The Birth of Fu Manchu
by Sax Rohmer
in a talk with the "Daily Sketch"

Interview conducted by Geraint Goodwin
London, Thursday, May 24, 1934

[Reprinted in The Rohmer Review, No. 17 August 1977]

His name is Dr. Fu Manchu and of course you know him, know his inscrutable look and his pale rheumy eyes, hooded like an old hawk's.

You know, too, that he would be a pretty nasty fellow to meet, for evil, as we understand it, is to him a mere phrase. What secrets are there in the depths of his oriental mind? You might as well cross-examine the Sphinx. It is enough to say that he is Fu Manchu, and some millions of people in the world know who Fu Manchu is.

A House in Clapham

For Fu Manchu, though he is an institution, saw the light of day in a lodging house in Clapham. He put his creator, who was a struggling young writer, in Easy Street. And as Fu Manchu would never die and would never lie down, he went on in his exuberant life from book to book.

Up to date he has made a mere £150,000 for the young Irishman who created him. His adventures have been translated into every European language. One has to go back to a certain other young Irishman who created Sherlock Holmes to think of a parallel.

You want to know all about Fu Manchu? You want to know whether there is a Fu Manchu in fact as well as fiction. You might hope to see him in Limehouse Causeway or down in Liverpool's dockland. You might wonder whether he has muscled in on the warlord racket or whether he has fixed one all-seeing-eye on Manchukuo. You might want to know whether he's yellow or just the Yellow Peril.

He Just Happened

You would argue that somewhere there must be a counterpart, some village Fu Manchu who has been born to blush unseen. You would say that this man whom we know so well couldn't just have happened. He might have been touched up a bit, you will say, but there must have been something to go on.

Well, you can ask the author. He's a very affable fellow and modest with it. He talks of Fu Manchu as you or I would talk of the Smiths or the Robinsons, or the people next door. Just that same air of nonchalant friendliness.

You can ask him and he will tell you in the most casual way that Fu Manchu just happened, that he built him up as laboriously as a sculptor fashions a figure, putting on a bit here and taking off a bit there, until, lo and behold! there it is in its completeness.

How did the idea come? Well, it's a good story.

In those pre-Manchu days Sax Rohmer, a young Irishman, was doing what all young Irishmen are supposed to do---that is to say, take London by storm. The storm was a lot way farther off than next week's rent. He searched around for a plot, but no plot came. One day was just like another, and there was not a great deal to show for it.

But let Sax Rohmer tell his own story:

"I was a young man and I was ambitious. I had written my first story at seventeen, and I had not written another one; perhaps that was why.

Hoping and Arriving

"All the time I thought it would be very nice to be an author; you know the sort of thing that appeals to young men in rooms in a London suburb. I suppose all young men in lodgings want to be writers; the trouble is that there are so many lodgings!

"Looking back on those days I was happy enough. You know Stevenson's line about it being better to travel hopefully that to arrive, though I don't think that's true. It would be much better traveling hopefully if you knew you were going to arrive, some day, somehow, somewhere.

"A few of us shared a studio in Clapham Old Town, and we liked to tell one another what we were going to do when we were famous. We also told our guests. How we managed to entertain I don't know. The pièce de résistance was roast potatoes and the other course was shredded wheat. There was beer, of course.

Enter Planchette

"The illusion of fame never left me even at Clapham station. But don't put that down or you will get lots of Claphamites writing in to say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder or something of the sort.

"Well, one of the fellows and I bought a planchette board. We were always asking it questions. I remember I asked it whether I should ever be a success as a writer of fiction, and it said that I would. When I asked it in what direction it answered the one word 'Chinaman.' We asked it again and still the answer was definitely and unmistakenly 'Chinaman.' I couldn't understand it at all for I knew nothing in those days about China or Chinamen.

Mr. Sax Rohmer's hands on the planchette board
that told him he would be a success as a writer,
and added the word "Chinaman."
The Chinaman developed into Dr. Fu Manchu.

I must have remembered that when I sat down to write a book some time afterwards. All the usual types had been worked to death and so I lighted on the idea of a Chinaman, and what a Chinaman he was going to be!

