China Books

I Sailed with Chinese Pirates by Aleko E. Lilius

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Earnshaw Books publishes another classic from a forgotten era, this time a foreign journalist's account with pirates in the early 1900s.

Below is the original Foreword to the book, written by Access Asia's Paul French, and an extract from Chapter One, courtesy of Earnshaw Books.

Foreword to I Sailed with Chinese Pirates

by Paul French

Journalist Aleko E. Lilius came to the Far East seeking adventures to write about. He found them, and published lurid accounts of piracy and murder that became his 1930 best seller I Sailed with Chinese Pirates. Lilius had been born in Saint Petersburg in 1890, though he left with his family for Helsinki before the Bolshevik Revolution. Throughout his long and wide-ranging journalistic career he rather liked obscuring his origins and nationality to add a little spice to his CV and was at various times described as Russian, Finnish-Russian, English, Swedish and American. It's certainly true that his work appeared in any number of newspapers, magazines and pulp fiction journals across Europe, in England and in the United States, usually with the idea of bringing some exotic and thrilling adventures to readers mired in the pre-war Depression or suffering under post-war austerity. His books were internationally known, not least because his wife (and secretary), Sonja Maria Lilius, was multi-lingual and translated them all into English, German and Swedish.

In many ways Lilius was an old-school foreign correspondent; ranging far and wide and often out of touch for months on end, leaving his editors tearing their hair out and his audience anticipating his next adventure. Then he would suddenly reappear in one fantastical and thrilling situation after another. Most of the 1920s and 1930s found Lilius roaming around North Africa, Asia and Mexico. In Mexico he was the photographer
accompanying the linguist Rudolf Schuller investigating American-Indian languages and dialects; then he appeared in Morocco among the souks and bazaars; then in China sailing with pirates and lodging in opium dens.

While researching I Sailed with Chinese Pirates, Lilius lived much of the time in the Philippines, using his home in Zamboanga as a base to explore the South China Sea region. His time in the Philippines was unfortunately cut short after an accident in which Lilius's Studebaker was hit by a train of the Manila Railroad Company at a crossing. Both his wife and daughter were severely injured. He was to go on to live in America (though constantly traveling) before returning to Finland to end his days as a painter. He died in 1977.

After publishing I Sailed with Chinese Pirates Lilius later went on to other parts of the world and to other thrilling adventures and remained popular with readers. His 1956 book Turbulent Tangier, an account of the chaos of post-war Tangiers featuring gold traffickers, the Smuggler Queen of Tangiers and the last days of French rule, sold well but it was I Sailed with Chinese Pirates that remains his best-known tale of adventure. In 1931 the New York Times reviewed the book:

A meeting with a mysterious woman pirate chief, Lai Choi San, with several thousand ruthless buccaneers under command, is described in the volume I Sailed With Chinese Pirates, which is published today by D. Appleton & Co. Aleko E. Lilius, English journalist, while traveling in the Orient, according to the publishers, succeeded in winning the confidence of this unusual woman, and he accompanied her and some of her desperadoes on one of their expeditions on a junk equipped with cannon. Mr. Lilius's publishers describe him as the only white man who has ever sailed with these pirates...

Readers were thrilled, but how much of Lilius's story should we swallow without asking any questions? Lilius provided graphic portraits of the cut-throat pirates and readers were especially thrilled by the idea of Lai Choi San, the female pirate queen — it seems that Arthur Ransome may have been inspired by Lilius's account of her when he wrote his Swallows and Amazons novel Missee Lee (1941), where the children come to China and encounter a female pirate queen.

But it's perhaps useful to remember that Lilius's first known literary venture was as a screenplay writer for a 1919 Finnish film — Venusta etsimässä eli erään nuoren miehen ihmeelliset seikkailut ("In search of Venus — or — the Marvellous Adventures of a Young Man") in which he also took a part and was happy for movie watchers to believe was his own biography. As a prolific freelancer — writing for everyone from the serious and informed Asia magazine and Popular Mechanics to the gossipy and rather lightweight British illustrated newspaper The Sphere through to the American pulp fiction magazine Argosy — he was known for telling good, but tall, tales. This reputation stayed with him while he was living in New York where he was considered a raconteur par excellence, but perhaps not always sticking strictly to the facts. Certainly Lilius liked to indulge in thrilling prose and he certainly felt most comfortable when he was at the heart of the story engaging in some act of daring. Still, it appears that everything substantive in I Sailed with Chinese Pirates is actually true and Lilius's experiences are faithfully recorded.

It should also be noted that Lilius isn't exaggerating the threat of piracy in the South China Sea and particularly around Hong Kong and southern China in the 1920s. The area was indeed infested with pirates who menaced both commercial and passenger shipping as well as vulnerable coastal communities. Lilius provides us with a detailed list of ships attacked during the 1920s to prove the point.

I Sailed with Chinese Pirates is a useful history of the period and the lawlessness of the southern China coast in the 1920s, but above all Aleko Lilius's book is an adventure with a capital A. There are facts and eye-witness accounts for the historian but for the casual reader he hits all the notes required to ensure a bestseller — opium dens, casinos with endless games of fan-tan, cutlass-wielding pirates and real Spanish doubloons recovered from sunken treasure. Lilius himself described I Sailed with Chinese Pirates as "a page from the Book of Almost Unbelievable Adventures". It's as thrilling now as it was to his readership in 1931.


