CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 22, June 2010


Emily Hahn Does 'All Under Heaven' | China Heritage Quarterly

Emily Hahn Does ‘All-Under-Heaven’

Daniel Sanderson

Fig.1 Emily "Mickey" Hahn [Source: Emily Hahn Estate]

Emily Hahn—or Mickey, as she was universally known—first encountered the young Chinese poet and publisher, Sinmay Zau (Shao Xunmei, 邵洵美,1906-68), at a fashionable ‘integrated’ gathering in Shanghai in the spring of 1935 (for more on Zau, see Jonathan Hutt’s essay in the Features section of this issue). She had arrived in China with her sister in March of that year, intending to spend only the two weeks considered necessary to see the sights and get a taste of the city’s famously sybaritic nightlife before heading off for further adventures in West Africa. Instead, Hahn was quickly seduced by Shanghai’s charms. Within days she had found herself a job at the British-owned North-China Daily News (for an essay on another employee of this paper, Sapajou, see Richard Rigby’s essay in Features), and rented a flat—part of a former brothel—in the red-light district along Kiangse Road. She quickly became a fixture on the city’s hectic social circuit, shifting easily between the wealthy bon vivants, led by the financier Sir Victor Sassoon, and the more earnest, artistically-inclined circle that had formed around the prominent American salon hostess Bernardine Szold-Fritz. It was Fritz who organised the little dinner party at which Hahn and Zau met, and who was shocked, along with her other foreign guests, when Mickey departed at the end of the night in Zau’s brown Nash automobile. It was the beginning of an unconventional but extraordinarily fruitful relationship.

The thirty-one-year-old Hahn was well used to making a stir. In college, she had been the first woman to obtain a degree in Mining Engineering from the University of Wisconsin. Finding the reality of life as an engineer inimical, Hahn arrived eventually in New York, where, with the help of family friends and other connections, she began to take her first serious steps as a professional writer. Her first piece for the fledgling highbrow weekly, The New Yorker, appeared in September 1929, marking the beginning of an association that would last almost eight decades. At twenty-five, the perennially restless Hahn moved to the Belgian Congo, where she spent two years working for the Red Cross and developing a lifelong fascination with primates. She smoked large cigars, drank with gusto and maintained a chaotic love life across several continents, all the while providing a steady series of witty, well-turned essays and stories to Harold Ross, her editor at The New Yorker.

Sinmay Zau, meanwhile, was from a wealthy official family and had been educated in Paris and Cambridge. He had made a name for himself in the Shanghai of the 1920s due to his playboy lifestyle and decadent poetry, influenced by Swinburne and Verlaine. By the early 1930s, though the family’s finances had fallen into rapid decline and the decadent style was no longer in fashion, Zau had become a central figure of the Shanghai literary set.[1] In a last ditch effort to revive the family fortunes, in 1932 Zau had invested in a state-of-the-art printing press from which emerged an eclectic array of publications, including Lin Yutang’s influential satirical fortnightly, Analects (Lunyu 論語), and a number of other magazines destined, with varying degrees of success, for the popular market. August 1935 saw the launch of T’ien Hsia, a monthly journal dedicated to furthering international cultural understanding that was to play a significant role in the lives of both Hahn and Zau.

Hahn later remembered the two and a half years between her arrival in China and the Japanese assault on Shanghai in August 1937 as a particularly happy period, characterised as it was by frenetic social and creative activity, interspersed with the delightful, opium-induced longueurs to which she had been introduced by Zau on the night they met. Her relationship with Zau gave her an entrée into a world that few Shanghai expatriates were privileged to experience. ‘Little by little,’ Hahn writes in her China autobiography, China to Me, ‘because of all the Chinese people I met, and all their histories which I heard, I was able to see through new windows. It was not so much that I found a new world with Sinmay and his family, but I went with them around to the back of the scenes and peered out at the same old world through a glow of strange-colored footlights. It was fresh and wonderful that way.’[2]

Hahn’s flat on Kiangse Road became a sort of drop-in centre for Zau’s sprawling family and for the city’s poets, artists, thinkers and political radicals, attracted by the convenient location and the culinary expertise of her cook, Chin Lien.[3] Prominent among these were the various members of the T’ien Hsia editorial board, including the legal scholar, John Wu (吳經熊), and the committed anglophile editor-in-chief, Wen Yuan-ning (溫源寧). While continuing her work for The New Yorker (her vignettes on the various misadventures of Mr Pan Heh-ven—a thinly veiled representation of Zau—became exceedingly popular and were eventually published as a book), Hahn became a frequent and enthusiastic contributor to T’ien Hsia, providing regular book reviews and other articles. ‘I loved writing for T’ien Hsia,’ she recalled later. ‘I could be as snobbishly literary as I wanted and they liked it all the better.’[4]

One notable event during these years was a ‘famous and much-publicized jaunt’ that Hahn took with members of the Kiangse Road crowd to the mountains of Huangshan 黄山 in Anhui province, an adventure documented by the avant-garde photographer Long Chin-san (Lang Jingshan 郎靜山).[5]

Besides T’ien Hsia, Zau and Hahn also collaborated on a short-lived bilingual magazine called Vox, three numbers of which appeared in 1936. The following summer, the outbreak of Japanese hostilities in Shanghai saw the removal of T’ien Hsia, its editors and office staff to Hong Kong. Despite the apolitical aims expressed by its founder, Sun Fo 孙科, the magazine had come to the attention of the city’s new Japanese authorities, and the editors felt it prudent to relocate. In Hong Kong, offices were soon found in the brand-new headquarters of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, while Wen Yuan-ning took on a position as head of the Chungking-based Nationalist government’s Hong Kong propaganda (for an Editorial Commentary by Wen in T’ien Hsia Monthly, see the December 2009 issue of China Heritage Quarterly, under ‘T’ien Hsia’).

