|Jan 6 2024
British author Sax Rohmer, aka Arthur Henry Ward, wrote many novels but made his reputation with the Fu Manchu series. Tales of Chinatown doesn’t feature that famous character, but instead deals in short story form with other characters and various unsavory goings-on in the Chinese underworld of London’s Limehouse district. There are problems with Rohmer’s depictions of Chinese, Jews, and other groups, but the writing is more than a century old, so no surprise there.
In terms of execution, there’s a sinister mood of a type here that's quite effective. "The Daughter of Huang Chow," the opening tale, deals with a series of fatal poisonings among the Limehouse criminal set, and the mysterious contents of an ornamental coffin. "The Hand of the Mandarin Quong," from which the cover is derived, is set in Singapore and London, and tells the story of a man who loses a hand in a failed attempt to rescue his kidnapped wife, but whose severed body part continues to haunt and hunt the kidnapper.
Tales of Chinatown is an atmospheric collection, well written and imaginatively conceived. It's easy to see why Rohmer became an international sensation. Many of his tropes are by now familiar if not hackneyed (and his racialized musings are deservingly excoriated), but back when his ideas were fresh they must have given his readers the megacreeps. Crime, suspense, mystery, mysticism, horror—Tales of Chinatown has all that. It first appeared in 1922, and this Popular Library edition with art by Rudolph Belarski is from 1949.