Letters from Shanghai
Nina Powles recalls her time living in Shanghai, and how her experience resonates with two Aotearoa writers who came before her: Agnes Moncrieff and Robin Hyde.
Agnes & Iris
One morning in May 1938, a woman left the eastern Chinese city of Xuzhou on foot. She carried nothing but a walking stick and a case full of papers. She kept what money she had underneath her clothes, along with her passport and foreigner’s travel pass that would guarantee her safe travel to the battlefront. It was warm, nearly the end of spring. She walked along railway tracks in the cool shadows of acacia trees.
She went by several names, depending on who you talked to. She had published poems and novels under the pen name Robin Hyde, but was born Iris Wilkinson in 1906 in Cape Town, South Africa. Her family immigrated to Aotearoa when she was a month old.
While travelling through China when she was thirty-two, her Chinese friends gave her the name “Wei Airi,” a transliteration of her birth name. Hyde didn’t note down the characters of her name, but they might have looked something like this in simplified Chinese:
Since the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937, Japanese forces controlled Beijing (then known as Peiping), Tianjin, Shanghai and Nanjing. On 19 May 1938, Hyde was in Xuzhou (then known as Hsuchowfu), a small city in Anhui province, when it fell to the Japanese. She had been volunteering in refugee camps and mission hospitals while writing articles on the Sino-Japanese war for a newspaper in Hong Kong. A record of her travels in China was later published in 1939 in the memoir Dragon Rampant, one of Hyde’s less-known works.
At the end of summer in 2016 I moved to Shanghai to study Chinese for a year, and also to read and write. I had just finished my MA in Wellington, where I’d been living for the past seven years. I wanted to be somewhere else for a while. I felt restless, and keen to discover what effect being far away from home would have on my writing. Hyde wrote in 1938, "I was the only writer, Chinese or foreign, left in Hsuchowfu when it fell."
By 1938, Hyde had begun to establish herself as a journalist and novelist in Aotearoa. In the early 1930s she worked as “lady editor” for the New Zealand Observer, often reporting on the worsening economic situation in the country at the time. In 1933, she suffered a mental breakdown and voluntarily admitted herself to Auckland Mental Hospital. Her years there between 1933 and 1937 turned out to be among the most creatively productive in her life; she wrote three novels and two poetry collections while also freelancing for newspapers. Her novels were better received than her poetry, though she viewed herself first as a poet.
Despite her ill health, Hyde left Aotearoa in January 1938 intending to move to England and further her writing career. She planned to travel via Hong Kong and Kobe, en route to the Trans-Siberian Railway that would take her across Asia and Europe. When her ship from Hong Kong to Kobe was delayed, she became fascinated by Hong Kong, suddenly longing to see more of China. Instead of continuing to Europe straight away, she travelled alone to Shanghai. While on the road in China, she wrote constantly – poems, prose pieces that would later make up Dragon Rampant, and articles on the war for papers in Hong Kong and Aotearoa.
There was another New Zealand woman in Anhui province in 1938 also sending home detailed accounts of the war
There was another New Zealand woman in Anhui province in 1938 also sending home detailed accounts of the war. Tall, dark-haired Agnes Moncrieff, eight years older than Robin Hyde, had been working in China for over a decade helping young women and refugees with the International Branch of the YWCA. A book of her letters from 1930-1945, You Do Not Travel in China at the Full Moon, was published by Victoria University Press last year.
Agnes Moncrieff’s letters offer more insight into the war and resulting humanitarian crisis in China than they do about herself. Unlike Hyde, she was not a poet or writer by profession. Her letters to her family and friends are lively and sometimes deeply funny, thanks to her innate toughness and sly sense of humour. In her writing, as in her life, she seemed uninterested in melodrama, and instead tended towards stoic understatement. Travelling to Hankow by boat in 1937, she wrote:
There were a hundred first class passengers and the ship only holds thirty so it was a pretty good jamb. Meals were in three relays and there was plenty to eat but it was a bit rough.
