Robin Hyde, born Iris Guiver Wilkinson, was a New Zealand journalist, poet and novelist who raised her middle finger at the expectations of housewifery in post-WWI society by travelling solo to the frontline in China during the war with Japan in 1938.
The resulting work was Dragon Rampant.
"I haven't attempted anything so presumptuous as a book about China– only a record of things seen and heard during a few months of the Sino-Japanese war; and, for the rest, faces, voices." - From the Introduction to Dragon Rampant
When the humdrum rhetoric from our Government leaders about wartime sacrifice and national identity finally came to a close at the Anzac centenary commemorations last month, the $120m refurbishment of Wellington War Memorial glimmered in the half light of dawn, we all lamented on how truly fucked up Gallipoli was, and heaved a close-lipped, polite sigh of relief.
Now in May, the world media are turning towards to the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, the fall of Nazi Germany to the Allies and the Soviets. School curriculums, ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ tea towels and museum displays will ensure that this triumphant vanquishing of evil is tattooed on the nation’s collective historical consciousness forevermore.
Upon rewinding the clock just a touch further, our stored memories of the horrors exacted by Japanese forces in China during the 1930s seem either hazy or absent. Nazi concentration camps, Hitler, Hiroshima and Nagasaki… history became fatigued with atrocities, and the events that occurred before Pearl Harbour are often overshadowed.
The Second Sino-Japanese War was a brutal imperial conquest that inflicted incalculable destruction, disease and dismemberment, massacred tens of millions of people, forced thousands of ‘comfort women’ 慰安婦 into sex slavery, and scattered countless numbers of men, women and children to strange, foreign lands such as New Zealand, where the only such welcome was the Government’s two pronged omission of the Chinese poll tax and additional maintenance taxes…
Those who fled Canton for Hong Kong for Aotearoa during the war are either not with us anymore, or understandably, just do not wanna talk about that shit. For both the media and the heads-down work-hard old-hand Chinese of New Zealand, this history is largely left unspoken.
Which is where Robin comes in.
Robin Hyde, born Iris Wilkinson in Capetown, South Africa on 19 January 1906, was an outspoken and outstanding New Zealander who challenged the personal and professional boundaries of patriarchal New Zealand society. Driven to be a great writer, Hyde set out on a path that would invariably lead her away from the life of a married “Hawkes Bay housewife.” A socialist and a feminist, she studied Te Reo in order to better understand the plight of the Maori, she attended riots in Auckland and made a name for herself writing for publications up and down the country on everything from parliamentary issues to children’s stories.
A prolific and talented writer, Hyde’s work is often discussed alongside the many traumas that punctuated her short life: the loss of lovers, the death of her first child, her second child born secretly out of wedlock, physical disability, long months of hospitalisation that brought on a lifelong addiction to sedatives, attempted suicide and institutionalisation for her ongoing mental illness, where she voluntarily checked into ‘The Lodge’ in Albany, where Janet Frame would be treated with electro-shock therapy ten years later, as documented in the harrowing semi-biographical novel Faces in the Water.
I managed to find a copy of Hyde’s 1939 novel Dragon Rampant at Arty Bees in Wellington before I came back to China last year – a memoir of her spontaneous five-month stint in war-torn China, a second-hand edition published by the New Women’s Press with an introduction by her son Derek Challis, critical notes by Linda Hardy and Hyde’s travel permit stamped and signed by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek on the front cover.
In January 1938, after discharging herself from The Lodge, Hyde planned to head to London via the Trans-Siberian Railway to gather new material for a book that would ultimately provide financial support for her son. However, aboard the S.S Changte from Sydney to Hong Kong, Hyde had her first real encounter with Chinese people and culture, meeting “sweet and sour pork,eggs with crimson insides,” (24) alongside amicable people from bombed villages with whom she sympathised and wanted to help. Upon arriving in Hong Kong, she wrote to her family “the conviction that I’m not going any place but China came over me,” and she purchased a boat ticket to Shanghai instead.
During my journey to the south of China this year, I brought Robin along in my backpack, where her beautifully crafted prose in old-fashioned English and old-school Wade-Giles pinyin provided me with much companionship and inspiration as I traversed the same land she did more than 75 years prior. While I was craning my head upwards at the towering skyscrapers of Guangzhou, she was there watching the skies for Japanese aerial attacks. As I trucked out to the rural countryside to meet distant relatives, she was meeting with army generals and discussing military objectives. As I occasionally longed for New Zealand, Robin did, too. And so it was, us two Kiwi girls on the road.
I was searching for my roots in Guangdong, piecing together the family puzzle that scattered with the dropping of Japanese bombs. Robin helped to fill in the blanks of the stories I was never able to ask my grandparents.
On July 7, 1937, full scale war breaks out with Japan in China. Circa ’37, my maternal grandfather Yee Jeng Doon moves from Guangdong to New Zealand.
