Herne Hill #130 (Spring 2015)

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THE TALE OF Herne Hill’s Sax Rohmer and...



his ‘yellow peril incarnate in one man’ was the creation of Arthur Henry Ward, born in Birmingham in 1883 to Irish immigrant parents. He changed his name to Arthur Scarsfield Ward and wrote under a number of pen-names, the best known of which is Sax Rohmer, which he said meant ‘roaming blade’. Sax Rohmer claimed to have started work in a bank, at very much the same time as P.G. Wodehouse, and both started writing for Titbits and The Globe, before abandoning bank work to pursue careers as writers. While Wodehouse did work briefly for the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, they have no record of Sax Rohmer under the various names he might have used. Christopher Frayling describes meetings with his widow, who called herself Elizabeth Sax Rohmer and lived in Lewes. She told him of their comfortable life in suburban Herne Hill where the immensely successful author of the Fu Manchu stories posed for publicity photographs in a silk robe, smoking a very ordinary pipe. His wife described him as ‘a gentle dreamer’ but also said that she locked him in his room to write. Between 1912 and 1959, Rohmer published 13 Fu Manchu novels, many of which were filmed. Though his full list of fiction titles is 72 and he wrote three


Dr Frances Wood reviews Christopher Frayling’s The Yellow Peril: Dr Fu Manchu and the rise of Chinaphobia

non-fiction works, one with George Robey, one with Little Tich and The Romance of Sorcery (1914), a collection of anecdotes about famous practitioners, and four stage plays. He started, however, in 1908 with lyrics for music hall songs including such ‘oriental’ titles as The Camels’ Parade: a desert arabesque, Aboo Tabah, The Pigtail of Li Fang Fu and Orange Blossoms: a Chinese tale. Tit-Bits, and other popular magazines to which Sax Rohmer contributed, included a quantity of titillating articles on sordid and exotic Limehouse and opium, whether consumed in Hong Kong or London. However, Frayling’s most striking revelation, arrived at through his intense and impressive survey of Sax Rohmer’s writing and the types of work he produced, is that ‘Fu Manchu was born in the Edwardian music hall. He is an indestructible pantomime villain…’ Apart from his caricatured evil, worthy of the wicked ‘off with his head’ Emperor or the fiendish Chinese wizard in Aladdin, it is indeed true that in his various escapes from threatening situations, stage effects such as trap-doors and thunderous fire-works

Herne Hill-Spring 2015

are often involved, as well as Houdini-like wrigglings from ropes and chains. Another relevant aspect of the Edwardian music hall was the popularity of ‘Chinese’ conjurors. Fu Manchu’s green eyes were described at length by Dr Petrie, ‘…they were narrow and long, very slightly oblique, and of a brilliant green. But their unique horror lay in a certain filminess (it made me think of the membrane nictitans in a bird) which, obscuring them as I threw open the door, seemed to lift as I actually passed the threshold, revealing the eyes in all their brilliant iridescence.’ As many have noted, green eyes are not at all ‘stereotypical Chinese’. As late as 1959, the year that Sax Rohmer died, P.G. Wodehouse had Bertie Wooster complain about his Aunt Dahlia in A Few Quick Ones: ‘This has shocked me, Jeeves. I wouldn’t have thought such an idea would ever have occurred to her. One could understand Professor Moriarty, and possibly Dr Fu Manchu, thinking along those lines, but not a wife and mother highly respected in Market Snodsbury, Worcestershire.’ l This is an extract from ‘Made in Herne Hill’ Times Literary Supplement, 9 January 2015 by Frances Wood. l Sax Rohmer features in Herne Hill Personalities, published by the Society and available from us online.