Langston Hughes, the American Black Poet, visited Shanghai in the mid 1930's. His visit is recorded in his book, 'I Wonder As I Wander, An Autobiographical Journey'.|
Born in Joplin, Missouri, James Langston Hughes was a member of an abolitionist family. He was the great-great-grandson of Charles Henry Langston, brother of John Mercer Langston, who was the first Black American to be elected to public office, in 1855. Hughes attended Central High School in Cleveland, Ohio, but began writing poetry in the eighth grade, and was selected as Class Poet. His father didn't think he would be able to make a living at writing, and encouraged him to pursue a more practical career. He paid his son's tuition to Columbia University on the grounds he study engineering. After a short time, Langston dropped out of the program with a B+ average; all the while he continued writing poetry. His first published poem was also one of his most famous, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers", and it appeared in Brownie's Book. Later, his poems, short plays, essays and short stories appeared in the NAACP publication Crisis Magazine and in Opportunity Magazine and other publications.
One of Hughes' finest essays appeared in the Nation in 1926, entitled "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain". It spoke of Black writers and poets, "who would surrender racial pride in the name of a false integration," where a talented Black writer would prefer to be considered a poet, not a Black poet, which to Hughes meant he subconsciously wanted to write like a white poet. Hughes argued, "no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself." He wrote in this essay, "We younger Negro artists now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they aren't, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too... If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, as strong as we know how and we stand on the top of the mountain, free within ourselves."
One of his favorite pastimes whether abroad or in Washington, D.C. or Harlem, New York was sitting in the clubs listening to blues, jazz and writing poetry. Through these experiences a new rhythm emerged in his writing, and a series of poems such as "The Weary Blues" were penned. He returned to Harlem, in 1924, the period known as the Harlem Renaissance. During this period, his work was frequently published and his writing flourished. In 1925 he moved to Washington, D.C., still spending more time in blues and jazz clubs. He said, "I tried to write poems like the songs they sang on Seventh Street...(these songs) had the pulse beat of the people who keep on going."
In 1934 Langston Hughes visite Shanghai an recorded his impressions in his autobiographical 'I Wonder As I Wander'. The following is from this book:
JAZZ IN SHANGHAI
Despite warnings by Occidentals not to go outside the International Settlements alone at night nor wander too far even by day into the Chinese districts of Shanghai, I did so many times just to see what would happen. Nothing happened. I had been told, too, not to trust the rickshaw boys outside the Settlement boundaries-they might lead the unwary stranger into traps. None did. The rickshaw men waited patiently for me if I chose to descend from their cabs and walk around the teeming odd-smelling exotic streets or go into the shops. So i came to the conclusion that these well meaning warnings given me might have some validity for white foreigners-not much liked by the Shanghai masses inspite of years of missionary charities. To the Willow Pattern Teahouse of the Dragon Flower Pagoda or the Butterfly Bazaar, or anywhere else I wanted to go outside the barbed-wire fences and patrolled gates of the International sectors, I went; into Nantao, Chapei, or Hongkew and time, day or evening with or without a rickshaw, and nothing unpleasant happened to me-juat as I had any ill effects from eating Shanghai watermelon. On the whole, I found the Chinese in Shanghai to be a very jolly people, much like colored folks at home. To tell the truth, I was more afraid of going inot the world famous Cathay Hotelthan I was of going into any public place in the Chinese quarters. Colored people are not welcomed at the Cathay. But beyond the gates of the International Settlement, color was no barrier. I could go anywhere.
Shanghai was an enourmous city of almost four million people, so I never saw the whole of it. But i did see a great deal of it, from the Bund to Bubbling Well road and the racetracks and outlying districts, the theaters, amusement parks, and the Canidrome Gardens, where the best American jazz band in the Orient was playing. Headed by the pianist Teddy Weatherford, this group of Negro mausicians at the Canidrome were known from Calcutta and Bombay through the Malay Straits to Manila, Hong Knog and Port Arthur. They were very popular in Shanghai, which seemed to have weakness for American Negro performers.
The sparkling Nora Holt had just completed a long engagement at the Little Club shortly before i arrived, singing and playing at the piano her intriguing versions of French and American songs. The youn radio singer Midge Williams, and her dancing brothers had been in China that spring. too. Other performers that Shanghai loved were Valaida Snow, a kind of Josephine Bakeresque artist of stunning gowns and varied songs. Bob Hill's band, Jack Carters band and Buck Clayton's trumpet thrilled the International Settlements. But these people came, performed and departed. Teddy Weatherford, however, had become a sort of permanent institution in the Orient, covering the circuit from the Winter Garden at the Grand Hotel in Calcutta and back again to Shanghai almost every year, stopping at Singapore for side trips to the Malaya jungles to play at parties and dances at remote British clubs on rubber plantations in the up-country.
