Shanghai Demimondaine: Lorraine Murray And Emily Hahn

To celebrate the upcoming publication of Nick Hordern’s new history of the beautiful Australian Lorraine Murray, we’ll be publishing three excerpts from Shanghai Demimondaine: From Sex Worker to Society Matron. It is is published by Earnshaw Books and you can find out more about all Nick Hordern’s works here.

noun: demi-monde; (in 19th-century France) a class of women considered to be of doubtful social standing.

Excerpt #2: Life with Emily

(Born in 1910, Lorraine Murray grew up in Sydney where, at the age of 18, she met the Japanese diplomat Tokugawa Iemasa. In 1931 she travelled to Ottawa, where Tokugawa was the Japanese Ambassador, and became his mistress. After their relationship was broken up by the scandalised Japanese authorities, Lorraine travelled to Shanghai, where she worked in a high – class brothel for two years. In early 1936, supported by her businessman patron nicknamed Dee Dee, she left the sex industry. Two years later she moved in with the American writer Emily Hahn, and their lives in that period reflected the louche tone of Shanghai society at the end of the colonial period.)

Lorraine shared Emily’s house in the Avenue Joffre for much of 1938, and the portrait of Jean in China to Me records the impression that Lorraine made at the time.

The first thing that struck people was her appearance. Emily said that Lorraine was ‘one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen’, and we can see why in a studio portrait taken around this time, showing her swathed in one of her prized furs, looking coolly over her shoulder: with her high arched eyebrows, she could be channelling the Hollywood star Jean Harlow: she is proudly, disdainfully exquisite.

It’s in China to Me that we first hear that Lorraine had relationships – sexual relationships – with women. As Emily put it, when there were no men around to fall in love with, Lorraine ‘fell in love with women’ – and her praise of Lorraine’s beauty is fulsome enough to make one wonder whether she herself felt the attraction. After all, Emily had previously moved in gay and bisexual circles and this was the era of Hollywood’s famed ‘Sewing Circle’ of bisexual women – including Marlene Dietrich, star of the hit movie Shanghai Express.

This is the background to a story Emily tells about Lorraine and a Russian woman called Selma. She begins by invoking the stereotype of les femmes russes: Russian women are ‘full of sex appeal’, magnets for male attention and consequently ‘the American and French and English and German women of Shanghai hate them like poison’. Selma, Emily wrote, ‘was one of those Russians you hear about … you could have found out all sorts of things about her which wouldn’t sound well in a drawing room …’

Lorraine is in love with Selma, but their relationship is fraught with rivalry. Because of her past as a prostitute Lorraine considers herself an outcast, but Selma, who ‘had been a bad girl too’, is not only accepted in society but taunts Lorraine with the fact. On one occasion Selma is invited by Sir Victor Sassoon to join his party at the Racecourse; she tells Lorraine that she had urged Sir Victor to invite her as well, but he had refused because he ‘didn’t think it would be fair to his other guests … to introduce the ladies to a girl who – well, who used to be a prostitute’. Lorraine’s reaction to this humiliation is to take another overdose of Veronal.

Another undertone in Emily’s house was espionage.

Emily may have flaunted her disregard for convention, but compared to the American journalist Agnes Smedley she was tame. A passionate communist, Smedley reviled the lifestyle of hyper-capitalist Shanghai’s wealthy European and Chinese populations as a ‘life – destroying plague’ and though her precise affiliations with Soviet intelligence and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are obscure, she worked hard for both organisations. In the early 1930s, the Soviet masterspy Richard Sorge had been based in Shanghai and Smedley had become both his fellow-agent and lover. It was she who introduced Sorge to Ursula Kuczynski, whom he recruited and who, as ‘Agent Sonya’, would go on to become one of the most celebrated spies of her generation.

At the time Emily met her, Smedley was working for Soong Ching-ling, the second of the three Soong sisters. In marked contrast to her right-wing siblings, who stood at the head of the Kuomintang regime, Soong Ching-ling supported the CCP. In February 1937, Smedley had travelled to the CCP’s headquarters in their ‘liberated zone’ in Yan’an, where she lived alongside the Party’s leaders, including Mao Tse-tung. The CCP’s underground network in Shanghai was under close surveillance from both Chinese and European intelligence agencies. And so Smedley, to reduce the risk of her letters from Yan’an being intercepted by the authorities, asked her friend Emily – well-connected and a relative political cleanskin – to allow her home to be used as a forwarding address. Emily agreed. At this time, she was herself leaning towards communism because, as she later explained, the liberal Western intelligentsia to which she belonged ‘approved of Russia, so I did too’. (Here she was using ‘Russia’ as a generic term for the international communist movement, including the CCP.) As it happened, at least one of Smedley’s clandestine letters routed through Emily’s address was intercepted – apparently with no adverse consequences.

Emily didn’t just help communists. Following the Battle of Shanghai, at the request of her Chinese husband Shao Xunmei, she hosted a clandestine radio transmitter in her home in the Avenue Joffre. This was operated by the Juntong, the Chinese government’s intelligence service, and it was a risky business: the authorities were on the lookout for such illegal radios because they compromised the neutrality of the foreign enclave. The Japanese Army operated radio direction finding equipment around the boundary of the enclave and could calculate the approximate location of such transmitters. They could then protest to the foreign authorities, which might prompt a search of the area. After a visit from the police Emily got rattled, and asked the radio crew to leave, and it was Lorraine who moved into the vacated ‘transmitter room’.

Opium was another undertone. Shao Xunmei had introduced Emily to the habit and by 1938 she was becoming dependent on the drug. Years later, Lorraine would recall how ‘when I lived with Emily Hahn in Shanghai I used to smoke opium. She was married to Sin May (Shao Xunmei) – I used to make the opium pipes, because Sin May taught me and I had a good touch at fixing the pipes… I long since broke the habit’.

Despite this unconventional milieu, Dee Dee regarded Emily as a good influence. Partly this was because eligible men flocked to Emily’s house, and so Lorraine was well placed to meet a potential husband there. So he kept on paying her allowance –  conditional on her staying away from sex work. And on attending stenography courses.

You can order Shanghai Demimondaine: From Sex Worker to Society Matron via this link.