CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
Nos. 30/31, June/September 2012


Searching the Stars for Emily Hahn | China Heritage Quarterly

Searching the Stars for Emily Hahn

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom
University of California Irvine

Emily 'Mickey' Hahn (1905-1997) has featured in previous issues of China Heritage Quarterly. See, in particular, Issue 22 (June 2010) on the heritage of Shanghai, which carried articles by Jonathan Hutt, 'Monstre Sacré: The Decadent World of Sinmay Zau 邵洵美', China Heritage Quarterly Issue 22 (June 2010), which discusses Hahn's involvement with the Chinese literary scene, and in particular Sinmay Zau (Shao Xunmei); and, Daniel Sanderson's 'Emily Hahn Does "All-Under-Heaven" ', China Heritage Quarterly Issue 22 (June 2010), which traces Hahn's involvement with the 1930s English-language magazine T'ien Hsia Monthly. In that issue, we also reproduced from T'ien Hsia Hahn's 'The China Boom', and her review of Ernest O. Hauser's 1940 book Shanghai, City for Sale.

The following essay by Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is excerpted with the kind permission of the author and publisher from his China's Brave New World—and Other Tales for Global Times, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007, pp.41-47.—The Editor

St Louis, Missouri, has a lot going for it: a dramatic location on the banks of a famous river, and impressive icon (the giant metal waterfront Arch erected in the 1960s to commemorate the role the city once played as gateway to the American West), and a rich cultural history that reached an early peak when it hosted the World's Fair and Olympics in 1904. In addition, a surprising number of notable contributors to both highbrow and popular cultural genres were born in St. Louis; a full list of its native sons and daughters includes everyone from poet T.S. Eliot, to comedian Dick Gregory, no novelist Kate Chopin, to film star Betty Grable, to rocker Chuck Berry, to jazz chanteuse Josephine Baker, to the prolific writer Emily Hahn, author of more than one hundred New Yorker essays and scores of books, including a biography of Chiang Kai-shek and The Soong Sisters, a more famous work that tells the life stories of the Generalissimo's charismatic wife, Soong Mei-ling, and her two sisters (one of whom married Sun Yat-sen, the other of whom married China's richest banker). And yet, despite these claims to fame and despite having once been the grandest city in the Midwest and the fourth largest metropolis in the United States, St. Louis has long had an odd inferiority complex, especially vis-à-vis Chicago, the upstart city to the north that also first attracted global attention by holding an international exhibition, the Columbian Exposition of 1893. Many locals now imagine that people in other places, when they think of St Louis at all, view it as a city well past its prime that has only one real claim to fame: the fact that it once served as a starting point for journeys toward the Pacific such as that the Lewis and Clark Expedition set out upon two hundred years ago.

Fig.1 Cover of China's Brave New World

For some residents, this image problem is a cause of anxiety. Others, however, treat it with more detachment, and self-deprecating comments have become a local specialty. There is, for example, the ironic boast sometimes heard in St. Louis these days that, thanks to its fortunate position in the middle of the country, the city has gotten all the best that America has to offer: the efficiency of the South and the warmth and gentility of the North.

This vision of St Louis—as a great but underappreciated city that charmingly does not take itself too seriously—is one that formed in my mind, in any case, as I read up on the metropolis in the fall of 2003 while preparing to travel there to take part in a conference. I had been to St Louis before that, on short trips, in part simply because it was one of the biggest and most interesting urban centers within easy driving distance of Bloomington, Indiana, home to the university that employed me from August of 1991 through June of 2006. But I had not made much effort to learn about the city's past before those earlier visits. While getting ready for the 2003 trip, though, I felt differently for three reasons. First, I was working on a book about Shanghai, and that city's high profile and ultimately successful campaign to host the 2010 World Expo had made me interested in how cities that had previously staged comparable global events were affected by the experience. Second, I had grown fascinated by the writings and life story of one of the famous St Louis natives mentioned above, Emily Hahn, who was born there just a year after its World's Fair yet almost lived to see the dawn of the twenty-first century. My interest in this long-lived author, like my interest in cities that had hosted international exhibitions, had a Shanghai connection. She had lived there in the 1930s, and Shanghai served as the setting for 'The Big Smoke', one of her many New Yorker Essays. (Whether this essay is one of her best as well as one of her best known, I am not sure, as I have still only read a fraction of her total output, but it certainly has one of her most memorable opening lines: 'Though I had always wanted to be an opium addict, I can't claim that as the reason I went to China.')

