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China to Me
A Partial Autobiography
By Emily Hahn
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1944 Emily Hahn
All rights reserved.
"Shanghai? You're going there, are you?" the hairdresser said, putting another wave over my forehead. It was a small deep wave and would look all wrong nowadays, but this was in 1935. We were wearing short bobs then and our heads looked like corrugated iron. The hairdresser probably called himself a barber, because he was working in Hollywood, which carried on a lot of Middle Western habits like that.
"Shanghai's a lovely place," he said, spraying me with sweet-smelling sticky stuff, so that the wave would bake hard. "You'll meet a good class of people there. The same you would meet in Society here. You know, titled people. Oh, you'll have a very nice time; Shanghai's a lovely place."
It was. I sigh for it now, titles and people and all, of any class. I haven't seen it for four years and it must have changed. It would be all different anyway, even without the Japanese, because Shanghai is always changing. I was startled but not really amazed when a fellow repatriate on the Gripsholm, that ship of strange destiny which has carried so many bedraggled crowds of homing Americans, told me about an acquaintance in Shanghai: "She married a rich Russian," he said. It was one of those things which would have been impossible four years ago: a rich Russian man in Shanghai. But nothing remains impossible there. Of all the cities of the world it is the town for me. Always changing, there are some things about it which never change, so that I will forever be able to know it when I come back. There will still be the Chinese. There will still be the old codgers, among whom I will someday take my place, drinking a little too much and telling each other how Shanghai isn't what it used to be. No, they can't take Shanghai away from me. Raise the cost of living, crowd in thirty thousand Jewish refugees from Europe, make rich the Russians, make poor the Americans, it will still be there.
Let the aesthetes sigh for Peking and their dream world. I don't reject Peking. Like Carmel, Santa Fe, Fiesole, it is a reward for the afterlife. Shanghai is for now, for the living me.
They used to have a conscientious society editor on the Shanghai morning paper who filled her column with records of parties and lists of guests until she used so much space that the whole thing had to be thrown out. It began to act on us like a repeated bad dream. Seeing the names, day after day, of certain indefatigable party goers was almost as bad as seeing their faces every evening, and indignant people began to write to the paper and complain. The obvious answer was made to them: "Don't read the society column if you don't like it," but you couldn't help it, any more than you could help going out every night. There was a grim, dogged quality in our Shanghai gaiety. Only Thackeray could have done it justice — on paper, I mean. We all did it ample justice in practice.
I have here a cutting from the journal that appeared the day after I arrived in Shanghai with my sister. Without it I would have forgotten that dinner party and everything about it, but now it all comes back to me. We had sailed from San Francisco in the Chichibu Maru with tickets for Shanghai and we had been two weeks at sea before the Japanese captain admitted that the ship did not, as a matter of fact, intend to touch at Shanghai at all. I don't know why the NYK deceived us in this matter. Perhaps it was part of a cunning plan to keep us for a while in Japan, tempting us to make a longer stopover than necessary while waiting for another ship. If so, it worked. We spent more than a fortnight in the island of the cherry blossoms and, although it all seems incredible now as I write it, I came away with the greatest reluctance. I arrived in Shanghai definitely sulky.
"I don't really care for the Far East at all," I was saying to myself. "The whole thing is tiresome and I am only indulging Helen by pausing on my way back to Africa. Now, just as I find a reasonably pleasant place — i.e., Japan — in which to loaf about and read, I am dragged away again to stay for some uncomfortable days in a vulgar, loud city like this. I don't know and I don't care who these Chinese persons may be, but everybody is aware that the Japanese are the only subtle Orientals. China is garish. China is red and gold and big, everything I don't like. Pooh."
This may puzzle you. I should explain that Japan was then as now sharply divided in her population between the civilians and the disciplined service people, the Army, Navy, and gendarmes. Of this latter class we tourists saw nothing. We saw a smiling Japan filled with charming figures in costume and eager little men in tourist agencies who told us all about Japanese music and drama and art. The only hint we ever had in those days of the stricter pattern behind the delicate landscape was in the formalities we went through when we landed; the endless questionnaires and the sharp examination of our literature. It meant nothing to us because everybody seemed so glad to see us, and there was so much to admire in the porcelain and the lacquer and the mountains and all that.... I must stop writing for a bit, to kick myself. We went all mushy over Japan and, as I was saying, I turned up my nose at Shanghai.
