marked the junction of the Chinese Eastern Railway and the South Manchuria Railway”.
I am tasked with navigating an automobile-loving city crowded with SUVs, wired together by straight, dull boulevards. Fleming ascribes to Changchun an “entirely characterless appearance imposed by Japanese influence”. However, today, I find the old Japanese banks and admin¬istrative buildings around People’s Square to be some of the most charming edifices in a city that otherwise looks to have been designed by a child with a Lego set, with seven million souls inhabiting blocky high-rise towers.
Changchun’s chief tourist attraction is the Museum of the Imperial Palace of Manchukuo, where China’s last emperor, Puyi, was installed as a puppet emperor. The entrance to the palace proper is a sturdy Russian-style gate, with pillars at each side supporting an arched roof adorned by two golden dragons and the characters “Xing Yun Men” – the Gate of Good Fortune. It is an architectural juxtaposi¬tion that hints at the strange melange to come, a campus of buildings forged in the styles of Russia, China and Japan. But the overall effect is not inharmonious. In fact, the outdoor pool, private racetrack and landscaped gardens would make an ideal hideout for a Bond villain: remote, luxurious and exotic. The principal building is the Tongde Hall, which has been converted from an old salt-tax collection office, which was nicknamed the “salt palace” by cynical locals. It was here, in what Fleming calls “the office of the Salt Gabelle”, that he managed to wrangle an audience with none other than Puyi himself.
Though he writes their meeting off as a blatant exercise in Japanese propaganda, he is more forgiving of Puyi, who “is a tall young man of twenty-nine, much better-looking and more alert than you would suppose from his photo¬graphs […] He has very fine hands and a charming smile”.
After recounting their bland and diplomatic discourse, Fleming pens a poignant synopsis of the situation he has intruded upon in Manchuria: “Puyi is a new line in rulers. Disinherited from an Empire, he now finds himself the nominal head of a new state which once formed part of that Empire. He is a figurehead, owing his position to an alien and – for most of his fellow-countrymen – a hated race […] Officially their actions are the expression of his will, officially he is the master. But actually he is at best no more than a privileged spectator.”
Travelling southwest to Shenyang, or Mukden – the ancient capital of Manchuria and homeland of the Aisin Gioro clan that founded the Qing dynasty of which Puyi was a descendant – Fleming is no less disparaging. “Here again an unhappy compromise between East and West drains the place of character,” he writes of a city he finds “nondescript” and “suburban”.
Remarkably, despite the wars and decades of political turmoil, much of old Shenyang survives from Fleming’s time, from the Japanese-built railway station to a spatter¬ing of early-20th century banks, hotels and red-brick office blocks known collectively as the Zhongshan Road Historic District. This ghostly quarter leads right up to a giant bronze Mao Zedong statue, the chairman raising a hand before the hallmarks of foreign imperialism.
Located on this historic strip is the Liaoning Hotel, where I find lodgings for the night. Built by the Japanese in 1927, the property still bears all the retro trimmings, including revolving door, marble floors, chandeliers, a winding wood staircase and vintage lifts. Fleming stayed here when it was called the Yamato Hotel, at the invitation of a “charming Japanese official”, though the only other guests were two Americans – a freelance journalist and a lecturer.
They are invited to a consular party on the hotel’s roof, where they witness first-hand a bombing raid.
“Suddenly a siren cried, intolerably shrill. All over the city lights went out. Darkness seemed to well up out of the bottom of the streets, levelling the roofs; the features of the place were flattened out […] Presently a plane, two planes, appeared […] An anti-aircraft gun chattered in the suburbs, and as the plane passed overhead, dropping an occasional streamer on the city’s vitals, a machine gun on the roof beside us opened spasmodic fire.”
The attack is faced with Bond-like bravery, no sense of trepidation is hinted at and a few pages later cocksure Fleming is attending a geisha party. There is no mention of whether he was wearing a tux.
Perhaps Fleming’s low opinion of Shenyang was informed by the fact that he spent much of his time in the company of Mukden’s expat community, where “men who would be intolerable in their native suburb become, by virtue of their limitations, fascinating subjects for the study in the compounds of Cathay”.
Seeking out Shenyang expats similar to those with whom Fleming wined and dined proves a fruitless quest. Even at “Western” bars, I meet only haughty hip young Shenyangers sipping cocktails, clad in the finest faux-European brands and fondling their smartphones.
Though News From Tartary – Fleming’s 1936 follow-up to One’s Company – begins in Beijing, he passed through Manchuria en route to the Chinese capital again in 1935, a journey that was recounted in 1952 as A Forgotten Journey. After World War II he wouldn’t visit China again, he would go on to write historic studies of East Asia, including The Siege at Peking (1959), an account of the Boxer rebellion of 1900, and Bayonets to Lhasa (1961), which described the British invasion of Tibet in 1903-04.
While brother Ian worked for The Sunday Times, dis¬¬ap¬pearing each year for three months to his Jamaican beach¬side residence, Goldeneye, to pen the wildly success¬ful Bond books that Peter privately deemed “tosh”, the latter’s literary output was comparatively modest.
Fleming “had no conventional ambition”,Hart-Davis says of the travel writer’s eventual move to rural obscurity in Nettlebed, Oxfordshire. “He wanted, in short, to become a literary squire, and he cultivated this aim with marked success for the rest of his life. His sense of duty was private rather than public – to his family and his land, rather than to the State – and now at Nettlebed he sought to work it out.”
Riding the bus through the beguiling English county of Oxfordshire, I can’t help but recall the opening lines of One’s Company, in which Fleming waxes lyrical about the fair England he is about to depart. “Cattle were converging on the shade of the trees, swinging their tails against the early summer flies with a dreamy and elegant motion. Beside a stream an elderly man was putting up his rod in an atmosphere of consecration […] Downs rose hazily in the distance. England was looking her best.”
His love of home deeply rooted, after World War II, during which he had served in the Far East, Fleming turned down top London jobs in favour of managing the family estate in and around Nettlebed, which is still as quaint and unhurried as any village in this picture-post¬card corner of Britain. Joyce Grove, the Jacobean family home purchased by Fleming’s grandfather, Robert, and later bequeathed to Fleming, is now a care home run by the Sue Ryder National Charity.
A school-turned-antique-shop-and-cafe remembers Fleming on a wall plaque. It is a short distance from Nettlebed’s St Bartholomew’s Church, where many of the Fleming clan are buried, including Peter. Moss has claimed some of the words engraved on his headstone, though I can still distinguish the first verse of a poem:
“He travelled widely in far places;
Wrote, and was widely read.
Soldiered, saw some of danger’s faces,
Came home to Nettlebed.”
Thomas Bird is an itinerant writer concerned with travel, the environment and art in China and Southeast Asia. He likes rock n roll, craft beer, scuba diving and the teachings of Zhuangzi.