— Peking (Пекин) ~ 1926-1928 / Peiping ~ 1929-1933

Peking [December 19, 1926 – December 18, 1928]

Temple of Heaven

Click to enlarge

Peking has a history which stretches back 3000 years and counting; it’s been the capital of North China then the whole of China for around 850 years.

French missionaries gave Peking its name over 400 years ago but, between 1928 and 1949, it was known as Peiping or «Northern Peace».

There’s a bit of confusion and to-ing and fro-ing with the name but I hope the following explanation makes sense …

Peiping (aka Beiping in modern pinyin), was restored as the city’s name in 1928 by the Kuomintang following their reconquest of Peking from the warlords.

It was called Peiping because the word “jing” means “capital”, therefore Beijing would mean «Northern Capital». The Kuomintang government was in Nanjing (now meaning «Southern Capital» and previously called Nanking) and they wanted to show that Peking was not the capital of China and that Peking’s warlord government was illegitimate.

In 1937, the occupying Japanese renamed it Peking but with their surrender in 1945, the Nationalist Government restored it to Beiping. However, when the Kuomintang lost to the Communists, they changed the name back to Peking in 1949.

Then in 1958, during the 5th Session of the 1st National People’s Congress, it was changed to «Beijing» within China.

Oh my God … talk about confusing  😛

Hôtel de Pékin

Hôtel de Pékin (Click to enlarge)

This city has more than 3000 years of history and at its heart is the Forbidden City, home to both the Ming and Qing emperors. There are about 7000 hutongs (alleys) scattered throughout and these are formed by rows of siheyuan, meaning «quadrangle», which was the name for the courtyard houses which doors opened up onto the hutong.


Click to enlarge

Because of its position, Peking has always suffered from seasonal dust storms so I’d imagine that back in the 1920s, the city would have layers of dust on the buildings which must have given it an eerie and almost ghostly appearance. It must have been such a fantastic place back in the late 1920s/early 1930s! There were many pailous in the city.  In fact, there were 57 according to records of old Peking.  A pailou (aka paifang) is a decorative archway which could be made of wood, brick or stones. The roofs were covered with coloured tiles with mythical beasts and they usually had an inscription on the middle beam.

They were usually built at crossroads of main thoroughfares, shrines, temples, tombs and mausoleums, as well as government offices, at bridges or in parks.

At the time of writing, one well-preserved pailou is still standing in front of the main entrance to the Summer Palace Park. Built in the 19th century, it has four columns forming three arches and seven roofed ornamental units on top. Inscribed in front and at the back are two Chinese classical characters each, succinctly summing up the beauty of the hill and the lake in the park. 176 golden dragons and 36 golden phoenixes are painted on the pailou in beautifully rich colours.

Peking is surrounded by mountains and hills full of marble and granite quarries and because there are so many different varieties of stone,the place is full of beautifully carved stone temples, arches, statues and the like.

1926 – George in Peking (Click to enlarge)

With all the beautiful architecture, the Forbidden City in its centre and a maze of these hutongs must have made the place a most intriguing and fascinating place to visit.


George at 17 (Click to enlarge)

George came from Mukden in December 1926 so although I’m sure the weather and conditions at the time would have been similar to Mukden, I wonder if he was impressed with Peking or was it a case of “same old, same old”?!

He played at the Alcazar, and I found a reference to the place in a book called «Dragon Hunter», a story about Roy Chapman Andrews and the Central Asiatic Expeditions .   In it he says …

«Usually about three o’clock in the morning 1 telephoned Hedin and Black. We would meet at the “Alcazar” or “International,” night cafes of somewhat dubious reputation, have scrambled eggs, dance with the Russian girls, and then go home to bed. I woke only in time to bathe, have luncheon about three o’clock, and ride or play polo.»

Railway Station

Railway Station (Click to enlarge)

I was especially amazed to read about the International, as that’s where George played the second time he came to Peiping!  I wonder what the term «dubious reputation» meant in those days? Were they both seedy dives, places where you could slink in and puff on an opium pipe? Or were they just places which most of the well shod European couples didn’t go to, just types like the poor displaced Russians?

