Note: I‘ve often wondered what W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood actually DID in Hong Kong, as their stay on the way to the Sino-Japanese War in February 1938 produced remarkably little in the way of commentary or insight. This led me to look carefully at the account of their time in Shanghai….
Rewi Alley, who I suspect they rely on rather heavily, floats in and out of the Hong Kong leftist scene. The way in which the book gives him the last word (literally) is proof of Isherwood’s commitment to communism at this point.
Auden and Isherwood’s Journey to a War (1939; all references in parentheses are to the 1973 edition of this book), a response in prose and poetry, to the visit made by the two writers to a China under Japanese attack, concludes with a description of some of their experiences in Shanghai.
This is how Isherwood’s biographer, Peter Parker, sums up the two writers’ time there:
After the rigours of the Front, they spent much of their time relaxing in the city’s bath-houses, where attractive young attendants performed ablutions and other services.
In the evenings they returned to the ‘considerable and well-deserved luxury’ of their quarters in the British Ambassador’s private villa in the French Concession.
Isherwood himself seeks to leave the reader with a rather different impression of the way he and Auden spent their time in Shanghai: he admits to the luxury, turns it into a rhetorical strength in fact, but establishes a vision of the two writers tirelessly plunging out of their privileged base camp into the grim realities of the Chinese city:
In this city – conquered, yet unoccupied by its conquerors – the mechanism of the old life is still ticking, but seems doomed to stop, like a watch dropped in the desert. In this city the gulf between society’s two halves is too grossly wide for any bridge. There can be no compromise here. And we ourselves though we wear out our shoes walking the slums, though we take notes, though we are genuinely shocked and indignant, belong, unescapably, to the other world. We return, always, to Number One House for lunch.
It’s a fine peroration, but I have come to wonder whether or not the two writers had found a simple way of economising on shoe leather.
If you tire of inspecting one kind of misery there are plenty of others. (236)
The misery they have been inspecting to the point of weariness is that of the Chinese factory workers:
Most of these factories are very small-two or three rooms crammed with machinery and operatives. The majority of the operatives are young boys who have been bought from their parents outright for twenty dollars: they work from twelve to fourteen hours a day. Their only wages are their food, and a sleeping-space in a loft above the work-room. There are no precautions whatever against accident or injury to health. In the accumulator factories, half the children have already the blue line in their gums which is a symptom of lead-poisoning. Few of them will survive longer than a year or eighteen months. In scissors factories you can see arms and legs developing chromium-holes. There are silk-winding mills so full of steam that the fingers of the mill-girls are white with fungus growths. If the children slacken in their work the overseers often plunge their elbows into the boiling water as a punishment. There is a cotton mill where the dust in the air makes T.B. almost a certainty. (235-6)
Sharp observation of sometimes unexpected particulars is one of the hallmarks of Isherwood’s style in the rest of the book. He isn’t a camera, in spite of his well-known claim, but he tries to write so as to give that idea some plausibility. Even when he generalises he likes to give us something concrete as a launch pad: consider, for example, the description of the ‘very dirty little boy of four or five years old’, who, ‘very slowly, without ever looking downward’, uses his toe to manoeuvre a coin flung onto the ground by the two playful journeyers into a position where he can safely pocket it, and then ‘rose to his feet and toddled off with an air of extreme unconcern’:
The perfection of his technique – so matter-of-fact that it wasn’t even sly – was one of the most shocking things I have ever seen in my life. It told the whole story of the coolie’s animal struggle for existence. (225)
Isherwood does give us a clearly first-hand account of some aspects of Shanghai life, but when it comes to what he and Auden saw in the factories, he resorts to a strangely generalising style; in fact, his account, quoted above, consists of statements of fact and a vague ‘you can see’ – he carefully avoids claiming that he saw anything!
The book’s final section (235-243) is largely given over to Rewi Alley, a New Zealand factory inspector who was by that time effectively a communist agent. When Alley came to write his Autobiography in 1986, he highlights some of the same abuses as Isherwood. Although their placing in his book seems to suggest he encountered them in the years before his 1937 return visit to New Zealand, there’s no reason to doubt they were still present in 1938.
It’s possible, of course, that Alley chose some of his examples because he’d been reminded of them by reading Journey to a War at some point, or that he took Isherwood and Auden round to some of the factories on his ‘beat’, but it’s equally possible that Isherwood listened to him talking and took careful notes: Alley could have told them about the ‘chromium holes’, the steam-filled silk mills, and the use of arm scalding in boiling water as a punishment for children’s mistakes, and no doubt everything else that Isherwood describes in that curiously generalising manner.
My guess is that Isherwood and Auden did wear out a lot of shoe leather in Shanghai, visiting scenes of bomb damage, exploring the slums and maybe even taking in a factory or two. They were probably more assiduous than the reader of Parker’s account might assume, but this didn’t stop Isherwood from writing up Alley’s examples in such a way as to suggest he had more first-hand acquaintance with industrial conditions in the city than was really the case.
Who can blame him? Even humble bloggers have been known to do such things, and the two writers had travelled thousands of miles by slow train, watched air raids (always the risk you’ll end up doing more than just watching) and sought out two front lines, at one point escaping less than twelve hours before the Japanese captured the town they were staying in. If Isherwood did cheat a little – and I’m not claiming to have definitely proved he did – this too was a ‘well-deserved luxury’.