"He was to be rather tall and rather gaunt, with a tremendous cranial development as befits a genius. So I began to build him up. Then I thought he ought to have some sort of defect, so I made him have a kind of film over the eyes, as with a bird. It was a new one on medical science and still is, but there it was. He was to be a great linguist---a man who knew every civilised language and many dialects. He was to be absolutely impersonal, not criminal according to his own way of thinking, for he was true to his consuming desire to revoltionise civilisation. He was to be the embodiment of the idea that the East has been gaining knowledge while we have been building machines, the supreme master mind hovering on the border of madness, as so great a genius would.

He Caused Trouble

"That was how I turned him over in my mind. Well, when I began to write, it seemed that I knew the man intimately. He assumed his own shape and there he was. He was a success and has continued so. I have now written seven books about him---the Daily Sketch is to publish the seventh---and from beginning to end and taking everything into account I suppose he has made me about £150,000.

"He has brought me in a spot of bother as well. When I was in New York some years ago the Chinese students at Columbia University organised a protest and, I believe, went to the Chinese Consul about him; said he misrepresented the Chinese character. All I can say is that Fu Manchu is Fu Manchu. He can't help that; no more than I can.

Well, that's the story of the sinister doctor of the Orient. Next time you see him looking out at you with his inscrutable eyes you will know how he came to be there.

When this article was reprinted in The Rohmer Review, it was followed by "Comments by Cay Van Ash" and "Notes by the Editor."

Drawing: Mike Vosburg
Copyright © 1977 Mike Vosburg. 
All rights reserved
Comments by Cay Van Ash:

I suppose that "The Birth of Dr. Fu Manchu" is as nearly accurate as one could expect from Sax. In practice, as I understand it, the planchette was under the hands of Elizabeth, and the experiment was conducted on their own premises, no others being present at the time. Also, the studio in Clapham Old Town which he mentions was, of course, the place in Oakmead Road, properly belonging to his friend Dodgson, as described in Chapter 5 of Master of Villainy, and the goings-on there somewhat pre-dated the planchette episode.

For me, the photograph of Sax's hands proved of peculiar interest. Like any student of crime fiction, I had long realized in a theoretical kind of way that a person's hands are distinctive. But it was not until I saw that picture that it really came home to me. I thought at once, "Yes! Those are his hands!" and it honestly gave me quite a shock.

Drawing: Mike Vosburg
Copyright © 1977 Mike Vosburg. 
All rights reserved
Notes by the Editor

"The Birth of Dr. Fu Manchu" served as a sort of advertisement for The Trail of Fu Manchu, subsequently presented as a serial in the Daily Sketch. The serial was originally announced to begin on Monday, May 28, 1934. However, according to information supplied by W.O.G. Lofts, it was not actually published until a month later: 25 June to 6 July 1934, daily except Sunday, in eleven installments.

The "interview" seems typical of the kind of publicity that Rohmer customarily received. Aside from providing an example of some genuinely awful newspaper prose, it demonstrates the difficulties facing anyone who would try to piece together accurate biographical or literary information from such sources. Compounding the interviewer's inadequacies, there is the positive delight which Rohmer seems to have taken in dressing up the facts, providing meaningless "explanations", and scrambling time-sequences. Those who have read Master of Villainy will have no trouble in spotting the inaccuracies in the Sketch's offering.

On three later occasions Rohmer offered different and lengthier accounts of the origin of Fu Manchu. "Meet Dr. Fu Manchu" was a radio talk written for the B.B.C. and published in a collection of similar talks, Meet the Detective (Telegraph Press, 1935); reprinted in TRR #10. "The Birth of Fu Manchu" was the first installment of the autobiographical series called "Pipe Dreams"; it appeared in The Empire News, Manchester, 30 January 1938. Finally, "How Fu Manchu Was Born" was written for This Week (29 September 1957; reprinted in TRR #2) as a prelude to the Fu Manchu short stories which that magazine published.
                                                                  . . .
I am indebted to British book dealer Vernon Lay for calling the Daily Sketch article to my attention and for supplying a copy of the paper.

Copyright © 1977 R.E. Briney. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 1999 Lawrence Knapp.  All rights reserved

Sax Rohmer's Scarab