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China To Me (1999)

China to Me (1999)
4.28 of 5 Votes: 3
0759240604 (ISBN13: 9780759240605)
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China To Me (1999)
China To Me (1999)

About book: Candid memoir of expatriate life in 1930’s-40’s ChinaWhen I first started reading Emily Hahn’s candid memoir I felt like I’d walked into the middle of a witty and fascinating conversation that I didn’t quite have the context for. There’s a reason for that, when China to Me was first published in 1944 WWII was still going on and the public was already well aware of Emily Hahn and her unconventional somewhat scandalous life, so there were details she could assume people already knew. I was out of that loop, but I soon enough found my footing. Hahn traveled to Shanghai with her sister in 1935, got a writing job for a British newspaper and decided to stay. She mixed with the rich and powerful, mainly British and other European expatriates, but she also had a romantic relationship and business partnership with an already married Chinese publisher and poet. Her apartment--which she describes in humorous detail--was in the red light district and she kept a pet gibbon name Mr. Mills who sometimes accompanied her to parties. In 1940 Hahn traveled inland to the mountainous city of Chungking (now Chongqing) to interview one of the Soong sisters, who I’m ashamed to say I had never heard of, for a book she was writing about the family. All three sisters were married to prominent Chinese men--political and military leader Chiang Kai-shek, revolutionary Sun Yat-sen, and uber wealthy finance minister Kung Hsiang-hsi--but the sisters also cultivated their own positions of power and influence. Hahn was in Chungking while the Japanese were conducting bombing raids on the city, so she had to type her book between frightening but tedious sessions in cave-like air raid shelters. But Hahn’s experiences in Chungking were nothing compared to her life in Japanese occupied Hong Kong. She had about a year in the city before the invasion, which was long enough to have an affair with a married British military officer and give birth to their baby. Up until this point Hahn’s memoir had been highly interesting to me, but her harrowing descriptions of the chaos, scarcity, and menace of living under enemy rule while trying to care for and feed her infant daughter and make sure her hospital imprisoned lover had food and medicine made the book almost impossible to put down. Hahn was a follows-her-own-rules kind of person, and this is a lively, entertaining, and informative book, but it’s her astute and forthright observations about people, including herself, and their varied reactions to hardship, displacement, cultural difference, tests of love and loyalty, and the loss or gain of power that elevated this memoir above a simple recounting of events for me. The book closes in 1943 when Hahn finally returns to the US with her daughter, but the war is raging on so her life and the fate of her lover are still up in the air, making me very relieved that I had a biography on hand to fill me in on what happened next--though you could just check her Wikipedia page. This memoir is well over 400 pages, and I did find myself skimming at times, but like many of my favorite books, China to Me sent me into passionate internet research mode, and it’s added several titles to my TBR list--I for sure have to read Hahn’s book about the Soong sisters. There’s a lot more by Hahn to choose from because she authored a total of 52(!) books and wrote articles, poems, and short stories for New Yorker magazine almost up until her death at the age of ninety-two in 1997.In 2014 China to Me was republished by Open Road Media. I read an ebook review copy supplied to me at no cost by the publisher through NetGalley. Review opinions are mine.

Emily (Mickey) Hahn's 'China to Me' memoir is bit of a puzzle. Is it a travelogue, a window into another society, a historical record? Was it written as a means of coming to grips with the sudden arrival in America after nearly a decade of living in Asia? Is it a catalogue of names and events recorded for posterity? She wrote: Half the men I remember that night, horsing around, are dead, and the girls are standing in line at Stanley with cup in hand, waiting for a handout of thin rice stew.Her writing styple is without a doubt geared toward the magazine reader, a conversational tone, hinting at larger topics without great depth or detail. Sprinkled throughout are names of persons known and unknown - mostly the later today. The first third of the book sheds light on Mickey's character as well as the life of foreigners living in China in the 1930's. Picturing her home with the human and animal managerie she maintained underlines her unconventional nature. It also serves to ground her as a legitimate observer in a time of great change in China. The central portion covers the writing of her well-known book on the Soong sisters, the wives of the New China's leaders. The remainder describes life in Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation. In the center of it all is a love story which might be the essence of minimialism, presented in such a matter of fact way that the reader knows it was completely different.Her experiences during the occupation of Hong Kong seem at odds with the stories that came out of the internment camps. While she benefited from an association with highly placed Japanese officials, her life was different from the internees only in the apparent freedom of movement she was allowed and the company she kept. Those outside the camps were subject to sudden terrors, violence and criminal behaviors every much as those inside. She was fortunate to be part of a support network that worked for the survival of themselves and the internees alike.Mickey's personality is such that hers fears and concerns, while noted, do not take over the narrative. As she wrote, she likes to be the boss and naturally could not maintain the proper demeanor as an enemy national. Clearly, the Japanese did not know what to make of her. Throughout, she does not hesitate to criticize herself, her actions or her behaviors but holds fast to her purpose of providing for her daughter and for her daughter's father.This is not a tell-all tale and the reader is left with the impression that a lot has been left unwritten. Her purpose, however, was not to document conditions and events that others were in better positions to detail or who had already done so. At that, anything from the pen of this extraordinarily interesting woman is well worth reading.
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Danielle McClellan
Emily Hahn is one of my all time favorite writers/women/adventurers and if I were an actress she is the one character that I would want to play in a film. In her autobiographical writing, Hahn is brutally honest about her complicated life and nobody could ever accuse her of taking the easy road. She talks about her decision to leave her comfortable home to move to the Southwest to become an engineer, and later, move to Asia, where she hooked up with a Chinese lover, a pet monkey, and a minor opium addiction. Still later in Hong Kong she fell head-over-heels into an affair with Charles Boxer, a married man (and British spy). When he was imprisoned by the invading Japanese, she managed to evade authorities by disguising herself as a local woman. (Please note, I last read this book a number of years ago and also her biography so some of this may have shown up in the bio instead of the memoir.) I once had a professor at Yale tell me about having dinner with Hahn and Boxer many years later and he remembered that at the end of the meal Hahn dumped a vase of water over Boxer's head when he flirted with a young woman at their table. Glad to hear that she did not lose her wonderful strong personality as she aged. She was smart and funny and wild and her writing is a treat.
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