Source: The New Yorker (7/14/16)
THE REMARKABLE FORGOTTEN LIFE OF H. T. TSIANG
By Hua Hsu
In the nineteen-thirties, “The Good Earth,” by Pearl S. Buck, was inescapable. The tale of a noble Chinese farmer and his struggles against famine, political upheaval, and personal temptation, the book was an immediate success upon publication, in 1931. Buck was born in West Virginia, but she was raised in rural China, the daughter of American missionaries, and she resisted the sense of Christian superiority many within her circle felt toward the “heathen” Chinese. “When I was in the Chinese world I was Chinese, I spoke Chinese and behaved as a Chinese and ate as the Chinese did, and I shared their thoughts and feelings,” she later recalled. Her sympathetic backstory gave “The Good Earth” a rare kind of authority: it was billed as an authentic tale of a distant, windswept China, but its author was a white American, and it told the kind of story that Americans grappling with the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl wanted to hear—of hard work, perseverance, and triumph in the face of natural disaster and corruption.
At the time, China, for most Americans, was a wondrous abstraction, an inscrutable assemblage of four hundred million future Christians, consumers, or citizens, depending on your game. Promise on this scale required experts and explainers; it required prophets. “The Good Earth,” and its Academy Award-winning 1937 film adaptation, established Buck as one of America’s most prominent voices on all things Chinese, an informal position she would hold for decades. She nurtured her authority within this world with care, becoming an outspoken advocate for China’s poor and producing a remarkably steady output of novels and reportage. She also used her fame to promote the work of others, through her publisher, the John Day Company, which began prioritizing books about Asia after Buck’s pathbreaking success.
To anoint an expert is also to draw distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate forms of knowledge. Inevitably, there are stories that get erased, perspectives that are overlooked, possibilities that are made to seem crazy or impossible. The same year that “The Good Earth” was released, a New York-based writer from China named H. T. Tsiang self-published an epistolary romance called “China Red,” in which Chi and Sheng, a pair of Chinese lovers separated by political ideology and the Pacific, slowly drift apart. In contrast to Buck’s sentimental hit, “China Red” was offbeat and sarcastic, critical of overeducated Chinese élites and clueless Americans alike. Publishers weren’t interested; the back cover of the paperback features a series of lukewarm and dismissive lines from the letters they sent him.
By the time he wrote his next novel, in 1935, Tsiang had begun hawking his self-published books by hand in Greenwich Village. His eccentric approach to self-promotion caught the attention of Rion Bercovici, a writer for The New Yorker, who wrote a Talk of the Town story about Tsiang for the magazine. While writing his new book, the piece explained, Tsiang had lived in a New Jersey “chop-suey palace” owned by a friend, who provided Tsiang with everything he needed: “a typewriter, an occasional dish of chow mein, and plenty of Chinese brandy.” Occasionally, Chinese friends proud of Tsiang’s literary ambition would chip in fifteen or twenty dollars to help with costs, and he remained hopeful that a career as a writer was in the offing. His second book was titled “The Hanging on Union Square: An American Epic,” and it recounted a hellish night in the life of Mr. Nut, an oblivious American dreamer wandering the streets of Depression-ravaged Manhattan. When Tsiang pressed a copy of it into Bercovici’s hands, he bragged that his next novel, “Shanghai-New York-Moscow,” would be about a coolie: “Somewhat like ‘The Good Earth,’ but much better.”
But for the next few years Tsiang became fixated on the idea that Buck and her powerful friends were the gatekeepers preventing him from joining the newly vibrant—and profitable—conversation on the future of China and the United States. He lobbed literary spitballs from afar, hoping to catch someone’s attention. When that didn’t work, he took his free-form approach to art, politics, and identity to more hostile extremes, having characters in his novels attack his rivals for him. At times, Tsiang seemed, like his fictional creation, a mere “nut,” alone in the streets. But the American epic of his own life would become far stranger than anything he dreamed up in his novels, taking him from the streets of New York to an Ellis Island detention hall, to Hollywood, and, finally, to a file buried deep in the archives of the F.B.I. He was not one of the mellow, temperate Chinese from Buck’s novels. Rather, he was a combative and independent thinker, one who imagined a future where he might float free of the categories that restrained him. And he tried to write that future into existence.
