Murder on the Mekong

Freshwater intrigue in the Chinese-dominated Golden Triangle – Sebastian Strangio

An excerpt from In the Dragon's Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century 

Just before midday on October 5 2011, a group of Thai soldiers boarded two Chinese barges that were seen floating listlessly in the Mekong River, a few miles upstream of the drowsy river town of Chiang Saen. The vessels were loaded with Chinese goods bound for the Thai market: the Hua Ping carried fuel oil; the Yu Xing 8, crates of apples and garlic. The soldiers found the former vessel deserted. The bridge of the latter was covered in blood, where, slumped over an AK-47 assault rifle, was a dead man later identified as Yang Deyi, the boat’s Chinese captain. Stashed aboard the two vessels were clear plastic bags containing 920,000 methamphetamine pills, a haul with an estimated Thai street value of $6 million. In the following days, the corpses of the remaining 12 crewmembers were scooped from the milky-brown waters of the Mekong. The victims had been gagged with duct tape and blindfolded, with their hands bound or handcuffed behind their backs. Some had been stabbed. Others had gaping head wounds, suggesting that they had been shot at close range.

These grisly murders had occurred just a few miles downstream from the center of the Golden Triangle, the rugged and impoverished region where the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Burma converge. For most of its history, this had been a zone of pristine lawlessness, a cauldron of bandits, drug smugglers, tribal chieftains, ethnic militias, and corrupt government functionaries where the writ of lowland states ran thin. Opium poppies were first cultivated in the region’s hills on a large scale in the nineteenth century; by the 1960s, the area had become synonymous with narcotics production. Until the early 2000s, the Golden Triangle was the world’s leading source of heroin. It still produces most of the methamphetamine consumed today in China and Southeast Asia.



Deserts of Love

Long distance relationships in the Spanish Sahara – Sanmao, trans. Mike Fu

Excerpted from Stories of the Sahara

A tiny little grocery store opened up near our home about seven or eight months ago. With almost anything you could imagine available to purchase, life suddenly became much more convenient for us residents living some distance from town. No longer did I need to make a long journey under the blazing sun with my bags large and small.

I’d go to this store maybe four or five times a day. Sometimes in the middle of cooking I’d rush out to buy sugar or flour, always as a matter of utmost urgency, only to find that all my neighbours were in there shopping or the store didn’t have any change. No matter what, whenever I went, I couldn’t get in and out in ten seconds like I wanted. It wasn’t great for someone as impatient as me.



Formosa Fraud

George Psalmanazar’s 18th century fabulations of Taiwan – Graham Earnshaw


Taiwan is the topic on everyone’s lips. What’s going on there? Who does the island rightfully belong to? How important is the influence of the West? What is the real culture of the island’s residents? The debate rages.

Is this the early twenty-first century? No. It’s London more than three hundred years ago, at the beginning of the eighteenth century.

In 1704, a man appeared in England with the most extraordinary stories about Taiwan, or Formosa as it was then called. How eighteen-thousand boys are killed every year as part of Formosan religious ceremonies; the island is a major producer of gold and silver; and Catholic priests are causing trouble there.

He said his name was George Psalmanazar, and his information about Formosa – it’s culture, history, society and economy – captivated the English reading public. He published a book on the topic which went into a second edition, he gave speeches, he was fêted by the Bishop of London, he went to Oxford to teach Formosan. There was just one problem with the situation: his whole story was fake.


Beijing’s Last Steel Factory

Jonathan Chatwin visits the abandoned Shougang steelworks


On a sultry August morning, a taxi brought me through Beijing’s western suburbs to the literal end of the road. At a makeshift barrier, a young police officer waved us to a standstill. “You can’t go any further,” he told the taxi driver, glancing pointedly at the foreigner in the back- seat, “It’s a building site beyond here: residents only.” Behind him and the barrier he tended, an almost empty stretch of gloss-black tarmac ran west.

I told the driver I would get out. “Here?” he asked, raising an eyebrow in the rear-view mirror. Here was the very western limit of Beijing, where the frayed edge of the city rubbed against the rough dun stone of the Western Hills. Besides the checkpoint, there was nothing here but a few brick buildings, the forbidden road ahead and the construction site which bordered it, fenced off with blue corrugated iron panels. “Here,” I repeated, proffering my money.


The Dirty DA of Shanghai

US judge Leonard Husar’s sordid judiciary in 1920s Shanghai – Douglas Clark

Milton Purdy, upon arrival as the US Judge in Shanghai at the hearing to welcome him, commented on “how fortunate had been the U.S. Government in getting men of such excellent quality and ability as the officials of this court.” At the very end of 1926, he learnt how wrong he had been. The US Court for China saw the trial of two of its officials for engaging in serious criminal misconduct.

First, Purdy had the sad duty to pass sentence on the former Clerk of the US Court, William Chapman, who had pleaded guilty to embezzling $15,000 from the court. He had originally fled to Seattle, but was caught on arrival in the US and was brought back to Shanghai for trial. Purdy sentenced Chapman to three years and five months imprisonment. Having arrived in Shanghai to be sentenced, Chapman was then put back on the same boat, the President Roosevelt, heading back to Seattle. Long-term US prisoners were now imprisoned at the federal penitentiary on McNeil Island in Puget Sound just near Seattle.