LOCAL HISTORY: Chinese Whispers That Led to Killer; When a Chinese Labourer Was Murdered in Warley Woods at the End of the Great War, the Midlands Was Terrorised

Article excerpt


On June 28 1919, the day that a peace treaty was signed to put an end to the slaughter of the Great War, a boy was out wandering in Warley Woods.

Paying the usual scant attention to the barbed-wire fencing he probed the inner recesses of the woods. The woods are not deep nor particularly dark, but the secret he found there was.

He took one look at it and fled to the nearest police station.

Geography is important in this neck of the woods, lying as they do exactly on the boundary between Birmingham and Sandwell. Or, as it was in 1919, between Warwickshire and Worcestershire.

The dead body that the boy had seen was lying just inside Worcestershire. Not that local topography had much of a relevance to the corpse. Not only was the man dead, he was also Chinese.

That the unknown man had been murdered was without question. But the nature of the injuries suggested that the police were looking, not for a murderer, but a sadistic killer.

A post-mortem revealed lacerations to both sides of the face as well as fractures to the skull, the breast-bone and ribs.

The killer had clearly had a variety of implements at his disposal: a blunt instrument to knock the victim unconscious, a chisel to drive into the skull and a sharp knife or scalpel to commit exploratory surgery on the man's private parts.

But even before the police could begin their search for the killer, they had to search for the victim. Given the size of the Chinese population in the area, this should not prove difficult.

The man was Zee Ming Wu, a labourer living in the lodging-house he shared with five other Chinese men just off Coleshill Street in Birmingham.

Wu's background has a surprisingly modern sound to it. Like many migrant workers he had come to the city to take advantage of the (comparatively) good wages with a view to saving enough to return to China and transform the life of his family back home.

Out of his weekly wage packet he spent just five shillings on rent and a couple of shillings on rice' the rest he saved.

Zee had been reported missing from his lodgings on June 23. He had left work as usual at 5.45 pm but had not returned home. And this was not a man with a reputation for "going on the town".

While the police were painstakingly examining Warley Woods and Wu's lodgings the newspapers were painting on a far broader canvas. The terror of the tongs had come to the Midlands, they wrote, and diabolical orientals were at large in the city.

Behind the killing in Warley Woods lay the devil doctor himself, Fu Manchu. No matter that Fu Manchu was entirely a fictional creation' it was a case of fact living up to fiction. In this world every Chinaman was fiendish and had piercing green eyes. Today we would think of "Snakeheads"' then it was Fu Manchu.

Plodding along behind the hype, the police came up with a more prosaic explanation. A search of the body and his room showed no sign of Wu's precious Post Office book and its pounds 240 worth of hard-earned savings.

Once that conclusion was reached, it was simply a matter of waiting for the killer to try and make use of his newly acquired savings. …