Tsiang didn’t come to the United States to become a writer. He was born in 1899, in a small village in the Kiangsu province of China, not far from where “The Good Earth” is set. His father died when Tsiang was nine, and his mother died four years later. He earned a scholarship to a teacher’s school, and then another to Southeast University, in Nanjing, where he took courses on political economy and acquired a relatively decent grasp of English. After graduating, in 1925, he took a post as aide to the secretary of Sun Yat-sen, the revolutionary leader who had overthrown the Qing Dynasty, in 1911, and established the Republic of China in its place.
The twists and turns of Tsiang’s life reflected the challenges facing modern China. From afar, the solution may have seemed as simple as China breaking from its insular past—but for those within the government, like Tsiang, the logistics of regime change meant a perpetual state of anxiety. After Sun’s death, and the subsequent assassination of the Kuomintang party leader Liao Zhongkai, fears arose of an effort to purge the government of leftist sympathizers. Following an unsuccessful bid to emigrate to the Soviet Union, in 1926, Tsiang fled to the United States and enrolled at Stanford University. He continued toeing the Party line, editing and writing anti-Communist editorials for a Bay Area newspaper produced for Chinese immigrants. But he grew frustrated with the paper’s conservatism. (Or maybe, as Bercovici guessed in The New Yorker, he simply realized that “being anti-Communist didn’t pay.”) He then helped found an independent weekly called the Chinese Guide in America, which was critical of the Chinese government. Tsiang formally broke from the ruling Kuomintang Party in 1927, and he organized rallies along the West Coast targeting the Party’s increasingly conservative leadership. Eventually, an angry mob of Party loyalists in the Bay Area beat up Tsiang and the staff of his weekly, spelling the end for the Chinese Guide.
Tsiang moved to New York and enrolled at Columbia University, taking courses in law, economics, and history. He became fascinated with the proletarian art movement, and began writing poetry about the Chinese revolution and its relationship to the working-class struggle in American cities, which he published, in English, in the Daily Worker and the New Masses. He wrote op-eds, gave speeches on China’s conservatism, and acted in local theatre productions. At night, he washed dishes in a Greenwich Village night club. His interest in returning to China faded. He wanted to make a life for himself in America.
In 1929, six months after he had penned his first poem—in English or Chinese—he self-published his first book, “Poems of the Chinese Revolution.” He wanted to approach the directives of proletarian literature from the perspective of immigrants—not the faraway Chinese Buck would soon popularize in “The Good Earth,” but those already here, chasing a livelihood across great distances. How did their struggles align with those of America’s working classes? Did borders define anything essential, or was the floating proletariat free to forge new alliances, beyond contingencies of race, nation, or class? Upton Sinclair, who agreed to write a short endorsement of “Poems of the Chinese Revolution,” admitted that Tsiang’s book was not “perfect poetry.” (In “Chinaman, Laundryman,” a beleaguered laundry worker laments, “Why can I smooth away / The wrinkles of others’ dresses / But not the miseries of my heart?”) But Tsiang wrote from points of view not frequently represented—farmers, rickshaw drivers, immigrants ensnared in American bureaucracy—and, for Sinclair, this panoramic vision of the underclass made his poetry disruptive to “the white world, the so-called civilized world.”
That sort of reaction may have emboldened Tsiang. After he finished his first novel, he tried to shop the manuscript to various New York publishers. When no publisher accepted it, and then a white American woman became the country’s foremost expert on China and the Chinese people, his frustrations with the literary establishment grew. In “China Red,” Chi tells her fiancé, Sheng, who has left China for America:
If some day you should want to be a successful writer, your success will not depend upon how good your writing is, but upon how much it meets with the approval of the mediocre tastes of your readers. Then you will get a publisher. Don’t tell too much of the truth. The truth will not earn profits for the publisher.