Teddy could play some wonderful blues when he wanted to, but he had to be in the mood. He played at the old Sunset in Chicago in the days when Louie armstrong first came north from New Orleans, and he played with Sidney Bechet, Noble Sissie and Eddie South and had been all over Europe as well as Australia. But now the Far East was his personal stomping ground. Stiff-necked Britishers and Old China Hands from Bombay to the Yellow river swore by his music. it was the best! A big, genial, dark man, something of a clown, Teddy could walk into almost any public place in the Orient and folks would break into applause.
The night that he came and got me in his car to go out to the Canidrome gardens to hear his band, i soon found myself sitting under paper lanterns in a softly lighted outdoor pavillionat a table with a white American woman named Irene West. She was an old trouper of the vaudeville stage, now turned manager, and in Shanghai she had under her wing a team of Negro dancing boys billed as the Mackey Twins, featured in the Canidrome show. But they were headache for miss West.
It seems the Mackey Twins were running wild in Shanghai. In their late adolescence, they were both feeling their oats-and sowing them. Between the White russian women and the Japanese girls, the boys almost never got back to their hotel at night. They slept all day and evening. Ane when it was time to come to the Canidrome for the show it was hard to awaken them.
Back on the Bund in Teddy's car in the early dawn, the steaming city of Shanghai lay behind us, and the warships of the world were in the aters offshore. The tall rectangular sails of big brown junks and the smaller sails of little Chinese houseboats and fishing boats rocked bently on the Whangpoo. Sitting beside the big, dark, hulking musician in the car, I though how fascinating it must be to be a band leader like Wetherford, making music all around the world from Paris to the Orient, or dancers pantomiming grace and strength and beauty like the adagio dancers on the wide stage of the Canidrome Gardens. i had always been in love with show business. If I were a performer, I thought, and could play or sing or dance my way to Hong Kong and Singapore and Calcutta and Bombay, I would never go home at all. But I was not a performer, only a writer, so I had to think about heading for the USA. it eas too expensive for me to stay in that incredble city. As it was, I'd had to cable for an advance on royalties.
BON VOYAGE CHICKEN
Madame Sun Yat Sen, wife of the founder of the Chinese Republic and sister-in-law of Chiang Kai-Shek, invited me to dinner at her home in the French Concession. A daughter of the wealthy Soong family, she had been educated inthe United States and spoke beautiful English. Dinner that night was a traditional Chinese banquet with intiguing dishes from bird's nest soup to 'thousand -year-old eggs'. I found Madame Sun to be as lovely to look at as her pictures, with jet-black hair, soft, luminous eyes and complexion of delicate amber. She was a relaxing and delightful woman with whom to talk. She asked me for the news of the Chen childrn in Moscow-Percy, Yolanda, Jack and Si-lan, sons and daughters of Eugene Chen, the former Trinidad merchant who had given his early savings to the founding of the Republic and had been the Miniter of Foreign Relations under Dr. Sun. Si-lan Chen, the dancer, who lived in the de luxe Metropol, had been a winter's delight in Moscow, searving me tea and cakes in her lovely room overlooking Bolshoi Square on snowy afternoons, and telling me dramatic tales of the Chinese Revolution and the family flight over the Gobi Deset into turkestan when the counter-revolution took over.
A group of Chinese journalists gave a luncheon for me before i left Shanghai, and I met the young man engaged in translating my novel, Not Without Laughter, into Chinese. And at a private gathering one evening I the elderly Lu Hsin, then under a cloud for his 'dangerous thoughts' but nevertheless one of the most revered writers and scholars in China.
When Teddy Weatherford and the fellows in his band heard that I was leaving, they insisted on giving a farewell breakfast on the date of sailing. When I think about that breakfast, my heart almost stops beating. On account of it I came near to being stranded, probably forever in the Orient, for after I had gotten my ticket I had almost no money left. My boat sailed at three in the afternoon. The fellow had been playing music all night long the night before. Two of the musicians and Teddy Weatherford came directly from the Canidrome Gardens to fetch me at my hotel about eight in the morning. I was still asleep, and had not as yet packed anything for my departure. But I dressed hastily and went eith them, thinking I would psack on my return about noon. But I did not get back at noon.