The Japs put one over on us and we scarcely noticed. They sent us on to Shanghai in a dirty little tub of a mail steamer, since the Chichibu, unlike ourselves, gave that port a complete go-by. And so we were met at the dock and taken out to dinner. Let me pause to examine the guest list.
There was one Chinese customs official, who was invited to do the ordering of the Chinese food. He's in Chungking now, having been caught in Hong Kong on Pearl Harbor day: he stayed hidden for some weeks and finally got out in disguise. There was a French count with his Italian wife. After being caught in Singapore, I believe, they got out before the surrender and are probably either in Free China or India now, as Fighting French. Or if they decided on Vichy they must have stayed in Singapore, but I don't think that in such a case they would have been there anyway. There was a Pole who had been naturalized as a Frenchman; he was in Chungking, as I was, on the day we heard about Paris under the first German attack. We thought it had been badly bombed, I remember, and he was really white with shock. "Terrible, hein?" he kept saying — we met in the hostel corridor, both in bathrobes, clutching soap — "truly terrible, hein?" and I still recall a faint feeling of indignation over his concern, because we ourselves had been truly terribly bombed in Chungking for weeks and weeks.
I don't remember the others. We were all having a hectic time, day after day, just because everybody was in a hurry for no particular reason. The first few weeks I must have packed pretty full because I intended to go away to Africa shortly, and when I decided at last not to go it was second nature to rush around. I look back on it now with mild wonder. What on earth did we think we were doing? There were feuds between the cliques and I was soon mixed up in them: the arty group battled for my scalp with the plain moneyed class as long as I was a novelty, and in the end nobody won at all, or cared. There were international parties, and plain British parties, and plain American parties, and there were beginning to be a lot of parties with Chinese people. Though I didn't know it, I had stumbled into a critical period of Shanghai history, the era that marked a difference from the old days when only certain Chinese would consent to mix with foreigners, and only certain foreigners wanted to mix with Chinese. Once upon a time it used to be good business to have dinner with your comprador once a year, or it was pleasantly devilish if you were a man to give a stag party at a Chinese restaurant complete with singsong girls. Besides this there were missionary tea parties for students, and that was all. By the time Helen and I got there it was quite different. The diplomats among the Chinese went to a lot of parties, and so did the rich young businessmen and their beautiful wives. Foreign ladies and Chinese ladies invited each other to luncheon. There was a Chinese Women's Club.... A good thing? I don't know. It was certainly nicer for people like me, though sometimes I got a lot of wicked joy out of incidents that were not supposed to be funny.
For example, the Garden Club of America was visiting Shanghai about the time I got there, and at the Women's Club one of their ladies gave a little talk on the subject of civic beauty. Now Shanghai has character and I would be the last to deny it, but as for beauty, have you ever seen a Chinese city street? It is a riot of signboards. Huge gilded characters hang on metal frameworks; neon signs flash in English and Chinese from the second stories; the walls between are painted with huge crude murals depicting devils at work in enlarged stomachs, or happy Chinese mothers using electric fans on their infants. Mrs. D — could never have seen a Chinese street even in San Francisco, because the burden of her talk was an appeal to the women of China to do away with unsightly signboards. "We have succeeded in persuading the Chamber of Commerce in our town to eliminate them," she said, beaming, "and you have no idea what a difference it makes."
The ladies of China clapped with polite warmth and then dispersed to their mah-jongg games.
I don't think that at that time I had given any thought to the Manchurian Incident because I'm pretty sure I had never heard of it. In Shanghai people sometimes talked about "the trouble in 1932," and it began to be forced on my consciousness that the Japanese had been making nuisances of themselves for some years. It is worth remembering that at this date most mentions of the 1932 events were made by older men, veterans of the first World War, and they declared that the fighting as then seen by them proved conclusively that the Japs were no good.
"Saw 'em myself," was the regulation statement. "Let me tell you, if those fellows had been up against real soldiers they wouldn't have gotten anywhere. Why, for that matter, give the Chinese decent arms and ammunition and they'll be able to handle the Japs by themselves. Better fighters, man to man, any time. I did the war and I know."
There was also a lot of talk among the brokers about a city called Nanking, where lived the Generalissimo and his wife. I think I must have heard of them before, but I'm not sure where it was. Mme. Chiang, said the brokers — some of them, anyway — had a sister who was married to the Minister of Finance, and the whole family was simply coining money by various illegal means. The brokers were angry about this as they felt that any money which was made thus should be made by foreign brokers. They paused in their work long enough to declare with virtuous horror that the Soong family was sending this money abroad, to be placed in foreign banks where it would be waiting for them when their evil practices had caught up with them and forced them to flee. (None of the brokers bought Chinese dollars to keep, of course. They bought and sold, and when they had made as much money as possible they sent it home.)
