Mapping Fictional Spaces: The Insidious Fu Manchu

Updated: Jun 25, 2020

Shen-Yan Barber in The Insidious Fu Manchu, image by author

Unable to explore Limehouse physically at present, I have been studying fictional sources that describe Limehouse. I will be using architectural representational techniques of mapping, drawing and modelling to depict the imagined spatialities of Limehouse. The imaginary spaces of Limehouse exist disparately in literary texts, films and oral histories. Collecting these fragments, making sense of the information, and mapping them out allow these 'imaginaries' to be spatialised.

Shen-Yan barber shop in Sax Rohmer's The Insidious Dr Fu Manchu (1913) is an example of an imagined space based on Limehouse. The barber shop stands along the Thames, downriver from the Wapping River Police Station. In the novel, the barber shop is a disguise for the opium den hidden behind the shop, and above the opium den is the offices of the criminal mastermind Dr Fu Manchu, and the place where the reader of the pulp series first encounter the evil doctor.

Route to Shen-Yan's:

'Shen-Yan's is a dope-shop in one of the burrows off the old Ratcliff Highway...'

At the Wapping River Police Depot, 'we went out, passing down to the breakwater and boarding the waiting launch.'

Heading east, downriver.

Arriving at the Shen-Yan's Barber Shop:

'On your left, past the wooden pier! Not where the lamp is-- beyond that; next to the dark, square building--Shen-Yan's.'

'A SEEMINGLY drunken voice was droning from a neighboring alleyway as Smith lurched in hulking fashion to the door of a little shop above which, crudely painted, were the words: SHEN-YAN, Barber.'       'I shuffled along behind him, and had time to note the box of studs, German shaving tackle and rolls of twist which lay untidily in the window ere Smith kicked the door open, clattered down three wooden steps, and pulled himself up with a jerk, seizing my arm for support.'

'We stood in a bare and very dirty room, which could only claim kinship with a civilized shaving-saloon by virtue of the grimy towel thrown across the back of the solitary chair. A Yiddish theatrical bill of some kind, illustrated, adorned one of the walls, and another bill, in what may have been Chinese, completed the decorations. From behind a curtain heavily brocaded with filth a little Chinaman appeared...'

The Opium Den:

'He dived behind the dirty curtain, Smith and I following, and ran up a dark stair. The next moment I found myself in an atmosphere which was literally poisonous.'

'Smith walked to a corner and dropped cross-legged, on the floor, pulling me down with him.'

'I don't know if you have observed it, but there is a stair just behind you, half concealed by a ragged curtain...'

'A third man, whom Smith identified as a Malay, ascended the mysterious stairs, descended, and went out; and a fourth, whose nationality it was impossible to determine, followed.'

Inside Dr Fu Manchu's office:

'I leaped to my feet. Snatching my revolver from the pocket of the rough jacket I wore, I bounded to the stair and went blundering up in complete darkness. A chorus of brutish cries clamored from behind, with a muffled scream rising above them all. But Nayland Smith was close behind as I raced along a covered gangway, in a purer air, and at my heels when I rashed open a door at the end and almost fell into the room beyond.'

'What I saw were merely a dirty table, with some odds and ends upon it of which I was too excited to take note, an oil-lamp swung by a brass chain above, and a man sitting behind the table. But from the moment that my gaze rested upon the one who sat there, I think if the place had been an Aladdin's palace I should have had no eyes for any of its wonders.'

'Dr. Fu-Manchu reached down beside the table, and the floor slipped from under me.'

'With a scream I was unable to repress I dropped, dropped, dropped, and plunged into icy water, which closed over my head. Vaguely I had seen a spurt of flame, had heard another cry following my own, a booming sound (the trap), the flat note of a police whistle. But when I rose to the surface impenetrable darkness enveloped me; I was spitting filthy, oily liquid from my mouth, and fighting down the black terror that had me by the throat--terror of the darkness about me, of the unknown depths beneath me, of the pit into which I was cast amid stifling stenches and the lapping of tidal water.'

Limehouse Fictions Map - a work in progress

The image above is the beginning of an imaginary Limehouse Map. It depicts the journey described in The Insidious Fu Manchu. In the coming days and weeks, I will be collecting more excerpts from books and films describing imagined spatialities within Limehouse, adding to this map.

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