‘I have deliberately chosen the uncertain path whenever I had the choice…A more important freedom was that which made it possible to travel ‘ wrote Emily Hahn in China to Me (1944). In 1930 after making some money from her first book Seductio ad Absurdum: The Principles and Practices of Seduction (1930) Hahn went to Africa ‘young and impulsive, because I’d always wanted to.’ She was in the Belgian Congo, living with the Pygmies in the Itari Forest, when she discovered that Britain had gone off the gold standard and the money she was expecting from England had become devalued. Undeterred she remained in Africa, staying with an anthropologist and reading his library which was limited to African exploration, until one day the Encyclopedia Britannica arrived, by canoe, in two huge packing cases. This enforced stay suited her: ‘I have always preferred reading to work.’ She wrote about her Congo experiences as fact in Congo Solo: Misadventures Two Degrees North (1933) and as fiction in With Naked Foot (1934). She returned to Africa in the 1950s and again in the 1960’s drawn by the same feeling expressed by Pliny: ‘There is always something new from Africa.’
Emily Hahn, known as Mickey, was born in 1905 in St. Louis, Missouri; her father was a hardware salesman and her mother a suffragette. She and her siblings were brought up to be independent and to think for themselves and she became the first woman to take a degree in mining engineering from the University of Wisconsin. She went on to study mineralogy at Columbia and anthropology at Oxford, working in between as an oil geologist, a teacher and a guide in New Mexico before she arrived in New York where she took up writing seriously. Letters that she had written to her brother-in-law were published in The New Yorker in 1929 and she continued to write for the magazine, under four different editors, on a variety of topics until a few weeks before her death.
In 1935 she travelled to China for a short visit and ended up by staying nine years in the Far East. She loved living in Shanghai and met both Mao Zedong and Zhou EnLai, eventually writing a biography of the Soong sisters, published in 1941. She became the lover of Zau Sinmay, an intellectual, whom she particularly liked for his overwhelming curiosity about everything, she felt it rubbed off on her, and together they founded the English-language magazine Candid Comment . She maintained that where she lived was unimportant to her: ‘I don’t pay attention to my surroundings. I really don’t. I don’t bother.’ Perhaps it was to satisfy her maternal instinct that one day when she saw a gibbon, Mr Mills, in the Shanghai Pet Store she went home, having bought him, in a state of ‘hysterical happiness.’ During her time in China she learned to smoke opium, persisting for two years until, inevitably, she became addicted; she was then cured by a hypnotist. China to Meis candid, readable and a fascinating social document of the time. Hahn wrote it in just five weeks.
In Hong Kong Hahn met Major Charles R. Boxer, a married British intelligence officer; in 1940 she became pregnant and they had a daughter Carola. Boxer was captured by the Japanese after being wounded in the attack on Hong Kong; Hahn visited him as much as possible in his prisoner-of-war camp, until she and Carola were repatriated to the United States in 1943. On his release they got married and in 1946 they arrived in Dorset where she called herself a ‘bad housewife’ since in reply to his concern about money, she said: ‘Then let’s not spend money on anything else, except books.’
Although Boxer continued to live in England where he became Professor of Portuguese at London University, Hahn lived mostly in America as a tax-exile. This remarkable woman wrote about sixty books on a wide-range of subjects: biographies of people as diverse as Mary Queen of Scots, Aphra Behn, Fanny Burney, Mabel Dodge Luhan, James Brooke of Sarawak, the Soong sisters, Raffles of Singapore and Chiang Kai-Shek and books about cookery, zoos, diamonds, natural history and travel as well as novels and books for children.
Emily Hahn is survived by her husband and two daughters.
Emily Hahn, traveller and writer: born St. Louis, Missouri January 14th 1905; died New York February 18th 1997.
Independent April 1997