Emily Hahn As Source (4): The Art Of Vendetta (Hilda Selwyn-Clarke)

It’s possible to underestimate the achievements of Emily Hahn simply because she and other rebellious females have been so successful and, by their writings and their examples, have broadened the possibilities for women so hugely. Even today, though, it’s not so easy for a ‘white’ western woman to study mining engineering at college, head off to Central Africa for a couple of years, and then spend much of the rest of her youth and maturity in the Far East, often in war zones, and conducting at least one ‘trans-ethnic relationship’. For Hahn to do such things in the teeth of multi-faceted prejudice was an epic feat of courage, determination and creative living.

Those of us interested in Hong Kong between 1941 and 1945 are therefore extremely lucky that she lived through and described much of the Japanese occupation – adding to our good fortune is the fact that she was a writer by profession and her book (China To Me, 1944) is one of the few accounts of China at war (as well as Hong Kong, it encompasses Shanghai and Chungking) that can be enjoyed by people who have little or no interest in the history. The fizzing style, the deft characterisation and the skilful scene construction make it well-worth reading for its own sake. Yet it is also, as she herself hoped, ‘a social document’,[1] a picture of an era that historians can and must draw on as a source for their accounts of Hong Kong just before and during the war. This means that careful attention must be given to its nature as source material, and in this post I want to extend the analysis of Hahn’s occasional tendency to distort her material out of a desire to pay off old scores. If we bear this in mind, then the book becomes even more valuable.

I want to look at the way Hahn uses her literary art to paint a particular picture of Hilda Selwyn-Clarke, the wife of the Colony’s Director of Medical Services, and a woman who, in Hahn’s representation, seeks to play a ‘male’ role in the affairs of the Colony but fails under the test of war because of her excessive female emotionalism, her ‘hysteria’ or ‘womb disease’ in fact. One of the things that’s going on in China To Me is the author creating a picture  of herself as Emily ‘Mickey’ Hahn, an androgynous figure who combines ‘male’ tough-mindedness with ‘female’ emotional honesty and using ‘Hilda’ as her main foil. This portrait of the latter is consistent over both Hong Kong Holiday, which I’ve shown in previous posts to be a heavily fictionalised source, and China To Me, which, as we have seen, is meant to contribute to the historical record.[2]

It might seem that Hilda Selwyn-Clarke begins the war well:

Hilda hadn’t heard officially, but when I told her she was calm and everyday in her manner.[3]

But it’s significant that Hahn notes her calmness at all: I have read few or no accounts of anyone falling to pieces simply on being told the Japanese had attacked, so it’s hardly worth noting that she didn’t either. It’s rather like someone saying, ‘When I first encountered Mr. X. he showed no signs of mental disorder’. You know what’s coming.

A couple of pages later Hahn formally introduces her theme:

Hilda Selwyn-Clarke is an admirable woman, and I wonder now why my fortnight’s association with her is marked by so much irritation. It must have seared my soul. Perhaps like a lot of other people I blow off steam by getting angry with the nearest object, instead of letting go and being frankly terrified. Also, I’ve never liked feeling like a guest too long at a time; I like to be boss in the house.[4]

There’s a clever merging of times here – we might expect ‘my fortnight’s association was marked’. We’re invited to bear in mind that Hahn’s portrait is probably unfair because of that tendency to blow off steam at someone nearby rather than at the real cause of the problem – this no doubt was genuine, and not confined to Hahn, as it explains some of the frequently recorded quarrels over trifles that took place during the fighting. But Hahn is actually writing in 1944, safe in the USA, and has had plenty of time to come to terms with the stresses of December 1941 and offer the reader a more balanced account of the people she spent the hostilities with. Of course, Hahn is perfectly justified in writing as if the events were taking place as she was describing them – this is one of the things that makes China To Me so vivid. But notice the way in which ‘hot’ wartime reactions are ‘authorised’ to stand in for ‘cool’ peacetime assessment – and very little is going to be described that any reader is likely to find ‘admirable’.

