The Neon-Lighted Dragon City of the East Langston Hughes in Shanghai / Text Lou Mo

The Neon-Lighted Dragon City of the East : Langston Hughes in Shanghai, selected passages 
in something we Africans got issue 7

“But beyond the gates of the International Settlement, color was no barrier. I could go anywhere.”

Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes

American writer Langston Hughes (1902-1967) spent three weeks in Shanghai in 1933. He was 31 years old, had already settled in Harlem and published his first novel. Hughes was already a well-known African American author and received as such abroad. This part of his voyages was later published in 1956, in his second autobiography I Wonder as I Wander recounting his experiences traveling in the 1930s to such places as Spain during its Francoist civil war, Cuba, Haiti, the Soviet Union, Soviet Central Asia, Japan, and of course, China. These were interesting times, an epoch of belief and incredulity. Hughes wandered in a world of warfare, revolution, changing political belief and regimes. 

By spring 1933, Hughes was in Moscow on his visit to the Soviet Union, where he would eventually stay for about a year. Originally, he was due to return westward via continental Europe. However, with some surplus rubles on hand, he decided to venture further, to the Far East. Langston Hughes spent a few months dealing with administration to get an exit visa and to organize his onward journey. The original idea was to travel onboard the Trans-Siberian railway to Beijing through the then Japanese controlled Manchuria. Getting a ticket was no easy feat, as it is today (the author humbly concurs having experienced it herself). In Langston Hughes’ day, the train was overbooked and its traffic heavily influenced by political tension among the Chinese, the Japanese, and the Soviets. Unfortunately, this plan was abandoned due to railway service interruption. We would never know if Hughes were perhaps to write a poem on the Trans-Siberian journey, as did Blaise Cendrars before him! Finally, Hughes traveled by sea to Japan and China from Vladivostok. After some time in Japan, Langston Hughes reached the city of Shanghai at the height of summer in July 1933. 

What was Shanghai like in 1933? Shanghai was an international metropolis where you could meet people from every walk of life and everywhere, even Harlemites! 

I didn’t know a soul in the city. But hardly had I climbed into a rickshaw than I saw riding in another along the Bund a Negro who looked exactly like a Harlemite. I stood up in my rickshaw and yelled, “Hey, man!”

He stood up in his rickshaw and yelled, “What ya sayin’?” We passed each other in the crowded street, and I never saw him again.

Langston Hughes – Image by © CORBIS
So – This is Shanghai, Kelly and Walsh Ltd., circa 1930, Shanghai (photographs courtesy of Charles Bright and Joseph W. Ho)
So – This is Shanghai, Kelly and Walsh Ltd., circa 1930, Shanghai (photographs courtesy of Charles Bright and Joseph W. Ho)

Langston Hughes, I Wonder as I Wander (Watermelon from the Yangtze)

Shanghai was both decadence and cruelty. The International Settlement and the French Concession were established since the second half of the 19th century and would for ten more years until they crumbled under the consequences of the looming Second Sino-Japanese War and WWII. You have among them, besides the Chinese population, foreign businessmen, missionaries, diplomats, American Marines, the British Sikh police, passers-by like Hughes himself, and many more. Sometimes, these so-called foreigners were no less local than the Chinese themselves. Personally, I’ve know both a lady from a Soochow missionary family and a gentleman from an Iraqi Jewish business family who were both the third generation in their families to grow up in China and ended up in the same class at the Shanghai American School. All kinds of services and venues that we associate with modernity were present and burgeoning. Everything from huge department stores, international banks, nightclubs with jazz bands, and theatres to YMCAs, hospitals and universities filled the streets of Shanghai. 

On the other, the Chapei section of town was recently destroyed and left in ruins by Japanese air raid as Hughes attested. Poor parents sold their children to work in textile factories as soon as they reach the height to stand in front of a machine. Mistreated infants were rented out to professional beggars who deformed themselves sometimes for public curiosity. Langston Hughes also commented extensively on the opium trade, enriching some and throwing others into the fires of hell. Shanghai became in the imaginary of many the backstage to murders, intrigues and kidnappings where gangsters and capitalists trailed by their bodyguards each working for their own profit competed, or so would The Bund make us believe. 

Outside of Shanghai, 1933 is a turbulent year. The Japanese invasion is every so prevalent, so is the confrontation between Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government and the Communists. Langston Hughes did not leave Shanghai without meeting a couple of personalités of the time. He was received for dinner by Madame Sun Yat-sen at her house in the French, something that became a bit problematic on his way out on the Taiyo Maru by way of Yokohoma. Hughes also cites encountering the already aged Lu Hsin, an important modern writer. 

Where did Shanghai go from there? You may get an idea from I Wish I Knew, a 2010 documentary film based on interviews by none other than Jia Zhangke. It is not a history lesson about Shanghai, a city that continues to fascinate many. But somehow the film manages to convey that particular cosmopolitan yet unique charm of Shanghai’s whether you love it or hate it. 

