Last Updated on 2023/11/13
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A Riveting Tale of Society, Scandal, and Survival in Early 20th Century Shanghai: Interview with Nick Hordern
Nick Hordern’s latest work, “Shanghai Demimondaine,” offers readers a meticulously researched account of the city’s complex historical landscape through the life of Lorraine Murray. Transitioning from a sex worker to a society matron, Murray’s story provides a humanized lens on Shanghai’s transformation during the early 20th century. Hordern, known for his detailed narratives and historical accuracy, pieces together a narrative that not only charts an individual’s tumultuous journey but also reflects the broader societal changes of the period. In his book, Hordern captures the essence of a Shanghai caught between tradition and modernity, navigating the intricate interplay of cultural dynamics and international politics.
What sparked your interest in chronicling the story of Shanghai’s historical underbelly, with a particular focus on the life of Lorraine Murray?
I came somewhat late to Shanghai and ‘the China Coast’. My studies and much of my career had been focussed on South Asia: India, Afghanistan, and particularly Pakistan and Sri Lanka, where I had lived and worked for some time. This gave me some insight into colonial societies, and how they overlaid other civilisations. Then some friends of mine moved to Hong Kong, I began to visit them there, and my interest in Chinese history took off. I started to read more about the subject, including the works of Emily Hahn.
Can you describe the research process that went into uncovering Lorraine Murray’s story and the historical context of Shanghai during that era?
It’s something of a long story.
It started with curiosity: in 2014 I read Emily Hahn’s 1947 novel Miss Jill, about a young Australian prostitute in Shanghai in the 1930s. At first I assumed that Jill was an amalgam of people that Emily had had heard about during her time in Shanghai, from 1935-1939. But then I read Emily’s 1944 memoir China to Me, which features a young woman named Jean who had had shared Emily’s house in Shanghai. This was a work of non-fiction, and it was clear that Jean was the real-life model for Jill – and she was an Australian. But because Emily gave no details of her early life there was no way of discovering Jean’s real identity or tracing her origins. So Jill/Jean remained a mystery.
Then came serendipity: in 2018 I was working in the archives researching a book about unpatriotic behaviour in Sydney during World War II. I found myself in a file kept by a long-defunct counterintelligence agency, and in this file one of its officers was complaining that he had been dragged into a scandal because he had been the handler of a certain female informant. Describing her, he said that she had been a character in:
… popular books by the authoress Emily Hahn … based on the life of this lady in the East … related mostly to the sordid way of life in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Tokyo in the pre-war days …
The words seemed to leap up off the page. I had found the real Miss Jill.
Next came the detective work: This file gave two names for ‘this lady’: one was Lorraine Murray and now she had a married name as well: Mrs Lorraine Toeg. But I still knew nothing about Lorraine beyond what Emily Hahn had written – I didn’t even know when and why she had returned to Australia. So then I went looking for these names in the collection of Hahn’s correspondence held by the Lilly Library of Indiana University, Bloomington. This turned out to contain tens of letters between Lorraine and Emily, which spanned a period of forty-three years. They gave me a rough chronology for Lorraine’s life from the 1938 through to the 1970s.
As I said, this is a long story. Even though I had the Lorraine/Emily correspondence, Lorraine’s Australian origins were still obscure. However in one letter, written in early 1946, Lorraine told Emily that she was staying on a sheep station outside the town of Cobar in the Far West region of New South Wales, which had recently been bought by her family. So my next breakthrough came when I got in touch with some of the keepers of the town’s oral history. Cobar isn’t a big place and one of these told me that sometime in the 1950s Lorraine’s brother John Murray had moved up to Queensland and gone into politics. Fortunately, politicians leave a paper trail …
I’ll stop there, but there’s more … those interested can find more on my website Burrewarra.com.
What were some of the challenges you encountered while tracking down the multiple lives of Lorraine Murray?
The archival research involved a lot of work, and a lot of fun. Much archival material is now digitised, which saved me travelling from Australia to the United States. One big job was sorting and putting in chronological order a collection of 200 letters Lorraine wrote to her mother over four decades – as many of them actually were actually undated, I had to date them by their internal references. They were handwritten, and as Lorraine’s handwriting could, depending on the paper she was using, be tiny and hard to decypher. I often had to use a magnifying glass.
Surveying the secondary literature was also a big and enjoyable task. I read a lot of Emily Hahn’s books – not just Miss Jill and China to Me but later works like England to Me as well. Then there were Ken Cuthbertson’s and Taras Grescoe’s biographies of Emily Hahn, as well as various memoirs by people who had lived in Shanghai in the 1930s, like E.W. Peter’s Shanghai Policeman and Percy Finch’s Shanghai and Beyond. Then there were works of history, like Peter Harmsen’s Stalingrad on the Yangtse and Rana Mitter’s China’s War with Japan.
Sometimes Lorraine’s life took me into areas which I knew nothing about – like her friendship with the extraordinary author Ana Kavan, whose work is now being rediscovered. So I had to get to grips with Kavan’s fiction – like her hallucinatory masterpiece Ice.
