By C.S. Hagen
TIANJIN, CHINA – Sixty-seven years after the Crate Ripper Case was solved, old Tientsin hands remember the mysterious murder like it was yesterday.
Angela Cox Elliott, born in a civilian prison at the Japanese Weihsien Internment Camp, was only a child when Li Baowu and his lover, Shi Meili, otherwise known as Marion Sze, killed, beheaded and dismembered Baowu’s first wife, Dong Yuzhen, sensationally startling the world in the process, and adding its own death nail into the traditions of polygamous marriage. She remembers it was the talk of the city until long after the communist takeover.
Time and gossip have pretzel-ed fact and fiction, but the truth – provided by eyewitnesses who still remember – proves the murder was premeditated, and is more gruesome than anything else reported on the incident since October 25, 1947, the day Dong Yuzhen died.
(Left) A movie produced in Hong Kong late 1947 called “Empty Crate Corpse” (空屋箱尸) featured the heinous crime. (Center) Dong Zhengguo, (董政國) a Tianjin warlord, died May 20, 1947 of illness, only four months before his daughter’s grisly murder on October, 25 1947. (Right) Dong Yuzhen (董玉贞), 35, mother of four, known in the Western press as Chaste Jade, was the victim.
Li Baowu, also known as Walter Li, was the vice general manager for the Tientsin Chung Tien Electric Factory. He enjoyed model cars and women, so much so he kept three wives and a host of prostitutes across the city. Marion was pale-skinned, of Sino-German blood, and a rare beauty – eyebrows arched like a kingfisher’s – who loved her furs and diamond rings. The couple was not married, but Walter Li lived with Marion at number fifty-three Dali Road, often neglecting his first wife and children.
Dong Yuzhen, known in Western media as Chaste Jade, frequently visited her husband at the Dali Road house where arguments inevitably ensued. If Marion received a fox fur coat, Chaste Jade naturally wanted a Siberian mink coat. They argued loud enough to disturb the neighbors.
The Crate Ripper Case was not only reported in Tianjin, known as Tientsin in pre-liberation days, but headlined in international newspapers ranging from Massachusetts to Singapore.
The Lowell Sun splayed the story on November 14, 1937 with the headline Chaste Jade’s Murder Rocks Tientsin.
“A beautiful Eurasian girl, a socially prominent Chinese businessman, and his first wife, Chaste Jade, are the principals in one of the bloodiest triangle murders yet splashed on the front pages of the Tientsin press,” the article written by Al Wedekind began. Dong Yuzhen is named Chaste Jade, her murderous husband’s English name is Walter Li, who was listed as thirty-eight years old, and Shi Meili was named Marion Sze, who was twenty-seven at the time.
“Li had been separated from his first wife several years,” the article continues. “On the morning of October twenty-fifth, Chaste Jade called at his home on one of her periodic guests [visits] for money.
“She did not leave the house alive.”
The Indiana newspaper Tipton Tribune also published the story on the same day. The article states Chaste Jade had been mutilated and burned and that the family with whom Marion left the crate containing Chaste Jade’s dismembered body had notified police after noticing a strange smell.
Marion left the crate at her friend’s house as she was planning on leaving, and said it was heavy because it was filled with gold bars. She waved away concerns by blaming a strange odor emanating from the crate on cat urine.
According to foreign Tianjiners at the time, a dog found the crate several days later, and created a ruckus that could not be ignored. Shortly before Marion’s arrest and while carving ham for dinner at a friend’s house, Marion flippantly mentioned it was much like slicing human flesh. No one paid her any attention as their minds were on the supposed gold bars locked away in the smelly crate.
The stories scared Elliott, who was only five years old at the time. She reflected to when she was a child sitting in Victoria Park across the street from the Astor Hotel, watching Marion’s elderly parents.
“Why is that dog sniffing around the crate?” Elliott recalls her mother saying about the dog that wouldn’t leave the crate alone. “You would think there was a dead body in it.”
No one would have guessed that there truly was a dead body in the crate. It wasn’t until the fishy smell became too much to bear and a sticky substance bubbled from a crack that police were notified. After all, they were friends.
