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China to Me by Emily Hahn

China to Me (1944)

by Emily Hahn

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Exciting account of tribulations experienced by Hahn in China as she evolved into a New Yorker magazine writer. Her experiences reveal a resolve to understand authentic Chinese culture; in so doing, she garners respect of the Chinese, including her beau, a scholar of Chinese classics. One wonders what the Chinese thought about her habit of keeping gibbons as pets, which is covered extensively here. Not covered? Her purported addiction to opium. The latter half of the books covers her experiences in Hong Kong under Japanese control. Others are imprisoned in camps; miraculously, Hahn remains free -- and seems to enjoy a comfortable lifestyle. Her accounts of drinking excessively, in an era known for modesty and chaste morality, are brash and welcome. Elaborate constructs recounting her innocence of being labeled a tart, or worse, appear disingenuous. During her Hong Kong sojourn, she met and romanced Charles Boxer, head of British intelligence for Hong Kong. Although married at the time, Boxer acknowledged Hahn's child as his and vowed matrimonial intent, prior to being thrown in Stanley -- the first of Hong Kong's internment camps. First published 1944,this edition followed wartime censorship laws. The book concludes with Boxer still in Stanley, and Hahn expatriated to the US with their daughter, Carola.
  Fnarkle | Feb 15, 2016 |
Candid memoir of expatriate life in 1930’s-40’s China

When I first started reading Emily Hahn’s candid memoir I felt like I’d walked into the middle of a witty and fascinating conversation that I didn’t quite have the context for. There’s a reason for that, when China to Me was first published in 1944 WWII was still going on and the public was already well aware of Emily Hahn and her unconventional somewhat scandalous life, so there were details she could assume people already knew. I was out of that loop, but I soon enough found my footing.

Hahn traveled to Shanghai with her sister in 1935, got a writing job for a British newspaper and decided to stay. She mixed with the rich and powerful, mainly British and other European expatriates, but she also had a romantic relationship and business partnership with an already married Chinese publisher and poet. Her apartment--which she describes in humorous detail--was in the red light district and she kept a pet gibbon name Mr. Mills who sometimes accompanied her to parties.

In 1940 Hahn traveled inland to the mountainous city of Chungking (now Chongqing) to interview one of the Soong sisters, who I’m ashamed to say I had never heard of, for a book she was writing about the family. All three sisters were married to prominent Chinese men--political and military leader Chiang Kai-shek, revolutionary Sun Yat-sen, and uber wealthy finance minister Kung Hsiang-hsi--but the sisters also cultivated their own positions of power and influence. Hahn was in Chungking while the Japanese were conducting bombing raids on the city, so she had to type her book between frightening but tedious sessions in cave-like air raid shelters.

But Hahn’s experiences in Chungking were nothing compared to her life in Japanese occupied Hong Kong. She had about a year in the city before the invasion, which was long enough to have an affair with a married British military officer and give birth to their baby. Up until this point Hahn’s memoir had been highly interesting to me, but her harrowing descriptions of the chaos, scarcity, and menace of living under enemy rule while trying to care for and feed her infant daughter and make sure her hospital imprisoned lover had food and medicine made the book almost impossible to put down.

Hahn was a follows-her-own-rules kind of person, and this is a lively, entertaining, and informative book, but it’s her astute and forthright observations about people, including herself, and their varied reactions to hardship, displacement, cultural difference, tests of love and loyalty, and the loss or gain of power that elevated this memoir above a simple recounting of events for me. The book closes in 1943 when Hahn finally returns to the US with her daughter, but the war is raging on so her life and the fate of her lover are still up in the air, making me very relieved that I had a biography on hand to fill me in on what happened next--though you could just check her Wikipedia page.

This memoir is well over 400 pages, and I did find myself skimming at times, but like many of my favorite books, China to Me sent me into passionate internet research mode, and it’s added several titles to my TBR list--I for sure have to read Hahn’s book about the Soong sisters. There’s a lot more by Hahn to choose from because she authored a total of 52(!) books and wrote articles, poems, and short stories for New Yorker magazine almost up until her death at the age of ninety-two in 1997.

In 2014 China to Me was republished by Open Road Media. I read an ebook review copy supplied to me at no cost by the publisher through NetGalley. Review opinions are mine. ( )
  Jaylia3 | Jul 25, 2015 |
According to Emily Hahn’s biographer, she “feverishly” wrote China to Me in just a few months, and it reads as if she’s recalling China in a breathless rush. It was, indeed, a breathless adventure.

At the outset I didn’t know what to make of this book. She opens by talking about her Hollywood hairdresser and then about the society pages of the Shanghai newspaper. What kind of a spoiled ditz have we here? I suspected she was like a chatty aunt who has traveled everywhere and could tell you of countless adventures if only you could keep her focused on one narrative without diverging into a diatribe about, for example, the inability of the Chinese to construct a proper chair.