Knowing George, I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have wanted to play in any dives owned by gangsters but in those days, perhaps you just had to play where you were fortunate enough to get a gig!

Wondering how George would have got around, I read that the first electric tram routes were laid out in late 1924 and they issued in a new modern era when they first arrived.

The trams were known colloquially as «dangdangche» (che being the Chinese word for car) due to the sound coming from the bell hanging in front of the tram.


Tram lines on Su Pailo St Click to enlarge

I guess if he didn’t walk, he would have hopped on a “dangdangche” to get around! LOL! 😀


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Peiping [November 1, 1929 – May 1, 1933]

There was a calling card which I found among George’s photos and the address – 10 Kuei Chia Chang – printed on it.

I searched the Internet for that street and I’m pretty sure that the name in pinyin is Kui Jia Chang and it was a hutong near the Fox Tower.

The thing which amazed me even more when I researched what else I could find out about this street was the fact that it was well known as «Armour Factory Alley» in those days.



I’d read a book called «Murder in Peking» several years ago. It was about the brutal death of an English teenager called Pamela Werner in 1937 and she and her father lived in Armour Factory Alley.


George at the front door of his siheyuan

Kui jia chang hutong dates back to the Ming Dynasty and in the 1920s would have consisted of a long line of siheyuans. It’s been said that a lot of foreigners lived there in the 1930s, an overflow from the Foreign Legation, and one was Edgar Snow and his wife Helen Foster. He was living just a few doors down from the Werner house while he was writing his book, «Red Star Over China».

As he was there with his mother and stepfather, I would imagine that they hired the siheyuan at number 10 and lived there for the full four years.

George’s gig this time around was at Hotel du Nord, which was situated just outside the Legation Quarter (the red arrow points to it) …

Map showing the Hotel du Nord

Map showing the Hotel du Nord

I found a reference to the Hotel du Nord in 1936 and it said that it was a slightly more «risque» place which had a bar that was well known for its draught beer, Horse’s Necks (brandy with dry ginger ale) and dry Martinis, while rambunctious patrons danced to jazz tunes «courtesy of a band of White Russians»!

This was after George’s time there so I wonder if the hotel went downhill after he left or if it was always «risque» 🙂

And I doubt very much that George was playing in a jazz band when he was there – he wasn’t that into jazz, being a classical or gypsy music kind of man.




Photos of Peking during the time when George was there

*NB – when you click on the album, the screen will show the top of this page. Please just scroll down to see the pictures.



When we were living in Morrison Hill Road in Happy Valley, the family below our apartment were the Vargassoffs.  They were a lovely family – Dr Vargassoff worked for the Pathology Department at HK University and his wife used to dress up as Santa Claus and come and knock on our front door when I was a kid!  I remember she used to have a pinkish full length candlewick bathrobe and she’d put on a white cotton wool beard, which I guess she made herself.  It was so funny as I remember being terrified when I was about 4 when I saw her!  Too funny 😀

The Vargassoffs had two children, Vera was about 5 years older than me while Nick was about 3 years older, and they both were very very nice. When I started at KGV, our parents used to do the run to the Star Ferry … one week my father would drive us and the following week Mrs Vargassoff took us. It was a bit of a squeeze as they had a Volkswagen, but we all managed to fit in.  There was another girl who came with us – Deanna Medina – she lived in the next apartment block to us.  Fortunately Lindy had finished KGV by 1958 otherwise it would have been a REALLY tight squeeze 😉

I don’t think I ever met Serge Vargassoff but from what the blurb below says, he was a well known photographer, both in China pre-WWII and in HK afterwards.  His lantern slides were donated by Vera to the PowerHouse Museum in Sydney and from what it says on the site, there are no copyright problems with his pictures being shared, so here they are in all their beautiful glory.  Enjoy!!


Serge Vargassoff

Beautiful colored BW glass slides taken by Serge of China in the 1920s

*NB – when you click on the album, the screen will show the top of this page. Please just scroll down to see the pictures.



A video called «Modern Peking» taken in 1935, by which time George was in Shanghai


Video of what Peking was like during the 1930s



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