I turned out that Teddy, when he stopped for me, had not even bought the chickens for breakfast yet. And at the nearest bar before heading for the market, the bandboys stopped to buy us all a drink. It was two hours before we got to the market. The house of one of the musicians, where he lived with his Japanese girlfriend and where the breakfast was to be held, was far out on the edge of Shanghai. It was eleven o'clock when we got there. Other musicians with their White Russian girls or Japanese wives were gathered by that time, having highballs and awaiting us. The one Negro woman in the group, wife of one of the bandboys from Harlem, said that fried chicken wouldn't amount to anything without hot biscuits, so she went into the kitchen to make some. Meanwhile, the chickens that had been purchased alive, had to be killed, cleaned, plucked and their pin feathers pilled out. I was already approaching noon!
"Teddy," I said, "I'll have to be going soon."
"Don't worry 'bout it," he waved, "We'll get you to the boat."
"But man, I still have to pacl my bags."
"Don't worry," said Teddy, "them girls'll have breakfast fried up before you can shake a stick. You got to eat yet. You can't go without eating. this here bon voyage chicken is in your special honor."
By that time I could smell the chicken cooking in the kitchen where the colored wife was busy with the biscuits, and assorted Japanes and White Russian females were all cooking too, drinking and chattering away like mad. Everyone was in high spirits, so it took quite a little time to get anything done. Anyhow, the chicken certainly did smell good! But I looked at the clock and both hands were past high noon! On my ticket envelope it sai in large letters to be on board at least an hour before sailing. That meant two o'clock. Here I was ten or twelve miles from the Bund, breakfastless, and with nothing packed at my hotel for my departure.
"Teddy, man, I'm gonna have to go."
"Asaki, how about that bird? Teddy bawled. "Shenshi, Kiki, Tamara, what you-all doing out there?" This man is hungry!"
The girls started setting tables-a big table and two or three smaller ones in the front rooms, as there were more than a dozen people. Said Teddy, "If i had me a piano, I would beat out some blues." But there was no piano, so Teddy and the rest of the folks just kept on mixing highballs and um-ummmm-mm-m-ing at the wonderful smells of chicken frying in the kitchen-that seemed as if it would never get to the table.
"We're making gravy," shouted the colored girl. "What's hot biscuits without gravy?"
"Southern fried!" said Teddy. "Hot biscuits with gravy! Man, this is a bon voyage for fair!"
"If I wait for breakfast now I'm afraid I won't get off," I said.
"Don't worry 'bout it," cried Teddy. "Just don't worry! Take it easy in this life
and you'll get there."
By this time i was worried. It was almost one o'clock-and my hotel was at least an hour away through the crowded Shanghai streets, driving normally. "Man I got to go." But that chicken smelled so good! And I could see that things in the kitchen indicated that breakfast would be searved soon. I was almost tempted to let the Taiyo Maru sail without me, and just stay in China.
Instead I went out in the kitchen myself and said to the colored wife, "Couldn't I just have a biscuit before I go?"
"Go?" she said. "All this chicken is for you-and you got to go! You reckon that boat leaves on time?"
"I'm afraid it does," I said."Once Teddy starts eating, he'll never get up from the table to drive me to the dock. I think I'd better start now. I'll just take my chicken with me. But give me a biscuit to eat on the way."
That is what happened. As the big golden brown platters of Southern fried, and the bowls of gravy, and the fluffy bowls of white rice, and the enormous pans of biscuits were coming to the table, borne by fluttering Japanese and Russian and Negro hands, at half past one there on the far edge of Shanghai, Teddy and I were climbing into his car, each of us with a sizzling drumstick and a buttered biscuit, on the way to my hotel, miles off near the Bund. I never got to sit down at the bon voyage table, but the chicken and biscuit which the colored wife gave me, I ate on the way to town. Wonderful, that one piece of chicken!
With greasy hands I rushed up the stairs of the hotel and started throwing things into my bags. Teddy gathered up my typewriter, books and such items and took them down to the car, then came rocking jovially back to see if he could be of further help. It was then about two-thirty P.M. I still had to pay my bill! When I stumbled panting into the car with a string of ties and two pairs of shoes in my hands, and we headed a top speed for the pier, I just barely caught the last lighter going out to the ship anchored offshore in the Huangpoo, flags flying and steam up for sailing. I left Teddy waving on the docks with the whole backdrop of Shanghai behind him.