As temperatures began to drop and the winter of 1932 approached, the world was obsessed with just one news story – the kidnapping in northern China of 19-year-old Muriel “Tinko” Pawley and her dogs: German shepherds, Whisky and Rolf, and a pointer pup called Squiffy. When news reached London that Chinese bandits had threatened to cut off Pawley’s ears if a phenomenal ransom was not paid, there was an outcry from concerned newspaper readers in China’s treaty ports, Hong Kong, Europe, North America and Australia. “Tinko” Pawley was suddenly a household name and great copy.

Then at the height of his fame, having recently published his acclaimed novel Black Mischief, Evelyn Waugh could think of nothing else. He could not get the image of poor young Tinko out of his head – suffering in the Manchurian cold, starving, filthy, verminous, her dogs distraught. He bought every newspaper, scouring them for information on Tinko’s fate. He was far from alone. Theatre critic James Agate recorded the unfolding events of Tinko’s ordeal in captivity in his diary. Waugh eventually wrote a short story based on the kidnapping.

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However, in the 1920s and ’30s, foreigners were being kidnapped with disturbing regularity in northern China – missionary families, salesmen roaming the interior in motor cars, hoping to make a deal or two, whole carriages of train passengers, entire steamships. It was an epidemic, ears sliced off and sent to families slow in paying, and it often ended in tragedy.

Warlord gangs, secret societies, pirates, bandits … it seemed kidnapping a foreigner was, between the wars, an integral component of the north Chinese economy. Most of these kidnappings received a few columns in the China coast and Hong Kong newspapers; a line or two in the newspapers overseas, if the victim was white. But Tinko made the papers every day, her every missive from captivity reprinted, every effort to rescue her detailed.

What was it that made Tinko Pawley’s kidnapping such a cause célèbre in late 1932?

Reuters breathlessly described Pawley as, “a charming blonde of eighteen summers”

It was simply that Tinko – young, pretty, blond, blue-eyed – was what Fleet Street considered a sure-fire human-interest story. Reuters breathlessly described Pawley as, “a charming blonde of eighteen summers”. And, as it turned out, she was also remark­ably gutsy.

Muriel Pawley, known as “Tinko” to her friends, had just turned 19 and had been married to Kenneth Pawley for only three months. Kenneth was doing very well, thank you, working for the Asiatic Petroleum Company, and the couple had set up home together in Tientsin (Tianjin).

Kenneth hailed from Gerrards Cross, in Buckinghamshire, but Tinko had lived in Newchwang (Yingkou), in Manchuria, for most of her life (excepting a few years of boarding school in Devon, England); her parents were medical missionaries.

In September 1932, she set out to visit them at their home in Newchwang. It was, it must be said, a perilous time to travel. Little more than a year earlier the Japanese army had invaded and annexed Manchuria from China, occupied Newchwang and renamed the region Manchukuo. There was still sporadic unrest.

The Muslim general Ma Zhanshan had refused to obey Chiang Kai-shek’s order to cease resistance and continued to defend the strategic railway bridge over the Nen River until overwhelmed by Japanese tanks and artillery. Local Chinese soldiers had melted away into the countryside and were living as bandits, armed and desperate. Most Manchurian farmers were dirt poor, and kidnapping foreigners passing through represented an opportunity to make some easy money.

Tinko, with a very English colonial sense of invulner­ability, apparently wasn’t the least concerned by any of this. Having arrived in Newchwang without incident, she set out, at 6.15am on September 7, 1932, for a brisk morning canter on the town’s racetrack. She was accom­panied by two friends, Charlie Corkran and Duncan “Mack” Macintosh (both of whom also worked for Asiatic Petroleum), as well as two Chinese mafoos (grooms). Encountering a roaming gang of bandits, they were kidnapped and force-marched to Tashihchiao (nowadays Dashiqiao), about 23km from Newchwang. The captors confiscated their horses for their own use. Tinko’s dogs followed behind their mistress.