By the time Tsiang self-published “The Hanging on Union Square,” four years later, he seems to have given up on mainstream acceptance entirely. At one point in the book, two characters, eager to make a quick buck, contemplate prostitution. The easier path, one of them argues, would be to follow the path of “the famous Missionary and woman-author” who had “made money from her Oriental novels” about “ ‘Earth’ and ‘Soil.’ “ Their mockery of “The Good Earth” and its conservative spirit of modest perseverance stood in for Tsiang’s own disdain. “Hanging” ends with Mr. Nut, radicalized after a night spent among New York’s hungriest and most desperate, facing off against power incarnate, in the form of a villainous businessman named Mr. System.
Tsiang continued to attack Buck in his last novel, “And China Has Hands,” which was published, in 1937, by Robert Speller Books—and which is believed to be the first-ever novel about Chinatown written by someone of Chinese descent. The protagonist is an immigrant laundryman named Wong Wan-Lee, who comes to understand New York through the eyes of his only real friend, a naïve, half-black, half-Chinese woman named Pearl Chang. The pair are entranced by the leftist, anti-imperialistic movements around them, and they fall in love with each other, too. They are also harassed by Tsiang himself, who shows up in one scene to recite some of the worst poetry Chang has ever heard. Tsiang’s frustration is palpable: after writing so much about revolution, and being met with nothing but rejection and indifference from “the white world,” his cameo feels like a literal intervention. He reveals that he has finally secured a publisher for his next book. The publisher was “taking a deep interest” in Tsiang’s whereabouts, “hoping the author would get his head clubbed.” Any publicity would help.
A history of failure is also an index of what once seemed impossible. Tsiang’s books refuse the version of China envisioned by Buck and her cohort. The romantic reading of his story is that Tsiang courted this failure, and that his novels were grand, public acts of martyrdom. By positioning his characters in relation to Buck’s success, Tsiang was conceding defeat. But he was also calling attention to the ways in which Buck’s novel—a masterpiece of by-the-bootstraps optimism—flattered a rotten value system.
“And China Has Hands” would be his final novel. He never got around to publishing “Shanghai-New York-Moscow,” the novel he had teased to Bercovici, or “A Floating Chinaman,” a similarly ambitious book that he had once described in a letter to Theodore Dreiser, from whom he had requested a blurb. (It’s possible that “And China Has Hands” is a scaled-down version of those grander projects.)
Then, in 1940, Tsiang was nearly sent back to China: the U.S. government claimed that his student status had lapsed when he failed to enroll in any classes from 1938 to 1939. Tsiang said that he’d had a series of illnesses, and he suspected that he was being targeted for his revolutionary poetry. While his case snaked its way through the American courts, he was detained on Ellis Island. There he could often be found in one of the facility’s large halls, with a typewriter balanced on a tiny desk. In December, he began writing to Rockwell Kent, a progressive writer and artist who had taken an interest in his case. Kent even liked Tsiang’s style, assuring him that his books “are much finer than any of your endorsers have stated.”
Tsiang went to great pains to amuse Kent with lewd double entendres, rambling marginalia and doodles, strange poems, and even a recipe for chop suey. One of the early letters included a short poem titled “Top-Side,” which mocked the entry interview that many immigrants were subjected to. The interviewee is a six-year-old Wong Wan-Lee, the protagonist of “And China Has Hands.” Through an interpreter, the interviewer asks young Wong a series of questions about his parents, in order to verify that he is indeed their son and therefore eligible for American citizenship. Asked about his parents’ sleeping habits, he says that his father sleeps “sometimes left side, sometimes right side.” The correct answer, according to the father: he prefers his wife’s “top-side.” In another, much bleaker poem, “He Is Not Worried,” a hopeless migrant smashes his head against the wall.