In February 1938, Robin Hyde arrived in Hong Kong. A stranger in a strange land, she wrote bluntly of her new identity: “You are the foreigner. Nobody loves you.” (37) Rickshas, opium, smallpox, dead children, British broadcasts, Sikh police officers, Tiger Balm, “toys with bright cheap plumage, furniture, hats, camphor chests, restaurants, fish-shops where split and dried sharks show golden-brown over dangling remnants of octopus…” (52)
My paternal grandmother Hon Yue was also in Hong Kong in 1938. She had fled from her village in Guangdong (some say on foot) and was staying in a rented shack in Sum Sui Po with several other women. Hong Kong was invaded by the Japanese just eight hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941, when she hurried back to Guangdong.
In April 1938, Robin arrived in Canton (now known as Guangzhou) instead of staying in Shanghai and writing herself “blind, deaf and dumb for the Middle West” (100). My Por Por was around Canton at the time. Her brother Kan Bong would have been just a toddler in Pang Jeel. Guangzhou is now a giant megalopolis full of skyscrapers and subway lines, thought it was rather empty when I was there over Chinese New Year.
“For three weeks, while I was there,” Robin told me, “bombing casualties were few and purely sporadic, though we had at least two air raids and probably more signals every day. In the last week, the bombers were annoyed, changed their tactics, killed 180 civilians, besides bringing back the old fuss and nervousness.”
“Occassionally some harmless old sheep of a village got bombed and machine-gunned; (after the first phase there were seldom any visible defence planes in Canton, and though the anti-aircraft guns rattled away so importantly, really all they did was to drop remarkable quantities of shrapnel in everybody’s backyards).” (117)
Hyde interviewed Governor Wu Te-chen of Canton:
“Do you think it likely Kwungtung may be invaded?”
“Oh, well!” he stood up, politely, “it is not at all unlikely” (136)
Canton, the capital of Kwungtung (now spelt Guangdong) fell to Japan in October 1938, around the time Robin started writing Dragon Rampant near Kent in England.
Like myself, Robin grew up in Wellington and has an adoring affection for the place. Her family rented various ‘dingy houses’ in Newtown, Melrose and Berhampore, before eventually settling in Northland. As a child, Iris attended Berhampore School and SWIS, where her love of poetry began. One day she wandered from home and was found curled up writing verse in an old boat at Island Bay.
As a teen, she attended Wellington Girls’ College. Like many friends of mine, Hyde found ‘Dub Gee C’ to be rather ‘stodgy and cold,’ though it provided her an environment where she could develop her writing skills. I imagine Iris would sneak out at lunchtime to smoke rollies under the bridge like my WGC friends used to do. Heh.
Having Dragon Rampant with me on the trip was like having a friend from home, someone who could make observations with the same wind-swept Wellington worldview. Of fishers Hong Kong she wrote: “This custom seemed familiar. It is what the Italian fishermen do at Island Bay in Wellington” (32), while in Chengchow (now Zhengzhou), she noted: “the same catkin-grasses and convolvuli we knew around the Wellington bays.” (203)
I found a pohutukawa like flower in Guangzhou and wondered what Robin might have thought of it…
“Almost every night, lying in the red padded quilt, I dreamed about New Zealand, dreams so sharp and vivid that when I woke up, it seemed the black-tiled houses that were a fairy tale.”
– Dragon Rampant, p. 97
As a foreign female journalist in wartime China, Hyde was often surrounded by condescending men in the Press who didn’t take her seriously. The big boys of the New Zealand-China story during the early twentieth century Mr. Rewi Alley and Mr. James Bertram met with Hyde on her journey and thought of her as a naive girl on a reckless adventure, but helped her on her way regardless. The freelancing Kiwi writer James Bertram, who provided Hyde with assistance and companionship in China and afterwards in England, gave the book an unfavourable review in Landfall 1953, palming Hyde off as a “precocious child” who has written “a rather embarrassing record of dangerous living and over-stretched ambition.”
“They are too polite to say so. But can’t you see that you’d be an encumbrance to them?”
I don’t like any reference to women as encumbrances, chance or otherwise.
“Go to Hell. We’ll see whether I’m an encumbrance.”
– Dragon Rampant, p. 206
Hyde’s vexation at the way some foreigners would treat the local people was heightened by her genuine desire to help. In one chapter, she wanted to give some coins to a leper on the street, but two Australian men stood in front of her and yelled obscenities at him in English. The way men would get protective of her and the way foreigners would dehumanise the Chinese clearly got to her, and she often felt more comfortable in the company of the Chinese. “I wanted to get away from anyone who might possible speak my language” (184). Though as a white foreigner, she found her efforts to be friendly with the Chinese often ended with confusion: “I was sorry for her and tried to be very friendly, so immediately she thought I was insane” (83).
Bertram described Dragon Rampant as “fragmentary and chaotic, and not very easy to follow.” Anyone who has ever travelled in China will know the experience is precisely that, so a written account which manages to capture the chaos must be on point!
Each sentence bursts with the illustrative descriptions that Hyde is so well known for in her poetry; the sensory overload one is confronted with in China conveyed through a myriad of tenses and voices in Hyde’s writing. Sobering descriptions of rotten corpses and bombed villages, a harrowing scene where a raped Chinese woman tries to kill herself by swallowing a pair of sharp-pointed earrings, intertwined with interviews, anecdotes, conversations, poetry and insight into the human condition during wartime.
