Emily Hahn As Source (1): Walking With Frankie Zung

There’s no doubt that American writer Emily Hahn is an excellent source for occupied Hong Kong, perhaps the best there is. There are three works by her in the public domain that give an unrivalled picture of conditions under the Japanese and of the lives of some of the people who experienced them. The most important text is her memoir, China To Me, published in 1944 and re-released in 1986. Also valuable is a collection of articles/stories originally published in The New Yorker, and issued in book form as Hong Kong Holiday in 1946. Finally, there are a couple of chapters in No Hurry To Get Home, first published (under a different name) in 1970.

It would be fair to say that no other individual has given us anything approaching this picture of wartime Hong Kong in the two years from the start of the hostilities in December 1941 to her departure in September 1943. However, Hahn can be misleading unless the nature of her testimony is understood, so in a series of posts I’ll offer some analysis and comment on this issue.

But what was she doing in occupied Hong Kong in the first place? Why wasn’t she tucked away on the StanleyPeninsula in the internment camp alongside her compatriots, and why didn’t she leave with them in the June 29/30 repatriation of 1942?

Hahn kept herself out of Stanley by making a dubious claim to Chinese nationality on the basis of some kind of ‘marriage’ to a former Chinese lover.[1] It’s possible she was helped in her efforts to get the Japanese to accept her as a Chinese national by the fact that her latest lover (and father of her child) Major Charles Boxer had served on secondment with the Japanese military, spoke the language fluently and had influential friends in the occupation forces. I should say at this point that allegations that Major Boxer was in some way a traitor, which have resurfaced in 2012, are nonsense. All the accounts of those who were with him in hospital (he was badly wounded during the fighting), POW camp and prison (where he was sent for his role in operating a radio) show that he was more than usually courageous, altruistic and principled. Hahn declined to take part in the American repatriation to stay in Hong Kong and  do all she could to help her wounded lover, and she accepted a place on the second (Canadian) repatriation of September 1943 because she believed that she could be of no further use.

The text that’s most likely to be misleading is Hong Kong Holiday. I want to discuss several stories from this collection, starting with one called ‘Asia For The Asiatics’[2] – the name comes from one of the anti-imperialist slogans with which the Japanese tried to rally Chinese and Indian support. The story focuses on the narrator’s encounters with a man called Frankie Zung, half Chinese and half black West Indian. Zung is pro-Japanese and a commodity trader friend called Lopez tells Hahn he writes a weekly report for the much-feared Kempeitai (Gendarmes), while Hahn thinks that he also acts as a pimp  for the occupying forces.[3] Zung is sometimes to be found hanging around Lopez’s office, where Hahn herself is a visitor; naturally she’s rather perturbed when Zung seems to threaten her with Gendarme trouble in order to extort money.[4] I’ll come back to this extortion attempt later. It’s not Hahn’s personal anxieties but her broader racial themes that have drawn historians to this story.

Frankie Zung has a ‘white’ American wife and the Japanese are so impressed that she was willing to marry someone of his ethnicity that they allow her to leave Stanley immediately they’re approached.[5] Hahn also brings out the way in which the position of people like Zung – close to the bottom of the brutal racial hierarchies of pre-war Hong Kong – improved so much under the occupiers that she could walk around town with him without exciting notice.[6]

American historian Gerald Horne discusses ‘Asia For The Asiatics’ in his 2004 book Race War!, one of the main themes of which is that the pervasive racism of the British Empire weakened its position vis-à-vis the Japanese in a number of ways.  Zung’s taking up with the conquerors because of their racial policy[7] is just the kind of thing he’s looking for, and although at one point he tries to deny that Japanese attitudes and actions are the subject of the book,[8] he can’t resist also using Hahn’s account of her relations with Zung to point out the overthrow of the old racial order that took place after the defeat of British imperialism.[9] Ironically, in a book that came out too late for him to use, Philip Snow showed that the Japanese, for all their anti-British rhetoric and their studied attempts to humiliate the former masters, manifested a ‘strange respect’ for the British and treated them better in some important ways than they did the Chinese.[10]

Nevertheless, Horne is, of course, absolutely right about the all-pervasive racism of pre-war Hong Kong and he is fair in acknowledging the ways that ‘white’ attitudes changed during the war (although sadly even the shared experience of occupation and resistance didn’t wipe out all sense of superiority). Nevertheless, Horne is so eager to make his case that he often ends up weakening it, and his use of Hahn’s story is a case in point.