At the personal level, I suppose the one potentially ticklish area was approaching Lorraine’s family (she had no children of her own, but 16 nieces and nephews). They were unaware of the details of Lorraine’s demimondaine existence in Shanghai, and so the results of my research came as a bit of a surprise to them. But as it turned out they were all wonderfully helpful and understanding.
What does Lorraine Murray’s story reveal about the cultural and political dynamics of Shanghai and its international connections in the early 20th century?
What it showed me was that while Shanghai’s foreign community was obviously an amalgam of American, Japanese, British, French, Italian, German, etc. influences, when combined, the whole was very different to the sum of the parts. Colonial Shanghai was like a chemistry experiment whose outcome no-one foresaw – particularly in the way it reacted with Chinese society overall. I was particularly struck by the way that the Sephardic Jewish community – the Sassoons and the Toegs – carved out a niche for themselves.
It should also be said that ‘Shanhailander’ society was frankly racist. In her hundreds of surviving letters, Lorraine only ever mentions Chinese people by name on three occasions. Nevertheless she was enamoured of Japanese people and Japanese culture, so her racism was complex, and not a binary white/non-white outlook.
What were the key factors that influenced the evolution of Lorraine Murray’s character throughout her life?
Until around the age of fifty Lorraine suffered from a crippling sense of social insecurity – a twofold insecurity. She used her great beauty, her considerable intelligence and her flexible approach to the truth to offset this insecurity.
This insecurity arose first from the fact that she had a different father from her siblings, and as a result was treated differently by her mother, to the point of being frequently excluded from the family home even as a very young girl. This was bad enough, but the other cause of her crippling sense of insecurity was one which enveloped both her and her siblings: that their mother had never been married, thus making her an unwed mother and all her children illegitimate. In strait-laced Sydney of the 1920s, this was a cause of great shame.
Their mother did not tell her children of these circumstances for decades; instead she concocted a history including a ‘husband’ who had conveniently died abroad when they were young. But her four children (of whom Lorraine was the eldest) understood – at least intuitively – that this was a lie, and that they grew up in an atmosphere of unasked questions, evasions, untruth, fear of exposure and, as an attempt to compensate for this insecurity, a craving for outward respectability.
It was this deep sense of insecurity that prompted Lorraine to avidly adopt the social outlook and political opinions of the people she most admired. For example, the political conservatism and snobbery she exhibited in the 1950s was the result of her entrée into the world of the émigré Shanghailander elite in London. In other words, she was something of a chameleon.
But by the time Lorraine had reached her late 40s, she had put this insecurity behind her and embark on a confident and fruitful middle age, buttressed by employment as a librarian which gave her active mind something worthwhile to do.
How did you balance historical accuracy with the need for engaging character development in telling Lorraine Murray’s story?
I never felt that there was actually any tension between the two goals, and this was because Lorraine’s life and times were so extraordinary that the truth itself is sufficiently engaging. Shanghai Demimondaine is based throughout on primary sources; initially the manuscript was accompanied by three hundred footnotes but I removed them because I felt that they would alienate potential publishers/readers.
Were there any discoveries during your research that challenged your preconceptions about the era or your characters?
I was somewhat surprised by Lorraine’s open admiration for Militarist Japan and Fascist Italy in the late 1930s. Of course I knew that there were many westerners who supported the fascist powers right down until the outbreak of World War Two, both in Europe and Asia; even so, the warmth of Lorraine’s sympathy with these two militarist powers even after the Italian occupation of Ethiopia and the Japanese assault on China was striking.
Emily Hahn also had an interesting political trajectory. In the late 1930s she, like many members of the Western intelligentsia, was sympathetic to communism. But by 1944 she had decisively turned against her communist friends like the journalist Agnes Smedley. I think that in this respect Emily was a bit ahead of her peers.
Did you take any creative liberties with historical events or characters for the sake of narrative coherence, and if so, how did you make these decisions?
I won’t say ‘liberties’ but there were places where I had to imagine continuities in what was a patchy record. For example, in 1941 Lorraine wrote a letter to Emily Hahn which I inferred was a reply to one that Emily had written Lorraine around September 1940, one in which she broken off their relationship (see the chapter ‘Reform’ in Shanghai Demimondaine ‘Reform’). I never succeeded in finding this 1940 letter from Emily, but I am certain that she wrote it because Lorraine’s reply is so manifestly a response to it – for example, she addresses Emily’s criticisms of her behaviour point by point.
What’s your next project?
In my experience an author’s mind is a bit like a shipyard, with various projects at various stages of construction, some barely begun, some half finished. As far as subject matter goes, I remain very interested in the half of the 20th century, and of the relationship between Australia and Asia.
Topics: Lorraine Murray’s life story, Shanghai’s historical transformation, early 20th-century Shanghai society, biographical account of Shanghai, cultural dynamics in modern China, Shanghai’s international politics history, demimondaine lifestyle in historical context, social changes in early Shanghai, historical narrative of Shanghai’s evolution