Moncrieff was based at the YWCA in Wuhan (then known as Hankow), where Robin Hyde also spent some time before venturing north to get closer to the fighting. Their paths crossed here – perhaps not for the first time, since both women attended Wellington Girls College, although several years apart. In Wuhan they slept in the same building complex and heard the same air-raid sirens under the same moon, though they never mention meeting each other. In her account of this period of intense fighting in Wuhan in 1938, Hyde wrote:
Regarding toughness, I never saw anything in Hankow tougher than some of the foreign women who hadn’t been evacuated—
In May of 1938, Moncrieff heard reports that Hyde had gone missing:
Hankow, May 1938
Mr. Farmer of the Chinese Government Publicity Bureau told me the other day that Miss Iris Wilkinson, the New Zealand journalist, is missing. They are very worried about her. He said they absolutely refused to give her a permit but she went on several ‘tear bats’ (his own phrase) and they had to give her one. Now they haven’t heard from her for days and don’t know whether she has got mixed up in the retreat from Hsuchow or not.
Perhaps when they first met they exchanged memories of the wind and hills of Wellington. Or perhaps there was no time for such conversations, not in the midst of so much war and hunger. Maybe they only passed each other in the corridor at night in the middle of an air raid. On nights when there was no full moon and therefore no planes circling above, maybe both women were awake in their separate rooms, writing deep into the night.
In early 2016 I moved into my new dorm room at Fudan University in Shanghai. The room was just big enough for a small bed, wardrobe and desk. It had creaky doors that opened out onto a balcony that overlooked a sea of low-rise buildings where thousands of other students slept. Just beyond it stood the tall building where my Chinese classes were held, lit up in green and gold. On polluted nights you could just make out its lights ghosting through the haze.
It was my first time moving somewhere on my own. For the first few weeks I felt dazed, homesick and alone. I took comfort in the tiny ice-cold mandarins sold by vendors on the street, which I bought by the kilo and carried in my pockets. Dragon Rampant was one of few books I brought with me to the bitter cold of Shanghai in late February, the grey sky permanently tinged a pale chemical yellow. I read about Hyde travelling such a great distance alone, by sea, landing in crowded Hong Kong and deciding impulsively to see Shanghai, and I felt slightly less alone. But I couldn’t find the concentration and quiet I needed to start writing again; instead I jotted down lists and fragments. I started keeping a journal for the first time. I observed the moon and clouds closely.
a smooth husk of burnt blue
bullets of light streaming through blue air
the night sky is the colour of red mist/blood rust
In spring I travelled with friends from Shanghai to Anhui province by overnight train. I didn’t know it yet, but I was travelling through a part of China that Agnes Moncrieff called home for years. From my top bunk I could just see out the window. It was 2 or 3am, no sound but gentle snoring and the rolling train, red and silver light flickering through the gauzy curtain.
We sped past a small station and then there was no light at all, as if we had passed through the lit world into somewhere else, somewhere I had never been, the furthest I had ever felt from home. I could see nothing but the occasional shadows of clouds and the outline of telephone lines, then suddenly, a flare of orange light. A bright, blazing circle. I looked back in time to make out a ring of fire in the middle of a field. It was gone before I realised what I’d seen. In the morning I asked if anyone else had seen it, but none of my friends had. It was the sort of thing I think Hyde and Moncrieff would have noticed, too, and written down in their notebook just like I had. If I could describe it to them I think they would understand the strangeness. They would understand the difficulty of seeing things clearly when you’re far from home.
“Last week we were under water,” Agnes Moncrieff wrote from Shanghai in 1939. The name Shanghai (上海) translates to “upon the sea” but anyone who has spent time there will know that it sometimes feels like you’re under it. May and June is the season of the plum rains, the meiyu (梅雨), named for time of year when plums begin to ripen. Late spring downpours combine with early summer humidity to create the sensation of being perpetually trapped in a glasshouse.
Both Moncrieff and Hyde lived in Shanghai in the 1930s, but there are moments when their Shanghai sounds uncannily like mine. Moncrieff was working at the YWCA helping displaced young women find housing and work. She describes the familiar pain of trying to find a taxi in Shanghai in the rain, and when she finally does, water floods the car. “We had to step into water at our front door,” she writes. I remember getting caught in the rain on my way home from class, a waterfall cascading down from the rooftops, small waves crashing over the edges of the footpath.
In the 1920s Shanghai was known as “The Paris of the East.” It was, and still is, a centre of international trade and a city of glamour. Shanghai’s strong European influences can be traced back to the 1842 Treaty of Nanking, which allowed European powers to carve out portions of the city for themselves. Today, the former French Concession – the area of Shanghai once designated for the French – still resembles what it looked like back then, its streets lined with plane trees and Parisian-style villas.
