The wonderful house and even more wonderful life of … Shanghai Lil

2007-12-15 00:00

A woman who refused to live a conventional lifestyle has fascinated Durban-area residents for many years. Shanghai Lil, as Georgia Anna Boediker was commonly known, left more than her mysterious house behind when she died in Durban on January 6, 1951 at age 60.

Boediker was born in Bavaria in 1891 and arrived in Durban from Korea in 1929. She was the daughter of William Boediker (died January 23, 1937) and Barbara H Boediker (died June 10, 1946). For 10 years she owned a shop at 457 West Street known as Arts and Crafts, where she sold Oriental ornaments.

She was a tall, striking woman who wore Chinese-style clothing, which led to the locals calling her Shanghai Lil, and always wore a single earring. To add to the mystery, in 1933 she bought an old house at 23 Tracy Watts Road on Field’s Hill, overlooking Pinetown, and rebuilt it as a replica of a wing of Frederick the Great’s palace, Sans Souci. The property had been a girls’ school, St Elizabeth’s — the forerunner of St Mary’s DSG in Kloof. The rebuilding was completed in 1936 and cost £12 000. The architect was Wilfred Stonehouse Payne of Payne & Payne. Boediker named the house Capricorn.

Over the years, the house was known as the Glass House, Shanghai Lil’s, the Spookhuis or the Round House. It was rumoured that the house was also home to Rosy Dry, who wanted to run a brothel there, but the design was not conducive to such activities.

Capricorn was originally painted blue and white, the same original colours of Sans Souci. The house had three entrance halls with marble floors, two large circular lounges (one known as the Mirror Room), four marble fireplaces, and an old fashioned kitchen with marble floors. The Mirror Room was used as a music room and had South African marble pillars, rose-tinted mirrors and German oak floors. It was 10,5 metres in diameter with a domed ceiling of about nine metres high. Georgia loved art and music. She had a Steinway piano, which she lacquered lime green and decorated with Chinese scenes. The walls of the second lounge were of silk and camphor from the camphor boxes she imported from Hong Kong. Above the marble and onyx fireplace in this lounge, there was a painting done in 1937 by Ernie Stokoe. The dining room was on the lower level. During Georgia’s lifetime, the top and lower levels were never connected; you had to go outside to get to the kitchen.

What fascinated locals was that there were 31 teak double doors leading outside, but only four windows in the house (in the kitchen). The outside of the house featured intricate relief work. Everything, apart from the South African marble, was imported. The décor was a mixture of Chinese, German, French and Austrian influences. The garden had three pools. Georgia had a fear of a water shortage, and installed a large water tank below the second bedroom to catch rain water. There was a self-contained guest cottage on the property.

She started using her English step-father’s surname Gale, who was apparently a diplomat in Korea for 15 years. When World War 2 broke out in 1939, Georgia became the target of gossip and speculation. The locals claimed she provided a safe house for German spies, watched Durban Harbour for Allied shipping movements and had a radio transmitter hidden in her house with which she sent reports to Berlin. Soon Capricorn became known as Spy Hill, but no evidence was ever presented.

There were many rumours about her, including one that she buried a solid gold statue of Buddha in the grounds of Capricorn. When her estate was auctioned, there was no Buddha statue. It was said to have been hidden in one of the panels in the house. Other rumours included a treasure supposedly hidden in the kitchen, underground rooms and passages, a ditch around the house that was home to silver-coloured snakes, and that a Chinese man was murdered in the house and buried under a pool. She was also accused of smuggling opium in the camphor wood boxes she imported, but no evidence was found.

Boediker never married and lived alone with her Pekingese dogs, cats and two servants, George Mabele and Elizabeth. She was a generous person and helped people in Durban and Pinetown. In her last years, Boediker was very fond of four-year-old Jeffrey Nicholson, who lived with his parents in the guest cottage. He often drove through Pinetown with her, she played music for him and would let him swim in the pools. Georgia told his mother some of her life story in her last days, but Mrs C. Nicholson never revealed the story and took it to her grave.

From November 1950, Georgia was often in bed. She suffered a stroke in December, but a second stroke saw her going to Durban’s Parklands Nursing Home on January 4. When she was buried, on a rainy January day in 1951, in Stellawood Cemetery, about 40 friends, mostly women, attended. She left no photos of herself.

Boediker’s estate took a while to wind up as she died without a signed will. The public auction of her estate took place at Capricorn on July 17, 1953 and was attended by about 200 people. Capricorn itself was put up for auction the week before. The best buy was the Steinway piano, which sold for 350 guineas, although it was valued at £600.

After her death, there were only four owners of Capricorn. Today the lemon-yellow house is a restaurant with inter-leading rooms. The Queen’s Ballroom is used for breakfast buffets. King Fred’s Room is a waiting area and the secret room where Georgia is said to have radioed Berlin is now a wine cellar.

•Anne Lehmkuhl is a professional researcher specialising in South African historical and genealogical research.

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