Hyde was writing for a Shanghai newspaper and attended a Press meeting in Canton. Her accounts of how the foreign Press would report the war back home are underlined by her sympathy to China’s cause and her own desire to foster an understanding of the nation’s struggles in her readers. “Canton, Hankow. Within a few days these cities were gone, neither achieving much of a sunset on western front pages,” (13) she laments in the introduction, written from a caravan in England at the start of 1939.
The atrocity fatigue of world news reportage goes on: “‘Even if there’s another Nanking,’ one American reporter told me, during Pa Ta Chia’s chocolates, tea, bulletones and bonhomie, ‘what of it? There’s already been one Nanking.'” (169) These words recur in Hyde’s narration throughout the rest of the book, despite all the suffering and death she sees, the papers won’t report it with Nanking like enthusiasm. “And it is so hard to make West take East even a little seriously,” (193) she rues.
Hyde’s descriptions of the people she meets along the way are made with keen observation and for me, are the highlight of the book. The writer Agnes Smedley “kept looking at the flowers as if she expected them to turn into string sandals, munitions, or a small donation for the Orphans’ University in the north-west” (176), the Chinese-Australian girl Rene Hsu “alternated between being twelve years of age and approximately a Chinese five thousand” (22). Hyde’s impressions of other people show off her humour and wit, alongside her ability to capture the best and worst facets of the human condition. “Her eyes were exactly like those of an eighteen-year-old who used to come up to me and talk in a New Zealand book-shop,” (216) she wrote of an injured villager named Mrs. Wong. The human spirit transcended race. Later in London, Hyde said Dragon Rampant was “secondarily a war book, primarily a book about people—not Consular book—or maybe a war book reflected through people.”
Contrary to many biographies online, Hyde sustained an eye injury not from the assault by Japanese soldiers, but “a poor old scared devil of a Chinese peasant,” who pushed her down a hill.
The image of Hyde limping for thirty miles along the Lunghai railway line in her bid to escape the captured burning city of Hsuchowfu (now known as Xuzhou) with a bung leg and a fucked up eye is an enduring description of Hyde’s epic bravery and insane commitment to the art of journalism and storytelling.
On her second attempt to make a “pedestrian retreat” out of Hsuchowfu, perhaps inspired by the “brains, courage and energy” of Miss Chang Yi-Lien and “another diminutive Chinese girl writer” (193) who had succeeded in escaping on foot, Hyde was captured by Japanese soldiers and eventually handed over to the British in Qingdao, who sent her to Hong Kong via Shanghai where she recovered briefly in hospital and wrote of her longings to return home, but her internal pressure to continue on to England.
“I want New Zealand, though I doubt if it’s a reciprocal affection.”
– Hyde to her family, Hong Kong. 23 July, 1938.
Hampered by tropical illnesses, post-traumatic stress, drug addiction and her ongoing mental illness, Robin spent the final months of her life in England with the support of James Bertram, Charles Brasch and fellow writers. Dragon Rampant was published in 1939 to favourable reviews, but it was quickly overshadowed by the looming war in England. The situation worsened in China and now in Europe. In August 1939, the New Zealand High Commissioner visited Hyde in London and arranged her journey home to New Zealand, where in an inquest he reported she wanted to go back to China. But it was too late.
Robin Hyde took her own life by overdosing on Benzedrine at a cottage in Notting Hill on 23 August 1939, never to make it back to her beloved New Zealand. The following year, my Yeye Carr Yam immigrated from Canton to Hong Kong to New Zealand to join his father. Hon Yue managed to get out in 1948.
Her writings in Dragon Rampant and in her poems about China in Houses By the Sea would capture the humanity, strength and suffering of a people so readily discriminated by her countrymen (she was ashamed of New Zealand’s racist immigration policies at the time). She desperately wanted her fellow New Zealanders to understand; that would be the way she could help.
Hyde often reiterated her amateurish knowledge about the greater situation and admitted to feeling “ignorant and childish” (83) in the company of her more informed counterparts, yet published Dragon Rampant, originally titled Accepting Summer, in her efforts to “understand fragments of the mosaic” (9). Her longing wish to help was staggered by the enormity of the country, the sheer amount of suffering and the ginormous population, but her writings were not in vain.
While books by James Bertram and Rewi Alley may record a more ‘complete’ picture of the Sino-Japanese War, Dragon Rampant survives as an important document of the multiplicity of sights, sounds, smells and voices of wartime China, both poetic and journalistic, recorded earnestly by a Kiwi woman who was not so ignorant as to believe she could become ‘one’ with the Chinese people (an encounter with Japanese soldiers told her she’d be shot if she weren’t white), but through her compassionate attitude to all human beings and solidarity with China’s plight to defend itself, she produced a remarkable, enduring account of a brutal war that is often overlooked by the Anglophone world.
May her memory go on.
Header image via Oztypewriter, who has written an excellent article on Hyde’s typewriter and travels. Robin Hyde writing outside Charles Brasch’s rented cottage in Wiltshire, April 20, 1939.