Hyde’s account of war-torn Shanghai contains moments of joy and rapture. She seems to take comfort in beauty, just like I do, even when it felt like there was little real beauty to be found: “the great ripple of peach-blossom, the red satin quilts.” In bakeries in the French Concession she eats “what must be the best chocolate cake in the world.” Hyde's Shanghai feels like the same city I have eventually come to call home, where in April the blossoms ripen and fall in waves, and in May thunderstorms light the sky at the same time every afternoon:
In the days before the trouble you walked out to little hills, and there were the wild azaleas, many-coloured. On holidays it was very common for Chinese to make up excursions, and go out to see the azaleas. But now the azaleas were not for Shanghai.
In the downpour I saw a bush of blazing pink azaleas
(crushed flowers, crushed umbrellas)
last night I woke to find my balcony door blown open in the wind
(I am not sure if I dreamt this)
That summer I often walked down one of Shanghai’s busiest shopping streets, Nanjing Xi Lu. It once lay in the heart of the International Settlement. It was here that Chinese planes accidentally dropped two bombs in the street on 14 August 1937, killing 2,000 civilians. But the city has been built and rebuilt so many times; there is no trace of what happened here where the leafy streets of the French Concession open out to a crowded promenade with luxury malls towering above.
Some would call this the ugliest part of Shanghai, so flashy and upscale and with none of the city’s old-world glamour that foreigners crave. The plasma lights of moving billboards are too bright to look at. They reflect off the glowing flowers and lanterns strung up in trees, making them glitter. The whole effect is a different kind of dreamlike.
In many ways, my Shanghai is completely different to Hyde or Moncrieff’s. “Imagine if there was no internet and we could only send letters home by boat,” my friend Louise, who is also from Aotearoa, reminded me whenever we were feeling homesick. We can’t imagine what it must have been like to spend several weeks on several different boats to make it back to our wild, windy home.
When she writes of home I feel a pang of recognition, especially at her joy of eating fresh butter
Moncrieff is not so open about her emotions as Hyde is in her writing, but when she writes of home I feel a pang of recognition, especially at her joy of eating fresh butter with white bread for the first time in years, in Chengdu in 1945: “we ate lingeringly … It was the greatest luxury.” The Aotearoa that she misses so dearly is not unlike mine – full of sun and mountains and ocean spray. It’s the small that I miss when I’m away, like a patch of footpath covered in kōwhai flowers, or the feeling of splitting a Cadbury Creme Egg open with my teeth; these are things that I don’t think of much when I’m actually home. When you’re in a new place, all of a sudden the slightest trace of home causes a pang in the base of your stomach, painful for a moment, then gone.
It is good to come back to sunshine and gorse-covered hills and colourful gardens and all the beauties of mountain and valley and sea that make New Zealand one of the loveliest countries in the world.
A.M., April 1946
After escaping Xuzhou, Hyde walked along railway tracks for several days, hoping to catch a train to safer territory. She recalls that she was “a strange woman, shabbily dressed, walking alone through a dangerous terrain.” One night she fell down a steep bank, hitting her head and injuring her eye. She was twice captured and then let go by Japanese soldiers. They eventually brought her to the port city of Qingdao, where the British Consul helped her return to Hong Kong. After recuperating there, in September 1938 she finally departed for England.
Dragon Rampant is a strange, fragmented book, just as travelling somewhere entirely new can make for a strange, fragmented experience. It is mostly a journalistic account of what she did and saw in China, much like Moncrieff’s letters. But sometimes all that she witnesses becomes too much. Something breaks through into the narrative, fragmenting her writing into pieces of prose poetry. She is conscious of it and does not fight it:
...these things are small pieces of a puzzle; I pick them up, look at their colours and shapes, know they fit somewhere, but can’t decide where. There’s nothing to do but throw them down again.