The bandit gang, consisting of about 100 outlaws, was led by a man named Pei Pa-tien and his younger brother. They sent a letter demanding forthwith and without delay the follow­ing: a staggering (for the time) 32,500 Chinese dollars – equivalent to about US$1.15 million today; a chest of opium (for personal consumption); 240 rifles, four carbines, six machine guns and 38,000 rounds of ammu­nition; five bales of black silk; 100 good-quality gold rings; 60 gold watches; and a supply of winter uniforms.

Failure to comply would result in Tinko’s ears being cut off and, to much outrage back in England, her dogs being killed. Her ears and the dogs would be chopped up and sent to, respectively, Pawley’s father, her husband and Asiatic Petroleum. If the ransom was then not delivered post-haste, the captives would be tortured and executed. In Manchuria, in the winter of 1932, there was no reason to suspect Pei and his gang were anything but deadly serious.

Tinko and her dogs captured the public imagination from the get-go. It has to be said that rather less attention was paid to Corkran and Macintosh, while zero column inches were devoted to the mafoos.

The Japanese army in Manchuria was said to be sending 500 troops to Tashihchiao to encircle the bandit encampment. The Brit­ish Navy’s HMS Sandwich was dispatched to Newchwang to stand by and await orders. The Manchukuo garrison commander at Newchwang, General Wang Tien-chung, was instructed to attempt negotiations with the bandits and, if talks failed, to mount a rescue mission that would see the bandits “wiped off the face of the Earth”.

This, however, was not necessarily good news for the captives. The pro-Japanese Wang commanded a force of 2,000 men whose primary objective was to “check the activities of bandits”, which was a nice way of saying, “find them all and kill them all”. Wang had built quite a reputation for doing this while not allowing him­self to be distracted by anyone, innocent hostage or not, who got between his men and their quarry.

British author in Hong Kong on his obsession – 1930s Shanghai

Adding an element of derring-do to the shenanigans, Macintosh escaped and found his way back to Newchwang, where he gave an eyewitness account of the bandits’ lair. As expected, they were indeed desperadoes of the highest order. The march from Newchwang had left Tinko with horribly blistered feet and her socks had to be cut away, covered in dried blood from suppurating sores. Afterwards, she had worn Chinese slippers a size too small that offered no protection from the damp or the cold. The camp was filthy, lice-ridden, freezing, the food inedible (sorghum and a brownish soy bean juice daily), and the hostages couldn’t sleep at night due to the constant racket from the bandits’ opium and mahjong sessions.

Macintosh suggested (probably in a media-savvy ploy to jolly along the ransom, which the British consulate was dragging its feet over) that if no cash, dope and woolly jumpers turned up soon, Tinko was likely to undergo: “[…] death by a thousand cuts with cayenne pepper placed in the cuts to accentuate the slow agony of death!”.

The captives were, he said, “bound together by thin ropes which went round the tops of their necks and their arms”. They slept on a lice-infested kong-style bed. It was certainly an intimate confinement – Tinko later told of having to perform bodily functions while tied to the six-foot-two-inch Corkran and using sorghum leaves for toilet paper. Such was the impracticability and embar­rass­ment of the situation that the two were eventually separated.

Waugh, Agate and the newspaper-reading public on four continents were in uproar at such harsh treatment of Tinko and Corkran. There was no word from either Macintosh or the newspapers regarding the fate of the kidnapped mafoos, although this might have been because nobody had asked.

Concern for Whisky, Rolf and Squiffy persisted, however. French-language newspaper L’illustré ran a particularly dramatic drawing on its cover of Tinko and Corkran, bound together and looking miserable, being fed gruel by stereotypical-looking Chinese bandits with Whisky crouched in a corner. “Captifs des Bandits Chinois” ran the headline.

Worried friends of Tinko arranged for messengers to take parcels up to the bandits’ camp. They delivered a rather random package containing a pipe and some tobacco for Corkran (hidden in a replacement shoe), Tinko’s old school blazer, a single book (Maiden Stakes, a bestselling collec­tion of light romantic stories featuring carefree Bright Young Things by the now largely forgotten Dornford Yates), some toffee, knitted winter woollies, chocolates and cigarettes. Tinko, well brought up girl that she was, sent back a letter of thanks: “It is pretty well here. We are beastly bored. We received the parcels and every­thing OK … soap required urgently.”

