A review of a Beijing walking tour by Newman Tours
They say tour guides make the worst tourists. For someone accustomed to knowing the answers, at least some of the answers, or pretending to know the answers, and knowing the location of things, particularly the next restroom, suddenly being on the other end of things can be disconcerting. We are also not accustomed to listening to instructions. More often than not when on tour, I become that tourist, the one who, like in a game of Jeopardy, asks the question to the answer just given by the guide.
And so, I try to make a conscious effort to make up for this minor fault and pay attention to the guide when I myself join a tour. For a guide myself, there is an added benefit. Like teaching, in guiding there is always room for improvement. One of the best ways to do so is take a guided tour and observe another guide at work. With this in mind, I recently joined Newman Tours’ ‘Warlord Tour’ in Beijing, covering the history of China’s tumultuous Warlord Era spanning roughly 1916-1928.
See the video below for a visual introduction to the chaos of that time with Cantonese narration.
Why the ‘Warlord Tour’? Well, I was interested in learning more about the Chinese strongman Yuan Shikai (1859-1916), who between 1885-1894 was the Qing Dynasty Imperial Resident in Seoul, then capital of Choson Ri Dynasty Korea. Yuan Shikai was involved in the events leading up to the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-5), a conflict fought largely on Korean soil. Following his return to China, Yuan was instrumental in the next decades of Chinese history: the Boxer Rebellion, fall of the Qing Dynasty, establishment of the Chinese Republic, and its subsequent fracturing into warlordism. As I soon found out, the Warlord Tour has more than the Yuan Shikai connection to Korea.
But first back to guiding, for this tour has a special guide from another era. He is British adventurer, soldier of fortune, and one-armed arms-dealer Francis Arthur Sutton (played by Daniel Newman) equipped with an iPad, instead of revolver, loaded with old photos and videos relevant to each part of the tour. Newman is not only well-versed in the history of the Warlord era, but also the life of ‘One Arm Sutton’ – a life that took the man from the shores of Gallipoli (where he lost his throwing a grenade at the ‘the Turk’), to ever niche and corner of fragmented 20’s China, and eventually to Korea, where her operated a mine, and from which he was expelled by the Japanese in 1941. (I’m still trying to find out exactly where Sutton operated his mine in Korea.) Sutton died in Japanese internment in 1944, but Newman brings him to life on tour, answering personal questions using anecdotes from Sutton’s life and speaking of post-1944 developments in Beijing as 'the future'.
The tour is meticulously planned, moving through the Warlord Era in rough chronological order with prerequisite background, while walking between different locations associated with people and events pertaining to the time hidden in Beijing’s backstreets and alleyways, also known as hutongs. It takes place in the evening so many of the locations are closed to visitors, others are residences and closed both day and night, but the sights are interesting enough - an ornate arch in one place, a hidden stele in another – and you are really there for the stories which Sutton (Newman) brings to life about flamboyant opera singers, big-earned gangsters, ‘Dog Meat’ and ‘Christian’ warlords, and more famous persons like Sun Yat-Sen and Chiang Kai-Shek.
All the way, Sutton’s operation of the anachronistic iPad with the historically accurate one-arm is impressive. He also brings along a number of props that make the tour more lively and education, attracting the attention of the locals. I didn’t expect an introduction to the rules of Chinese chess on tour, but looking back it makes sense to learn some strategy on a warlord themed tour.
Of course, the greatest surprise for myself on the tour was visiting the former location of the North Korean Embassy in Beijing, housed in what was once the home of Wen Yu, a Qing Dynasty scholar. To the extent of my knowledge, this site temporarily housed the DPRK embassy in the days before their large embassy near Ritan Park was completed.
Overall the tour is highly recommended for those interested in Chinese history or those looking for a unique hutong tour which is well-planned, informative, and fun. The tour is two hours long and does cover quite a bit of ground. I made the unfortunate mistake of not eating dinner before the walk, so either try to work dinner in before or bring along some snacks. Dress warm in autumn and winter.
Contact Newman Tours for availability and pricing (see below).
*Koryo Tours is not affiliated with Newman Tours. On our blog we provide information and reviews of tours, services, and locations which we believe our clients may enjoy and that we have personally experienced first-hand.*
'Sundays in Peking' introduces sights and activities in Beijing with even the slightest connection to Korea. Sometimes we just write about other stuff happening around Beijing.
Historic image from Wikimedia Commons (source).