In both Hyde and Moncrieff’s accounts, there is a sense of duty to record what they saw. To make known the true extent of fatalities, poverty and displacement in China at this time, especially for Hyde, who was not trained with the skills to mend, heal or rebuild – though she could write. She sought out people in Shanghai who were willing to take her to the most dangerous parts of the city. She wanted to see the war up close and speak to as many refugees as she could, especially women, just as she had interviewed the poorest and most disadvantaged women for The Observer back in Aotearoa during her twenties, a time when she was becoming increasingly socialist and feminist in her writing. (In 1932 she petitioned the Mayor of Auckland on behalf of unemployed women, who at that time received no state assistance). In Shanghai she describes refugees dying in the snow and downpours bursting the banks of Suzhou Creek, sending bodies tumbling into the water. Hyde returns again and again to the pointless loss of life, especially of women and children: “sacrifices innocent, untimely and unknown.”
Neither woman ever openly admits to the distress caused by working in a war zone. Perhaps they would not feel the effects for months to come. In Hyde’s case, it’s not clear whether the stress of her travels in China contributed to her suicide several months after arriving in London in 1938.
Moncrieff seems less overcome with hopelessness in her letters, perhaps because of her active role in the relief effort, or maybe because she was simply too busy and pragmatic to dwell on feelings. She is matter-of-fact in her account of travelling by train through the night and diving into a ditch beside the tracks during air raids. In one letter home she even jokes that she’s grown so used to air raids that travelling without them would be dull. I wonder how much of this is true; when we write home from far away we usually try not to give cause for worry. In letter writing, after all, there’s always someone being written to. Letters seemed to offer Moncrieff an escape: the act of describing daily routines and all the mundane details, recounting news reports and latest gossip. Work was a comfort and a distraction too, until she worked herself to the point of numbness:
I seem to understand less and less the problem of suffering as I go along. I avoid thinking & turn to hard & exhausting work. I even try to avoid feeling – when I can.
In late spring I moved into a small flat on the top floor of an old villa in the former French Concession. The flat seemed similar to the place where Moncrieff lived in Shanghai in 1939: “we have found an attic which is cute but not much else… the stairs are so narrow we could not get any large pieces of furniture up to our room.” At the top of my staircase was a small pink and green stained-glass window set in a geometric pattern. It looked like it’d been there since Shanghai’s jazz era. I often stood there and wondered who else had looked through the window and seen the pink-tinged leaves of plane trees and the green clouds. I wondered what else they might have seen.
China’s many-layered political history means that the concept of public commemoration is fraught and complex – which battles are better to forget, and which to remember? The war is not part of a hidden past, but it is one that’s remembered privately. I went searching for visible traces of Shanghai’s war-torn past and found none. In Shanghai there are no monuments or war memorials of the kind I’m used to. Instead, the 1920s and 30s are remembered and re-enacted through the revival of glitzy art deco glamour, and in the preservation of buildings such as the grand old hotels that line Shanghai’s riverfront, known as The Bund.
Mostly I was nostalgic for a home that no longer existed. Like many big cities, Shanghai is in a constant state of renewal.
I was also looking for traces of the Shanghai I’d known when I lived there with my family when I was younger. The street we lived on, Anfu Lu, still looked the same, even if all the shops had changed. Towering plane trees lined the streets and the air in June was just as heavy. But mostly I was nostalgic for a home that no longer existed. Like many big cities, Shanghai is in a constant state of renewal. Old lane houses and alleyways are constantly being pulled down to make way for high-rise developments, highways are being built, and old cafés and bars are being replaced by new, more expensive ones.
But I couldn’t mourn the loss of a home while trying to create myself a new one. I went for long walks at night past the construction sites and elevated neon highways, looking up in wonder. I didn’t feel lost in the city’s state of flux, but strangely anchored. Later in my small bedroom, I wrote down what I could see: the trees, the different kinds of coloured light, panes of stained glass. I couldn’t stop the city disappearing from me, but by writing I could hold it still for a moment. I could mark my own existence in this time, in this place.
I am half Malaysian-Chinese, though not everyone can tell straight away. My mother was born in Malaysia and moved to Aotearoa when she was seventeen. I was born in Wellington. We moved to New York when I was three for my parents’ work, moved back to Wellington four years later, then packed up again four years after that and moved to Shanghai. I was fifteen when we left Shanghai to move back home again, and even though we’d only lived there three years, it felt most like the place where I grew up.
I’ve always been conscious of the fact that I pass as white, and the privilege that this (and a European surname) gives me, especially in Shanghai. The expat community there is exclusive and insular. It is possible to live in Shanghai without speaking a word of Mandarin or encountering many local Chinese people in your day-to-day life. In a city of 24 million it’s possible to run into the same people every weekend at the same trendy bars and burger joints.
