AN AMERICAN IN CHINA: 1936-39 A Memoir

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Wuhan ~ 武汉/武漢 


ankow, now known as Wuhan, was one of the Yangtze River cities opened up to foreign trade by the 1858 Treaty of Tienstin. Many famous clippers, such as the British Cutty Sark, loaded tea at
Hankow in the late 1860's and early 1870's.

The American travel writer Harry A. Franck wrote in the 1920’s:

Hankow “is a bustling city, wholly Western in its architecture and layout, even though completely surrounded by China, its buildings looming high into the air, with several theaters, even though they offered only American movies, with automobiles dashing their imperious way up and down the river-front Bund.”

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Old Hankow Slide Show
Pictured above, the pristine Hankow Bund along the foreign concessions in the early 20th century. Until the Nationalists took the city in 1926, the Bund was virtually off limits to the Chinese. The concessions originally numbered five: the British, Russian, French, German and Japanese.The Germans surrendered theirs in 1917, the Russians in 1920, the French in 1943. The Chinese took over the Japanese concession in 1937, when Japanese residents left at the outbreak of war. The entire town of course would fall to the Japanese in 1938. The British were forced to give up theirs in 1927 after it was taken over by mobs.
In December 1944, much of the tri-city area was destroyed in U.S. firebombing raids conducted by the 14th Army Air Force. Today
however, Wuhan is a vibrant commercial and industrial center..

NOTE: NONE of the images on this Web page are included in the book "An American in China, 1936-1939"

The Yokohama Specie Bank in Hankow in the early 20th century.



Kemp Tolley, in his book Yangtze Patrol (Naval Institute Press, 1971) writes:

Hankow was the city of sleek taipan fat cats, with their tennis and wood oil, bridge parties and cotton piece goods, golf and hog bristles, paper chases and duck egg albumin, masquerades and wolfram. There were cabarets, clubs galore and orderly, well-laid out foreign-style, river-front settlements.


On Nov. 4 1936, G. H. Thomas writes:

The first-class coaches on the Peking-Hankow Express are the best in all China. They were made with terrific expense by the Pullman Company of Chicago and used to be the regular Shanghai Express. In the Revolution of 1927 they were seized by one of the generals and taken up into Manchuria, but the Central Government finally got them back and put them on the Peking-Hankow run.

At the suggestion of one of my fellow students at the Peking Language School, I had written ahead to the Lutheran Mission House. There was a boy to meet me, which was a great help, He got my bag and me into a drosky while he took care of my trunk. Mr. Hansen of the Lutheran Mission welcomed me cordially. I have a good room and meals for $4 Mex per day.

Saturday evening I went out with Hardenbrook (Cornell, 1932) of Eastman Kodak and Bob Taylor of the American Consulate and drank some beer. Everyone knows everyone else in Hankow, and after that one evening out in the crowd I know a bunch of them.

There is quite a large German group here and at one cafe there were ten or eleven young German fellows singing old German songs. They did an excellent job and were mighty nice chaps. I enjoyed the whole evening, especially hearing the American sailors tell stories about the Upper Yangtze and the ships that go there.


The history of Hankow is indelibly linked to that of the Yangtze Patrol, which had its headquarters there during the 1920's and 30's. Fleeing the Japanese advance in August 1938, the U.S. Ambassador Nelson T. Johnson and his staff set off on the USS Luzon and the USS Tutuila, for the new provisional capital, Chungking.


The American missionary Paul Frillman
described how the Lutheran Mission looked in 1936 in his book China: The Remembered Life (Houghton-Mifflin, 1968):


On the edge of unspoiled farmland, and half surrounded by a sprawling peasant village, stood a compound the size of at least one American city block. A moatlike canal at the foot of its red brick walls made it seem a fortified point in hostile territory. Inside the walls lines of trees bordered vegetable and flower gardens, a conservatory playgrounds including a tennis court. A big building for classes and administration was flanked by long dormitories for Chinese students. This was the quarter-million-dollar home of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission, which ran an elementary school in English — it was the best American School in Hankow — and a seminary in Chinese for the graduates of Chinese high schools and colleges.





Above, a section of the Japanese Bund. in serene, prewar days.

German Police Station in 1920's

The former English Concession in the 1930's.

