The Battle of Shanghai proved a turning point for Lorraine; it introduced her to the circle of war correspondents: the Italian Fascist Luigi Barzini, the American Hubert Knickerbocker, the Englishman Philip Stephens and the Australian Harold Timperley. But the most important of her new friends was the American writer Emily Hahn, the ‘China Coast correspondent’ for the New Yorker.
I am very grateful to my old paper for running this article. For those unfortunates without an AFR subscription, an different version of the piece follows.
The traditional view is that World War II began in September 1939, but for China the conflict began with the outbreak of war with Japan in July 1937, and increasingly historians – like Peter Harmsen and Rana Mitter – have adopted this Chinese perspective. And with good reason: given that the end result of this Sino–Japanese War was the ascendancy of the Chinese Communist Party, the proposition that the most consequential conflict of the 20th century actually started in Asia is hard to ignore.
The opening clash was the titanic Battle of Shanghai. The city was divided in two parts: one was under Chinese rule and the other, the ‘concessions’, was controlled by foreigners and remained neutral territory during the Battle. This made the concessions a good vantage point for the foreign journalists who flocked to Shanghai to cover the conflict: Edgar Snow, perhaps the most famous of these, commented that it was as if it the great battles of the Western Front had been fought in Paris while one bank of the Seine remained neutral.
Outside China, the Battle of Shanghai is today remembered for two things: ‘Black Saturday’ – the accidental Chinese bombing of the foreign concessions, and the iconic photo of a crying baby in a railway station destroyed by Japanese bombs. For Chinese people, however, the defence of the Sihang, or Four Banks, Warehouse has become an episode which exemplifies China’s heroic struggle against the Japanese. By the time the Chinese finally did withdraw from Shanghai in mid–November 1937 their military casualties approached 200,000 dead.
Besides the journalists, thousands of other foreigners in the concessions were witnesses to the carnage, and one of them was the 27 year old Australian Lorraine Murray. Initially she served as a volunteer nursing aide but, as the Battle continued, she became increasingly caught up in her affair with the journalist Luigi Barzini, a rising star of Fascist Italy’s media establishment.
Lorraine is the subject of my new book Shanghai Demimondaine. She had arrived in the city in 1933, and for two years had worked in a high–class brothel. In early 1936 she left the sex industry, but she struggled to find a new path. Now the Battle of Shanghai proved a turning point for Lorraine; it introduced her to the circle of war correspondents: not just Barzini but many others including the American Hubert Knickerbocker, the Englishman Philip Stephens and the Australian Harold Timperley – all global media stars in their day. And the most important of her new friends was the American writer Emily Hahn, the ‘China Coast correspondent’ for the New Yorker. The two women were at the beginning of a lifelong and life–changing friendship, and Lorraine would appear as a character in several of Hahn’s books, including the 1947 novel Miss Jill.
The 1930s were good years for war correspondents. There had been the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, which Knickerbocker covered from the Ethiopian side and Barzini from the Italian. The next year the Spanish Civil War broke out, and many of the journalists in Shanghai had been in Spain as well – Stephens was the first to report on the German bombing of the Basque town of Guernica, a foretaste of the destruction now being visited on Shanghai. And as Lorraine worked and partied with the journalists, she found herself being drawn into the great geopolitical drama unfolding around her. But which side was she on?
For the left–leaning liberals among Lorraine’s circle, like Edgar Snow and his wife Helen, Philip Stephens and Emily Hahn, the issue was clear-cut: not only was militarist Japan the aggressor, but the war was the extension to Asia of the struggle in the West, where Fascist Italy had used chemical weapons in its conquest of Ethiopia, and where Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany – both diplomatic allies of Japan – were helping to snuff out Spanish democracy. But for Lorraine, things were not so simple: before arriving in Shanghai she had been the mistress of an aristocratic Japanese diplomat and she was enamoured of all things Japanese. And now she was passionately in love with the avowedly Fascist journalist Barzini. As a result, her loyalties were – to use Hahn’s word – ‘confused’.
Two nights before the end of the Battle Lorraine was drinking with Knickerbocker and Stephens in the ritzy Park Hotel. The next day Stephens was shot dead by the Japanese in an ‘accident’ which his colleagues believed was a deliberate killing, prompted by his habit of ridiculing Japanese propaganda claims in press conferences. It was suspected that he had been targeted by the journalist Horiguchi Yoshinori, who was an official spokesman for the Japanese Army.
The Battle of Shanghai over, the Chinese armies retreated westward, and when Lorraine’s affair with Barzini ended she moved in with Emily Hahn. But even though the front line had shifted inland the Chinese kept up the fight in Shanghai, waging a terrorist campaign against those who collaborated with the Japanese, who retaliated using the same tactics. In this fraught atmosphere politics remained highly personal, and when Lorraine began a relationship with Horiguchi – whose job was to spin Japanese aggression and atrocities – Hahn asked her to move out. It was the first of several temporary ruptures in their friendship.
Lorraine was not alone in her outlook: many in the West supported the soon–to–be enemy countries Germany, Italy and Japan. Many Europeans – and not a few Chinese – supported the Japanese in their war against the Chinese government. But Lorraine persisted in her attachment to Italy and particularly Japan, so much so that when she returned to Sydney in 1939 she was regarded with deep suspicion by security officials. Her attitude is a reminder that loyalties in wartime Australia, at least in the early part of the war, were not as monolithic as they are often assumed to be.
Nick Hordern is the author of Shanghai Demimondaine: From Sex Worker to Society Matron (@EarnshawBooks). #shanghaidemimondaine