Rohmer was born Arthur Henry Wardin Birmingham in 1883, the son of Irish-Catholic parents. The family moved to South London when he was 2 or 3. His mother was an alcoholic who died when he was 18. She claimed descent from a 17th Century Irish general Patrick Sarsfield. The young Rohmer began referring to himself as Arthur SARSFIELD Ward. An only child, he read voraciously and by all accounts sought refuge in a fantasy world. Very much a “re-inventor” of himself he was able to tell compelling tales by being able to convince himself of the truth of the story he was telling.
In 1912 he adopted the name “Sax Rohmer” which he apparently claimed was taken from the Saxon “blade” (Sax) and “roamer”. This is the name he was known by for the rest of his life. After failing the civil service examinations and working briefly as a clerk in a bank and a gas company, he became a junior reporter on newspapers, workingas a freelance whilst submitting short stories to the various newspapers he worked on as well as lyrics and comedy sketches for music-halls. He was later to say that his earliest interests “were centered in Ancient Egypt…I accumulated a large library on Egyptology and occult literature” and his first published short story, in 1903, was indeed called The Mysterious Mummy.
In 1909 he married Rose Elizabeth Knox, whose father had been a well-known comedian in his youth, and who, at the time, was performing in a juggling act with her brother Bill. She was also believed to be psychic.
In 1911 he was sent to Chinatown to research a mysterious drugs and gambling boss called Mr. King. Although he found nothing, Rohmer claims to have seen a tall Chinese man “attended” by a beautiful Arab girl that gave him the idea for Fu Manchu and his beautiful Eurasian slave girl Karamaneh. Another story goes that Rohmer and his wife consulted an ouija board as to how he could best make a living. The answer that came back was ‘C-H-I-N-A-M-A-N’.
Professor Jeffrey Richards at a recent China In Britain event at the University Of Westminster event maintained “There is something dreamlike in Rohmer’s writing. Dreams and hallucinations feature regularly in his narratives” and Rohmer claimed to have “dreamed” some of his plots. He even invented a character, Maurice Claw, who solved mysteries in his dreams. “His writing was intensely visual, almost cinematic”.
Rohmer claimed membership to a faction of the qabbalisticHermetic Order of the Golden Dawnwhose other members included Aleister Crowley and William Butler Yeats. Rohmer’s supernatural stories include Brood of the Witch Queen (1918), in which an Egyptian mummy is revived to practice ancient sorcery in the modern world, and Grey Face (1924), in which a supposed reincarnation of Cagliostro causes much havoc. Rohmer also claimed ties to the Rosicrucians though the validity of these claims have been questioned and it’s believed Rohmer may have exaggerated these connections in order to boost his literary reputation as an occult writer.
The first three Fu Manchu novels were written as newspaper/magazine serials appearing in Britain and America in 1913, 1917 and 1918. These first three novels all revolve around a plotline of the evil Doctor seeking to silence all voices in the West that are warning of the imminent danger of the rising power of China as well as featuring several attempts by Fu Manchu and his minions on the lives of the book’s two heroes, Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie, by use of mysterious poisons and exotic methods with such names as the Zayat Kiss, The Coughing Horror, The Snapping Fingers, The Green Mist and The Flower Of Silence, always with a stark racial opposition between East and West. Nayland Smith, the book’s hero, claims (in a quote worthy of the EDL) to be acting in the interests of the “entire white race, under threat from “Oriental villainy”. Critic Jack Adrian describes Rohmer’s “racism” as “careless and casual, a mere symptom of his times”
The books proved immensely popular by playing to the prevailing attitude towards the Chinese in Britain and America at the time. The UK Chinese community (at the time miniscule) suffered from lurid stereotyping in the tabloid press that they were taking over English jobs (an omnipresent fear it seems) and seducing and drugging white women. “The opium den became a popular image of Oriental depravity…having already featured in Charles Dickens’ The Mystery Of Edwin Drood in 1870, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture Of Dorian Grey in 1891 as well as the Sherlock Homes story, The Man With The Twisted Lip in 1892” (Professor Jeffrey Richards). Although almost entirely mythical, the combination of opium, gambling and sex was heady tabloid fodder. But one example in many is the Daily Express headline in 1920 of “Yellow Peril In London: vast syndicate of vice with its criminal master, women and child victims”.
For periods during the 1920s and 1930s, Rohmer was one of the most widely read and highly paid magazine writers in the English language. He also wrote for the stage and created tunes to several of his songs by humming them to a transcriber. Success brought Rohmer financial security for a period but his business instincts were poor and he gambled much of his wealth at Monte Carlo. He travelled with his wife in the Near East, Jamaica and Egypt, and built a country house called Little Gatton in the Surrey countryside. In 1955 he was said to have sold the film, television and radio rights for his books for more than four million dollars.
The next set of Fu Manchu books came in a series of six beginning in 1931. He wrote three more after the Second World War, the final one in 1959 just before his death from (one of literary history’s great ironies) Asian ‘flu. According to one biographer Rohmer proudly proclaimed of his Fu Manchu series that “I made my name on Fu Manchu because I know nothing about the Chinese”.
The Fu Manchu Complex by Daniel York opens on October 1st! http://www.ovalhouse.com/whatson/detail/the-fu-manchu-complex Preview tickets just £7