China Boat

Chapter 37

Sunday, May 2nd, 1937
The Cathay Hotel
Sassoon House
The Bund
Shanghai, China

Dear Jack:

Well, lots to tell you about, old man; I had my first foray into the International Settlement, and the French Concession — (they are different enclaves, actually, that border one another) — although, all did not go precisely as planned.

Photographs, for one example, will be delayed an extra day; Tom and I had unexpected company, and I did not feel like taking photos, under the circumstances. But I'll be back out tomorrow, and I'll more than make up for it, then.

In the meantime, here is another photographer's photo, and a newspaper clipping to go with it. You may recognize the awkward-looking person, to the right; it is yours truly, of course, at his most graceless. To the left is Tom (and I do need to send you more photos of him; although this one is not at all bad, really). In the center, as you can see, is Miss Deirdre Lloyd. We are walking down the gangplank of the President Hoover, supporting her right and left, and therein lies a tale … 

When the President Hoover docked in Shanghai, the first people across the gangway had actually come up from the dockside; three men from Miss Lloyd's film studio, and at least a dozen reporters and cameramen. They had come to cover Miss Lloyd's arrival, of course.

I had watched, as they swarmed up the gangway. Tom and I were up on the Sun Deck, leaning on the railing, as Tom explained the whole docking process to me — 

Who knew, that the different hawsers that tie a ship to a dock, all have different names — ? Or that the order in which they are made fast, or unfastened, for that matter, can be so critically important — ?

Later on, down in the First Class Lobby, Tom and I had been saying our somewhat-awkward, if temporary, goodbyes, in front of Tom's family; and Miss Newhouse had appeared out of nowhere and practically dragged us through the crowd to Miss Lloyd.

"There you are, boys!" she'd said, smiling. "Would you both be dears, and help me down the gangway — ?"

And so we had; one of us on each of Miss Lloyd's arms. We'd done it twice, actually; once for the newspaper photographs, and once for the newsreel camera.

She had needed the support, too; the gangway-ramp was comparatively steep, and her high heels were very high. Her grip on my arm had been quite firm.

I'd felt self-conscious, and slightly ridiculous; especially when one of the photographers had called out, in a distinctly Brooklyn-ese accent, 'Look up at Miss Lloyd, boys!' It had been meant from the beginning to be a cute shot, two young teenage boys awed to be in Miss Lloyd's very alluring presence … 

The irony, under the circumstances, was wonderful.

In any event, I had not really minded. And the story-clipping, and the newspaper photo, were nice mementos of my time on board with Tom, and of our friendship with Miss Lloyd … 

I had managed to avoid giving my name to the reporters. That had helped, too.

Miss Lloyd had sent a handwritten note to my room at the Cathay, later, hoping that she hadn't embarrassed me; and asking Father and me, and the Fletchers, if we would please come to dinner with her the next Saturday, in one of the Cathay's private dining rooms — ?

I had sent a note of my own, to Father's room, informing him of the invitation. Once, I would have enjoyed showing Miss Lloyd's note to him, and seeing his reaction. We were hardly on such intimate terms, now.

* * *

Monday, May 3rd, 1937
The Cathay Hotel
Sassoon House
The Bund
Shanghai, China

Dear Jack:

First off — my apologies for the awkward size of the envelope; it had to be this large, to fit the map. This map, incidentally, is an exact mate of the one I'll be using here in Shanghai. It'll warm my heart, knowing you have it.

Well, old man; as it turns out, I spent the day alone, wandering the International Settlement and the French Concession, today. Father had business which was either too mundane or too confidential for his Confidential Secretary; and Tom's parents took him to the American School — which, oddly enough, is in the French Concession — to determine whether he should be enrolled for the last weeks of the Term, or just be promoted on the spot. I suspect it will be the latter; he is very smart, and his mother could use an extra pair of hands, taking care of his brother Mickey. I expect she could use any number of extra pairs of hands.

I actually did not at all mind being alone, J. I had the chance to wander wherever I wanted — (within the Settlement and Concession borders, anyway) — and to take lots and lots of photographs — I am looking at the rolls on my desk, now, ready to go out to be developed and printed — 

And I thought a great deal of you, old man. I noticed the kinds of things we would have pointed out to one another; most of the photos I took, are of such. I imagined you were beside me, sharing the experience; and so, I tried to store up impressions, images, sensations, to report back to you, to make that sharing as much a (belated) fact, as humanly possible. Just as we agreed, before I left. It's a thing I'm so glad to do.

So, here goes.


First, naturally, I must tell you of the hotel; the Cathay.

It is, naturally, the pre-eminent hotel in Shanghai, and perhaps all of China; you know how Father prefers to travel.

