Letters an American traveler wrote from occupied Peking in 1937-38

Sarky in Beijing 1937-1938

By Jules Nadeau

Peking in 1930s
Peking in 1930s

Harold Medill Sarkisian was a 28 years old native of Colorado who could not get rid of the Oriental bugs in his system. In 1937 he decided to leave for total immersion in a ryokan in Kyoto and subsequently in a hutong in Peking. The scholar in progress was keen on acquiring both languages. Boots-on-the-ground. The American lad was concurrently shopping for exquisite silks, rugs and antiques. His letters to his family (and his sweetheart) were informative and entertaining. Good narrative with great style.

Yet this was a most brutal period of history in Japan and China–at the time of the rape of Nanjing. He was exploring the exotic continent for the first time when World War II was brewing. Harold Medill’s typewritten missives had to detour by way of Siberia instead of across the Pacific to avoid censorship and speed up delivery.

Sinologist Jules Nadeau extracted and edited some passages displaying personal views, wit and descriptions. A time capsule based on a true story when the Republic of China was in a dire situation during the Japanese occupation. No matter what, the Colorado traveler admired China and was proud to be photographed in the costume of a Chinese philosopher.

By train from Tianjin to Peking

“My dearest family. So this is China!” wrote Harold Medill Sarkisian at the end of 1937 after a rough and unpleasant voyage aboard a small ship called Choju Maru. Mal de mer, hunger and cold made him feel elated to see glimpses of the Shandong peninsula from a distance. Then custom inspection made him feel even more chilly and tired. “It was so cold that the stint in the air made one forget his sea-sickness. Next a boat-load of coolies, swooping down almost like vultures, seized all bagages visible. It was dark in Tanggu [harbor] where Chinese strived to get us to get at their hotel. I selected at random the Court Hotel [on Elgin avenue, one of the best in the British concession].”

In the rail station of Tianjin, Harold Medill “found rich and poor–the smell of a thousand coolies, the garlic of a thousand meals, no heat, no seats, nothing but to pace endlessly up and down trying to keep warm–then came the train.” He bought a first class ticket (because the third class was filled to the roof) to insure comfort but in vain in compartments filled with a type of nauseating tobacco smoke.

“This is Peking! later continued Harold Medill, I am only sorry you all can not be here to feel what I am feeling. Not far from where I live are four colourful pai lou [the Dongxi gates] through which must pass all traffic. Yesterday the air was filled with the sounds of horns, the commands of the Japanese soldiery, ever eager to show the populace that they are in charge, shouting for room to pass, and what was holding them up? Four lovely, stately camels. The soldiers fumed and cursed. A cow in the same situation gives the impression of stupidity; not the camels. I am certain I saw them all wink to me and wink at each other. They were unmoved by the sight of Japanese bayonets” chuckled Harold Medill who liked to call himself Sarky. Yet the ubiquity of Japanese uniforms was not funny for the local populace.

Sarky in Beijing 1937-1938
Sarky in Beijing 1937-1938

Budget of $100 a month

“Peking seems like it could never grow old because it seems never to have had a beginning. One walks or rides rickshahs thru winding, serpentine streets–long narrow, grey walled affairs reminescent of what I would expect to see were I carried to ancient Babylon—beggars, dirty children worn and haggard women—not even women just females, scattered about beneath the walls selling whatever they have. In some places children pour over the ash heaps sifting what little coal there is and mixing this in water they make coal balls and sell these.”

Initially the American visitor settled down for more than a month in the “nest” of Southern Baptist missionaries. “I am living on my intended $100 a month [the equivalent of US$1,640 now]. This enables me to pay tuition, board, room and incidentals. I do not think it will cost me much more after I move.”

The life he always wanted to live

The second domicile was a fabulous house of no less than fifteen rooms. One of the best houses in Peking. Not able any more to occupy the fushang, the owner wanted to rent it at all costs in order to prevent some sort of military confiscation. “A beautiful mansion all furnished with the obligation to pay only taxes, water and light.” Most of the palace remained shut off because it required too much coal to heat up. Too much red tape also to rent to a local family. “I am living the life I always wanted to live–Chinese style. I have a lovely Victrola and dozens of records–when lonely I sit down and listen to music, Kreisler, Liszt et cetera, but for how long?”