Tinko found ways to alleviate the “beastly boredom”. Much to his annoyance, she regularly chided Pei in his own dialect that if he killed her, she would haunt him and turn his ancestors into turtles. This evidently unsettled the tough old bandit boss.

One diverting group activity initiated by Tinko was singing. Mass singalongs proved popular with the cutthroat outlaws and they especially enjoyed Great War favourites: Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag and Smile, Smile, Smile followed by a rousing rendition of It’s a Long Way to Tipperary and a highly mangled version of Mademoiselle from Armentières. But “beastly boredom”, mostly, was the rule, as nothing happened and no negotiations took place. 

Send me some lipstick […] Next time the messengers come they must bring $30,000 and 200 ounces of opium or else goodbye ears. I am in a vile temper with the fools

The British consulate at Mukden (Shenyang) was not keen on paying ransoms and the demands – not just the cash, but the opium, watches, silks, gold rings and muni­tions – were viewed as excessive and unrealistic.

Tinko’s husband and distraught parents demand­ed proof that she and Corkran were still alive. The bandits penned another note and instructed Tinko to add a personal message to be sent to her father. They wrote: “IF THE RANSOM DEMANDED FOR THE RELEASE OF MRS MURIEL PAWLEY AND MR CHARLES CORKRAN IS NOT IMME­DI­ATELY FORTHCOMING THEY WILL BE SHOT WITHIN A WEEK”. Tinko appended a few lines at the bottom including, “Send me some lipstick […] Next time the messengers come they must bring $30,000 and 200 ounces of opium or else goodbye ears. I am in a vile temper with the fools.”

In Newchwang, Tinko’s mother read the letter: “Thank God Tinko wants her lipstick! She must be all right.”

In London, Waugh was beside himself with concern. Agate noted in his diary how worried he was for Pawley and her poor pooches. The letter writers of England demanded action in Manchuria from His Majesty’s consular represen­­t­a­­tives. Fleet Street, in the form of the highly vocal and easily roused to hyperbole, then as now, Daily Express and Daily Mail (offering to part-pay the ransom), reminded readers that Japan controlled Manchuria, thundering that: “The capture of these British people illustrates the complete incapacity of Japan’s puppet-state […] to preserve order […] rescue efforts must continue vigorously […] the rescue of the Britishers must occur promptly […]”

Those in the know in northern China feared that taunting Japan might not be wise. With both the Japanese Army and General Wang’s bandit suppression forces close by, and known not to favour the soft option of negotiation with “brigands”, there could be a massacre.

Japanese officials in the Manchukuo puppet-state’s capital of Hsinking (Changchun) replied that Britain should rest easy as their intention was to eradicate every bandit in Manchukuo, once their soldiers had finished the all-important task of bringing in the sorghum harvest. Should any harm come to Pawley or Corkran, the Japanese army would “bring exemplary punishment for the whole of the gang responsible”.

But one person’s bad news is another’s silver lining. Wang and his 2,000-strong force were preparing to storm the bandit camp. Most of those familiar with such actions realised that the chance of anyone surviving was slim – the bandits would fight tooth-and-nail knowing that, if caught alive, they would be tortured and then beheaded.

While preparing for the rescue mission, Wang’s 16-year-old-son checked his revolver by looking down the barrel to ensure there were no obstructions. There were not; he shot himself in the head, dying instantly. Wang, consumed with grief, withdrew from action to mourn in private. The onslaught on the bandit camp was cancelled; the rescue was off.

If we do not write correctly the bandits will beat the messengers. This is really serious. They want the money […] crikey!! Gosh I’m depressed […] this is an awful muddle. Love Tinko

Neither was the weather helping potential negotiations. Heavy rain around the bandit camp turned the area into a quagmire, making it difficult for messengers to make the round-trip from Mukden to Tashihchiao in anything less than six days. And then there were the geopolitics. Japan offered to help but Britain had not recognised its Manchukuo puppet-state and Tokyo was less than happy about this. Finally, there was the British Foreign Office still dickering over the ransom, trying to bargain it down and prolonging the whole affair. There was a genuine risk that Pei would tire of the process, cut his losses, kill his captives and disappear.

