Saturday, 26th September 2020

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

China’s Emperor is Tanned, Rested and Ready

Posted on 07. Apr, 2010 by in Articles, Personal essays

China’s Emperor is Tanned, Rested and Ready

Homeless Hawaiian heir to the throne seeks financial support to restore Ming Dynasty greatness


I had naively thought that China’s 2,000 year old imperial system ended when 12-year-old Pu Yi, the last emperor, was overthrown in 1912.

“Not so,” declares Elmer.  “I’m the last emperor.”

I met the man I’ll call Elmer, for reasons that will become clear, by chance.  He stood next to me in front of the visitors’ board at the East-West Center in Honolulu.  “There are some Chinese visiting,” he observed sotto vocce, as if he was speaking in Spy vs Spy code.

We began to talk. Elmer was suspicious at first.  He is Chinese and royal.  I am Anglo and common.

Elmer is obviously an emperor of the people.  Plain grey T-shirt. Dirty jeans.  Flip-flops.  Black hair, speckled grey, pulled into a pony-tail.  His briefcase was a folded piece of cardboard, from which he extracted a complicated genealogy, which links him directly and definitively, he explained, to the 17th century Chou dynasty as well as to Chou En-lai, Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek.

But what about Prince Aisin Giorro Pu Jie? I asked, referring to the younger brother of Henry Pu Yi, the last emperor whose life was featured in Bertolucci’s film.  The eightysomething year-old Pu Jie lives in an old house a stone’s throw from the Forbidden City in Beijing. [Pu Jie died in Beijing on March 2, 1994, age 87].

“Pu Yi was Ching dynasty.  Manchurians.  Invaders.  My family are Chinese,”  Emperor Elmer said.

His genealogy, printed on the back of his CV, told a contorted tale of usurped emperors and invaders, and of exiled royalty who emigrated to Hawaii.  Shaky about Chinese family trees, I asked around and found that Elmer has been a bit, er, creative, with his historical narrative.  One scholar thought that the emperor “learned his history from a fortune cookie.”

But hey, call me a dreamer.  What if…  I invited Elmer for lunch, figuring that, just in case he was who he said he was, it couldn’t hurt to be pals with the Big Guy.

Elmer ordered chop suey from the University of Hawaii’s cafeteria. I had a hamburger.

Elmer wasn’t too clear about his strategy for gaining the throne. He wants to visit China, for the first time, to see his people.  “Can you find funding for me?” he asks.  He wants to bring western ideas to the Middle Kingdom, particularly the religion of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  “Chinese are Semites,” he explains obliquely.  “Direct descendants of Noah.”

I suggest it might be useful for American-born Elmer to learn a few phrases of Mandarin.  “Uh?”, the emperor-to-be grunts, which is the way he acknowledges new, seemingly apparent ideas, as in “This is how you network.”  “Uh?”

He bridles at the suggestion that he also might brush up a bit on Chinese politics and customs.  He gets edgy. I’ve overstepped his royal space.

I ask him, respectfully, I hope, what qualifications he has to led 1.2 billion people.

Elmer waves the genealogy.  He went to college for four years but left before getting a degree, muttering “It was a fake sexual harassment case.”  He adds: “I’m stable, level headed.  Have good common sense.  I hope it’s tough for someone to take advantage of me.”

He doesn’t think that China is ready for a democratic movement.   What about the current generation of Chinese leaders? “They’re doing the best they can.”

“President [George H.W.] Bush had about the right kind of China policy,” he adds. But he’s down on Henry Kissinger. Elmer points out that he once handed a letter to Kissinger, who was visiting Honolulu, asking for support.  To Elmer’s surprise, Kissinger spent all his time in Hawaii without seeking the emperor’s counsel about how Sino-American relations would improve once Elmer took over the throne.  So much for Kissinger’s renowned geopolitical acumen.

Obviously chutzpah is a useful quality in a wannabe emperor.  While speaking with Elmer I was reminded of Joshua Abraham Norton, a 19th century English Jew who sold supplies to San Francisco gold rushers and then declared himself Emperor of America.

In 1859 Norton walked into the offices of the San Francisco Bulletin and presented them with this single sentence, which they ran on the next edition’s front page:

“At the preemptory request of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton…declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these U.S., and in virtue of the authority thereby in me vested to hereby order and direct the representatives of the different States of the Union to assemble in Musical Hall of this city, on the 1st day of February next, then and there to make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring, and thereby cause confidence to exist, both at home and abroad, in our stability and integrity.”

It was signed “Norton I. Emperor of the United States.”

Like Elmer, Norton I had a common touch: he abjured seclusion and luxury, attending every public function by foot or bicycle.  If he noticed someone performing some kind act he might spontaneously ennoble them, from which practice the expression “Queen for a day” was obtained.

In return for his noble generosity restaurants offered the emperor free dinners, he was given three seats at every theatrical performance (one for himself and one each for his famously well-behaved dogs, Bummer and Lazarus). The city itself paid for his uniforms, Bay Area newspapers published his proclamations and he had his own currency printed, which was accepted widely. He had a habit of levying taxes by walking into the offices of an old business friend and announcing an imperial assessment of ten million dollars or so, but could quickly be talked down to a cigar and small change.  When he was arrested by an overzealous policeman “to be confined for treatment of a mental disorder” virtually every newspaper published editorials denouncing the action and Norton was released with a lengthy public apology from the chief of police.

Norton sent frequent cables to fellow rulers offering surprisingly well-informed advice.  King Kamehameha of Hawai’i (then the Sandwich Islands) was so taken with the Emperor’s insight and understanding that towards the end of his life Kamehameha refused to recognize the U.S. State Department, saying he would deal only with representatives of Norton’s Empire.

When Norton I died in 1890 ten thousand people lined up to view his mortal remains; his funeral cortege was three kilometers long.  At 2.39 pm, during his funeral, San Francisco experienced a total eclipse of the sun.

Elmer could use some heavenly miracles since his claim to the throne is in danger of disintegrating unless he gets some support.

Elmer explains that he has high-placed relatives in the Hawaiian political and social world.   “But they won’t help me,” he says.  “They’re jealous.  Afraid of my power.  And the CIA wants to assassinate me.”  I agree not to use his real name.

We meet a couple of other times but since Elmer has no phone and no fixed domicile it is difficult to set up appointments.

Although we lose contact, I read about China’s political travails with renewed interest.  Could it happen?  I can’t recall a communist state turning democratic and then deciding to re-establish a monarchy.  Even Great Britain is toying with the idea of giving Queen Elizabeth the boot.  But in Geneva, King Michael of Romania is talking comeback.  It works in sports, and it works in politics.  Emperor Elmer.  He’s tanned, rested and ready.  Emperor Elmer.  I like the sound.