She has more to say by way of explanation of her problems with Hilda:

If Hilda seemed shockingly self-centred to me, and obsessed with the welfare of her own people, I know that my seeming oblivion to Carola got on her nerves terribly.[5

Hahn’s belief that any irritation felt over her own actions was due to her putting her lover’s welfare before that of her baby was possibly mistaken.  Margaret Watson, another leftist and a close friend of both the Selwyn-Clarkes, offers a different account of the animus that some people, almost certainly including Mrs. Selwyn-Clarke, felt against Hahn during the hostilities:

 During the hostilities, I was alarmed by her rather unscrupulous use of people to achieve her ends. The dislike which she engendered arose out of this and not…out of disapproval of her unmarried state with a child. We had too many urgent, painful and tragic concerns of our own to occupy us.[6]

Ms. Watson seems to be speaking for more than one person here, but, even if this is just her own perception, it opens up the possibility that Hahn’s behaviour was pretty much the same as that she attributes to Hilda Selwyn-Clarke. Perhaps both women put the emphasis on looking after their own interests and those of their loved ones in a time of huge danger, and for that few people would blame them (for the whole question of ‘blame’ see the concluding paragraph).

Of course, Ms. Watson doesn’t actually address Hahn’s point – that she was disapproved of for putting lover above baby, not for having a baby at all. It’s not my intention to argue that one representation is more accurate than another in cases like this where no objective judgment is possible – which is not, of course, to take the ‘postmodern’ view that there is only representation and all representations are equal. Sometimes it is possible to arrive at a conclusion about reality– always tentative and provisional, but a conclusion nonetheless. I have concluded, for example, that Hahn’s representation of Hilda Selwyn-Clarke is unbalanced, although not necessarily completely inaccurate.

Let’s take a closer look at what Hahn perceives as Hilda Selwyn-Clarke’s self-centredness. A good example of this comes when, soon after the surrender, she is keen to get a separate camp for mothers and children, but when the Japanese allow her and her daughter to stay uninterned alongside her husband, she forgets about the idea.[7] Even before the war, Hahn’s Hilda is egoistic – it’s implied she thinks her own activity ‘cosmically important’ and she hints that Hahn should have an abortion so as not to interfere with her work.[8] Of course, we’re meant to forget at this point that Hilda actually has a child.

Her quest for self-aggrandisement makes her something of a hypocrite too: she likes being the wife of one of the most important men in the Colony ‘in spite of all her broad-minded political tendencies.’[9] Hahn’s portrait of Mrs. Selwyn-Clarke is not completely negative: she states clearly that in a Colony where many people tried to ignore the existence of China, she ‘worked hard for several Chinese organisations’.[10] Hahn’s representation of Hilda’s husband, Selwyn, is also a mixture of positive and negative but my sense here is that, although I personally wouldn’t choose a time when someone is imprisoned and facing torture to give the world a ‘warts and all’ portrait, what she says about Dr. Selwyn-Clarke is reasonably balanced and pretty much in line with other sources.[11] There is distortion – there’s always distortion – but here it’s relatively minor. In the case of Hilda I think she’s made only enough attempt at balance (‘admirable’ and working hard for the Chinese) to give credibility to her depiction of negative traits.

The crucial point about China To Me’s representation of Hilda Selwyn-Clarke is that she’s associated with hysteria. We also see this hysterical Hilda in the story ‘The Doctor’s House’, first published in The New Yorker in May 1944 (so roughly contemporary to China To Me) and reprinted in Hong Kong Holiday (1946). According to Hahn, Dr. Selwyn-Clarke tells her that he depends on her ‘to keep Hilda occupied’ during the hostilities as ‘she’s inclined to be high strung’ – it seems he similarly depends on a number of other women too.[12] The story sets up an opposition between Hilda, who does all she can to live up to the ascription of taut nerves, and Dr. Douglas Valentine and his wife Nina who seem afraid of nothing.[13] Hahn suggests her own narrative reliability (and blend of ‘male’ and ‘female’ qualities) by sharing something of the Valentines’ stoicism and Hilda Selwyn-Clarke’s weakness (she says she wants to share in the prussic acid she claims Hilda had acquired as an escape route).

China To Me works much more subtly – anyone reading ‘The Doctor’s House’ would recognise it as a piece of character assassination, whether or not they were in a position to judge its accuracy. In China To Me the idea of excessive emotionality is planted early and kept before the reader in various ways.