Excerpt from I Sailed with Chinese Pirates, Chapter One

by Aleko E. Lilius

It happened that she was going in the direction of Bias Bay, she said, and she was willing to take me there and bring me back. But there would be some delay, for she had business to transact on the way — very serious business. The delay, however, would be insignificant, she explained. Then as an afterthought, did I know that the trip would be rather dangerous?

"Dangerous? Why?"

She smiled, but did not answer.

* * * * *

Here was I, an American journalist, getting the chance of a lifetime, to sail with Chinese pirates to the central nest of the most merciless gang of high-seas robbers in the world, in an armoured junk commanded by a female pirate. Small wonder that I could hardly believe in my luck. What a woman she was! Rather slender and short, her hair jet black, with jade pins gleaming in the knot at the neck, her ear-rings and bracelets of the same precious apple-green stone. She was exquisitely dressed in a white satin robe fastened with green jade buttons, and green silk slippers. She wore a few plain gold rings on her left hand; her right hand was unadorned. Her face and dark eyes were intelligent — not too Chinese, although purely Mongolian, of course — and rather hard. She was probably not yet forty.

Every move she made and every word she spoke told plainly that she expected to be obeyed, and as I had occasion to learn later, she was obeyed.

What a character she must be! What a wealth of material for a novelist or journalist! Merely to write her biography would be to produce a tale of adventure such as few people dream of.

That evening I heard from an American who had sailed the waters around Macao for fifteen years the following story about this remarkable woman: "Her name is Lai Choi San. So many stories centre about her that it is almost impossible to tell where truth ends and legend begins. As a matter of fact, she might be described as a female Chinese version of Robin Hood. They have much in common. Undoubtedly she is the Queen of the Macao pirates. I have never seen her. I have almost doubted her existence until you told me of meeting her. She is said to have inherited the business and the ships from her father, after the old man had gone to his ancestors 'with his slippers on' during a glorious fight between his men and a rival gang. The authorities had given him some sort of refuge here in Macao, with the secret understanding that he and his gang should protect the colony's enormous fishing fleets and do general police duty on the high seas. He even obtained the title of Inspector from somebody in authority, and that, of course, placed him morally far above the other pirate gangs.

"He owned seven fully-armoured junks when he died. To-day Lai Choi San owns twelve junks; nobody seems to know how or when she acquired the additional five, but it is certain that she has them. She has barrels of money, and her will is law.

"You may ask," he continued, "why I call them pirates, since their job is only to 'guard' the numerous fishing craft. However, the other gangs want the same privileges as the present 'inspectors' have, therefore they harass and plunder any ship or village they can lay their hands upon. They kidnap men, women and children, hold them for ransom, ransack their homes, and burn their junks and sampans. It is up to the protectors to undo the work of these others and to avenge any wrong done them. Naturally, there is bitter and continuous warfare between these gangs.

"This avenging business is where the piratical characteristics of the 'protectors' come in. There is frequent and profitable avenging going on wherever the various gangs meet. Lai Choi San is supposed to be the worst of them all; she is said to be both ruthless and cruel. When her ships are merely doing patrol duty she does not bother to accompany them, but when she goes out 'on business' she attends to it personally. When she climbs aboard any of her ships there is an ill-wind blowing for someone."

* * * * *

An orange-coloured haze hung over the hills of Lappa. Slowly the brown sails of our ship crept up, while the barefooted crew scurried back and forth upon the decks. Finally the junk was clear to heave away.

On a nearby junk a Taoist priest in demon-red robes kowtowed and burned fire crackers to his special deity in order to drive away the evil spirits — all this for a few cents silver. I was dazed! It was difficult to believe in my luck.

At last I was actually tramping the deck of an honest-to-goodness pirate ship! Our junk lay hidden among many other similar craft. It would have been impossible to pick it out from the shore, and I wondered how the captain would manœuvre us out from such a crowded jumble of boats. But I did not remain in ignorance long. Members of the crew lowered a dinghy, rowed out some distance, and dropped an anchor. Then the dinghy returned, and all hands hauled upon the anchor line until the junk began to move slowly forward. Then the manœuvre was repeated until we had worked ourselves out into the open water. Hardly a sound was to be heard on board-only the shuffling feet of the crew.

I took a look at the crew. Here in South China I had been used to small, narrow-chested, almost effeminate men; but these fellows were almost giants — muscular, heavy-chested, half-naked, hard-looking-real — bandit types. Some of them wore the wide-brimmed hat such as one sees all over Southern China. Some had tied red kerchiefs around their heads and necks.

There was nothing for me to do but climb up on the poop and make myself as inconspicuous as possible. I felt in the mood to do just that too—a white man, an intruder, searching for unusual "copy." What right, after all, had I to pry into their secrets? I was not a Secret Service man, nor a Government employee...

There are currently 2 Comments for I Sailed with Chinese Pirates by Aleko E. Lilius.

Comments on I Sailed with Chinese Pirates by Aleko E. Lilius

That sounds like a welcome accompaniment to Flashman and the Dragon where the gallant hero sails with, and climbs aboard, a seven foot tall pirate princess!

But where can I get this book in BJ? Bookworm: No. Garden Books: Meiyou.

Seriously, where can I get this book??

Sorry for the late reply, David D, you can order the book from Amazon or the Blacksmith Books site, the links for which are at the beginning of the post.

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