I’ve always been conscious of the fact that I pass as white
When I went back again as an adult, I lived in the same tiny dormitory rooms as other Chinese students in a slightly run-down student neighbourhood in the northeast of the city. I was here to learn, to write, and to find out about contemporary Chinese literature. I wanted to find out how to feel at home in the ‘other’ half of my identity – the one I’ve spent years not fully understanding or acknowledging. I thought this meant I was a different kind of expat; half-foreign, but half at home.
But really I’m still an outsider in Shanghai, even if my Mandarin is a little better than most foreigners. I am never quite at home here, this far from the sea and the birds. I am never quite at home back in Aotearoa, either, where it is sometimes too quiet.
ghost city made of neon light
egg noodles that taste like childhood
blue harbour with small islands inside
As a journalist, Hyde sought a deeper understanding of China and its people through speaking to them openly and warmly, and recording the stories of their lives in great detail: a fish, a flower, a word. Soon after arriving in China, Hyde seems to have grasped that, without speaking Mandarin, there was much she could never hope to understand. She could only write down what she saw and felt – an outsider’s view. At a concert hall in Shanghai in 1938 she found the Chinese traditional music endlessly strange, but it touched her:
I didn’t understand ‘The Rain Prayer’ but it understood me. To be possessed of things is more sacred than to possess them.
I feel the same way about Shanghai: I don’t understand this city but the city understands me. It possesses me. In a state of wonder and bewilderment, I write down what I see and feel.
In both Hyde and Moncrieff’s writing there are gaps and silences that acknowledge the impenetrable language barrier. Linguistic distance extends itself into other kinds of distances: emotional and physical. Hyde saw her lack of Mandarin as the thing that rendered her the most useless during the Japanese occupation of Xuzhou. She was always reliant on guides and messengers, and sometimes could only observe from afar:
There is a woman walking on a stone pavement, quite far away, on the other side of a long flushed rice-pond. Her shadow moves in the water, crossing a pavement of rosy cloud. She is a peasant and wears black trousers and an amulet, and perhaps she doesn’t know how lovely her shadow is.
When planes didn’t drop bombs over Wuhan, they dropped leaflets. I picture Agnes in her room surrounded by piles of her own letters, waiting to be sent off with the next delivery. Outside, thousands of small white sheets are falling like a thick drift of snow, with characters printed on them that she cannot read. It takes months for a letter to arrive across the ocean, but only an instant to return home by unfolding the paper, and brushing her finger along the indentations made by the tip of her mother’s pen. She begins to read.
The Same Moon
You do not travel in China at the full moon if you can help it. There are always air raids.
Agnes Moncrieff was neither a journalist nor a poet but a prolific writer nonetheless, and many of her letters concern the moon. A full moon meant air raids. A full moon meant nerves on edge, all outings timed according to the moonrise, shoes neatly placed by the side of the bed. She even recalls a notice that was circulated among foreigners in Wuhan telling women to wear only dark colours during the full moon.
Moncrieff and Hyde’s movements through Chinese cities were dictated by the moon, and in a different way, so were mine. In Shanghai I became obsessed with how different the moon looked compared with home. I noted down the differences in size and colour, and in doing so realised that back home I never really looked at the moon. At home, you hardly notice these things – after a while nothing can seem strange or unearthly anymore. It’s only when you leave that shapes become sharper and colours brighter.
a thin sliver of orange in deep purple sky
burning behind toxic clouds
I watched the moon disappear piece by piece
When I first arrived in Shanghai, I couldn’t write. I was too dazed and distracted by the familiar yet unfamiliar place, and too homesick. Writing meant sitting down in a quiet room alone with my own thoughts and feelings, which felt impossible. It was only after several months that moments of quiet came to me.
Like me, Hyde found it hard to write poetry while travelling through China. She published newspaper articles to support herself, but could only write poems in fits and starts, saving fragments to be used later:
I have tried to write and link up a series of poems about our childhood places – like Wellington – and like some of the results, though very fragmentary as yet. But in travelling, peace isn’t deep enough – if at all – for the writing of real poetry.