I have enclosed a postcard of it taken from the desk in my room. It is an opulent place, old man; intimidatingly so. I know of nothing like it in New York, and I remember nothing quite so luxurious from my time in Europe — except possibly the Ritz in London. It is a wonder that all the marble and brass and crystal — it is Lalique glass throughout, it's a little like being inside a jeweler's display-case — it is a wonder that the weight of it all isn't enough to make the place sink into the Shanghai mud.

I will send you plenty of photos; inside and out, just as I did with the Hoover.

My fear is that there will be plenty of occasions for formal dress. Possibly even white-tie. You know how I loathe boiled shirt-fronts.

For a wonder, for once in our lives, Father and I are not sharing a suite. There are nine themed Suites, here; including Chinese suites, a Jacobean suite, a Georgian (English) suite, an Indian one, and a Japanese one, and not one of them was free. Instead Father and I each have separate rooms (although they are almost suites in their own right, with sitting areas, writing areas, lounging areas, and the largest bathtubs I can remember seeing) — and the rooms aren't next to one another, so we don't even have a connecting door … 

Several things had occurred to me, when I'd learned of this arrangement.

First, and fastest, of course, was that Tom and I would have a private place, to be physically intimate with one another. The realization had come with a certain rush of hot blood, actually.

That in turn had been followed by — unease. Unease at the prospect. A large part of me still wished very much to be with Jack, exclusively … although I knew he would understand. Did in fact understand; he knew of me and Tom.



All that in turn had been quickly superseded by — suspicion, I suppose. Suspicion, and a certain bleak depression.

The Cathay Hotel was a very large place. Perhaps there were only nine large, named suites; but I found it hard to believe that there were not pairs of rooms with connecting doorways, available. Particularly, given that the rooms had been booked so long in advance … 

Perhaps there was a good reason for our arrangement. Perhaps he was anticipating a visit, at some point, with Mrs. F_____; if so, he would want the maximum available privacy, for slipping out discreetly to visit her room — 

I doubted it.

As I've said, Father and I had grown increasingly distant, as the voyage had progressed. We now maintained a polite facade of good manners … and not much more.

And I did not know why.

Oh, I had been furious with him, and I still deeply, deeply resented much of what had taken place over the past month — 

But one does not remain lividly angry, forever. He was still Father. I still loved him. He was still my closest family. He was still my connection with Mother, who had loved him, who had loved both of us … 

But, he had seemed to withdraw from me, more and more; as he had done before, when we'd first gone to Switzerland, nine years earlier — 

The arrangement with the rooms seemed, of a piece with that.

I wondered, this time, if I would get him back.

I wondered, if — when — if necessary — I maneuvered my way to rejoin Jack, one way or another, I would ever even speak to him, again.

I stared at the page in front of me, bleakly, for a moment; and then I resumed writing.

I could easily spend the whole letter on just the hotel; I haven't even explored all of it, yet. But I'd rather tell you about what I've seen outside, in Shanghai, in the International Settlement and the French Concession.

It is an odd place, J. It isn't at all what I'd expected.

For one thing, Shanghai is huge; it's three million people, which is, what, half the size of New York?

Of course, that's Greater Shanghai; and I've only seen a sliver of that, just parts of the Settlement and the Concession. Both of these are under European, and European-American control; I try to imagine what that must be like, to the native Chinese. I expect it's a little as though Manhattan were under foreign occupation, filled at least in part with foreign people, in foreign dress, with different customs and laws, and a somewhat-different approach to architecture … 

Well, that's probably a poor analogy, old man; Manhattan already is filled with lots of exotic people from exotic foreign parts. But even Manhattan isn't nearly as cosmopolitan as this place; it's astounding.

The river dominates the city; of course. It's the Whangpoo River, and it flows down to meet the Yangtze, near the Delta.

It divides the city, too. On my side, the Western side, there is the Bund; a very handsome boulevard and embankment which follows along the river-side, and which is fronted by the finest and largest (and most Western) buildings in all of Asia, or so I'm told; and the Cathay is one of them. Across the river is Pootung, a low-rise district of docks and warehouses and, honestly, grime; it looks like working waterfronts the world over.

I told Tom and our walking companion, Mister Grey, yesterday, that the whole arrangement reminded me of the Victoria Embankment in London, looking across the river to the East End. That impression grew stronger with me, today.

But of course, it isn't London. It isn't Western, not even in the International Settlement, or not wholly so, anyway.


The first, overwhelming impression of the Settlement is — rickshaws. They are everywhere; they swarm.