A final reason I decided to find out a bit about the city in advance of my 2003 visit—by dipping into standard tourist publications and more specialized books such as Cuoco and Gass's Literary St. Louis: A Guide and Lee Ann Sandweiss's Seeking St. Louis: Voices from a River City, 1670-2000—was the nature of the conference I was going to attend. This was the biennial gathering of an organization that has a rather cumbersome and somewhat misleading name: the Society for American City and Regional Planning History (SACRPH). Though one might not think this from the name, this is actually a very eclectic urban studies association, some of whose members are not particularly interested in planning per se and do historical or culturally minded work on cities located in Europe or Asia as opposed to the Americas. What, then, is the common thread connecting their interests? According to a comment made during the 2003 St. Louis meetings by Eric Sandweiss—a colleague of mine at Indiana University, who was at the time the incoming president of SACRPH and the one who convinced me to serve as a discussant for a panel at the conference—it is a shared interest in the ways that a sense of place shapes urban history and the experience of city life. To go to a gathering of such people (even as an interested outsider who did not belong to the association) without spending some time thinking in advance about the particular urban setting in which it was to be held just would not have seemed right.

Fig.2 Tennessee Williams's star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame

Now, as it turned out, the papers presented at the panel for which I was discussant all focused on places located far from the Mississippi (London, Boston, New York, and Jakarta, to be precise), but I was nonetheless glad during the meetings that before coming I had done my St Louis homework. Reading around in works such as the two stimulating literary collections mentioned above—both published in 2000 by the Missouri Historical Society—helped me put into perspective some of the presentations and hallway conversations I heard, more that a few of which dwelt on the special characteristics of St Louis and its image problem.

That preparation also gave me a context for making sense of the event that was, for me, the highlight of the whole conference: a learned, politically engaged, and often also laugh-out-loud funny lunchtime talk comparing and contrasting the official and hidden histories of St. Louis delivered by George Lipsitz. In his address, this cultural historian, who lived in St. Louis for a time but went on to teach Ethnic Studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz, moved smoothly between topics ranging from labor strikes to the blues, Mark Twain's ideas about the Mississippi River to the destruction of old landmarks and the creation of civic monuments. The politics of race was a recurring theme. He noted, for example, the ironic fact that just when the city was mocked in some circles (and, typically, poked fun at itself) for having the worst baseball team in the still whites-only American League, its Negro League club included some of the most talented ballplayers of the day. And he told us of Josephine Baker, invited back to perform in her hometown after gaining fame in Paris, refusing to stay in the very hotel in which out meetings were being held unless other blacks were allowed into that then-still-segregated establishment. Another theme of Lipsitz's talk was the distinctive character traits that seemed to him to show up in disproportionate numbers of St Louis residents, such as an admirable sort of contrariness manifested in a fondness for irreverent gestures.

In addition to helping me during the conference, reading up on St Louis gave me a special appreciation for one of the curious local sights that I made a point to seek out—just to see if it contained any reference to Emily Hahn. This is the 'St Louis Walk of Fame', which is made up of a series of stars placed on the ground, à la those in Hollywood, to celebrate famous people who were either born in the city, moved there when young, or lived in St. Louis during particularly important moments in their careers. Thus there are stars for thee Pulitzer Prize-winning authors with varied ties to the city: Maya Angelou (who was born there), Tennessee Williams (who moved to St Louis in time to go to local high schools), and William Inge (who grew up elsewhere in the Midwest but began his career as a dramatist while teaching at Washington University). A walk of this sort—which also includes stars honoring jazz great Miles Davis, who moved to nearby Alton, Illinois, in infancy, and Charles Lindbergh, who once worked flying a mail route between this metropolis and Chicago and made his famous Atlantic crossing in a plane called The Spirit of St. Louis—may not seem at first the kind of thing a place with an inferiority complex would do. Upon reflection, though, the 1991 creation of the Walk of Fame might have been triggered in part by just the sort of feeling that St Louis does not get the respect it deserves that I cam across in my readings. Would a city full of confidence about its cultural legacy, I asked myself, have bothered to create something like this?