Horne points out that Zung’s marriage to a Euro-American would have been potentially a capital offense in North America at the time,[11] and he quotes a number of passages from the story in which Hahn criticizes the Hong Kong British for their racism, including her statement that ‘the Japanese have certainly succeeded in wiping out the color bar’. But, in line with his unfortunate tendency to quote selectively, he leaves out her clear (and obviously correct) statement that the Japanese treated the Chinese worse than the British.[12] He also omits any reference to Zung’s attempt to extort money from Hahn, or to his racial flip-flopping at the end of the story (see below). But the trouble is not just that Horne quotes selectively; he’s misunderstood the nature of the source and he shouldn’t be citing it in a straightforward way at all.

Hong Kong Holiday is written just as much according to literary and journalistic conventions as history-writing ones. Most stories are well-shaped selections from and elaborations of reality that lead up to a clear and sometimes surprising ‘point’ at the end. They straddle a number of genres: factual reportage, historiography, New Yorker writing, and the kind of short story popularised in America by O. Henry  which is sometimes said to end with a ‘sting in the tail’. A good example of this is the chapter ‘It Never Happened’, which builds up to the revelation that the main character’s account of her experiences during the hostilities – which up to then the narrator has encouraged the reader to believe to be true – is in fact a defensive formation created because of her inability to face the terrible things that happened to her. I’ll discuss this fine story in more detail in another post, because fortunately the archives of the British Army Aid Group contain an account of some of the same events told by a different hand, and comparison of the two strikingly illuminates Hahn’s methods. My point for now is that Hong Kong Holiday is very hard for a historian to work with: it is indeed based firmly on Hahn’s own experiences in wartime Hong Kong, but they’re always liable to elaboration, falsification, invention and artistic shaping. Which brings me back to Frankie Zung.

Hahn’s memoir, China To Me, is a very different kind of book: although like any piece of autobiography it needs to be interrogated carefully not trusted absolutely, it does set out at least to tell the truth pretty much as it happened.[13] A passage in this book enables us to decode some aspects of ‘Asia For The Asiatics’: the commodity broker is the well-known pre-war jockey Victor Needa, who expresses himself about the USA in similar terms to ‘Lopez’ and whose office also functions as a refuge to Hahn, and is similarly liable to visits from a man who has ‘”pull” with the gendarmes.”’[14] The trouble is this man isn’t Frankie Zung at all, but Howard Tse, who seems to have been ‘pure’ Chinese with no admixture of Jamaican: China To Me calls him a ‘plump little Chinese fellow’[15] and George Wright-Nooth just calls him ‘Chinese’. [16] He’s the one who Hahn fears might get her arrested. She thinks he’s got incriminating evidence against her and she also believes that Victor Needa is paying him ‘protection money’ to keep her out of the hands of the Kempeitai.[17] It is possible, of course, that Hahn also had a broker friend called Lopez and he too was visited by a non-Japanese man associated with the Kempeitai who posed a threat to Hahn’s freedom, but she doesn’t mention what would have been a striking coincidence in China To Me! And it sounds like the war crimes investigators wouldn’t have found it hard to track down someone like Frankie Zung, but I’ve failed to find any trace of him in the collaboration trials, or indeed any other source that so much as mentions him.

I’ll write more about both Tse and Zung in later posts, because they both feature in complicated evidential tangles, but for the moment it should be clear that no historian should discuss Frankie Zung as if he actually existed in the way Hahn says he did unless they can bring further evidence to the table. Hahn creates him as a character in a story, a story which is designed to exhibit the viciousness of British racism, and the limited success of the Japanese in opposing it, a success that turns out to be hollow even as far as it goes. The ‘twist’ is that as the war draws closer to the Allied victory that was clearly inevitable even before Hahn left Hong Kong in September 1943, Zung begins  to renege on his loyalty to the occupiers, claims to be British and rejoices in the whiteness of his new baby.[18]

Frankie Zung is probably a composite figure. I have a suspicion that his physical appearance and ethnicity are based on that of a man who escaped from Hong Kong in May 1943: if so, she may or may not have known that this man was a courageous and highly effective agent of the British resistance! Perhaps Hahn took his appearance, added Howard Tse’s Kempeitai activity and mixed them with the talk of an otherwise unrecorded pro-Japanese man of mixed ethnicity to create Frankie Zung and to make her points about race before and after the occupation. Perhaps. But at the moment I want to stress that ‘Asia For The Asiatics’ does not provide reliable evidence that anyone like Frankie Zung actually existed – except insofar as people of his ethnic background but completely different in every other way are known to have lived in wartime Hong Kong. Such evidence might emerge in the future but it’s not here yet.