When, during the hostilities, Hahn has a chance to spend some time with her lover, Charles Boxer, Hilda insensitively gets in the way, questioning the Major about the course of the fighting:

Then Hilda butted in again, her voice quivering with hysteria, and we couldn’t talk any more.[14]

Thus are her insensitivity, self-centred nature and excessive emotionalism all neatly established. In other words, Mrs. Selwyn-Clarke does not have desirable ‘female’ empathy (if so she’d have left the others alone); instead, her self-centredness leads her emotional responses in the direction of the undesirable and also traditionally ‘female’ trait of ‘hysteria’.[15]

When, during the occupation, Hilda Selwyn-Clarke and Hahn take on the task of shopping for food to be sent into Stanley, the reaction in camp, we are told, ‘was a strong feeling of hysterical gratitude for Hilda, replacing the earlier outburst of jealous resentment.’[16] As Hahn was never in Stanley even for a visit it’s hard to know how she can be so certain of the emotional quality of the response to Mrs. Selwyn-Clarke’s work. But the point is to keep the word in the reader’s mind, and to make sure the emphasis isn’t solely on how valuable it was.

Eventually Hilda’s husband, Selwyn, is arrested on charges that, as Hahn well knew, guaranteed prolonged torture. Amazingly Hahn manages to make this episode about herself and the harassment she alleges she received from the Medical Director’s wife.

It might seem strange that she begins by denying rumours that none of her readers will have heard (the book was published in the USA in 1944):

It is not true, as some hysterical patients averred, that the soldiers came whooping over the wall as if they were attacking a fortress, but their entry must have been sufficiently melodramatic to put the fear of God and the devil into the French sisters and the rest of the staff.[17]

The point is to get the words ‘hysterical’ and ‘melodramatic’ into the reader’s mind again, ready to be applied by association to Hilda Selwyn-Clarke. But first of all Hahn must also downplay the ordeal she was going through. The Gendarmes who storm the Hospital are deluded, wrongly imagining that the place is a ‘hotbed of espionage’; the lightly mocking tone lowers the emotional temperature. In the course of the day a few other people ‘showed up’ at the Hospital – the phrase suggests voluntary attendance, almost as interested spectators. These people are ‘Chinese doctors suspected of working in the espionage game with Selwyn and the like’. ‘Espionage game’ again suggests that what’s going on isn’t fully serious – in fact some of these Chinese doctors were soon to be facing the most brutal torture. So far Hahn’s been carefully keeping the temperature low, and Hilda’s first message, through a cook left outside the locked-down Hospital, is reasonable: she’ll get in touch with Hahn as soon as possible.[18]

Hahn is summoned to the Japanese Foreign Affairs Office to be warned by the chief, Mr. Hattori, to stay clear of Hilda Selwyn-Clarke. There’s nothing to suggest this isn’t on the same day, but occupied Hong Kong had kept the Sunday holiday since April 1942,(G. B. Endacott and Alan Birch, Hong Kong Eclipse, 1978, 156) so this is unlikely to have been when the interview really took place. The whole passage operates a kind of double time scheme: for added drama everything seems to take place on one day, while at the same time there’s the sense of an extended crisis (‘the Ho girls went about their work’, ‘the notes kept pouring in’, ‘for that week’[19]). I’ve tried to puzzle out exactly what did happen on May 2, 1943 and the days following here:

https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2012/08/19/the-french-hospital-arrests-a-synthesis-of-sources/

The British Army Aid Group reports are understandably contradictory, and I should say, in the interests of full disclosure, that my parents were among those who had the fear of god and the devil put in them by the arrival of the Japanese, and who then spent the rest of the day, or longer, cowering in terror at the prospect of being arrested. And this is probably a good place to add that I never discussed Hilda Selwyn-Clarke with my father, but I did with my mother, who didn’t like her.

In any case, Hahn’s description of the interview mentions that she’s now received three letters from Hilda through the cook, telling her to come to the Hospital at 5 o’clock (again this gives the sense of everything happening on the one day) to talk through the iron gate. When she returns, there are four more notes from Hilda – ‘she was not in her most coherent mood’, and she wants Hahn to use her contacts with the Japanese to get her husband released. Hahn’s lover Charles Boxer had been seconded to a Japanese regiment and while in Hong Kong his exchanges with them had continued in his role of military intelligence officer; he was popular with the  Japanese in Hong Kong who’d met him, as he was a fluent speaker of the language and had no sense of racial superiority. Most of his contacts had left Hong Kong by 1943 and, although his influence still provided special protection for Hahn, as she herself makes clear, there was in fact almost nothing either of them could do with regard to the Kempeitai, although Hilda Selwyn-Clarke might well have not realised this or preferred to ignore it in her desperate panic. Her requests were understandable enough, but of course Hahn was quite justified in declining to accede to them on the grounds of her own security and that of her baby. Ellen Field, a woman Dr. Selwyn-Clarke describes as of a ‘valiant spirit’[20] seems to have abandoned her own enquiries after some of the sisters at the French Hospital told her that she was in danger just for asking questions.[21]