For Tinko and Corkran, in a cold, damp Tashihchiao in early October 1932, it was all very depressing. Tinko’s normally upbeat letters from the outlaws’ lair reflected her mood: “The bandits are making us write this. They want us to say we are suffering terribly and if we do not write correctly the bandits will beat the messengers. This is really serious. They want the money […] crikey!! Gosh I’m depressed […] this is an awful muddle. Love Tinko.”

The bandits for their part refused a Japanese offer of amnesty and free passage out of Tashihchiao; they reiter­ated their demand for the money to be delivered immediately, and concluded, ominously: “WE HAVE NOTHING MORE TO SAY”.

Violent thunderstorms, heavy rains and lightning then effectively cut off Tashihchiao from the outside world for 10 days.

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The weather finally broke in mid-October, the flood­waters receded and a messenger got through. Tinko was more blunt in her next letter – if no money and opium appeared by return of messengers then: “Goodbye ears! It is pretty well Hell here. The bandit chief is fed up. I must urge you to get us out quick.”

Corkran, an old Etonian, added a brief, and not overly useful, addendum to the letter: “Bung-ho!” (a contempor­ary colloquialism similar to “cheers”).

But perhaps there remained hope. Fleet Street conti­nued to follow the kidnapping daily, demanding Tinko’s release and insisting Japan do something. Tokyo was perturbed at appearing impotent in its new puppet state while the Foreign Office in London indicated more pressure should be applied on the Manchukuo authorities (though without London agreeing to recognition of them). Captain Tony Stables, the assistant British military attaché in Peking, was sent to meet directly with his Japanese counterpart, Captain Kawahito, circumventing the dithering Mukden diplomats.

Yet while determined to be seen to be doing something, the British still refused to pay the ransom – neither money nor opium. Kawahito was effectively left to negotiate alone.

Cheerio, see you soon, and I hope you will be able to fix something up for Tinko soon. Personally, I seem to thrive on sorghum and lice and have learned a word or two of Chinese. Charles

By late October, the weather had turned bad again – gales, hail, frost. Parcels containing woollen gloves, knitted underwear, Rich Tea biscuits, Ovaltine and mints were dispatched to Tashihchiao. Soap arrived, but the bandits kept it for themselves. They also cannily demanded that all parcels be wrapped in three yards of heavy-duty cotton or they would not be accepted. They at least received some good quality fabric.

Kawahito opened negotiations on his own initiative. Tinko was by now beginning to sound desperate: “Darling Daddy please, oh please, make these people hurry up. We are so bored and fed up with being here and are so dirty and, oh Daddy, we have lice. The chow is vile – all sorghum […] I do so want to come home. Don’t let any soldiers come or we shall all be killed. Must stop, all love, Tinko.”

Corkran had a little more to add this time, although whether he was showing the infamous British stiff upper lip or was just a bit of a twit is hard to tell. He ended his letter: “Cheerio, see you soon, and I hope you will be able to fix something up for Tinko soon. Personally, I seem to thrive on sorghum and lice and have learned a word or two of Chinese. Charles.”

The ransom showed no sign of appearing as a freezing Manchurian October rolled on. A rather early Christmas pudding was sent – perhaps some shrewd donor reasoning that no self-respecting Chinese bandit would eat anything quite so strange. They were right. Whisky was sent for Corkran, who wrote back saying that he was still “Bung-ho!”, but that Tinko had drunk most of the Scotch. Food and drink were all very well, but, as Tinko wrote, “Darlings, we are fairly well, but so miserable. Love Tinko. PS: Powder and face cream and lipstick please. I’ve had none for six days!”

The bandits had still received no money, no opium and only a couple of winter jumpers. In London, Waugh breathed a momentary sigh of relief on reading news of Tinko’s letter of thanks, noting in his diary, “the safe receipt of a woollen sweater by the captives has given a grain of comfort here”. A final parcel was sent up to Tashihchiao – sadly no cosmetics, but chocolate, tinned milk, Kraft cheese, tins of pork and beans, and a jar of peanut butter.

