China to Me Review

China to Me
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China to Me ReviewChina to Me opens a fascinating window into China during the most turbulent era in its modern history. Emily Hahn, a correspondent for the New Yorker, arrived in Shanghai in 1935, looking for fun, adventure, and the subject of her next book. She wound up staying in China until 1943. This autobiographical narrative of her Chinese sojourn falls into three parts: her five years in Shanghai from 1935 to 1939; a year of writing in Chungking (Chongqing) in 1940; and three years in Hong Kong from 1940 to 1943.
Hahn's stayed in Shanghai the longest, although her narration of her time there constitutes the shortest portion of the book. She reveled in the comparatively free and open social atmosphere of the European concessions. She conducted a celebrated affair with a Chinese poet, Sinmay Zau (Shao Xunmei), with whom she also ran a left-wing English-language newspaper; she even became his official concubine. She also purchased a Gibbon ape whom she named "Mr. Mills" and who accompanied her to society parties.
Hahn was not a political writer. Or, perhaps better, her politics were refracted through her personal relations. She visited Nanking (Nanjing) a year prior to the Nanking Massacre. She remarks in passing on the Marco Polo Bridge incident, but assumes that her readers will already know all about it. (This may not be true of contemporary readers, for whom these events have become distant history.) Hahn excelled at describing her conversations with Japanese spies, British officers' wives, and Chinese volunteers. At a time when classes, genders, and races were still socially stratified, Hahn delighted in breaking with convention.
She traveled to Hong Kong and then to Chungking after receiving permission to write an authorized biography of the famous Soong sisters. Chungking had become the capital of Free China after the fall of Nanking and was under nearly constant Japanese bombardment. She spent lots of time underground in crowded cave shelters and was rendered homeless after her hotel was destroyed. Hahn still managed to meet regularly with the sisters and to finish her biography, published in 1942.
The greatest part of her narrative is given over to describing her experiences before and after the fall of Hong Kong. Hahn was basically just casting about for her next assignment in Hong Kong when events overtook her. She entered into a romance with Charles Boxer, the (married) head of British intelligence, and had a daughter by him just prior to Hong Kong's fall. The Japanese invasion forced her to live hand-to-mouth under increasingly difficult and perilous circumstances. Hahn provides valuable historical insight into everyday life in Hong Kong under Japanese occupation. She avoided being sent to Stanley Internment Camp by claiming Chinese citizenship as a consequence of her concubine marriage to Zau. Hahn nursed a wounded Boxer back to health and later provided food for him and other interned soldiers at Stanley Camp. She finally left Hong Kong with her daughter, Carola, in 1943 with other repatriated Americans.
China to Me was published in 1944 before the Second World War had come to an end. Hahn's recollections, particularly of Chungking and Hong Kong, are strikingly fresh. She has not had time to process her experiences and sometimes her anger boils over on the pages. But this is autobiography, not history. China to Me deserves--as many others have said--to be rediscovered as a classic first-hand account of life in wartime China.China to Me Overview

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