The response to Hahn’s refusal to go to the Hospital reminds us that we’ve had the words ‘hysterical’ and ‘melodramatic’ planted in our minds, and now we’re meant to apply them to Hilda Selwyn-Clarke’s behaviour:

Down in the French Hospital, Constance {Lam} and Hilda ranted and said that I was a false friend and a traitor. The notes kept pouring in

Hahn sends a friend down to the Hospital, and she manages a short talk before being chased away, and this makes Hilda ‘not so sure I was a traitor’.

Luckily Mrs. Selwyn-Clarke recovers in a day or two:

Helen Ho told me {later} that for the first few days Hilda was in a bad state, but that she was all right afterward.

Of course, this suits Hahn’s purposes well as it suggests that what’s going on isn’t so dreadful after all. Personally I doubt that Mrs. Selwyn-Clarke felt ‘all right’ about what was happening to her husband after a couple of days. It is, possible, though, that she put courageously overcame her feelings so that she could properly care for her daughter and do anything possible to help her husband.

Hahn’s summary of Hilda Selwyn-Clarke’s behaviour with regard to herself is this:

For that week, however, it was embarrassingly evident that the Hilda who was then uppermost in her character was determined to get me sent to Stanley too.[22]

That ‘embarrassingly’ is a nice touch; the author, it seems, was rather ashamed of her friend’s behaviour at the time and is a little reluctant to have to report it now. In fact Hahn has provided no evidence of Hilda’s sinister motivation: even if her representation is accurate – down to Hilda Selwyn-Clarke sending at least seven notes in one day – all she’s done is give a picture of a woman in a state of desperation casting around for any means to help a husband facing brutal torture and probable execution. Her primary thought was not likely to be Hahn’s wartime location, and it remains unproved that either for reasons of revenge, spite or to get her company she was motivated by a desire to have her friend interned. But, if asking Hahn to use her Japanese contacts was perfectly reasonable, to keep on pressing the point wasn’t, and nor was her failure to understand her refusal. Dr. Selwyn-Clarke himself had warned Hilda to have nothing to do with him if he was arrested, for her own security and that of her child.[23] I’m discussing Hahn’s representation in 1944, not her behaviour in 1943, which seems to have been impeccable. In those grim days of May 1943 every European in occupied Hong Kong was quite justified in acting as if what was going on was all about them[24] – and Hahn had a young daughter to consider as well.

It’s not just Hilda who’s the victim of Hahn’s animus. Hahn did not like Hong Kong’s small circle of leftists, and interestingly defines them by their relationship to Mrs. Selwyn-Clarke:

One of the results of the surrender was that there was a rush on the part of the leftists, Hilda’s friends, to save their skins. I suppose I had better not use names. Except for Jim Bertram, who simply enlisted with the Volunteers and fought, and was captured, and in general behaved well and Max Bickerton, who did his job too and made no attempt to get away, the leftists behaved in a way that made me slightly sick. One after another they came up to {the Queen Mary} hospital with plans for getting into disguise…and shaking with terror. Each one seemed to feel that the Japanese had waged this war with the sole intention of getting hold of him.[25]

After he witnesses a particularly craven display, Hahn’s lover, Major Charles Boxer, points out that she, Hahn, has as much to be afraid of as them – she’s written a book about the Soong sisters which might be seen as support for the Chinese Nationalist cause. Hahn’s reply is firm:

Well….I’m not. I don’t think the Japs care about any of us.[26]

This is something she feels strongly about: she ‘almost’ forgave another leftist, Margaret Watson, for all her rudeness to her when Watson admitted that ‘so far there have been absolutely no inquiries about Hilda’ and on this basis opines, ‘We made fools of ourselves. I think it must be a sort of conceit, don’t you?’[27] And even Hilda Selwyn-Clarke herself comes ‘around to normal pretty well’ once she calms down and starts to take the kind of courageously realistic attitude that Hahn has, it seems, adopted all along. Up until then, it seems, almost all of these apparently tough-minded communists and fellow-travellers have been as hysterical as Hilda!

