Emily Hahn: Adventuress, journalist, stealer of other women’s husbands

BOOK REVIEW: China to Me by Emily Hahn (Kindle: $7.99)

Emily Hahn: Adventuress, journalist, stealer of other women’s husbands and keeper of gibbons came to Shanghai in 1935. 

She stayed through the tumultuous years of the Japanese invasion until mid-1943, when she was repatriated to America as part of a prisoner exchange with the Japanese.

Emily Hahn made a point of meeting interesting gentlemen from many countries and became close personal friends with a number of them. Emily is vague about how close her relationships were with the spies, intelligence men, diplomats and other shady characters who featured on her social calendar.

As well as providing stories for the New Yorker she found herself a job as a journalist at the British owned North-China Daily news, and set herself up in a flat in the red light district.

Emily partied hard, drank hard, worked hard and met everybody. She was interested in everybody from the wealthy businessmen such as Sigfried Sassoon to the prostitutes from which she took lessons in mandarin.

She had stumbled upon a critical time in Shanghai history when the old social conventions were relaxing and Chinese and foreigners were mixing more freely.

Diplomats and businessmen threw parties for each other and foreign ladies and Chinese ladies invited one another for lunch. In 1935 Shanghai was a mecca for any journalist worthy of the profession.

In her two and a half years in Shanghai between 1935 and the Japanese invasion in 1937, Emily fell in love and married Sinmay Zau, the scion of a wealthy family. She eventually moved in with him and his first wife, an arrangement that seemed to suit all three of them.

She also kept gibbons, the most notorious of which was Mr Mills, who - dressed in a small tuxedo and diapers - attended cocktail parties and when it grew cold wore a small fur coat made from off-cuts of her sable coat.

Sinmay, playboy and poet, was part of a large wealthy family whose widespread connections allowed Emily into a world few expatriates had the privilege to experience. He arranged access to the famous Soong sisters, and in 1939 she went to Chungking to meet them and write a book of their life and times. She never returned to Shanghai.

While she was there Chungking was carpet bombed by the Japanese and her manuscript was almost lost. She rescued it and was subsequently published to great acclaim in America.

She moved to Hong Kong where she had an affair with the unhappily married Charles Boxer, head of British intelligence. She was sure she couldn’t have a baby, however Charles assured her that he always got his girls into trouble and she became pregnant. Her first daughter was born on the eve of the Japanese invasion.

Charles was wounded in the defence of Hong Kong and subsequently interned in a prison camp.

Together with her devoted cook whose wife and daughter she had saved from cholera, Emily managed to keep both the baby and Charles alive by scrounging for food, and defying the Japanese when necessary.

Charles and Emily had known a lot of the Japanese officers socially before the war, and Emily was able to wangle many concessions from them. It is difficult to have somebody you know water boarded, difficult but not impossible as some of her friends discovered.

She was able to stay out of prison camp herself by claiming since she was still married to Sinmay, she was Chinese. She was persuaded by both Charles and the Japanese to go back to America in 1943.

If you are about to be invaded or interned, Emily recommended buying a big lump of gold and stuffing it full of diamonds, like currants in a bun. Good advice never goes out of date.

This book was a great read about thirty years ago; unfortunately it has been out of print for a very long time. It was first published in 1945; the war against the Japanese was still being waged and Emily had to be careful to protect her friends in Hong Kong.

This is where the book ends. However, when the war was over Charles and Emily married and lived in England where they had another daiughter.

Eventually Emily moved to New York and visited Charles and her daughters in England for part of the year.

She lived until she was 92, still working in her office in the New Yorker until shortly before her death, following a shattered femur in 1997. 

Her other books also published by Kindle and are well worth a read.

Emily Hahn is a forgotten literary treasure whose adventures in China would be excellent raw material for a movie.


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