In the final year of her life, after leaving Hong Kong for England in September 1938, Hyde wrote many poems about China. These were later collected in Houses by the Sea and the Later Poems of Robin Hyde, edited by Gloria Rawlinson and published in 1952, long after Hyde’s death.
I saw a man plaiting withes still green,
Swiftly the green whips built up his basket,
A cool dark sap bled out on his fingers.
What will he carry in his basket,
Hurrying from shop to shop,
Whispering from door to door?
A fish, a flower, or a word?
The heart of China, the heart of China,
Whose living sap runs bright on his fingers:
He will creep with that heart through dark cities,
He will run with new heart to his mountains.
“Fragments from Two Countries,” 1938
Although she travelled to some of the most remote and worst affected regions during the war, Hyde never claimed to be able to understand or fully grasp “the heart of China”. For her, it remained a living, breathing, moving thing, and she treasured details the most. Both she and Moncrieff seemed to understand that the only way readers back in Aotearoa could begin to comprehend what was happening in China would be in the details: the perfect full moon in Wuhan, the red azaleas of Shanghai.
Our ideas of ‘home’ and ‘away from home’ are becoming increasingly less fixed; they are no longer polar opposites but different, parallel ways of feeling and being
Hyde and Moncrieff belong to a long tradition of New Zealanders leaving home and writing from faraway places, including Katherine Mansfield, Ursula Bethell, James K. Baxter and Janet Frame. In fact, Bethell’s social work in Europe during World War I echoes Agnes Moncrieff’s career in China, as she often wrote poems in letters home to friends. Like Hyde, Mansfield died in Europe before she had the opportunity to return home. “New Zealand is in my very bones,” Mansfield wrote to her father from Paris in 1922, the year before her death, a time when she was writing stories set in the New Zealand of her childhood.
The way I write about home changes when I’m away. The sea gets bluer, the hills become sun-drenched. But our ideas of ‘home’ and ‘away from home’ are becoming increasingly less fixed; they are no longer polar opposites but different, parallel ways of feeling and being. I am one of a growing number of New Zealanders who feels at home in two different cultures and in multiple places in the world. Writing to and about home from somewhere else is more than just an act of maintaining connection or keeping a record. For those of us who identify as mixed race, we are trying to keep hold of something, to tether ourselves to somewhere familiar while we go off in search of other homes, both old and new.
Fragments from Two Countries
It’s been almost six months since I left Shanghai to move back to Wellington. I’m sitting at a table in the Katherine Mansfield Reading Room at the Alexander Turnbull Library with folders of papers in front of me. Agnes Moncrieff’s letters from 1934 are typed on such tissue-thin paper that I worry about touching them. When I brush the words on the page with my fingers, I feel a slight indentation in the paper caused by the bite of the typewriter’s hammer. The edges are stained and beginning to fall apart. On some pages, the printed letters are faint and blurred. Some she has signed by hand, “Nessie Moncrieff,” in purplish blue ink.
I open another folder labelled China articles (i). Robin Hyde didn’t carry a typewriter – she wrote her newspaper articles and travel writings by hand. She wrote on one side of each sheet in tall, looped cursive, the black ink occasionally bleeding through to the other side. It takes me a while to decipher the title at the page on top, but once I get used to her handwriting, I realise with a lurch that this is her account of her last days in Xuzhou in 1938 before she escaped alone on foot. She likely wrote these pages later in Hong Kong, or perhaps in London, not long before she died.
One night in March 1938, Chinese pursuit planes brought down a Japanese plane bombing the outskirts of Wuhan. Moncrieff and Hyde both watched it happen. The haunting sight of searchlights tracing the planes through the sky left such a deep impression on each of them that they both wrote of it in detail:
The lights followed the planes all the way and it was fascinating to watch the little silver birds travelling steadily through the air […] The sky seemed to be filled with red and yellow lights …
It was rather beautiful to watch … The moth shot high, looking for dead midnight blue; but always now two searchlights had it […] waiting to see the frightened moth, now shooting up and down, suddenly sizzle burning gold.
Gazing out of separate windows in different buildings in the same small city, the sky lights up their faces silver and gold. Flares falling from the sky momentarily outshine the moon. In the distance they can see rings of fire burning in an airfield where bombs were dropped. That night, after writing, they will sleep with their shoes next to their beds. In the morning they will get back to work.