But why so much animus against Mrs. Selwyn-Clarke and the leftists? Hilda Selwyn-Clarke had, after all, been financially and personally supportive to Hahn,[28] who was sometimes taken for one of the radical  ‘literary-political circle’ herself. I know of no authoritative account, but there’s some interesting speculation. It’s been suggested that socialist writers like Agnes Smedley – Hilda’s friend and comrade until a falling-out just before Smedley’s death[29] – looked down on Hahn as a lightweight, partly because of her attempts to undo the illusions she thought left wing writers were creating in the American public – an overly rosy view of the communists and an unfairly dismissive one of the Nationalists.[30] It seems that the communist-leaning Madame Sun Yat-sen even suspected Hahn of being a nationalist spy, something that Hilda Selwyn-Clarke took seriously until Agnes Smedley ‘laughed me out of it.’[31] It’s probably fair to say that writing a book on seduction[32] and generally seeming to place a lot of emphasis on sexual relationships didn’t do much for Hahn’s credibility with this circle.

If this is the case, one of Hahn’s pay-backs is to paint Hilda Selwyn-Clarke as herself a political lightweight – ‘she was mildly radical’.[33] In fact, she was very close to communism at this time: Selwyn had met her when she made the arrangements for his Intourist trip to Stalin’s Russia,[34] and in the days before the war Hong Kong Special Branch were impounding her copy of the Daily Worker.[35] After the war she wrote about the ‘fascist’ Nationalists, making it clear which side she was still on.[36] There was nothing ‘mild’ about her radicalism, except perhaps from a hyper-Trotyskyite perspective.

Further, her fear and that of the other leftists that they would suffer at the hands of the invading Japanese was well-grounded, not at all the self-centred paranoia that Hahn suggests. There’s no doubt that she was at least right in thinking they took the threat with the utmost seriousness. One of this group, Israel Epstein, wrote later about his ‘calmly taken decision after the surrender of Hong Kong to the Japanese…to kill myself if faced with the choice of being tortured to death or informing on my friends and becoming a propagandist for the invaders.[37] Another prominent member of the China Defence League died during the fighting in ambiguous circumstances,[38] but Epstein managed to avoid being recognised by the Japanese long enough to escape.

Hahn bases her condemnation on the fact – admitted by Margaret Watson – that the Japanese never came looking for British (or American) supporters of the Nationalists or Communists. But they began looking for Chinese ones from almost the start, and no-one had any way of knowing if this vengefulness (or caution) would extend to the British. It did elsewhere, in Shanghai, for example, where journalist John Powell suffered appallingly at the hands of the Kempeitai. Some of the evidence of his ‘dangerous thoughts’ went back to 1932, so the Hong Kong left were quite justified in fearing their pre-war work might be of interest to the police. As Powell himself put it:

Japs have long memories, and their intelligence files are very complete.[39]

Even before the war James Bertram, who Hahn rightly admired for his conduct during it, had been shown ‘a very full dossier’ on his activities in China.[40] Most tellingly, Agnes Smedley was in Hong Kong until the summer of 1941, and, because of her work for the Chinese armies and in particular the communist Eighth Route Army, the American Consul-General had placed her name on a list of those to be taken to China by emergency planes if the Japanese attacked. She herself had ‘no illusions’ about her fate if captured: she’d be told (by Powell) of 2 or three Japanese blacklists, mainly of journalists, and expected to be treated as a Chinese belligerent, i.e. shot out of hand.[41]

It will be useful to conclude by looking at other representations of Hilda Selwyn-Clarke before and during the war.

Agnes Smedley describes her in 1938:

In the middle summer months, when the Yangtze Valley steamed with heat, the Red Ross Medical Corps gained one of its most valuable foreign volunteers. This was an English woman, Mrs. Hilda Selwyn-Clarke…. We had carried on a friendly correspondence; finally she came to Hankow by plane. She was a handsome woman with flaming chestnut hair and liquid brown eyes. Her husband’s position in the Hong Kong Government gave her prestige and authority, and to this she added a tremendous organizing ability gained in the labor movement of England. Her horror at conditions in the Chinese hospital generated in her….an iron determination to use all her ability and influence on behalf of China.[42]

Smedley goes on to describe her founding of the Foreign Auxiliary of the Chinese Red Cross, and the way in which she built up a ‘network of international aid’ and organised ‘an intricate system for getting medical transport through the Japanese lines’. She concludes with this tribute:

She stood at her post until Hong Kong was attacked, and then took her place among the medical workers defending Hong Kong to the last.[43]

Later she describes the way in which Selwyn-Clarke exploited her position as the wife of a senior Government official to aid her work for the Chinese – ‘without her help the {China Defence} League could never have functioned’. Reactionary officials called her manoeuvring and manipulation ‘unscrupulous’, but ‘when it came to her aims, Hilda was certainly as tough as nails’.[44]

I’m not aware of many sources for Mrs. Selwyn-Clarke’s conduct during the hostilities and the occupation, but those I do know also leave us with a very different picture to that in China To Me. Her husband’s autobiography tells us she organised the women who ‘trudged with mercy-loads up the steep ways to Bowen Road Military Hospital’. That was legal relief; she played her part in her husband’s illegal work too:

{While her daughter Mary was distracting the guards at Bowen Road Hospital} Hilda would casually stroll to a point from which she could observe a ward verandah where Major Gerald Harrison would be standing, ready to convey to her by understood signs what food, drugs and other items were most needed in the hospital. These she memorised, so as to be able to write down a list for me on her return….[45]

Lest this be thought the exaggerated account of a fond husband – and like Agnes Smedley a fellow left-winger –  it’s worth bringing in the testimony of Major Gerald Harrison, one of those who kept Bowen Road Hospital working during the occupation:[46]

At the end of the form {his official POW debriefing questionnaire} he brings to notice Mrs H. Selwyn-Clarke ‘till April 1943[47](when she was interned)’ and Miss Helen Ho, ‘from the beginning till our release’ who ‘did magnificent work purchasing & transporting to us, on parcel drugs, food which by private arrangement between us, went to the patients.

Of course, Hahn herself, and many others, took risks[48] and carried out valuable relief work. My purpose is not to attempt to aggrandise Mrs. Selwyn-Clarke’s contribution – she never did so herself – but to discuss the nature and justice of the representation of her in China To Me.

Lieutenant Colonel Donald Bowie, another Bowen Road officer, knew Hilda Selwyn-Clarke before, during and after the war:

{She} was an electrifying woman, full of energy, vastly intelligent and widely informed, with great warmth, firmly held opinions and completely devoted to the welfare of the Chinese citizens of the Colony.[49]

James Bertram is the only other significant source I have for Hilda Selwyn-Clarke during the hostilities:

Then Hilda – who had a job as dispenser at the War Memorial Hospital – showed up briefly, and gave me the private news that the defense lines in the New Territories had cracked wide open, and the Japanese were almost in Kowloon.

Bertram tells her of 3,000 Chinese guerrillas – later to become the nucleus of the highly effective East River Column – already organised on the mainland and explains that his efforts to get people at Battle Headquarters to look into bringing them into the fight had come to nothing:

‘Right,’ said Hilda with her usual energy.’ We’ll take it direct to general Maltby.’ She wrote a letter to the G. O. C…..

This does at least get the proposal discussed, ironically by Hahn’s lover Charles Boxer.[50]

After speaking in high terms of Hilda Selwyn-Clarke’s ‘trained efficiency with which she handled all she undertook – besides running a house and looking after a charming small daughter’ and stating that she was the ‘only Englishwoman in Hong Kong to use her social position all the way in behalf of the struggle of the Chinese people’, he adds:

Unsolicited testimonials may be unwelcome; but I am driven to include this one, if only to correct (if that is possible) an extraordinary portrait, or more properly caricature, that flits like a dishevelled harpy through the pages of Emily Hahn’s highly diverting but not always notably accurate China To Me.[51]

We need to bear this in mind: Bertram’s representation is constructed in opposition to Hahn’s, and we need to distrust it to some extent for that reason.

I want to make one thing as clear as I possibly can: Emily Hahn lived through a time whose difficulties I can’t begin to imagine, with courage, creativity and a commitment to helping others. She turned down repatriation in June 1942 to aiding Charles Boxer and only left in September 1943 when she believed that she could no longer be of use, and for two references to what I suspect were many acts of kindness to others see the texts mentioned in this note.[52] Even if Hahn had behaved badly in occupied Hong Kong – and I don’t know of a single substantiated instance of such behaviour[53] – I wouldn’t criticise her. Those of us who are lucky enough to have lived our lives (so far at least) in a time of peace have no business judging the actions of those who passed through the dark world’s fire of terror and deprivation that was Japanese Hong Kong. In fact, her record makes her so much my superiority in morality and character that further comment is unnecessary. My criticisms – and it would be disingenuous to claim that this post is an uncritical attempt to ‘set the record straight’ – relate purely to her actions in peace time, and here the boot is on the other foot: from the comfort and safety of New York she penned a ‘caricature’ of a woman who was slowing starving to death in an internment camp while occasionally catching a glimpse of the broken body of her heavily-tortured husband in the grounds of the adjacent prison.

