I’ve long been fascinated by the life and travels of Emily Hahn, an American writer who lived in Africa and Asia in the 1930s and 40s. When I speak about Jews in China during World War II and books set during that period, I always bring up her memoir, China to Me (Blakiston, 1947). It chronicles her trip to Shanghai in 1935 that was supposed to last a few weeks. Instead, Emily Hahn made that city her home for the next six years, along with a couple years in Hong Kong.
So I was excited to read Ken Cuthbertson’s authorized biography of Hahn. Nobody Said Not to Go (Faber and Faber, 1999) takes the reader through Hahn’s early childhood in St. Louis, her teenage years in Chicago, and her engineering studies at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. (She chose her field of study–mining engineering–because no other women were enrolled in the program.)
But as Cutherberton writes, it was Hahn’s two-year stay in the Belgian Congo that marked a turning point. She felt at home in Africa and enjoyed writing about her travels for The New Yorker magazine. Africa set the stage or her 1935 trip to Shanghai with her sister, Helen.
Emily Hahn was ahead of her time back in the 1930s, but also today. As soon as she arrived in Shanghai, she knew she was home. There she become close to Victor Sassoon, the affluent Iraqi Jew who jump started Shanghai’s real estate boom in the late 1920s. She also had an affair with a married Chinese poet, often taking tea with his wife and participating on outings with his children.
Just before World War II broke out, Emily traveled to Hong Kong to interview the famous Soong Sisters for the biography she was writing about them. Shanghai became more volatile in her absence and she never returned. But in Hong Kong she would take up with another married (albeit unhappily) man named Charles Boxer, a top officer in British intelligence.
Hahn and Boxer had a child out of wedlock before Charles was sent to a POW camp in Hong Kong after Japan invaded in December 1941. The two would go on to enjoy a fifty-year, long distance marriage that ended when Emily passed away in 1997 at the age of 92.
I thought I got to know Emily Hahn in her memoir, China to Me, but Ken Cutherbertson’s biography presents a more comprehensive look at Hahn’s personal life and remarkable career.