Shanghai-based journalist Paul French’s latest book is one that ought to excite all you ol’ Shanghai history buffs (and press nostalgists as well) – an examination of the convulsive history of the China press corps between the 1820s and leading up to the revolution of 1949.
Amongst those heady hundred odd years, editors engaged in sword weilding duels, reporters drank and philandered and entered into sordid affairs, and some even brawled… over issues like how to properly report on Mao’s revolution.
Where: Glamour Bar 6/F, No. 5 The Bund (corner 20 Guangdong Road)
Starts: Sunday, June 7, 4PM
Cover: 65RMB, includes a drink
Paul French was nice enough to provide us with a snippet of his book: a small piece on Emily Hahn, one of the few women to join the China press corps. in 1935, who came to Shanghai to take advantage of their tailoring (hey! we still do that!) and stuck around to freelance for publications like the New Yorker.
Of all the women to join the China press corps, perhaps none was as notorious as Emily Hahn. Hahn had travelled extensively before arriving in China and she was to travel extensively afterwards too, though it is with Shanghai she will probably always be most associated.
Arriving in 1935, almost by accident and not intending to stay but just to get some new dresses made, she hung around, freelanced and contributed a number of pieces to the New Yorker that have become perennial favourites for capturing the flavour of old Shanghai. She got tight with all the right people — Sir Victor Sassoon, the rich owner of the Cathay Hotel, as well as Madame Chiang. She had enchanted many men, including Sassoon and the intellectual, poet and dapper man-about-town Zau Sinmay (Shao Xunmei).
To say that Hahn was from a varied background would be understating it. She was the first woman to gain a mining degree from Wisconsin University, a Wild West trail guide, a Congo explorer, a London literary scene habitué, an author of a book on the art of seduction and an Oxford student; and, while in Shanghai, she reputedly occasionally hosted Mao and Zhou En-lai in her apartment.
She was certainly not a typical freelancer. Emily, or “Mickey” as she preferred to be known, was a hit with her big dark eyes, frequent smile, husky voice, large rear-end and fashionably bobbed hair. She was half tomboy and half femme fatale and most men seem to have found her irresistible, even with all the other attractions on offer in Shanghai in the 1930s. Though some tried, few could dismiss her as just another “Shanghai babe” or “girl reporter” as she was clearly a thorough journalist, a quick wit and a widely read author.
As well as writing some of the most evocative and descriptive prose on Shanghai in the late 1930s, Mickey managed to also become a writer who had a foot in both camps — the International Settlement social whirl of Shanghailander life and the avant garde Chinese life of the city. These two coexisting worlds that all too infrequently met and impinged on each other were the inspiration for Hahn’s writing. She was prolific across her lifetime and turned out over 50 books, including memoirs, biographies, journalism, travelogues and children’s books, most of which were rushed and written in difficult personal and political circumstances.
On the Chinese side of her life, she became notorious for her affair and marriage, as a concubine or second wife, to Zau, who was then a well-known Shanghainese poet inspired by the European Decadents of the nineteenth century. This didn’t necessarily make for great poetry in Chinese but was certainly an interesting experiment in modern Chinese writing and was symptomatic of the Shanghai mixture of Eastern and Western influences that so defined the modernist character of the city during the 1930s.
The French- and English-educated Zau published a range of avant garde magazines and literary journals in English and Chinese inspired by the likes of Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Mallarmé as well as the English Decadents. He was also inspired by the opium pipe, to which he introduced Hahn. A concubine, an opium addict and an avant garde publisher, she had crossed the line into modern Chinese culture in a way no other foreign journalist managed in China between the wars. Most wouldn’t have really wanted to either, but Hahn felt it essential to immerse herself. What she got, among other things, was her addiction to opium that led to a need to cure herself and subsequently one of her best pieces for the New Yorker dealing with addiction and cure: The Big Smoke.
The other side of her was pure Shanghai sojourner and she excelled at both being a central part and simultaneously critic of the excesses of Shanghailander society. Hahn chronicled the late and long dinners, the endless rounds of drinks and parties and the decadence of Shanghai shortly before its fall while personally exceeding most of these excesses. The image of her swanning around parties at Victor Sassoon’s with Mr. Mills, complete with his own ape diapers, remains one of the enduring images of old Shanghai as does, for some who knew her anyway, her tendency to answer the door completely naked without any idea who her caller was.