Yet even the rickshaws defy expectations. I would have anticipated rickshaw-pullers — I refuse to use the word, 'coolie' — to be wearing stereo-typical, conical straw hats, and perhaps straw sandals, with some sort of native, Chinese attire — 

Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, most pullers wear some variety of Western dress — I've seen Homburg hats and waistcoats, plug hats and Gladstone collars — 

And I've seen some rickshaw-pullers in what could only be called rags, and bare feet.

The sight is disturbing. I originally thought they might perhaps dress that way, in order to bargain for a higher fee — (all trips are paid through bargaining on the price; the price is always agreed-upon, beforehand). But Mister Grey, who is an old China hand, asserts that rickshaw-pullers come from some of the poorest parts of China. He also asserts that rickshaw-pullers, in major cities, at least, consider their lot a considerable step up, in life.

Something to think about.


In any case, the theme — an Eastern city, in Western dress, with odd, disturbing scenes, which stick in one's mind — carried along, throughout the day.

People do dress in Western clothes, here, for the most part … and the people one sees in the street are overwhelmingly Asian, in spite of Shanghai's Western reputation. But then, as one wanders around, one is likely to find a street-merchant, dressed in a silk cap, and silk jacket and trousers, selling his wares while squatting on the sidewalk … And the store behind him is just as likely to be selling Westinghouse washing-machines, as it is to be selling exotic herbs in baskets. I saw both, today.


The theme carries over, into every aspect of the city.

The Bund, as I said, is very wide, and modern, and Western; automobiles drive everywhere, they are parked everywhere, and streetcars run the length of the road.

But as one gets away from the Bund, the feel of the place — changes.

The Cathay is on the Bund, and on the corner of Nanking Road, where it intersects with the Bund — and the further one ventures down the Nanking Road, the less like London, the less like any Western city things become.

The Nanking Road is the premiere shopping street, in all of Shanghai; there are two large department stores, the Sincere, and the Wing On — (think Macy's, and Gimbels) — facing each other, on either side of the Road; and the signs, the advertisements, everything, is overwhelmingly in Chinese. Furthermore, it's how that signage is displayed, which is so different; the Chinese characters are printed on cloth banners, long, vertical and horizontal banners, which are stretched on wires which cross the Road, or down the sides or corners of buildings, protruding out into the street, or above the entrances of establishments … 

I took photos, of course; and pictures are worth thousands of words. You'll see what I mean, when you get them.

And mixed in with this profusion of banners, fluttering in the breeze, are occasional Western signs, painted in gold leaf, on windows; 'Pharmacy', or 'Kennedy and Kennedy, Freight Agents'; that sort of thing.

The profusion of words in a language I can't read, is a new experience for me, J. It's rather profoundly depressing, and disorienting, actually; I can't remember it ever happening before, at least not since I was learning Greek. But even then, I wasn't surrounded by signs and posters in Classical Greek, and throngs of people speaking it … And, I don't know that my disorientation will change, terribly soon; apparently, to become literate in Chinese requires years of study, and memorization of hundreds, or even thousands, of characters. And I will not be here, that long … 

* * *

I would not, indeed, be in Shanghai that long.


The building which houses the Cathay Hotel is called Sassoon House, after its owner and builder, Sir Victor Sassoon. As is the case with many luxury hotels, the building houses shops and offices, as well as hotel rooms and the associated restaurants. The ground floor of Sassoon House hosts an arcade of very expensive and exclusive shops — 

And two banks.

One of them, the Netherlands Trading Society — I took the name as a good omen — was on the list of correspondent banks appended to my Letter of Credit.

And so, the first thing I'd done that morning was to enter the bank from the hotel lobby; after first making sure, over the course of almost a full minute, that no-one I knew from the ship was in eyesight. And then, I had proceeded to rent a safe-deposit box, under the name of Philip Bradford; these being two of Jack's four given names.

If the Chinese bank-clerk found anything remarkable in renting a safe-deposit box, for cash in advance, to a somewhat-undersized, well-dressed American teenage boy, he did not show it. All that was required of me, was my (false) signature, and a thumbprint.

The Letter of Credit and the bulk of my American currency had gone into the box, and been duly locked away. I'd then changed more American currency into very considerably more Shanghainese bank-notes and Chinese coins than I'd obtained at the hotel's front desk with Father, the morning before — 

And then I'd left the bank, from the Nanking Road door. Feeling secure in my financial arrangements, my potential escape-arrangements, for the first time since I'd discovered that my cabin on the Hoover had been searched.

My very next task after that was to familiarize myself with the steamship-company docks along the Whangpoo, passenger and cargo, both, and relate them to the sailing announcements listed in the 'North China Daily News'; for future reference.


I would not be in Shanghai, that long.

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