Remaining in Shanghai, Hahn and Zau were confronted with the increasing dangers and inconveniences of the Japanese occupation. Both were eventually forced to move into new houses in the relative safety of the French Concession, Hahn from her Kiangse Road flat and Zau from the family mansion in the Yangtsepoo district across Soochow Creek. As an American national, and therefore neutral, Hahn was able to retrieve much of Zau’s valuable library from the Yangtsepoo house after it had been left behind in the rush to escape the Japanese bombing. More significantly for Zau’s meagre income, Hahn succeeded in saving the printing press from confiscation, though this was only made certain after Hahn signed a document declaring herself Zau’s second wife under Chinese law. Her experience as the ‘concubine’ of a Chinese poet would become an integral part of the Mickey Hahn legend upon her eventual return to the US.

With the press safe, Zau and Hahn turned their attention to their latest project, a new monthly magazine to be called Candid Comment (Ziyou tan 自由談) of which Hahn was to be editor. Having learnt from their experience with the bilingual Vox, the new paper was to appear in separate English and Chinese editions. In the event, however, the English version was soon abandoned while the pair focused attention on the more successful Chinese edition. More trenchant than T’ien Hsia, the magazine maintained an openly anti-Japanese editorial policy, with striking agit-prop covers and regular photographic features on the Nationalist war effort. The magazine soon drew interest from the Japanese: Hahn was offered ‘increased circulation and plenty of advertising’ to moderate the political tone of Candid Comment.[6] The offer was refused, though the magazine appears to have ceased publication in 1939 after only seven issues.

In the same year, at the suggestion of her friend, journalist John Gunther, Hahn began exploring the possibility of writing a book on the powerful but notoriously reclusive Soong sisters—Ai-Ling, Ch’ing-ling and May-ling. Again, her relationship with Zau was crucial: his ‘favourite aunt’ had played with Soong Ai-ling as a child. Moreover, Sun Fo, the founder of T’ien Hsia, was a friend of Ai-ling (and, indeed, the stepson of Soong Ch’ing-ling). With these connections, and her promise to write ‘a truthful book’, Hahn gained the sisters’ support for her work.[7]

Hahn left Shanghai in mid-1939, intending to spend no longer than three months in Hong Kong and Chungking researching the book and interviewing her subjects. In the event, she never returned to the city. The exigencies of war had made life a daily struggle. More significantly, her relationship with Zau had grown increasingly unsatisfactory, particularly after she had kicked her opium habit earlier that year. Upon completion of her book, she planned to succumb to her mother’s regular entreaties to return to the US.

Instead, T’ien Hsia was to have one more major part to play in her life. Among the contributors who had been recruited since the magazine’s move to Hong Kong was a scholarly young British Army officer, Charles Boxer. Having been impressed by Hahn’s writing for the magazine, Boxer obtained a letter of introduction to her before a trip to Shanghai. His visit on that occasion had not been a success—the Kiangse Road flat was crowded with visitors as usual and they had not had an opportunity to converse for more than a few minutes. Later, in Hong Kong, a strong mutual attraction developed, and, after the evacuation of Boxer’s wife to Australia, the pair began a relationship, which culminated in the birth of a daughter, Carola, in October 1941. As head of British Military Intelligence in Hong Kong Boxer was interned by the Japanese after the island’s occupation in December the same year. Hahn succeeded in avoiding transfer to the Stanley POW camp through judicious use of her Chinese marriage certificate. After two years of precarious survival in the occupied city, Hahn was repatriated as part of a prisoner exchange in 1943. She and Boxer would marry upon his release at the end of the war.

Hahn’s experiences in China were to form the foundation of a long and successful writing career, encompassing more than fifty books of fiction, history, memoir and reportage, as well as innumerable articles, most appearing in The New Yorker. In his reminiscence of her in that magazine after her death in 1997, Roger Angell describes Hahn as ‘a woman deeply, almost domestically, at home in the world.’[8] Though no doubt a minor figure on the Chinese cultural scene of the 1930s, Hahn’s contribution to T’ien Hsia was clearly in keeping with its stated goals of fostering international cultural understanding, and she added her own indelibly snarky tone to her frequent essays and reviews. If nothing else, it was certainly a lot of fun.


[1] For more on Shao Xunmei’s role in Shanghai’s literary and publishing scene, see Jonathan Hutt, ‘La Maison d’or—The Sumptuous World of Shao Xunmei’, East Asian History (June 2001) 21, pp.111-142, reworked and published in the Features section of this issue of China Heritage Quarterly under the title Monstre Sacré, the Decadent World of Sinmay Zau’.

[2] Emily Hahn, China to Me: A Partial Autobiography, New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1944, p.10.

[3] Hahn’s biographer, Ken Cuthbertson, suggests that both Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai were among the visitors, though this seems highly unlikely given that both were otherwise occupied by the Long March and establishment of the Yan’an base area during this time. See Ken Cuthbertson, Nobody Said Not To Go: The Life, Loves and Adventures of Emily Hahn, New York: Faber & Faber, 1998, p.146.

[4] Hahn, op.cit., p.16.

[5] Ibid., p.42.

[6] Ibid., p.33.

[7] Ibid., p.83.

[8] Roger Angell, ‘Ms. Ulysses’, The New Yorker, 10 March 1997, p.52.