She is so much more than that.

Cut her some slack. Skim, skip a few pages if you must. By the middle of the book she is in Hong Kong being shelled by the invading, raping, looting Japanese Army. She falls in love with a married British spy (though she never identifies him as a spy because when she was writing the book, the war had not ended and he was a Japanese POW). To add to the danger, she has a baby. Her lover is in prison; her baby is starving; she is in constant danger of random violence or death. In addition, she is engaged in clandestine relief work for which the penalties are severe.

At one point she is among a group being raided by Japanese thugs:

Terror seems to make people very, very sad. We were indistinct in the candlelight, but I could see the faces pretty well and everyone was hangdog, and kept his eyes fixed on the table. Actors registering fear in the movies don’t do it right. I know that now. Alec had been tied painfully tightly and his face was twisted with the effort not to yelp. They didn’t tie me up at all, nor the luscious Lena, nor Veronica, nor Susie, and that was terrifying too. In spite of all the airy things I had been saying about rape, now that I thought my time had come I was so afraid of it that I turned to jelly.

Along the way she occasionally finds time to write a poem or to analyze, cold-bloodedly, the political use of rape, or to point out that all the English and American journalists didn’t know diddly about the communists in China (which made the book anathema to certain journalists in the USA).

Here is how her baby came about — she had dinner at a restaurant with Charles (her lover) and some guests. A woman named Mrs. Lee asks:

”Have you any babies, Madam?”

“No,” I said solemnly shaking my head. “No, I can’t have any children.”

“Oh, isn’t that a pity!”

Over on the other side of the table, Charles pricked up his ears and looked at me. “Nonsense,” said Charles crisply. “Of course you can have children.”

“As it happens, I can’t,” I said, and I thought I was telling the truth. “I’ve been told so, often, by doctors. I can’t.”

“Of course you can. I’ll bet you anything you like.”

“What is this nonsense?” he demanded in the taxi, after we had sent the guests off to the ferry. “Is that why you carry on so about children, keeping gibbons and all that?”

“Oh no. I don’t want children. I never did.”

“All women want children,” said Charles with amusing certainty. “But see here; do you really want a child? If so, I’ll let you have one.”


“Let’s have one,” he said. “I’ll take care of it. It can be my heir. Just to make things all right, if I can get a divorce and if it all works out, we might even get married. If we want to, that is, and after a long time for considering.”

“Do you mean it?” I asked after a pause. I knew already, though, that he did. He was being flippant, but that is the way Charles is; he just is flippant. It didn’t alter the fact that he meant it.

“I never heard such nonsense,” said Charles indignantly. “Can’t have children! Whatever will Mrs. Lee think of me?”

“All right," I said, “let’s try.”

It was a proposal, flippant and indignant. Emily Hahn herself could churn flippantly and indignantly throughout the giant insane nation of China — or the many warring nations of China — and you can accompany her.

At the end of the book, (I am spoiling nothing by telling you this) she has one final visit with Charles, her lover, in his prisoner-of-war camp, knowing she may never see him alive again:

The officer turned his back a minute and we kissed each other briefly, and then it was time for Charles to go. As they walked away I heard the officer say: “You’re allowed to kiss her good-by.”

“But I did already,” said Charles.

“Did you? I didn’t see you.”

“Well, I did, I tell you.”

They went out through the door arguing about it. Carola, who had been shy of Charles, now looked disconcerted. “Uncle’s gone,” she said.

“Uncle? That wasn’t Uncle, you silly baby. That was your daddy.”

“Oh?” She accepted the correction without argument. “Daddy’s gone,” she said. She began to whimper.

“Daddy’s gone,” I said.

The father of her child is led back to prison — probably never to see her again — arguing about whether he kissed her or not. It’s this odd mix of the small and the large, the mess that is China, the mess that is all of our lives, that comes through so clearly. What a book. ( )
2 vote JoeCottonwood | Mar 30, 2013 |
Emily Hahn was an American who spent 9 years living in China as a journalist, starting in 1935. She lived first in Shanghai, where she had a common-law marriage with a native Chinese and owned a couple of gibbons. During WWII, she lived in Chungking, where she met her future husband Charles Boxer. I first ran into the prose of this author about a year ago when I read the Virago Book of Women Travellers, in which another essay of Hahn’s is excerpted. The first line of that essay goes:

"Though I had always wanted to be an opium addict, I can’t claim that as the reason I went to China. The opium ambition dates back to that obscure period of childhood when I wanted to be a lot of other things, too—the greatest expert on ghosts, the world’s best ice skater, the champion lion tamer, you know the kind of thing. But by the time I went to China I was grown up, and all those dreams were forgotten."

After reading that, I knew I had to find one of Emily Hahn’s books. She also wrote a biography of the famous Soong sisters, and she writes about the process of writing that book in this memoir.