Tsiang also wrote a letter to the White House that contained veiled references to his own books, and he sent Vito Marcantonio, a famed New York labor lawyer and East Harlem congressman, an ecstatic poem about the virtues of the letter “O.” (In subsequent letters to Kent, he referred to Marcantonio as “Representative O! O! O!”) Ultimately, Kent, John Dewey, Archibald MacLeish, Waldo Frank, and several others wrote appeals on Tsiang’s behalf. In April, 1941, Frank published “The Case of H. T. Tsiang” in The New Republic, soliciting sympathizers to write the Department of Justice. Tsiang’s deportation order was annulled a few months later. That August, Kent mailed a package containing Tsiang’s works to two publishers, hoping to net him a book deal. Kent acknowledged, in a cover letter, that quite a few houses had already rejected these works, but he was convinced, as he put it, that times had changed, and that Tsiang had “something tremendously important for the American public today.” He also compared Tsiang’s style to “the flavor of Indian curry tamed down to suit the palate of Americans.”
The second publishing house that Kent wrote to was the John Day Company, Pearl Buck’s publisher. Kent addressed the fawning cover letter to his good friend Richard Walsh, Buck’s editor and husband. When Tsiang learned of this, he was petrified. He sent a hasty, mistake-filled letter to Kent, hoping to lessen the potential damage. “Do you know who is MRs. Richard J Walsh?—- Perl Burk!” Then he wrote Walsh, begging him to leave Kent out of it. “I am used to the rejection slips, and he isn’t,” Tsiang told him. He copied this letter to Kent and wrote in the margins that he had a plan for getting out of this mess: he would mail Walsh copies of his books with a few pages cut out—presumably the pages slandering Walsh and his wife. Along with these abridged versions of his novels, he would send some articles about Chinese politics that he wrote while in graduate school, as a way of proving his worth to the growing China lobby. The next week, he sent two more desperate letters to Walsh, begging him not to reject the books immediately.
The idea of Tsiang prostrating himself at the foot of Walsh, the publisher responsible for Pearl S. Buck’s great success, is almost unbearable. If Tsiang’s novelistic attacks on Buck had not already doomed his relationship to John Day, his dogged pursuit of Walsh certainly clinched his failure. In late October, Walsh finally wrote Kent:
He is gifted and he has interesting things to say. But he is, to put it mildly, eccentric. One can hardly blame him, considering all that he has gone through. Yet it is alarming for anyone who might have to do business with him, to trace in what he writes an increasing wildness and confusion. I went back over everything of his, beginning in 1929, and I should say that there was a steady trend there which would make him a less and less promising author, and more and more likely to be troublesome in personal relations.
Like a character in one of his own novels, Tsiang was losing all hope, as systems beyond his control closed on him. First it was the United States government, detaining him unnecessarily and using his collected works—which few people ever bought anyway—against him. Now it was a publishing industry that was as insular as he suspected, politely showing him the door one more time. Tsiang had witnessed the founding of a new republic in China before conservative mobs and an uncertain future sent him fleeing. He thought he had found his second calling with the proletarian arts movement in the United States, but this world, too, let him down. He still called his literature “proletarian,” only his version expressed a sense of terminal alienation, the collateral damage of his rootless, transpacific existence. He drew on these feelings to dismantle accepted notions about China, about how novels worked, and how the nations of the Pacific might consider relating to each other.
The disappointment sent him in search of new adventures. Tsiang gave up novel-writing and turned his attention to adapting some of his works for the stage. But it was time for a bigger change. In “And China Has Hands,” as Tsiang walks within the pages of his own novel, trying to sell his self-published epics, a fellow-traveller mocks him, badgering him with questions about his stalled career. Why had all the respectable publishers rejected him? How come he had never earned a Guggenheim scholarship? It was not for lack of trying. He needed a fresh start. And so, the man asked Tsiang a third question: “Have you ever been in Hollywood?”
Hollywood was where Tsiang would play out the final act of his career. In 1943, he began staging an adaptation of “The Hanging on Union Square” at a series of small theatres around Hollywood and Chinatown. It would ultimately play for more than five years. Alfred Hitchcock, Vincent Price, Gregory Peck, Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth, and other Hollywood stars came to see it, and Tsiang himself became a very minor celebrity. In the nineteen-fifties, he put on a weekly, one-man show, based on “Hamlet” and featuring Freudian analysis, anti-capitalist rants, a tin can in place of Yorick’s skull, and sound effects borrowed from Chinese theatre. It was called “Wedding at a Nudist Colony.”
