A Very Good Job for a Swede

E.S. Turner

  • The Fu Manchu Omnibus: Vol. II by Sax Rohmer
    Allison and Busby, 630 pp, £9.99, June 1997, ISBN 0 7490 0222 0

In his first Father Brown story, ‘The Blue Cross’, published in 1910, G.K. Chesterton introduced a ‘colossus of crime’ who seemed to have strayed in from Comic Cuts: a giant Gascon called Flambeau who planted dummy pillar boxes in quiet suburbs in the hope of catching the odd postal order, and who ran a fraudulent dairy company without benefit of cows, his agents merely moving the milk containers outside other people’s doors to the doors of his own customers. Was Chesterton, perhaps, making mock of Professor Moriarty, the ‘Napoleon of crime’ whose empire was not without its Comic Cuts aspects? Neither Flambeau nor Moriarty had anything like the reach or the ambition, of Dr Fu Manchu, the ‘archangel of evil’ who controlled the underworlds and fanatical sects of four continents and was out for world domination. The filmy-eyed mandarin, who surfaced on the bookstalls in 1913, was described by his creator, Sax Rohmer, as ‘the Yellow Peril incarnate in one man’.

The notion of a Yellow Peril (currently the ‘China threat’ or the ‘Asian tiger menace’) first emerged in the 1890s in Germany. By then, of course, there was already a German Peril, as even the British Foreign Office was beginning to admit, having so long kept guard against a French Peril. Other perils abounded. There were intoxicated prophets of Islam, on the Mahdi model, who bore watching. Russia was the source of bomb-carrying nihilists ready to sacrifice all to create a new world; and in that country the secret police were very much alive to the Jewish Peril, conducting pogroms to frustrate the malign plot of world conquest drawn up in the old Jewish cemetery in Prague by the leaders of Israel’s Twelve Tribes, with the Devil in attendance, as disclosed in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

With all these perils, real or imaginary, and with H.G. Wells raising the spectre of Martians invading England in The War of Worlds, who needed a Yellow Peril? In the vulgar view China was a degenerate nation which exported laundrymen to do the world’s dirty washing. If it posed any real threat it was as a source of cheap labour. In the late 19th century, America, not relishing the zeal with which the Chinese had joined in its gold rushes, passed a series of Chinese Exclusion Acts and there were yellow v. white riots in San Francisco. The ‘White Australia’ policy was inspired by Chinese incursions into Australian goldfields. In South Africa, after the Boer War, Lord Milner imported fifty thousand indentured Chinese to work the Rand gold mines; the subsequent row over their mistreatment (and misbehaviour) convulsed British Liberals and gave Winston Churchill the opportunity to protest that ‘slavery’ was a ‘terminological inexactitude’. In Britain such Chinese as were not in the laundry business huddled in places like Limehouse, where they admitted society riff-raff to their opium dens and, according to a social investigator, practised ‘nameless vices which we never mention, but which are not so unfamiliar to our private understandings’.

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