Shanghai did not lack entertainment. Jazz was a great interest of Hughes’. He declared to have found at the Canidrome Gardens the best band performing in the Orient lead by pianist Teddy Weatherford. Of course, that was not all. After listening to a Miss Irene West on her dancing Mackey Twins –

Backstage I also met a two-hundred-pound Honolulu princess of the hula, a Eurasian crooner, and a couple of white American adagio dancers, who were very angry with each other that night. I watched the second show of the evening from backstage and, just before the dancers whirled gracefully out into the spotlighted platform, they exchanged epithets that should not be put into a book. The man called the lovely girl in swirling white tulle a name that implied she was a female dog. But just as the orchestra went into their most lyric sequence, she told him in his tight silk trousers and spangled bolero that he was a word which means a man who never had a father. Nevertheless, they both looked like dreams of divine happiness as they waltzed rapidly around the whole stage cursing under their breath. Then he picked her up smiling most charmingly in a mist of gauze and lifted her high above his head. As she came down she spat into his face in a vicious whisper, “You bastard.”

Langston Hughes, I Wonder as I Wander (Jazz in China)

This was only an episode of a night out in Shanghai. Hughes sighed that it was too expensive of a city for a writer to stay for too long. 

Langston Hughes, as an African American, was of course a keen investigator on issues related to racism and colonialism. The section itself about Shanghai in the autobiography was called “Color around the Globe”. He noticed that he “[…] was constantly amazed in Shanghai at the impudence of white foreigners in drawing a color line against the Chinese in China itself…” whereas skin color seemed to matter less when he stepped out of the international quarters. 

On the whole, I found the Chinese in Shanghai a very jolly people, much like colored folks at home. To tell the truth, I was more afraid of going into the world-famous Cathay Hotel than I was of going into any public place in the Chinese quarters. Colored people were not welcomed at the Cathay.

Langston Hughes, I Wonder as I Wander (Jazz in China)

The color lines were de rigueur in the International Settlement, thus Hughes the American had to stay in the Chinese YMCA. I don’t know if this brotherhood between the colored and colonized still rings true almost a century later or if racism, and its ever so fickle subsections of the invented categorization, developed their own regional specificities that were not easily perceptible at a first glance. Langston Hughes wrote – 

I complimented her (the wife of an American consular official) on her subject as I reminded our largely Japanese audience that American freedom had begun at a tea party, the Boston Tea Party. Then I proceeded to say that I found it quite wonderful to be sitting beside a fellow American in Tokyo at a public luncheon because in St. Louis, her home, it would hardly be possible for white and colored people such as myself on the one hand, and herself on the other, to dine together at any of the leading clubs or hotels. This I found to be one of the charms of Japan which I, as an American, wished to mention as an additional tribute to the beautiful compliment my colleague had paid the tea ceremony. I then complimented the Japanese people on being the only noncolonial nation in the Far East, having their own independent sovereign government. I hoped, however, that they would not make the old mistakes of the West and, like England, France, Italy and Germany, attempt to take over other people’s lands or make colonials of others.

Langston Hughes, I Wonder as I Wander (Tea in Japan)

Unfortunately, the Japanese did try their hands at colonialism. 

After his three-week stay in China, Hughes sailed on the Japanese cruise Taiyo Maru to leave China and would later publish a poem on the Middle Empire. His poem on China was published in the communist magazine New Masses. 

“Roar, China!” (New Masses, 22 February 1938)
Roar, China!
Roar, old lion of the East!
Snort fire, yellow dragon of the Orient,
Tired at last of being bothered.
Since when did you ever steal anything
From anybody,
Sleepy wise old beast
Known as the porcelain-maker,
Known as the poem-maker,
Known as maker of firecrackers?
A long time since you cared
About taking other people’s lands
Away from them.
THEY must’ve thought you didn’t care
About your own land either –
So THEY came with gunboats,
Set up Concessions,
Zones of influence,
International Settlements,
Missionary houses,
And Jim Crow Y.M.C.A.’s.
THEY beat you with Malacca canes
And dared you to raise your head – 
Except to cut it off.
Even the yellow men came
To take what the white men
Hadn’t already taken.
The yellow men dropped bombs on Chapei.
The yellow men called you the same names
The white men did:
Dog! Dog! Dog!
Coolie dog!
Red! … Lousy red!
Red coolie dog!
And in the end you had no place
To make your porcelain,
Write your poems,
Or shoot your firecrackers on holidays.
In the end you had no peace
Or calm left at all.
Thought you really were a dog.
THEY kicked you daily
Via radiophone, via cablegram,
Via gunboats in her harbor,
Via Malacca canes.
THEY thought you were a tame lion.
A sleepy, easy, tame old lion!
Ha! Ha!
Haaa-aa-a! … Ha!
Laugh, little coolie boy on the docks of Shanghai, laugh!
You’re no tame lion.
Laugh, red generals in the hills of Sian-kiang, laugh!
You’re no tame lion.
Laugh, child slaves in the factories of the foreigners!
You’re no tame lion.
Laugh – and roar, China! Time to spit fire!
Open your mouth, old dragon of the East.
To swallow up the gunboats in the Yangtse!
Swallow up the foreign planes in your sky!
Eat bullets, old maker of firecrackers – 
And spit out freedom in the face of your enemies!
Break the chains of the East,
Little coolie boy!
Break the chains of the East,
Red generals!
Child slaves in the factories!
Smash the iron gates of the Concessions!
Smash the pious doors of the missionary houses!
Smash the revolving doors of the Jim Crow Y.M.C.A.’s.
Crush the enemies of land and bread and freedom!
Stand up and roar, China!
You know what you want!
The only way to get it is
To take it!
Roar, China!

All images – So – This is Shanghai, Kelly and Walsh Ltd., circa 1930, Shanghai (photographs courtesy of Charles Bright and Joseph W. Ho)


                                                                    in something we Africans got issue 7
                                                                                                              Serubiri Moses