“See you soon I sincerely hope. All love, Tinko. PS: Toilet paper lovely. Lice going away a bit.”

Included in the parcel were a pair of nail scissors for Tinko from a thoughtful friend. But they were confiscated as a weapon and caused no end of trouble. Pei told Tinko to write ordering gold rings and green spectacles – apparently he wished to adopt the look of a Chinese scholar.

And then, as suddenly as it had begun, it was over.

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It was Kawahito who resolved the matter, with help of Captain Wutzumi of the Manchukuo Police Force. They encircled the bandit camp with 700 armed men and told the leaders the time had come to do a deal. Waving a Japanese flag, Kawahito and his platoon floundered through mud to the bandits’ lair, dragging with them a cart carrying a chest of opium, a fat bundle of money, cartons of cigarettes and warm winter clothing.

Kawahito had come to the conclusion that His Britannic Majesty’s government would never send money or opium, and so he had persuaded a group of Japanese patriots who were keen to see Manchukuo recognised by the inter­national community to stump up the necessary.

There were some points of contention – Pei had wanted silver dollars, but Kawahito persuaded him that would never happen. Then the suspicious bandit demanded proof the money (newly issued Manchukuo yen) wasn’t counter­feit. Numerous stories surrounded the final negotiations, the most dramatic being that Kawahito and Pei parleyed with their guns pointed at each other’s hearts, ready to fire the instant either the bandits or the Japanese troops started shooting.

Ultimately, it wasn’t a bad deal for Pei, who received 130,000 Manchukuo yen; a decent 75kg haul of opium; winter uniforms for his bandits, 40 gold rings, fur caps and boots, five tailored Western-style suits (lined in satin and with matching overcoats), five pairs of stout winter brogues, a complete barber’s outfit and a dozen gold watches.

As he handed her over to Kawahito, Pei winked and told Tinko: “I’ll call for you again when the ransom money is spent”

The final demand, though, took some negotiating. Many of Pei’s men were angry at being left without employ­ment. They wanted paying jobs and, so, an amnesty was granted allowing them to join the newly formed Manchukuo Police Force – poachers most definitely turned gamekeepers. The Shanghai-based North-China Daily News reported that the incorporation of cutthroat scofflaws into a police force, even in the illegal Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, was a bitter pill for police chief Wutzumi to swallow.

The final handover took place two days later after local tailors worked through the night to finish Pei’s suits and overcoats. Kawahito threw in a pair of sun­glasses for Pei, who had admired his own blue shades. Tinko and Corkran, having been in captivity for more than six weeks, were reported to be well and in good spirits.

Tinko was dressed in three woollen pullovers and khaki breeches; her lower legs caked in mud and mosquito bites. Pei was impressed to see Corkran and Kawahito converse in their only common language – French. Pei had considered Corkran stupid, if not actually mad, for not being able to speak Chinese.

Pei was likely relieved to be rid of Tinko – her good Chinese mixed with her sharp temper and constantly threatened hunger strikes had driven him to distraction. The bandits admitted they had been terrified she might starve herself to death, rendering the kidnapping pointless, and so they had fed her sweet cakes. As he handed her over to Kawahito, Pei winked and told Tinko: “I’ll call for you again when the ransom money is spent.”

Tinko spent a few days in the Newchwang Mission Hospital, where her father was the chief doctor. She had suffered some bruising, infected mosquito bites and bad cuts on her feet, which were permanently scarred from walking across fields of sharp sorghum stumps.

She had stomach and throat problems, probably brought on by drinking muddy river water, but they soon cleared up. She told Lawrence Impey of the Daily Mail (who had travelled to Newchwang to interview Tinko) that she could now spit like a proper bandit. “I’m so glad Mummy wasn’t sent in exchange. She could never have stood it, and would have gone mad.”

