Destination Shanghai is, I hope, the first in a series of books about various foreigners passing through, living and often dying in Asia. I started with Shanghai as it’s where I lived for many years, but am moving on with Destination Peking, Hong Kong, Singapore and then who knows where…
I realised that after thirty-something years of studying Asia I had a wealth of stories that could be gathered into these books – on my blog, in notebooks, in magazines and literary journals as well as in my head. As often, I’ve avoided telling stories of dry missionaries, self-aggrandizing businessmen or pompous diplomats. I prefer writers and artists, bohemian sojourners and my favoured writing territory of the demi-monde of Asian port city life – the showgirls, grifters, conmen and gangsters that proliferated. So, Destination Shanghai has the stories of Russian émigrés, Jewish refugees from the Nazis, conmen on the run, pimps and prostitutes falling out, Shanghai nightclub dancers who made it to Hollywood, movie stars passing through and a motley assortment of strange types who landed on the Bund over the years.
I noticed when I pulled all these characters together that there more than a few writers - indeed Eugene O’Neill, Andre Malraux, Langston Hughes and Penelope Fitzgerald all made the cut. One of the reasons they feature heavily (and, out of them, only Malraux ever wrote a novel set in Shanghai) is that they were all inveterate letter writers. Pity the poor future researcher – their letters have survived in a way that my emails from Shanghai will not. They are treasure troves of the past in a way that our electronic age will not match with the ‘delete’ button, limited storage space and burnt out hard-drives.
Letters from Asia (as Somerset Maugham knew all too well in his 1927 Malaya-set play The Letter) reveal things official biographies or after-dinner speeches may not. Take Noël Coward (who doesn’t appear in Destination Shanghai, but will for sure in some future Destination book, as he was everywhere in Asia being interesting repeatedly). Officially Shanghai loves Coward – the old Cathay Hotel (now the Fairmont Peace Hotel) on the Bund still celebrates him for having (probably) written Private Lives in one of their rooms. Yet would they celebrate him quite so much if they read his letter back home to his mother where he wrote that Shanghai, ‘looks like a cross between Brussels and Huddersfield.’ He did not mean the comparison as a compliment.
Eugene O’Neill wrote nothing of consequence in Shanghai when he spent some time there in 1928. He was a wreck; suffering from mental exhaustion following on from bouts of sunstroke, gastroenteritis, diarrhoea, repeated upset stomachs, jangled nerves, all not helped by repeated heavy drinking sessions. Emotionally he was not in a great place either being in the midst of an interminably long divorce row with his first wife, a heated (& perhaps violent) relationship with his new lover, the Broadway actress Carlotta Monterey (who had come to Shanghai with him), and a sense (not wholly unfounded) that the local Shanghai press were out to get him. On top of all that, it seems, he had monumental writer’s block. After it was discovered O’Neill was boltholed in Shanghai’s Astor House Hotel in bed suffering a suspected breakdown he wrote the ladies and gentleman of the Shanghai press corps assembled in the hotel lobby a letter:
‘I came to China seeking peace and quiet and hoping that here at least people would mind their business and allow me to mind mine. But I have found more snoops and gossips per square inch than there is in any New England town of 1,000 inhabitants. This does not apply to American newspaper correspondents, who have been most decent, carrying out their duties in a most gentlemanly manner. I am going to Honolulu and then to Tahiti, if Honolulu adopts the same attitude as Shanghai – that I am a politician whose life must be public. At any rate, I will find peace and solitude to work in if I have to go to the South Pole.’
It was a ruse – O’Neill and Carlotta had slipped out the back door and were travelling under false names on a steamer to Manila to try and slip the hack pack and paparazzi of Shanghai. O’Neill had felt persecuted in Shanghai but he got over it once he was back in the South of France away from prying eyes. He wrote to Horace Liveright, the founder of the Modern Library: ‘Had a wonderful trip East and got a lot out of it in spite of snooping reporters and severe illness.’ All was well again between O’Neill and Shanghai.
Langston Hughes had swapped Harlem Renaissance New York for the Soviet Union to see what was going on in Red Russia and then, via the Trans-Siberian, reached Shanghai’s French Concession in the humid summer (“hot as blazes” he wrote home) of 1933. Hughes quickly got the lay of the land and wrote, ‘Shanghai is a town in another world. Here there are skyscrapers, neon lights, nightclubs, jazz bands, air-cooled movies, and warships in the harbour’. Though he soon discovered it wasn’t all easy living and many old problems followed him there – the American YMCA on Thibet Road in Frenchtown didn’t accept black people and, Hughes wrote home to America, ‘colored people were not welcomed at the Cathay (Hotel)’, while, ‘none of the leading hotels in the International Settlement accepted Asiatic or Negro guests.’
All the same Langston Hughes made many friends in Shanghai, had tea with Madame Sun Yat-sen, and spent many evenings discussing ‘the race question’ back home with a white woman who managed African-American acts in Shanghai, Irene West, who was also herself an accomplished poet. This friendship – between a black American man and white American woman - would have been impossible in the Jim Crow United States. Just two poets, two individuals in Shanghai, but both concerned about the evil of segregation back home. That was the story I wanted to tell in Destination Shanghai. Why? Well, partly because Hughes mentioned this friendship in a letter home and it sparked my interest.
André Malraux’s letters are useful, or perhaps the opposite of useful, for a different reason. Malraux’ letters tell conflicting and clashing stories of his relationship with Shanghai and have caused decades of confusion. We know La Condition Humaine (Man’s Fate), Malraux’s 1933 novelisation of the terrible bloody events of 1927 in Shanghai and the suppression of the Communist party and labour unions. We mostly agree that it’s a great book – perhaps the best novel ever written about Shanghai. But did Malraux even ever visit the city? Shortly after the novel was published Malraux wrote a letter to his publisher claiming never to have visited Shanghai. Then slightly later he wrote another letter, to a journalist, claiming he had visited the city but was short on details of when and why. Then, spinning around once again, in a letter to the Japanese novelist Akira Muraki, Malraux denied ever having visited Shanghai at all…again. Finally, in one last spin, Malraux arrived in China in 1965, as the French Minister of Culture, and suggested that he had been before and was now returning! So, did he or didn’t he visit Shanghai? Well yes, he did, for a couple of days, in 1931. But all this does go to show that any amount of letters are not that helpful when your subject is a self-declared “mythomaniac”.
And finally, Penelope Fitzgerald. So many readers love her novel The Bookshop; very, very few of them know she began that novel on a package holiday to Peking and Shanghai in 1977. In her letters she describes China in 1977 – dimly lit corridors, rationed towels, erratic hot water, blown light bulbs. She claims she felt slightly self-conscious travelling on her own, an, ‘unglamorous widow-lady’ (her husband had recently died and the trip was partly to get over her loss) with ‘shabby luggage’ and too hot in her sweaters and trousers. She has serious concerns over the cleanliness of the shared chopstick jar. Bored, in her hotel room in the Broadway Mansions overlooking Shanghai’s Suzhou Creek, she began writing The Bookshop, a novel about Florence Green, a middle-aged widow, who decides to open a bookshop in a small English town.
Without letters I’d have known so much less about Coward, O’Neill, Hughes and Fitzgerald and their respective sojourns in China. Of course, right now there are fascinating people visiting and living in Shanghai, but will we have their emails, tweets, Instagram shots and blog posts for future writers to put together an anthology of travellers’ tales such as I have been able to do with twentieth century sojourners? I do hope someone can work that problem out.
Details: Destination Shanghai is published in paperback by Blacksmith Books (Hong Kong), priced in local currencies.