The proprietor was a brilliant teacher and a past advisor to Chiang Kai-shek who had left for the south after becoming impoverished. “His collection of art was worth a fortune and it has gone up in flames. Today his son just presented me with a painting and a few other pieces of art. Moving that to Shanghai would have cost him a lot in taxes. What about me when I leave China?”

“I gave a party the other night and had as guests the head of Standard Oil here, a doctor from the Peking Union Medical College (Rockefeller Hospital), the Reischauer’s, the paymaster of the Marines. To pay back dinners given to which I was invited [specifically at the Peking hotel, still the Grande Dame of the capital]. Now I hope I will be paid back. It cost me a lot of money”, added the Colorado young man.

Harold Medill Sarkisian in Beijing 1937-1938
Harold Medill Sarkisian in Beijing 1937-1938

The College of Chinese Studies

Moral code and good conduct? “Papa [a practicing doctor] has one great fear–he has not to worry about venereal disease now–I am absolutely living a life of complete continence. That might sound funny, but I have no reason to lie to you.” On an other level: “Let me assure you that to date I have learned more than I could possibly have learned in ten years of University.” However he kept asking his family to get him recommendation letters so he could return to Columbia University or better enter Harvard (which he did later where he built a decisive Asian network).

Sarky was eager to cram hundreds of Chinese characters and he enrolled in the one and only College of Chinese Studies (where scores of Western sinophiles transited). One of his professors continually told him how much more he could learn by rather being with a tutor. He formed his own opinion: “Both are fine grafts. The College tries to go as slow as possible so as to keep you longer, the tutor tries to hold on to you as his own particular feed ticket, and so I have to be careful.” This was the beginning of a life-long devotion with the difficult language. Over the years he accumulated a collection of more than 50 Chinese dictionaries dictionaries, plus textbooks and his own flash cards.

“I enclose several photos. Some are of the starving refugees in the Peking region. Others are of the starving Colorado boy in the same sector. See if you can tell them apart. The people with me are the Lin’s when we were in the Imperial palace (“declared to be forbidden to the photographer”).” To Margie, his girl friend back in the States, he pointed out : “My dear. The lady next to me is Mrs. Lin. I have not yet taken with a woman.” But the most interesting pix is the one showing him in the long mandarin gown. With oversize sleeves. In the style of Confucian literati. What the Jesuit fathers used to wear in their genuine effort to adapt to local tradition.

“You are the finest family in the world. Goodbye love! Send mail via Siberia, care of American Express, Peking.” Signed: Sarky.


The long-time barefoot Sinophile Jules Nadeau is a freelance writer living in Montreal who spent 10 years in Greater China. He is the author of 20 Million Chinese Made in Taiwan and also 1997: In the Mouth of the Red Dragon. In 1979, Jules Nadeau was a full-time journalist at La Presse, a French language daily in the province of Québec. 

Author: Fan Wu

Fan Wu grew up on a state-run farm in southern China. After college, she received a scholarship from Stanford University to come to the United States. Her two novels are February Flowers, translated into eight languages, and Beautiful as Yesterday, praised by Amy Tan as “a story with intelligence, insight, and heart.” For more, please visit www.fanwuwrites.com

1 thought on “Letters an American traveler wrote from occupied Peking in 1937-38”

  1. Jules, thank you for sharing this wonderful post. Peking in the 30s was described with such vivid details. I’ve been always wanting to write a novel set in the 20s and 30s’ China, and have done a lot of reading about this period.

    I googled Sarky and found his wife’s obituary:” After World War II, the couple traveled 16,000 miles from Turkey to China in a war-surplus Jeep. In 1948, they were the last Americans to leave Peking before the Communist takeover.” How interesting! You should definitely write a book about them.

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