I get the feeling that Hahn was an extremely chatty person in real life; she was certainly very extroverted and interested in the people around her, as seen from the constant references she makes to other Americans and British in Shanghai. Hahn certainly has a sense of humor bordering on the slapstick; when she flies to Chungking, she describes her attire thus:

"We are limited in our baggage on these planes but there is no extra charge for bodily weight. Therefore travelers usually wear as many clothes as they can, and carry whatever they can cram into their pockets, and also carry extra coats over their arms… They had told me that Chungking was cold and I was taking no chances. First I was wearing a woolen dress and jacket. Over that I was wearing a cloth coat. Over that a fur of Chinese mink. On top of all that the Chinese padded gown of plum-colored silk. On my feet were the famous sheepskin boots, on their first trip and gaining fame by the minute. I looked like a deep-sea diver. I walked like one too."

Hahn was apparently famous for embellishing stories, but judging from that passage and many more like it, she certainly knew how to deliver a story effectively. Hahn is long-winded and uses colloquial language at times; the book is over 400 pages long and in small type. But she paints a vivid portrait of China before and during the war and proves herself to be a strong, courageous woman throughout all her experiences. ( )
2 vote Kasthu | Jul 4, 2012 |
People pick up China to Me for different reasons. Some look for a travelog, something to give an accurate picture of the politics and society of mid-war China (it was published in 1944). Some look for a personal account of an outspoken feminist American living in Shanghai and Hong Kong and beyond. I picked it up because I heard Hahn was like Isabella Bird, a gutsy traveler who was not afraid to live outside the conformity of her time. After reading most of Hahn's partial autobiography I have to disagree somewhat. Hahn's autobiography has been criticized as being a little self-indulgent. I agree. She frequently drops the names of then-prominent Chinese society (most who mean nothing to us in the 21st century). Whereas Bird lingers over flower and fauna, Hahn belabors relationships she had. I was distracted by all the name references. I am sure in the 1940s the individuals were impressive to know but that society has long since lost its luster in the 60+ years since. Another complaint about Hahn is her apparent little regard for the welfare of her born-out-of-wedlock child. While in the Japanese prison camps she seemed more concerned with herself than the individuals around her. Despite Hahn's apparent selfishness she writes with clever humor and keen insight. In addition her life as a concubine and mistress to a spy was interesting enough to write about! ( )
2 vote SeriousGrace | May 17, 2012 |
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"Shanghai? You're going there are you?" the hairdresser said, putting another wave over my forehead.
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When Emily 'Mickey' Hahn set off from America on a world tour in 1935, she little realized that she would spend the next nine years in the Far East.  Chine to Me tells the story of that extraordinary time up to 1944; of the five years in Shanghai, with its easy-going colonial life, her beloved gibbon, Mr. Mills, and her husband, Zau Sinmay, with whom she founded the successful magazine, Candid Comment.  Always on the search for new adventure, she travelled to Chungking in 1939 to complete the biography of the Soong sisters.  When she fell in love with Major Charles Boxer, she postponed her planned return to the States indefinitely and, three weeks before Pearl Harbour, gave birth to their daughter, Carola. With Hong Kong in a state of nervous tension as the Japanese invaded the island, Emily Hahn had to overcome her own personal trials; finding powdered milk for Carola; getting much needed provisions to a wounded Charles in hospital; seeing the mass internment of friends at Stanley where people were 'starved and herded like cattle'; suffering from her own interrogation; and experiencing the Reign of Terror in 1943. Throughout, Emily Hahn retained her sense of humour and hope, believing in herself and others: 'I am proud of human toughness'. Out of print since 1944, this is a fascinating account of life in China and Hong Kong before and during the Second World War.  From the Virago Travellers edition.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0759240604, Paperback)

A revolutionary woman for her time, Emily Hahn takes us on an adventure through the many faces that populate the landscape of China. Blending fiction and non-fiction seamlessly, Emily Hahn looks at everything and everyone she met on her breath-taking journey through the China of the nineteen-thirties. Hahn investigates not so much the complicated issues of political blocs and party conflict, but the ordinary, or extraordinary, lives of Chinese residents and tourists. This includes taking us into the personal lives of everyone from Asian prostitutes to European merchants. Join Emily Hahn as she explores China in this literary adventure.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:11:18 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

A revolutionary woman for her time, Emily Hahn takes us on an adventure through the many faces that populate the landscape of China. Blending fiction and nonfiction seamlessly, Emily Hahn looks at everything and everyone she met on her breathtaking journey through the China of the 1930s. Hahn investigates not so much the complicated issues of political blocs and party conflict, but the ordinary, or extraordinary, lives of Chinese residents and tourists. This includes taking us into the personal lives of everyone from Asian prostitutes to European merchants. Join Emily Hahn as she explores China in this literary adventure.… (more)

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