I am still mulling this rhetorical question, but I have settled a more basic empirical one: at least as of 2003 there was no star for Emily Hahn on the most often examined stretch of St Louis sidewalk (and a late-2006 foray into cyberspace to check relevant websites indicated one was not added in the following three years). In some ways, this is not surprising. At one time, she was quite famous. This was largely due to her New Yorker articles and books, which ran the gamut of fiction and non-fiction, including everything from the biographical works mentioned above, to a string of popular travel accounts-cum-memoirs (Africa to Me, China to Me, and England to Me among them). It was also, though, linked to her personal life, which was sometimes considered quite scandalous, as during World War II when she became pregnant by Charles Boxer, who would eventually become her husband and a leading historian of maritime Asia, but was at the time a British military officer based in Hong Kong and married to someone else. Still, but 1991, hers was not a household name like that of Chuck Berry (who has a star, of course), nor had any of her writings acquired the canonical status of Chopin's The Awakening or Eliot's The Wasteland, which ensured them their spots of honor on their hometown's Walk of Fame.

While it is certainly understandable that Hahn would be passed over, I nonetheless became convinced by reading her Times and Places (a collection of autobiographical pieces from the New Yorker that I brought with me on the 2003 trip), that her absence from the Walk of Fame is unfortunate. This is not just because she was a talented writer but also because her actions and personality, as they come through in Times and Places, reflect what I have come to think of as quintessential St. Louis themes. For starters, Hahn certainly had the sort of contrary streak Lipsitz described in his talk. She claimed, for example, that one reason she ended up becoming the first woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in mining engineering was simply to prove wrong the men on campus who had told her that someone of her sex could not possibly handle the rigors of that major. In addition, as befits a St. Louis native, though her later travels took her across oceans, her first big trip was over land for the Mississippi to the Pacific.

Last but not least, she was skilled at poking fun at herself. This shows through in many of her accounts of journeying through Asia and Africa, but my favorite example of her self-deprecating humor is in a chapter of Times and Places, 'Pilgrims Progress', which focuses mainly on what happened to her when she finally got back to the US toward the end of World War II. It begins with a brief account of her adventures in Hong Kong in the early 1940s, where she pretended to be Eurasian so that the Japanese occupiers would neither imprison nor deport her. (Boxer was a prisoner of war held in miserable conditions. While there, she could slip him food from time to time.) Eventually, though, she had to leave, and it is after describing her departure from Asia that Hahn's self-mocking begins. She must have become insufferable, she muses, once she got to New York, full of bad habits acquired during her travels and determined to regale her relatives with endless stories about her exploits. Perhaps, though, she notes, this is a common fate for travelers. We do not know what Marco Polo's relatives though of him, Hahn writes, but she is willing to 'bet anything that they found their celebrated kinsman an awful nuisance to have around,' due in part to the way 'he expected the young people to listen whenever he felt like telling an anecdote.'

Continuing in a similar vein, she points to the likelihood that, though we never hear about things that happened after Ulysses got back to Ithaca, it was probably not an unblemished source of joy for Penelope. Of course, Penelope would have been 'glad to have him back to rescue her from that difficult situation, but, once the excitement of the homecoming was over, she may well have found it difficult to adjust to him—a man who had grown all too used to the rough life of the seafarer. By day, he would complain that Ithaca was dull and would mope around the estate. By night, he would sleep badly, often starting up out of a nightmare to shout hoarsely about alarms and excursions. Anxious times for Penelope.'

Surely, anyone who can write like that deserves a star on the Walk of Fame of any metropolis lucky enough to be able to claim her. With luck, it will only be a matter of time before local residents and tourists who examine this stretch of St Louis sidewalk can be reminded that Mark Twain was not the only writer of wonderful tales of world travel born by the banks of the Mississippi.