Emily Hahn

Emily Hahn and Mr. Mills
Image source: Wikipedia

Emily Hahn is what you might call an adventuress. She liked to be called Mickey. She had a deep-seated desire for opium and a pet gibbon named Mr. Mills. Hahn held a degree in mining engineering and a lot of street smarts. Her first book was a satirical look at the way men court women, Seductio ad Absurdum: The Principles and Practicer of Seduction — A Beginner’s Handbook. It was published in 1930.

When Hahn arrived in Shanghai in March 1935, she was out for adventure. She found it in the form of Shao Xunmei, a Western-educated poet, publisher and notorious womaniser. Their affair lies at the heart of Hahn’s dispatches from China published in The New Yorker from 1935 to 1943.

Reporter at Large

To start off, Hahn scandalized Shanghai with her highly public dalliance with Sir Victor Sassoon. He lived on the 9th floor of the glamorous Cathay Hotel. She rented a flat in a former brothel. Sassoon loved fast cars, fast women and racing horses. It was a perfectly shocking affair.

Within a few months, however, Hahn topped herself by falling in love with Shao Xunmei. Hahn and Shao met at a party. She left that evening in Shao’s brown Nash car. In March 1936, Hahn began to write about Shao and his sprawling family in her New Yorker dispatches. In a gesture toward fictionalization, Hahn named her lover Pan Heh-ven.

I suppose it is an honor to have him in my living-room. Heh-ven says he is one of the leading Chinese poets. I wouldn’t know, because I can’t read his poems and he translates them very scrappily for me, so that though I may realize that he has got drunk and gone out to lie beneath a tree, where he is dappled with leaf shadows and feels happy, still, when I hear it, this series of actions does not sound absolutely lyrical.

Emily Hahn, “Cathay and the Muse” in The New Yorker, 14 Mar 1936

Poet Publisher

Shao Xunmei. Image source: Shanghai Style by Lynn Pan
Shao Xunmei. Image source:
Shanghai Mind by Lynn Pann

Shao was one year younger than Hahn but his upbringing could not have been more different. For his 4th birthday, his father gave him a white elephant. He studied poetry in Cambridge and art at Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. He returned to Shanghai with a taste for purple tweed suits and fancy cars. Shao married the granddaughter of the richest man in Shanghai but this did not prevent him from conducting numerous affairs. Shao offered a rich vein for the mosquito press to plunder.

To Hahn, Shao was a mystery and, for a while, the love of her life.

He retains the Chinese dress because he likes it, he wears English shoes because they are more comfortable, and he refuses to speak English with his countrymen, but he is not narrow-minded. As proof of this he comes to see me, and he tells me stories to which I listened in a mist of confusion that grows thicker and thicker.

Emily Hahn, “Richelieu in Shanghai” in The New Yorker, 4 Apr 1936

To his fellow artists, Shao was better known as a publisher than a poet. In 1932, he bought a state-of-the-art rotogravure printing press. Jonathan Hutt described it as the most sophisticated piece of equipment of its kind ever imported into China. Shao used that press to publish the influential literary magazine, T’ien Hsia. Hahn was one of its contributors. Shao and Hahn later collaborated to launch two more journals, the bilingual Vox and Candid Comment with its separate English and Chinese versions.

Noon in Shanghai

Hahn regularly made fun of Shao in her writing. She satirized his wife, his clothes, and his sprawling family. She described herself as the concubine of an opium-loving Chinese aristocrat in her lightly fictionalized account of their affair, Steps of the Sun.

Hahn transformed him into Pan Hah-ven, a mercurial poet who mouths Confucian maxims with a lilting Cambridge accent.

Taras Grescoe, “Getting to the Bottom of a Mickey Hahn Mystery” in The New Yorker, 11 Apr 2017
Shanghai manhua
Zhang Zhenyu, Cover for Shanghai
Manhua. Image source: Wikimedia

It’s hard to imagine another place or time when an American from the Midwest and the scion of an old Chinese dynasty could have become a couple. Lynn Pan called that time period Shanghai in its noon hour, when the femme fatale and Shanghai as urban dystopia were all the rage.

The affair between Hahn and Shao survived the Japanese invasion of Shanghai. It survived the shrinking of the foreign concessions into islands in a sea or war. From the safety of her home in the French Concession, Hahn reported on the hostilities.

We were plunged into the middle of a jewel-filled atmosphere. Hissing, spitting tracer bullets and shells fell around us; the deep-blue air was like water in which swam glowing fish, always in parabolic curves.

Emily Hahn, “Dr. Baldwin” in The New Yorker, 1 Jan 1938

Hahn declared herself to be Shao’s second wife in order to retrieve his precious press from the Japanese-occupied part of Shanghai. But in 1939, when Hahn weaned herself off the opium she and Shao had once shared, their relationship cooled.

New China

She left Shanghai to work on her biography of the Soong sisters. Hahn sat out the war in Hong Kong, married an Englishman, Charles Boxer, and had a daughter, Carola. Hahn was repatriated from Hong Kong in 1943 as part of a prisoner exchange.

Two years later, the war with Japan ended and the Chinese civil war began. Shao did not fare well in the new China. In 1965, the authorities arrested Shao for his complicated relationships. He died in 1968 at home, a room that had once served as the garage on his family estate.

Hahn outlived Shao by 30 years. Her daughter, Carola Vecchio, says that Hahn kept a photo of Shao in her wallet until she died. At Hahn’s funeral, her granddaughter, Alfia Vecchio Wallace, gave this eulogy.

Chances are, your grandmother didn’t smoke cigars and let you hold wild role-playing parties in her apartment. Chances are that she didn’t teach you Swahili obscenities. Chances are that when she took you to the zoo, she didn’t start whooping passionately at the top of her lungs as you passed the gibbon cage. Sadly for you, your grandmother was not Emily Hahn.

The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor, Note for the episode January 14, 2016