Hahn explained in her 1986 preface that she never expected most of the people she ‘wrote about so candidly’ to read her book. I’ll set aside the dreadful possibility that she thought she was safe saying whatever she wanted about the Selwyn-Clarkes and Margaret Watson because they’d never survive the war, and take that as a rather naïve assertion of authorial modesty. Anyone interested in wartime Hong Kong reads, or should read China To Me, so it’s important they’re aware that candid writing can also be deceptively artful.


[1] Emily Hahn, China To Me, 1986 ed., v11.

[2] Hahn, 1986, V11.

[3] Hahn, 1986, 259.

[4] Hahn, 1986, 260.

[5] Hahn, 1986, 261.

[6] Susanna Hoe, The Private Life Of Old Hong Kong, 1991, 277.

[7] Hahn, 1986, 308.

[8] Hahn, 1986, 224.

[9] Hahn, 1986, 269.

[10] Hahn, 1986, 222.

[12] Hahn, 1946, 56.

[13] Hahn, 1946, 54.

[14] Hahn, 1986, 264.

[15] Sorry for all the scare quotes. What I’m trying to suggest is that in her representation of Hilda Selwyn-Clarke, Hahn was consciously or unconsciously guided by ideas about women and emotion that were current in her culture. I don’t rule out the possibility of genuine and biologically determined differences between men and women, but I’ve not seen any convincing evidence that such differences exist in the realm of feeling.

[16] Hahn, 1986, 359.

[17] Hahn, 1986, 405.

[18] All quotes in this paragraph Hahn, 1986, 404—405.

[19] Hahn, 1986, 4055-408.

[20] Dr. Selwyn-Clarke, Footprints, 1975, 79.

[21] Ellen Field, Twilight in Hong Kong, 1960, 210.

[22] Hahn, 1986, 407-408.

[23] Hahn, 1986, 388-389.

[24] A few heroic individuals didn’t – see my posts on Chester Bennett, Marcus da Silva and Thomas Monaghan.

[25] Hahn, 1986, 295.

[26] Hahn, 1986, 296.

[27] Hahn, 1986, 296.

[28] Ken Cuthbertson, Nobody Said Not To Go, 1998, 212.

[30] For Hahn on Chinese politics, see Cuthbertson, 1998, 286.

[31] Hahn, 1986, 222.

[32] Seductio Ad Absurdum, 1930.

[33] Hahn, 1986, 224.

[34] Selwy Selwyn-Clarke, Footprints, 1975, 79.

[35] Jim Shepherd, Silks, Satins, Gold Braid and Monkey Jackets, 1996, 35. The newspaper was banned for its anti-war propaganda between January 21, 1941  and August 26, 1942, so Shepherd’s presumably referring to a 1939-1940 impounding.

[36] Hong Kong Sunday Herald, December 29, 1946, page 4.

[37] Israel Epstein, My China Eye, 2005, 303.

[40] James Bertram, Beneath The Shadow, 1947, 142.

[41] Agnes Smedley, Battle Hymn Of China, 2003 ed (1944), 462; 458.

[42] Smedley, 2003, 195.

[43] Smedley, 2003, 196.

[44] Smedley, 2003, 453.

[45] Selwyn-Clarke, 1975, 79

[47] The original, as quoted online has 1942, which is obviously a slip – she was interned on May 7, 1943.

[48] Hahn, 1986, 364; C. G.  Roland, Long Night’s Journey Into Day,2001, 75.

[49] Donald C. Bowie, Captive Surgeon In Hong Kong, 1975, 192.

[50] Bertram, 1947, 73-74.

[51] Bertram, 1947, 62-63.

[52] Andrea/Trish Shepherd, Darlings I’ve Had A Ball, 1975,  202; Gwen Dew, Prisoner of the Japs, 1943, 113.

[53] I’m aware of various rumours, and consider them nonsense.

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