During the past decade Chinese media ranging from CCTV to the Tianjin Film Studio to the China Daily have electrified the Crate Ripper Case saying it was the “last case of the Nationalists, the first case of the communists.” Reports differ on where Chaste Jade’s body was stored and whether the animal sniffing the crates was a cat named Snowball or a curious dog. Another differing report is that according to CCTV Walter and Marion took the body back to Chaste Jade’s house at seventy-four Hong Kong Road (now Munan Road) to dismember in her own bathtub before hauling her in a whicker crate to a friend’s apartment.
As a third generation expatriate in China, Elliott remembers watching a play about the murder before being banished with her family after nearly a century of calling China their home. Her great grandfather Paul Splingaerd, known around the world at the time as the Belgian Mandarin, arrived in China in 1865. Paul Splingaerd was appointed a mandarin of the imperial Qing Dynasty, working not only as a magistrate, but also as an industrialist for China before his death in Xi’an in 1906.
“There was a reenactment of the play that I went to see with Mum,” Elliott said. “I can still picture it – the scene with Mrs. Li – he hits her, she konks out – she’s loaded into the bathroom and then him coming out and they’re discussing whether they would cut the body up. I can’t remember from then on. It was just a one-room act.”
In Singapore, the case was called the “Tientsin’s Torso Murder Case,” according to November 4, 1947 article in the Singapore Free Press. Tianjin locals became enraged. The president of the Tientsin Middle School, Lu Yi Jen, appealed in a heavily reported speech to all Chinese women demanding an end to polygamous marriages.
“Marion was a very pretty girl, a big show off,” Elliott said. “She bragged about all the items Mister Li bestowed on her. The story goes that his wife accepted the relationship. In those days it wasn’t uncommon for a man to have another girl or sometimes several, except the wife stipulated that whatever he gave Marion, she wanted the same thing.
“I can’t really remember what it was the wife missed out on. A fur coat, or a ring precipitated the final scene when the wife paid a visit to Mister Li ensuring her demise.”
Most media report Walter and Marion decapitated Chaste Jade and burned her face, wrapping her body parts in a rug. But this is not what happened. Not at all.
The night before the murder took place, Walter and Marion played nice with Chaste Jade, expressing a desire to make up for past mistakes. Chaste Jade purchased a typewriter for Marion, as Marion agreed to move to Beijing. Instead of moving, however, she invited Chaste Jade for dinner, catered by Kiesslings, inside her Dali Road house. Wine and liquor was poured. Conversations turned sour. Chaste Jade threw a cup and Walter beat her head in with a hammer, breaking her left arm in the process.
According to the Tianjin Republic Daily later that afternoon Marion faked a loud, fond farewell out her bedroom window. “Zou hao, zou hao, Wu Nainai,” farewell, farewell, fifth grandmother. She called out Chaste Jade’s pet name. The loyal couple then proceeded to clean the house, taking care not to leave a trace of their bloody deeds. Walter made one trip outside to buy a whicker crate, which cost him ninety thousand francs.
After four hours waiting the necessary tools were procured. Chaste Jade’s limp body was put into the bathtub and dismembered. Blood pooled down the drain. Four days later when police discovered the contents inside the whicker crate, her body parts wrapped in towels, they also noticed Chaste Jade’s head was missing. Her severed head was found inside Marion’s oven. Walter filed a missing person’s report on October twenty-sixth, but the couple was arrested on Halloween, October thirty-first. Marion admitted to holding Chaste Jade’s feet, urging Walter to strike harder during the altercation. She later recanted.
One eyewitness account reports seeing Marion the day she was arrested. She waved helplessly as a police car pulled up next to her. The next day Marion’s parents came asking for help, but there was no help to be had. Marion needed a lawyer.
“Marion’s mother was a portly, old German lady, but so sweet,” Elliott said. “Mister Shi was very thin. It was embarrassing for me to speak with them and I felt very sorry for the old couple. No doubt Marion must have been a spoilt child.”
Elliott was barely five years old when the Crate Ripper Case stole headlines across the world. Having just been rescued by US Paratroopers from the Japanese Weihsien Concentration Camp only two years before, Tianjin was not how she left it and tensions were brewing. The Japanese were gone, but the Nationalists were corrupt; the communists were coming, and Chaste Jade’s murder sparked fury not only against the culprits, but against foreigners as well.
