Emily Hahn was an American writer who fell in love with Shanghai in 1935. She lived there until 1941, leaving it for Hong Kong after she fell in love with Charles Boxer, a British Army officer. During her two years in the Crown Colony, Hahn chronicled her stay in articles for the New Yorker, which were published as the essay collection, Hong Kong Holiday.
The title is obviously a sardonic choice. What begins as a respite from the war in China takes a grim turn after the first four essays. Hahn came to Hong Kong after spending time in the “beleagured” capital of Chungking; her opening essays describe the bliss of living without air raid sirens, the pleasure of living on the Peak with her gibbons, enjoying cocktails, gossip, and the soothing ministrations of a good hairdresser. Then the Japanese bombers come to town, Boxer is wounded in a fight against the invading Imperial Army, and Hahn, who recently had given birth, begins a long battle for survival in a fallen city.
With Boxer in a prison camp, Hahn is focused upon keeping herself and her baby out of an internment center and with keeping everyone in her extended family fed as well as possible. Hong Kong becomes unnaturally silent; its people have “the drawn, false anxiety of a starving man’s face.” “I lost the energy for pity,” Hahn says, and she is ruthless in her drive to safeguard the people she loves.
But it’s impossible for her to lose the energy for writing. The New Yorker had hired her to be their China correspondent in 1935 and Hahn can’t afford the luxury of writer’s block. She chronicles her Hong Kong years with an offhand touch that almost disguises the hunger, the extreme cold, the fear, and the rage.
A Eurasian friend whose husband is missing in battle says, “The Eurasian boys were the ones who fought best. Almost all of the good ones were killed...I ask myself what my husband died for.” Another tells what happened after Japanese soldiers took over the hospital where she worked. “I got away from them in the dark and hid under a cot. The other girls had to go with them.” She tells the story over and over until Hahn realizes the truth and tells her “If a thing isn’t in your mind, don’t you see, it never happened.”
With a mixture of understanding and deep contempt, Hahn tells stories of the Hong Kong collaborators. She herself benefits from teaching English to members of the Kempeitai, whom she terms the Japanese Gestapo, and those students supply her with necessities of life: bags of rice, flour, wheat. When her daughter reaches her first birthday, a Japanese soldier brings a tin filled with sugar for Carola’s birthday cake.
Hahn shows how war creeps in almost imperceptibly before it explosively announces its arrival, illustrates how determination and ingenuity are more valuable than gold in an occupied city, and reveals the core of spun steel that still exists within Hong Kong’s glittering and privileged exterior. Hong Kong Holiday, 73 years after it was first published, is a testament to the strength of the Region and an assertion of its ability to remain alive.~Janet Brown