Mysteries of super villain's city past revealed

PRIME Minister Gordon Brown, telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell, Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and even, as comic Miles Jupp points out in a new BBC programme, Popstars' Darius Danesh (now Campbell).

All make the list of Edinburgh University's famous alumni, those who studied at the noble institution at some point in the past and went on to make a difference in the world.

But according to Miles – himself an Edinburgh University graduate – there could be a name missing. A name with a brain at least as brilliant as Bell's, with facial hair as impressive as Conan Doyle's and possibly even a voice as melodic as Darius's, such were his wide-ranging talents.

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Yes, the world's first super villain, the yellow peril incarnate and international criminal mastermind, Dr Fu Manchu was a student at Edinburgh University, a fact he himself revealed in The Mask of Fu Manchu in 1932.

As the BBC show's producer, David Stenhouse, explains: "Like a lot of super villains, he doesn't like anyone to disrespect him."

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So when one adversary challenges his credentials, the piqued evil-doer reels off a list of the august institutions where he has studied. "I am," the Celestial One boasts, "a doctor of philosophy from Edinburgh, a doctor of law from Christ's College, a doctor of medicine from Harvard. My friends, out of courtesy, call me 'doctor'."

It was when David – another Edinburgh graduate – read this he became intrigued as to what exactly Fu Manchu would have studied and when he would have lived here.

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Hence Miles' mission in the programme, which will be broadcast by BBC Radio Scotland on Monday.

"When you look at the books, it is fairly easy to date his time in Edinburgh to the 1870s," says David. "And that would have been an interesting time to be in town. Arthur Conan Doyle was about to start studying at the medical school under Joseph Bell, who went on to be the inspiration for Holmes. Robert Louis Stevenson was in town. A young Chinese student would have brushed shoulders with a lot of interesting characters."

Of course, there is no record of a Fu Manchu in Edinburgh University's records – although as an institution with a global reputation, it was attracting students from as far afield as China even then. Wong Fun, the first Chinese student to graduate from a European university, received his MD from Edinburgh in 1855.

According to David, there is a simple explanation for the lack of record about Fu Manchu – and, no, the reason isn't that he's actually a fictional character created by English author Sax Rohmer who appeared in a string of best-selling adventure stories in the early 20th century.

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"Well, obviously Fu Manchu was a nom de guerre," says David.

So somewhere in the vaults of the university lies an unidentified thesis by one of the world's most notorious criminal masterminds, a man who went on to be a sworn enemy of the West, using giant centipedes, cellars of poisonous mushrooms and death rays against his victims. But how would he have got on with student life in the city?

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Jonathan Murray, lecturer in film and visual culture at Edinburgh College of Art and a Dr Fu Manchu expert, says: "I think he would have seen what we do as rather frivolous. I don't think he would have been out carousing, he would have had his head down, getting on with his doctorate."

Fu Manchu's use of deadly plants, particularly mushrooms, eventually leads Miles to the Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh which, he learns, was at the forefront of research even in the 1870s.

The Regius Keeper of the time, John Hutton Balfour, was a renowned expert who attracted students from far afield.

Miles is allowed behind locked doors to see the Botanics' extensive collection of plants, including deadly mushrooms, many of which where already in place in Fu Manchu's time.

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"There is such a wealth there, hundreds of cupboards, and each cupboard containing hundreds of samples. It's amazing," says Miles. And he becomes convinced that the sinister doctor was here to study . . . botany.

So should the Botanics or the university do more to commemorate this alumni with a statue, a Fu Manchu chair or hothouse?

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Jonathan thinks so. He says: "He is far cleverer and more of a polymath than you or I could ever hope to be but fails time after time. But he was never discouraged, he keeps coming back for more. He is an inspiration for us all, even if we aren't criminal megalomaniacs."

There is, of course, the small matter that the books are somewhat less than politically correct. A product of the early 20th century, their stereotyping of the Chinese characters, particularly the not-so-good doctor, makes cringeworthy reading these days.

In his debut in the 1913 novel The Mystery of Dr Fu Manchu, he is described as "tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green (invested] with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race".

Miles explains: "You are reading them, thinking these are fantastic books, why does no-one read them today . . . oh!"

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Jonathan adds: "Yes, they are extremely racist. I think you could even say they have a white supremacist attitude."

David suggests looking at them in a different way – seeing past the bias of the writers who are the only source for Fu Manchu and to the real man.

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"Another way to see him was anti-Imperialist, fighting the British Empire and sticking up for the Chinese.

"Edinburgh University has a tradition of educating anti-Imperialists, such as Julius Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania, and Hastings Banda, who led the independence movement in Malawi. I think we should see Fu Manchu in that tradition."

Of course, talking about Fu Manchu in the past may itself be a mistake. Nearly 100 years ago he was already experimenting with an elixir of life – could he actually still be alive?

Jonathan says: "I think We should get him back to sort out the city's trams. Or it may be the trams are another diabolical scheme to destroy Western civilisation from within – and this one is working."

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Fu Manchu in Edinburgh will be broadcast on Monday at 11:30am on BBC Radio Scotland