Even then, however, I didn't swallow all this whole. It was too awful, I heard it too often in too many versions, and it was also beginning to be obvious that Shanghai gossip was fuller, richer, and less truthful than any I had ever before encountered. I had begun to meet and to chat with Chinese ladies. Now a good Chinese gossip, man or woman, can dream up better stories and bigger lies than anybody in the world except maybe an Arab. Once you catch on and learn that you are not expected to take it without a whole salt mine, it is lots of fun. But the habit had spread to Shanghailanders, to use their own unpleasant name for themselves, and to a newcomer it was a little misleading.
There was one factor of Shanghai life which filled our days as much as we wanted and a little more. Mrs. Fritz — Bernardine — had thought of and set into motion a sort of club known as the International Arts Theatre or, anticipating governmental habits, the IAT. She rounded up all the women in town to help, and some did and some didn't. In her apartment she walked around all day talking into a telephone which had the longest extension cord I have ever seen in my life, and she lavished on this club, her extremely creditable brain child, enough thought and management to win a minor war all by herself. In effect the working committee of the club was predominantly American, because it's the sort of thing American ladies would like better than would their European sisters, but she had corralled a lot of modern Chinese girls too, and an occasional Frenchwoman or a Hollander or one of the more accepted Russians. The IAT did concerts and lectures and debates and now and then a play. What made it good was that the concerts were Russian or German or whatever; the debates took into account such extremely controversial subjects as "Birth Control in China" (three Catholic priests attended, with skyrocket results), and the plays were damn good, especially Lady Precious Stream with an all-Chinese cast. I can't say quite as much for the lectures, which in any city are just lectures, after all. Later, at the genteel Amateur Dramatic Association plays in Hong Kong, which were indescribably awful, I sighed for a touch of Bernardine Fritz. At least I did at first, and then I just stopped going.
It all sounds trivial, doesn't it? It was. I was still thinking of Shanghai as a stopping place between boats, and my first-planned two weeks as a long-drawn-out week end. Then one day I realized that I had taken a job and thus committed myself as a resident, at least for a while. The local morning paper, the North-China Daily News, was a British-owned journal. They wanted a woman to do feature stories, interviews, and the like, as their own girl was going away to be married, and I said I was willing. I was pleased about it, too, without reflecting at all. Helen went off to Peking to get a quick look at it before she returned to America; her plane was forced down in a paddy field on the way back and she had adventures. By the time she arrived again in Shanghai I had found a flat downtown in Kiangse Road and had dug in for a season. A little later she sailed away to the States; I waved good-by and went back to Kiangse Road.
It is now the moment to say, "Little did I think," et cetera, et cetera, but I cannot tell a lie. I didn't think a little, I thought a lot. I pondered. The subject of these thoughts was a recently remembered party in New York at which a lot of young leftists had been discussing China and the publicized revolt of her Communists.
"Oh, shut up about China," I had grumbled. "You bore me to death about China. China doesn't interest me."
Pondering like anything, I was almost run down by a ricksha in the Bund.CHAPTER 2
The flat in Kiangse Road had nothing in the world to recommend it to anybody but me. It was in a Chinese bank building, down on the ground floor, so that the windows looked out on the crowded, screaming street and were always grimy. The furniture belonged to a special genre, to understand which you must know that "Kiangse Road" in Shanghai is a synonym for "red-light district." Whenever I told people where I lived there was a roar of laughter, and dirty old men would whisper hoarsely, "How are all the girls?"
The biggest room wasn't very big, but it was all that counted: the other apartment was just a dingy hole with a dining table in it and a sort of dark brown china cabinet. The big room was painted in green: green walls and ceiling. Over three of the walls was a metallic sort of grillwork constructed to look like bamboo trees and silvered, if that is the proper participle. I can't say "gilded" because it wasn't gold, except in spots where the silver had tarnished. These metal bamboos were uncomfortable to lean against, so the box couch which I used to sit on in the daytime and to sleep on by night was in an unstrategic position, pushed as it was into a bamboo-beautified corner. To protect hair and back from the jagged edges of the bamboo leaves the former tenant had piled on the bed about sixty cushions, covered in brilliant-dyed satin of all colors.
Excerpted from China to Me by Emily Hahn. Copyright © 1944 Emily Hahn. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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