Left, the Russian Orthodox Church in Hankow. The Russian presence in Hankow was considerable in the 1920's and 1930's because of the number of White Russians that fled the Revolution. Russians had arrived much earlier, however: by 1900 they were in charge of the Hankow tea trade, manufacturing “brick tea,” which they exported to Russia. In the 1930's, Christopher Isherwood wrote, rather uncharitably, in “Journey to a War” of the White Russians he encountered: “You see two or three of them behind nearly every bar — a fat, defeated tribe who lead a melancholy indoor life of gossip, mahjongg, drink and bridge.”

Buildings on the Bund; at left is the Customs House.

British Naval Officers at the Hong Kong
Shanghai Bank building on the Bund in the 1920's.

Tess Johnston writes in"Far From Home:Western Architecture in China's Northern Treaty Ports":
"The Hong Kong and China Bank was represented in every treaty port in Asia,
and the bank building was always of both impressive dimensions and opulent
architectural style." The building is still in use for offices.

The imposing clock tower of the Chinese Customs House dominated the Bund in the 1930s.


The Chinese Customs House today.
Notice the cruise ships, as Wuhan is
is an important port of call for the Yangtze River Cruises.

Hankow 1938
After the fall of Nanking, Hankow became the wartime capital of a new China
in which the Communists and the Kuomintang formed a united front. For 10 months
hopes ran high and idealism reigned.

"While it lasted, Hankow became a world center for the democratic struggle against fascism,
and became almost a tourist stopoff for writers and demi-diplomats
who swooped through to visit the front."
--Charles Hayford, historian

In her account of her visit to Hankow some months before it fell to the Japanese in October 1938, the British journalist Freda Utley wrote:

"Hankow remained largely a foreign city with
its colonnaded banks and tall offices, apartment houses and godowns, still owned mainly by foreigners. British, American, French and Italian gunboats were anchored in the river close beside the Bund to protect foreign property, and to be prepared to evacuate the foreigners

The Battle of Wuhan lasted four and half months (June-October 1938), and was the longest, largest and one of the most significant battles of the Sino-Japanese War.


"The western section of Hankow, the original Chinese city, began with broad modern streets, large shops, and handsome buildings, and ended in the wooden shacks, mud houses, and tiny workshops in the narrow alleys which led down to the Han river. Hanyang could only be reached by sampan, but a steam ferry-boat ran every half-hour from Hankow across the Yangtze to Wuchang. We had a strenuous time after air raids getting backwards and forwards to see the damage, first in Hankow itself, then over in Hanyang and then across on the ferry to Wuchang."

From "China at War," (1939), by Freda Utley

A rare and delightful view of Wuchang,
across the Yangtze, from rooftops of Hankow. This postcard probably dates from
after the Japanese occupation in 1938.



Stone Pagoda at Wuchang

The oldest of the three Wuhan cities, Wuchang dates from the Han dynasty (200 B.C.–A.D. 200). The first outbreak of the Revolution of 1911,
which led to the formation of the Chinese republic, occurred there on Oct. 10
Wuchang was not open to foreign trade and residence, but a considerable number of missionaries, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, lived within the walls.

Brochure under the Japanese occupation.
Bukan Sanchin is Japanese for the three
Wuhan cities.

Wuchang is where you will find Wuhan University, one of the finest in China. Many of the buildings
date from the 1930s. During the war, it was the seat of the Japanese Imperial Army in China,
a fact most here would like to forget.

In pre-war 1930's Hankow as in Shanghai,
a day at the races was de rigueur for the fashionable set.

Christopher Isherwood in 1938 in the journal Journey to a War (Paragon House, 1990), written with W.H. Auden, says about the Race Club, perhaps with some exaggeration:

Not only the Race Club Buildings but even the grounds surrounding them might well be in the heart of Surrey. Here, as Auden remarked, all trace of China has been lovingly obliterated.

Wuhan today is made up of three cities: Hankow (now Hankou), large area center; Hanyang, lower left; and Wuchang, near left, across the Yangtze from Hankou.

The foreign concessions in Hankow in an early 20th century map.

Hankow Bund at the turn of the last century.Notice the pontoon next to the ship, as permanent docks were impossible because of the changing levels of the Yangtze.

It is hard to believe this is the old Hankow Bund, where U.S. and British gunboats
and foreign steamers, traveling all the way from Shanghai, would dock. The blue tower, center, is Jiali Plaza,
the second-tallest in the city.

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