One rumor was that Walter had hired a foreign surgeon to carve up his wife. Another story is that the couple had purchased tickets for Hong Kong to escape, but cold weather and ice floes on the Hai River delayed their route. Most international transportation started on passenger and trading ships navigating the Hai River in pre-liberation days, and then traveled south to Shanghai or Hong Kong. Another story, and possibly the strangest, was written in a short story by Tientsin-native Alex Auswaks, a Jerusalem-based crime fiction writer. He reports in 1994 that Marion was a breath taker, had olive skin, high cheekbones, long, straight, jet-black hair from her father and a curvaceous figure from her mother, a German woman named Josefa Hoffman. She was fluent in German, Chinese and English, and had a large crowd of suitors.
At school, Marion was a tomboy, but her mother said she was simply high spirited. When Marion came home once from an opium party, her mother said she had a fever. No matter her curiosities, Mrs. Hoffman, better known as Frau Shi, said her daughter was loyal. Loyal to the bitter end when she helped Walter cover up a murder he committed by himself – perhaps – going as far as to contact a German friend, Adolf Fleischmann, a lover or would-be suitor who would have done anything to help.
She was a model prisoner, adapting readily to the communist’s reeducation programs. Her loyalty is questioned, however, when she was released early from Xiqing District’s Xiaoxiguan Prison to shack up with the warden. Auswaks’ rendition of the story leaves more questions than answers.
(Left) The Dali Road House (25 Dali Road, 大力道25号) where Marion Shi (施美丽) and Walter Li (李宝旿) resided and where Dong Yuzhen (Chaste Jade) was killed. (Middle) The Jing Ming Apartments（景明大楼）on Tai’an Road (泰安道) where the whicker crate with Chaste Jade’s body was kept and later found. (Right) The Hong Kong Road (74 Munan Road 睦南道74号) Li family house where Chaste Jade lived with her family.
For days Walter and Marion avoided the truth and police inspectors. The investigation that followed first targeted rickshaw drivers and the local bandits. Walter told Kuomintang Tianjin Chief Superintendent Xiao that bandits had probably overheard the argument he had with his first wife and that she was robbed for money, all the while sliding a thick wad of bills into the officer’s lap. Walter spent hundreds of thousands bribing police, so much that it was learned later that nearly every Tianjin police officer benefited from his unreserved charity at some time during his incarceration. He eventually cracked under twelve hours of Kuomintang police interrogation, however, and was later sentenced to death, but spent the next two years in luxury at the Xiaoxiguan Prison. Marion was sentenced to life in prison without parole. The couple lacked for nothing while in prison and before the communist forces overwhelmed the Republic. Walter wore his own clothes, slept on a soft Western bed. He even hired his personal chef to cook his meals.
Not until May 4, 1951 was Walter tried and sentenced a second time by a new communist court. He was executed by firing squad twenty days later.
Eliott and her family stayed in Tianjin until 1956, nearly seven years after the communist takeover. The years between 1949 and her departure were bleak. The sparkling clubs lost their luster and once colorful parades down Victoria Street (now Liberation Street) disappeared. Meat, oil and rice were rationed. Coffee was brewed with chicory. Communist officials squeezed remaining families and factories until payrolls could not be met.
Elliott’s father worked for the Credit Foncier d/extreme Orient at the corner of Rue de France and Victoria Road, and held out against communist demands as long as he could. Eventually, his company was forced to shut down, its property given up, and her family boarded the Heinrich Jessen ship to Hong Kong.
Elliott waited more than thirty years to return to Tianjin, which she now considers her home. As a child, however, she couldn’t wait to leave and go abroad where English was spoken and the streets were clean and filled with lights. In 1999 Elliott visited the Dali Road house and found the old bathtub. The house was in decent condition, and people still spoke of the gruesome murder. Marion was released in 1954 and was said to be working at the Ambassador Hotel in Hong Kong. Local legend says she returned once to her Dali Road home after the Cultural Revolution and then begged the Li family for forgiveness.
None was given.