How Fu Manchu Was Born

by Sax Rohmer

This Week, September 29, 1957.
The Rohmer Review No. 2, January, 1969.

"Sax Rohmer, who tells here about the circumstances which led him to create one of fiction's most famous characters, has led a story book existence himself. An Irishman by birth, he has travelled widely, principally in the East and Middle East. He has dabbled in the occult, and his long friendship with Harry Houdini taught him a great deal about magic. His sinister Fu Manchu has appeared in books, radio, television and movies."

I was very young in those days before the outbreak of World War I, a Fleet Street journalist -- and London's Chinatown fascinated me. I made many friends in the Asiatic quarter, European as well as Oriental, and the sordid drama of Limehouse, with its orchestral accompniment of river noises, a monotonous symphony, its frequent fog effects and sinister, sadistic crimes had cast a queer spell.

A man of mystery dominated the area at this time. According to Inspector Yeo of K. Division (Limehouse) he controlled pak-a-pu, the Chinese gambling game [Mah Jongg, Sic Bo or Pai Gow ?], also the drug traffic, and not one but all of those Chinese secret societies, the Tongs. He was feared by every asiatic in the district, where he was known as "Mr. King," presumably only a part of his real name. He paid frequent visits to China. And no member of the Division had ever seen him or had the slightest idea what he looked like!

Raids and Arrests

The death of a pretty showgirl under circumstances which led to a Scotland Yard investigation unearther a dope syndicate operating among London's smart set. There were raids in fashionable quarters and a number of arrests. But in spite of heavy prison sentences, the identity of the master mind controlling the syndicate remained unknown. Not one of those questioned would open his mouth.

A daily newspaper put a star reported onto the job. His inquiries led to Limehouse. He heard of "Mr. King," whose shadow haunted London's Chinatown -- but all lips were sealed.

Shortly afterward, a weekly magazine offered me a commission to see what I could do about it. I thought that with my many contacts I had at least a sporting chance of piercing the veil, and I began to comb Limehouse from Commercial Road to the waterfront: highways, byways, alleys and wharves. I got nowhere. The mere mention of "Mr. King" was a signal for silence.

Then, very fearfully, with warnings and promises of secrecy, a Chinese storekeeper whom I knew well hinted that "a person of importance" owned most of the houses in Three Colt Street and sometimes went there when in London. He was in London now!

The Doctor Appears

This mean little street ran down beside a canal (now demolished) to the riverside. It consisted of two-story houses, with occasional alleys between them, and was inhabited by Chinese sailors, laundrymen and so forth. I knew it quite well. But now I began to watch it like a weasel watching a rabbitt warren. It was in a district where the police, after dark, always patrolled in pairs.

Which brings me to the night (appropriately, foggy night) when I saw the prototype for Dr. Fu Manchu.

I was on my way home but made a detour to take me through Three Colt Street. It was getting late, and not a light showed in any of the dingy houses. I was halfway along when something happened -- something sufficiently unusual in that place to qualify as a phenomenon.

A blade of white light suddenly split the darkness -- from the headlamps of a limousine just turning into the narrow street. I took cover in the entrance to a narrow alleyway. The car pulled up less than ten yards from where i stood. A smart chaffer switched on the inside light, jumped out and opened the door for his passengers.

I saw a tall and very dignified man alight, Chinese, but fifferent from any Chinese I had ever met. He wore a long, black topcoat and a queer astrakhan cap. He strode into the house. He was followed by an Arab girl, or she may have been an Egyptian. She reminded me of an Edmund Dulac illustration for the Arabian Nights."

The chauffer closed the car door, jumped to his seat, and backed out the way he had come in. The headlights faded in the mist . . . and Dr. Fu Manchu was born!

If the tall Chinese was the elusive "Mr. King" or someone else, I cannot pretend to say; but that he was a man of power and enormous authority I never doubted. As I walked on through the fog I imagined that inside that cheap-looking dwelling, unknown to all but a chosen few, unvisited by the police, were luxurious apartments, Orientally furnished, cushioned and perfumed. I saw a spot of Eastern magnificence, a jewel in the grimy casket of Limehouse.

That very night, alone in my room, I searched through memories of the East, finding a pedigree for the beautiful girl Ihad seen through the fog. And she became Karamaneh (an Arabic word meaning a confidential slave), an unwilling instrument of the Chinese doctor.

Little by little, that night and on many more nights, I built up Dr. Fu Manchu, until at last I could both see and hear him. His knowledge of science surpassed that of any scientist in the Western world. He controlled every secret society in the East. I seemed to hear a sibilant voice saying, "It is your belief that you have made me; it is mine that I shall live when you are smoke."

So, you see, I had really brought something into being. I had set Dr. Fu Manchu out upon his great march to conquer the Western world. I had challenged him to sweep aside the white races and to win domination for his own. Since thoughts are things, perhaps in my extravagance I had made something not far short of what the future may hold. I sometimes wonder . . .

Compare this account to the others:

The "Limehouse Incident" from Master of Villainry
"The Birth of Fu Manchu" from the Daily Sketch, May 24, 1934.
"Meet Dr. Fu Manchu" by Sax Rohmer from Meet the Detective, 1935.
"The Birth of Fu Manchu" by Sax Rohmer from The Manchester Empire News,
      Sunday January 30, 1938.

Go to The Page of Fu Manchu

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