Another writer, Stacilee Ford, also seems a little too accepting of Hahn’s description of her newly unremarkable strolls through the Hong Kong streets with Zung.[19] Nevertheless, she shows a welcome awareness of  the need to be ‘cautious’ as to the ‘truthiness’ of Hahn’s assertions,  and her use of the story is reasonable, as she cites it as evidence that the American recognized that Japanese Hong Kong had, in some ways at least, become ‘a more open and tolerant society’,  and fits this recognition into a picture of Hahn’s developing attitudes to racial issues.[20] I don’t think ‘open’ or ‘tolerant’ quite fits the bill for occupied Hong Kong, but Ford rightly confines herself to commenting on what the story tells us about the writer’s own consciousness. In fact, it probably strengthens her case that Hahn might have been inventing some of the details she provides. If so, her intention was to bring out the rebarbative racism of the old British order and to let her readers know that Japanese Hong Kong was an improvement in at least one respect – although I need to stress once more that all interpretations need to bear in mind the story’s concluding reversals.  Whether or not she came to these positions during real walks with a real individual we can’t at the moment know.

Hahn’s methods in Hong Kong Holiday will become clearer after future posts in which I’ll offer some comparisons between two or three of the stories and texts that follow more closely the conventions of purely historical writing. The trouble is Hahn’s book is such a good source – lively, well-written and packed with seemingly convincing detail – its hard not to give it more credence than it deserves. Readers might like to ponder Brian Edgar’s use of it in relation to his father:


He’s so desperate to get Hahn on board that he accepts the possibility that she might be recording things accurately, even though she contradicts a careful and convincing account by one of the main participants of how the bakers stayed out of Stanley Camp! He even rigs up a ‘composite’ theory of events in order to find a place for her testimony. Stacilee Ford’s right: a ‘troubling American woman’ indeed!

I’ve found a plausible real-life original for ‘Frankie Zung’ – a man of African-Caribbean/Chinese heritage who worked for the pre-war Health Department and whose name is not completely dissimilar. I shan’t name him, as there is no definite evidence to link him with Hahn’s story. However, even if we could be certain (if, for example, a letter from the author making the identification explicit were to turn up) this would not alter the basic point of my post: ‘Frankie Zung’ is a composite creation and conclusions based on his activities in the story must be drawn with great caution.

[1] In No Hurry To Get Home she says she told US officials she had claimed to be Eurasian. If she did tell them that my guess is it was to avoid questions as to whether she had really married a Chinese man and possible consequent immigration complications.

[2] Published in The New Yorker, June 30, 1945 – http://newyorkerfiction.com/Piece.aspx?p=6

[3] Emily Hahn, Hong Kong Holiday, 1946, 245, 249.

[4] Hahn, 1946, 256.

[5] Hahn, 1946, 248.

[6] Hahn, 1946, 251.

[7] Gerald Horne, Race War! , 2004, Kindle Edition, Location 5019.

[8] Horne, 2004, Location 118.

[9] Horne, 2004, Location 5026.

[10] See Philip Snow, The Fall of Hong Kong, 2003, 138; see also e.g. 186, 187.

[11] Horne, 2004, Location 5018

[12] Hahn,1946, 246.

[13] I think that Hahn even believed that her scandalous portrayal of Hilda Selwyn-Clarke was justified by the facts – for a good tempered corrective, see James Bertram, Beneath The Shadow, 1947, 63.

[14] Hahn, 1986, 392.

[15] Hahn, 1986, 391.

[16] Wright-Nooth, 1994, 156.

[17] Hahn, 1986, 393.

[18]Hahn, 1946, 259.


Filed under Hong Kong WW11

2 responses to “Emily Hahn As Source (1): Walking With Frankie Zung

  1. Pingback: Emily Hahn As Source (2): Tanaka Transcends The War? | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

  2. Pingback: Gerald Horne’s Race War! (1) : The Eurasians | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

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