The Dragon Lady, the Taoist and other demons

“The climate is perfect for entrepreneurs here. But you have to be ready to take some risks. You can’t survive on your own.” This was uttered while sipping drinks on the beach of the Knai Bang Chatt, the boutique hotel in Kep, on the south coast of Cambodia. Kep, with its history of rise, decline and rebirth, is one of the places where you can relax and talk about the meaning of life, moving effortlessly from remembering past horrors to society living. Where every conversation is loaded with implications and the sound bites often sound macabre. “If you want to die while looking at the sea, look towards the forest,” says the hotel owner. But this is an old story.
Kep now has a new one and it stars yet another French architect. Many have come through here, starting with Roger Colne, who designed the Kep casino, protégé of the then Prince Norodom Sihanouk, killed by the Khmer Rouge. Today Kep has filled back up with architects studying and renovating the ruins of its modernist villas, seeking out a bit of good luck or basking in that already gained in Cambodia Redux. The architect featured in this story is called Patrick-Henri Devillers. He is 52, has lived in Cambodia for six years, has a Cambodian wife and a son, lives in Phnom Penh in a rented two-storey colonial villa and has bought a small plot of land in Kep, where he has designed and built a cottage using natural materials. He drives around in an old pick-up or on an electric bike. He has a very calm demeanour, yet is betrayed by his wry smile, his grey hair, his slightly stooped shoulders, and his reading glasses hanging from a black cord round his neck.
“He's not a criminal living in the shadows. He’s more like a poet,” says a friend of his. “He’s a sweet person,” ensures a businessman who worked with him. His father, Michel Devillers, agrees, saying a little harshly, “He’s no good at business. He is an artist.”
Devillers probably feels more like one of those wise men who used to wander around Asia, rebelling against the tradition and coercion of habit, and trying to affirm the value of individuality. They were the followers of Tao, the scholars of the
Tao-te-king, which holds the teachings and thoughts of Lao-tze, one of the venerable men that developed the system of thought in the 6th century BC. Devillers also calls himself a Taoist, citing in his defence a teaching of the Tao-te-king: “Give evil nothing to oppose and it will disappear by itself.” The problem is that he has many demons to oppose, particularly those defined as the “Chongqing devils” and who are the source of his current predicament. Because Devillers was arrested on 13th June and seems to be being held at a jail near Pochetong, Phnom Penh airport. He was detained at the request of the Chinese government due to his possible involvement in a homicide connected to the biggest political thriller China has seen since Lin Biao, who died in mysterious circumstances after a failed coup against Mao in 1971. The Chongqing devils are the “red prince”, Bo Xilai, and his wife, Gu Kailai, a couple that until recently was amassing enormous power and wealth in China's newfound position as the world’s second superpower. Son of Bo Yibo, one of the “Eight Immortals” (Mao’s trusted companions), Bo enjoyed a swift rise to power in the last twenty years: mayor of Dalian, minister of commerce, member of the Politburo, mayor and party secretary of Chongqing, China’s largest metropolis with a population of almost 34 million. Bo seemed destined to rise to the very top and was implementing neo-Maoist policies. But after the rise came the sudden fall. On 15th March he was relieved of his duties, dropped from the Politburo and placed under investigation for “serious disciplinary violations”. On 10th April his wife Gu was arrested and charged with homicide.
At this point, we should jump back to 15th November 2011, when the body of British businessman Neil Heywood, 41, was found in a Chongqing hotel room. Heywood had been Gu’s business partner for over 10 years and had helped her son, Bo Guagua, to gain admission to a top English school. An initial report found that he had died from a heart attack brought on by alcohol abuse. For some strange reason no autopsy was performed and the body was quickly cremated. This is when suspicions were raised among Chinese investigators. The main suspect is Gu, a very charming and ambitious woman, who is also alleged to have been Heywood's lover.
For some time it seemed that this was destined to be just another unsolved mystery in the corridors of power. Until last February, when Wang Lijun, Chongqing chief of police turned up at the US consulate in Chengdu requesting sanctuary. Apparently Wang had gone too far in his enquiries and feared Bo’s reaction. The man stayed at the consulate for just one day before being returned to Chinese security service officials who had come from Beijing. In the meantime, though, he revealed his suspicions about Gu Kailai and other information about the business dealings between the family and Heywood. Gu allegedly ordered the murder of her lover because he had demanded an excessively high commission on a transfer of money out of China. As if all of this were not dramatic enough, it turns out that Heywood was not just another businessman. He had worked for Britain’s MI6 intelligence service and had maintained business relations with a private intelligence firm employing former MI6 agents.
