Monday, January 14, 2013

Happy Birthday - Emily Hahn

You know, as much as I'd like to think I know a lot about women in literature and history, I'm continually surprised by what I don't know. Especially when I learn about a woman in history who lived a truly amazing and adventurous life. For example, Emily "Mickey" Hahn.


Born in Saint Louis on January 14, 1905, she was raised in a happy home that didn't hinder her ambitions. She had a vivid imagination and big plans for her life. She was rebellious and craved adventure. As a student at the University of Wisconsin, working on a degree in English, she wanted to take a Chemistry class. Denied access, she decided to switch her major to Mining Engineering.
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.
(Source: China Heritage Quarterly
After graduation she worked with an engineering company in Illinois, but found it difficult going because of sexist attitudes. On a bit of a whim, she decided to drive across the United States with a girlfriend, both dressed as men. She found a job working as a Harvey Girl in New Mexico.


Her travel book Congo Solo tells of her travels to the Belgian Congo, where she worked for the Red Cross, and lived with a pygmy tribe for two years, and walked across Central Africa alone on foot.
Congo Solo is the true story of Hahn’s African odyssey. Her account of her solo hike across half of Africa, at the age of 24, is the stuff of high adventure. And her description of the racism, sexism, and inhumanity she witnessed in the Congo makes for shocking and compelling reading for scholars of African history and armchair travelers alike – even 80 years later.
(Source: Queen's University
In her book China to Me, she tells of her time in China, working as a writer for The New Yorker, living in Shanghai. But that wasn't enough of an adventure for Mickey. To keep things spicy, she rented an apartment in the red light district. From this vantage, she was able to tell the stories of the people she met, including prostitutes and European businessmen. But she also includes plenty of autobiographical material, which is filled with excitement and scandal. In Shanghai, she met and had an affair with the Chinese poet Sinmay Zau, with whom she spent several fun, pre-war years. And even after the Japanese invaded, rather than returning home to the US, she stayed.
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.
(Source: China Heritage Quarterly

After managing to recover from her opium addiction, she devised an elaborate plan to travel to another part of China to interview the Soong sisters, and then sneak out of China to live in Hong Kong. There, she continued to live a life of adventure, taking up a romantic relationship with the head of British Intelligence, eventually having a daughter with him. When the Japanese invaded Hong Kong, and her lover was imprisoned, times were difficult and in exchange for food, she was forced to give Japanese officials lessons in English. She tells the story of how she slapped the Japanese Chief of Intelligence in the face. Years later, in 1943, the day before she was to leave Hong Kong to return to the US, he made it a point to came back to see her, and slapped her back.
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.
(Source: China Heritage Quarterly)

While I'm a bit ashamed that I haven't read any of her books, I'm excited because that means I get to now! And you can be sure several of them are getting added to the to-read queue right away!
Similar nay-saying and head-shaking attended her cigar-smoking, her enjoyment of men and alcohol, her trip across the U.S. in a Model T with her girlfriend (both disguised as men), her journey to the Belgian Congo as a Red Cross worker, her time as the concubine of a Chinese poet in Shanghai, her addiction to opium, her affair and illegitimate child with the head of the British Secret Service in Hong Kong, her pioneer work in environmentalism and wildlife preservation, and the captivating candor with which she wrote about all of this "Though I had always wanted to be an opium addict," one of her collected New Yorker pieces begins, "I can't claim that as the reason I went to China."
(Source: Today in Literature)
Happy Birthday Mickey!

1 comment :

  1. For the full story of Emily Hahn's remarkable life, check out Nobody Said Not to Go by Ken Cuthbertson. This 1998 book will be available as of March in ebokk format from Open Roads Media.

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