In a grotty hutong, tucked behind the neon signs of Ghost Street and the bustle of the Lama Temple, is a gray tower. The turret is trimmed with rusted barbed wire covered with vines and weeds, a green leafy crown on a forgotten centurion. The tower is one of four remaining guard posts for the Pao Ju prison, known in Beijing slang as Lao Pao’er, a notorious detention center which housed some of China’s most famous traitors, spies, and criminals.
It is also part of the Beijing lexicon. An old Beijing saying warned miscreants of their fate: “If you’re not good and honest, you’ll be sent to the Pao’er.” Many Beijing hoodlums, big and small, did time at Pao’er. Some did more than one stint. Alumni of the prison, especially repeat offenders, earned the nickname “Lao Pao’er,” which entered Beijing slang as another word for criminal or somebody who was an overall badass comfortable with stretching the bounds of legality in their day-to-day life.
Most recently, it has become a part of popular culture with the 2015 release of the movie “Lao Pao’er” (known in English as “Mr. Six” and reviewed by TWOC here) starring Feng Xiaogang as a low-level Beijing hood who goes to war against the corrupt scions of wealthy and powerful families.
While the movie has revived interest in the gritty underworld of the Beijing hutongs, the Paoju prison sits neglected. The prison closed in the 1980s, and currently, the compound houses the PSB Transportation Division and a few other government offices.
Pao Ju dates back to the mid-Qing era. The Manchus had successfully used cannons and other guns in their conquest of China and the expansion of their empire. Once the Manchu banner settled in the northern city of Beijing, four factories were established for the manufacture and storage of cannons and ammunition. The factory which would eventually become Paoju prison was one of the four (hence the name, paoju, which literally translates as “Cannon Bureau”). During the 18th and 19th centuries, it continued in this role, managed by members of the Plain White, Plain Blue, Bordered Yellow, and Bordered White Banners.
By the late-19th century, the Qing armies relied increasingly on foreign-made cannons and guns. Having lost its original purpose, at the turn of the 20th century, the Paoju was converted into a prison.
In the Republican era, the prison was used to house the political enemies of the ruling KMT. One of its most famous inmates was the military leader Ji Hongchang. Originally born in Henan, Ji Hongchang was a commander during KMT Northern Expedition to unite China in 1927-1928. Despite his battlefield successes, he fell out with Chiang Kai-shek and was exiled to Japan on a study mission in 1930. When Ji returned to China two years later, he worked with other military leaders such as Feng Yuxiang and Fang Zhenwu to organize a resistance against the Japanese in North China. Ji broke with Chiang for good in 1934, when Ji joined the Communist Party. Later that year, KMT agents colluded with the French Police in the international concession of Tianjin to arrest Ji and he was sent to Beijing for execution. On November 24, 1934, Ji was executed at Pao Ju Prison. His final words were that he was sorry he did not die fighting the Japanese, and with China suffering such a great calamity, he did not care about his own life or death.
Ten years later, another famous inmate also faced death on the grounds of Pao Ju. Kawashima Yoshiko was one of the most fascinating figures of modern Chinese history. Born Aisin-Gioro Xianyu into an elite Manchu family in 1908. Following the abdication of the Emperor Puyi in 1912, her family fell on hard times, and Xianyu was gifted to the Japanese nationalist Kawashima Naniwa. Her adoptive father gave her a new name, and as Kawashima Yoshiko, she was raised and educated in Japan. By the 1920s however, she was back in China. Over the next ten years, she was the lover or wife of a series of powerful men including the son of a Mongolian general and, later, the Japanese Military Attache to Shanghai.
Yoshiko also adopted a lifelong habit of dressing in masculine clothing and wearing her hair short. She was also known for speaking in Japanese using the male syntax. When Puyi became the emperor of the puppet state of Manchukuo, Yoshiko, who considered herself a Manchu patriot, was involved in intelligence and counter-intelligence operations on behalf of Manchukuo and Japanese authorities. Details are sketchy, mainly because Yoshiko was fond of inventing stories and playing up her involvement in military activities. She claimed to have led raids against bandits in which her troops killed 3000 men. Whether true or not, the stories would come back to haunt her.
In November 1945, still clinging to delusions of her youth and beauty despite the ravages of time and heavy opium habit, Yoshiko was arrested in Beijing. Her defense claimed that she was not a traitor since she had been adopted into a Japanese family. Therefore, she should be considered a prisoner of war. Unfortunately, her adoptive father Naniwa, stung perhaps by allegations Yoshiko made to biographers that Naniwa had sexually abused her as girl, did not produce the papers necessary to prove her adoption. Three years later, in 1948, she was executed at Paoju with a single pistol shot to the back of her skull.
Today, the walls and towers of the Paoju Jail sit neglected. The neighborhood is mostly scrap paper and metal recyclers. The watchtowers can be seen by walking along Paoju Toutiao, east of Yonghegong and the Bailin Temple. They are quiet reminders of one of Beijing’s most notorious and iconic landmarks.
Cover image by Jimmy Chan from Pexels