Things now take a political turn in the never-ending game of strategy that is the Chinese power stakes. A nest of vipers is unearthed. Accusations of kidnap, torture, extortion, trafficking and prostitution fly. According to a Hong Kong tabloid, one of the women who allegedly sold sex to men in the Gu clan is actress Zhang Ziyi (who has sued the paper). We remember her in the film
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: delicate yet sharp, light yet strong, her gaze seems to scan the surrounding space, her raven-black hair framing perfect skin, her physicality lending credibility to the fantastical action sequences.
But scandals like this are just embellishment around the core issue, which is one of corruption, extortion and power intrigue worthy of the last days of the Qing empire. Here another major player in this story enters the scene; Xu Ming, a close business associate of Bo Xilai, of whom nothing has been heard since the end of March, when he was arrested. In 1993, when Bo became mayor of Dalian, Xu, then little over twenty years of age, had just set up a crayfish export business. In 2004, when Bo was made minister of commerce, Xu’s company obtained the license to import crude oil and petrol. The following year, Forbes magazine named him the fifth richest man in China.
This is where our gentle Taoist, monsieur Devillers, comes in. Living at that time in China and married to the heiress of an important Dalian family, he is the one acting as consultant for Bo for the reconstruction of the city. And he is Gu’s partner when she decides to open a business in the UK for the recruitment of the European architects that would go on to design the new cathedrals of the Chinese economy. Even after leaving China for Cambodia, Devillers maintained close contact with the couple. In 2006 he and his father Michel – despite the apparent contempt in which the latter holds him - set up D2 Properties, a property company based in Luxembourg that allegedly served as cover for exporting Gu’s capital.
These are the operations that may have put Devillers in contact with Xu Ming and Neil Heywood. And that is why the Chinese are anxious to talk to him. It's little wonder, notes The Telegraph, that Devillers’ arrest came just one week after a visit to Cambodia by He Guoqiang, member of the Chinese Politburo and head of the Communist Party disciplinary committee, behind Bo’s downfall. Following that visit, the Chinese government, already Cambodia’s biggest creditor and financer, further increased its influence with 430 million dollars of investment.
Perhaps that figure was not high enough, given that Cambodian foreign minister Hor Namhong has declared that he will deny Devillers’ extradition if China does not come up with sufficient proof of criminal activity. “Although China may be able to put more money on the table, the Cambodian elites are still closely linked both personally, financially — their money is there — and emotionally to France,” writes Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a specialist in French-Chinese relations at Hong Kong Baptist University.
So Devillers will probably be able to return to Kep to eat crab with pepper while looking out to sea. If he does, he may not be able to fully enjoy the moment. His mind will go back to Gu, the woman who may have been one of a number of lovers.
In the end this story may get a sequel, with the reappearance or definitive disappearance of Gu, the last of the Dragon Ladies, those mysterious Asian enchantresses, at times good, more often cruel, and always powerful. Women featured in adventure films, novels and comics in 1930s America, but whose real-life counterparts were even more disturbing.
Such as Cixi, meaning “Motherly and Auspicious”, a title given to her upon the death of Emperor Xianfeng, in 1861, when she succeeded in becoming Empress Dowager. Her rise had begun when she was a concubine called Little Orchid. “Her lower lip, painted red in the shape of a tear, looked like a cherry”.
Another was Soong May-ling, wife of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, who dominated China for twenty years. “Brilliant, intriguing, incredibly sexy, deliberately fascinating, courageous, corrupt, a chameleon of a woman.”
Then Jiang Qing, the pseudonym of Li Shumeng. Actress turned Communist and the last wife of Mao Zedong, it may have been her that came up with the Chairman’s historic declaration, “Women hold up the other half of the sky”. In 1976, one month after Mao’s death, she was arrested for plotting to overthrow the government. She died a prisoner in ’91, perhaps from suicide, perhaps from lack of medical treatment.
What does fate have in store for Gu?