She made light of her ordeal but the dangers had been very real. While Tinko was being held at Tashihchiao, in Harbin, on the other side of Manchuria, a kidnapped Russian woman whose family could not pay her ransom was shot dead by bandits; an English woman trying to protect her two daughters from a kidnapping had been killed soon after­wards in the same city.

Thirty-six Chinese on a hijacked train in Manchuria were killed, after being robbed; an HSBC employee in Harbin had been almost scalped by bandits who attacked him on the golf course, mid-putt.

At one point, when Pei had expected the camp to be invaded by Wang, he had held a pistol to Tinko’s head. On another occasion he had struck her with her own riding crop. Another bandit had threatened to pull out her gold tooth and wrenched her platinum wedding band off her finger. Tinko later tried to claim on her insurance, but was told that her policy did not cover “bandit losses”.

While she had managed not to contract the cholera that was ravaging the district, she had witnessed a captured rival to Pei’s being, she wrote later, branded, blinded, hung by his thumbs overnight and then fed to the pigs.

Tinko’s parents and her husband were, naturally, delighted that she was returning home with both ears. Corkran had grown a full beard and was pictured smoking his smuggled-in pipe. Lady Corkran, his mother, in London, was reported to be “overjoyed”, though she noted that throughout the ordeal, Charlie had not thought to write to her and that the last she had heard from him was a request to buy a decent gift for the Pawley wedding in London and have it shipped to China. This, she was keen to point out to the man from Reuters, she had indeed done.

Not that anybody had seemed that bothered during the hostage crisis, but the mafoos had been released sometime earlier and were safely home. According to Tinko, her mafoo cried when he left, demanding he be allowed to remain with her. Although we do not have the mafoos’ version of events, Tinko told later of how they had been beaten regularly and hung up by their wrists in a humiliating punishment.

Sin city: the gritty underbelly of 1930s Shanghai

Of course, everyone who had been following the story around the world was greatly relieved. Waugh celebrated news of Tinko’s release with a hearty cheer in his London drawing room; Agate noted the happy resolution in his diary. A thanksgiving service for Tinko’s safe return was held at Newchwang Church; letters flooded in to Tientsin Post Office addressed simply to “Tinko Pawley – Tientsin”. Waugh sat down to write a short story inspired by Tinko. The result was Incident in Azania, which relocates Tinko’s kidnapping to Waugh’s fictional country of Azania, forming a follow-on tale of a kind to Black Mischief. It is in Africa rather than Manchuria, but a cause célèbre kidnapping, the delightful Prunella whose ears are under threat of being hacked off, writing upbeat letters from the bandit camp, consoling her concerned family. The ransom demands are virtually identical.

Some of Pei’s men might have joined the Manchukuo Police Force, but he did not. He slipped out of sight for a while before joining up with the far bigger gang of warlord Lao Pei-feng, “Old Northern Wind”. Pei was reported to have been one of many bandits killed by the Japanese in June 1933 near the city of Kirin (now Jilin), in Manchukuo. It is not known whether he died wearing a satin-lined suit and good leather brogues.

In 1935, Corkran married Molly Payne-Smith at the British Consulate in Shanghai. Kenneth and Tinko Pawley were witnesses.

Tinko did what any instant celebrity, then or now, would do. She got herself a book deal. My Bandit Hosts: The Terrifying Experiences of a Young Bride Who Was Kidnapped by Chinese Bandits (as told to Joy Packer) was published in 1935. Packer, a South African journalist with Britain’s Daily Express, had lived in Weihaiwei (Weihai; her husband was an officer in the Royal Navy’s China Squad­ron) before working in radio in Hong Kong. It’s a jaunty book but it didn’t sell well – perhaps by that time people’s fascinations had moved on.

And the question so many newspaper readers were keen to have answered – what became of Tinko’s faithful dogs?

The captors, it turned out, rather liked Squiffy, the pointer pup, but they ardently disliked Whisky and Rolf – the “wolf dogs”. Rolf was beaten to death for barking too loudly. Whisky was beaten, too, but survived and escaped, managing to find his way back to Newchwang, turning up tired and hungry several weeks later. Squiffy never left Tinko’s side and was with her when she was released.

Paul French is the author of Midnight in Peking (2012).