The major motivation for my first trip to China was to find out what was left of the American Embassy compound that existed from the 1900 to the start of World War II.
First, here is a little history on my connection to this historical landmark.
I was motivated to go to the Marine Corps because my best friend’s father was a Marine who spent his time in World War II in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. He was serving as an embassy guard in Peking when Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese. Chester has written a book titled “Behind the Barbed Wire” about his experiences during that time in the camps.
When he published that book, I told him that I would someday go to Beijing and search out what was left of the old American Embassy and Marine compounds. Well, I finally made it.
I studied satellite maps before going in an attempt to locate if any of the structures of the 2 compounds were still standing. I had a good idea that the old Embassy area was located very close to Tiananmen Square. In Chester’s book there is a map drawn of the old Foreign Legation quarter as it existed in 1941. After pouring over the maps I found on the Internet and the hand-drawn maps from the book, I was fairly certain I knew where the old American Embassy was.
In setting up my tour schedule with my tour company, I requested that my first day be a private tour of the Foreign Legation area. This meant that I had a private guide and a private driver with car to take me to locations that I had specified. Mr. Brian, my guide, had thought that I wanted to go to the current Embassy area located in Beijing. Using my knowledge of the maps, I let him know that the Foreign Legation was close to Tiananmen Square and the Beijing Municipal Police Station.
Mr. Brian really did not know much about the Foreign Legation, but he did know where the old Japanese Embassy was. So, we started by him taking me there. Having found a reference point, I was able to locate the old Wall Street, an alleyway that ran on the south side of the legation area, next to the Tartar city wall. We wandered west along Wall Street toward Tiananmen Square, stopping to ask the guard at the Beijing Municipal Police Station the location of the old American Embassy. Mr. Brian relayed to me that the guard had no idea what we were talking about.
Continuing down Wall Street to the west with the guard staring at our backs, we stopped in front of a very fancy driveway. This is where I expected to find the American Embassy, but all I saw was a fancy marble entrance with guards. The name of the place was Ch’ien Men 23. Mr. Brian had no idea what the facility was for.
At this point I was trying to contain my disappointment as I did not expect to have this much trouble finding the old embassy.
Mr. Brian was reluctant to go any further west as Tiananmen Square was part of my tour for the next day. He was afraid I would ruin the next day’s tour by actually seeing it early. I assured him that I would put up my hands to block my view to the side, and not look Tiananmen Square. He relented, and we turned north along the main boulevard.
I was attempting to find the beginning of Legation Street. This is the street that most of the embassies opened onto back when this was an active Embassy area. We turned east and up a series of stairs, and found ourselves at the old French Catholic Hospital called St Michaels. I knew from the map that this was across from the location of the Marine Corps compound. We continued east from here for a few feet.
And there it was.
To my right, behind the old gray wall, was the façade of the old American Embassy. There was plenty of exposed ductwork going into the second story, but the general block shape and roof details matched pictures from my friend’s book. I believed I had found what I was looking for, but I would have to confirm it later.
Later in the States, investigation of old photos and my photos showed that I had actually found the structure of the old American Embassy. The roof detail was a dead giveaway. Since I had now walked the actual streets, I was able to make better sense of the satellite maps. Looking again at the satellite images, I could tell that the old Main building and two outer buildings were both still present.
As it turned out, the embassy had been converted into a high end art gallery and restaurants back in 2008. Remember the fancy driveway I spoke about? That is now the entrance to the art gallery. What irony is that?
The art gallery’s website for Ch’ien Men 23 does provide some additional detail on what the buildings are being used for now. In addition, it provides some historical detail that I was unaware of. In 1972, Kissinger met in secret with the Chinese leadership inside the then abandoned American Embassy to formulate the plans for Nixon’s visit to China the following year.
I was very happy to accomplish my mission. I was able to see what was left of the old Embassy and Marine compounds (at least from the outside). I was able to take pictures to relay these back to my friend. I was able to dig up some history and educate my Chinese guide. It was not a bad day. 🙂
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