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Review: China to Me, by Emily Hahn


Pages: 429
Original date of publication: 1944
My edition: 1988 (Virago Travellers)
Why I decided to read:
How I acquired my copy: Ebay, November 2011


Emily Hahn was an American who spent 9 years living in China as a journalist, starting in 1935. She lived first in Shanghai, where she had a common-law marriage with a native Chinese and owned a couple of gibbons. During WWII, she lived in Chungking, where she met her future husband Charles Boxer. I first ran into the prose of this author about a year ago when I read the Virago Book of Women Travellers, in which another essay of Hahn’s is excerpted. The first line of that essay goes:
Though I had always wanted to be an opium addict, I can’t claim that as the reason I went to China. The opium ambition dates back to that obscure period of childhood when I wanted to be a lot of other things, too—the greatest expert on ghosts, the world’s best ice skater, the champion lion tamer, you know the kind of thing. But by the time I went to China I was grown up, and all those dreams were forgotten.

After reading that, I knew I had to find one of Emily Hahn’s books. She also wrote a biography of the famous Soong sisters, and she writes about the process of writing that book in this memoir.

I get the feeling that Hahn was an extremely chatty person in real life; she was certainly very extroverted and interested in the people around her, as seen from the constant references she makes to other Americans and British in Shanghai. Hahn certainly has a sense of humor bordering on the slapstick; when she flies to Chungking, she describes her attire thus:
We are limited in our baggage on these planes but there is no extra charge for bodily weight. Therefore travelers usually wear as many clothes as they can, and carry whatever they can cram into their pockets, and also carry extra coats over their arms… They had told me that Chungking was cold and I was taking no chances. First I was wearing a woolen dress and jacket. Over that I was wearing a cloth coat. Over that a fur of Chinese mink. On top of all that the Chinese padded gown of plum-colored silk. On my feet were the famous sheepskin boots, on their first trip and gaining fame by the minute. I looked like a deep-sea diver. I walked like one too.

Hahn was apparently famous for embellishing stories, but judging from that passage and many more like it, she certainly knew how to deliver a story effectively. Hahn is long-winded and uses colloquial language at times; the book is over 400 pages long and in small type. But she paints a vivid portrait of China before and during the war and proves herself to be a strong, courageous woman throughout all her experiences.

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