Tsiang began appearing in movies—“Behind the Rising Sun,” “The Keys of the Kingdom,” “Tokyo Rose,” “The Babe Ruth Story”—and television shows, such as “I Spy,” “Bonanza,” and “My Three Sons.” He was one of the few Asian Americans to get steady work in Hollywood in these years, though the roles he was given consisted, of course, of a range of familiar stereotypes. One imagines that he appreciated the irony of acting in “China Sky,” a movie that was adapted from a novel by Pearl S. Buck. In 1960, he had a part in “Ocean’s 11,” alongside Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., and the rest of the Rat Pack. He spends an entire scene shuffling about on his knees, and is credited as “Houseboy.” He was sixty-one years old. Still, Tsiang never lost his knack for aggressive chumminess. He took out a small ad in a Hollywood paper to wish “Ocean’s 11” director Lewis Milestone a happy birthday, identifying himself as “the crazy house boy” and asking Milestone to send his regards to Sinatra. His final credited appearance as an actor came in 1966, playing a character named Ching Fa on “Gunsmoke.”
All things considered, he had done quite well for himself. He died in 1971, and was buried in Evergreen Cemetery, in Los Angeles. His tombstone misidentifies his birth year as 1906, off by seven years.
Unbeknownst to Tsiang, who had wanted so badly to become known as a writer and as a commentator on Chinese and American life, a small group of readers had been poring over his every word. He had arrived in Hollywood just as anti-Communist paranoia was taking root, and, starting in 1951, F.B.I. and I.N.S. agents in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York began filing reports on his background, known associates, affiliations, and movements. They talked to friends, old landlords, and random strangers to whom he had tried selling tickets to his one-man show. They even read his novels, trying to determine whether Tsiang’s leftist politics were seditious or mere literary bluster. It was as though, after years of self-touting and swagger, he had finally found his audience.
And there are moments in the files that feel as though they were written by Tsiang himself. Once, Tsiang was at the counter of a Chinatown shop when “a white man” remarked that Tsiang “was certainly ‘pink.’” Tsiang “in a tone of braggadocio responded, ‘Pink! – Hell, I’m as Red as that.’ At this point, Tsiang indicated with his finger some red-colored object lying on the counter.” A few pages later, a different informant suggests that Tsiang’s leftist sympathies were not equalled by his work ethic: “It is redacted’s opinion that Tsiang is absolutely opposed to work and would not resort to work, particularly physical labor, unless he were actually starving.”
Tsiang might have been surprised to see himself depicted in such non-threatening terms. But he had ceased to be the author of his own story. The local field agent in New York had interviewed a range of Tsiang’s friends and associates, including Richard Walsh, head of the John Day Company. Walsh told the agent about Rockwell Kent’s letter “requesting that the firm give favorable consideration to the subject’s writings,” and he said that he had rejected the manuscripts “for lack of literary merit.” Tsiang, he said, had completed a couple of books, but they were “still-born works which, brought out under his imprint and marketed in restaurants and on street corners, can be said to have not been really published.” There is something devastating about that phrase, giving Tsiang’s struggle to establish himself as a writer from a position far beyond the margins of the literary world: can be said to have not been really published.
As much as those words surely would have stung, Tsiang might have taken comfort in knowing that his work survived anyway. It was studied and then archived in the filing cabinets of the F.B.I.—a more secure resting place, perhaps, than any library. And the file doesn’t paint him as the luckless and anonymous loner depicted in his novels. He was radiant, boisterous, unforgettable. He was unafraid. I came across Tsiang’s file by chance, a few years ago, when I was killing time at the library, browsing the archives of the late labor historian Josephine Fowler. As I leafed through the pages and realized what I was reading, I almost couldn’t believe that such a thing existed. I felt a strange sense of pride. In a bizarre and remarkable way, H. T. Tsiang had made it: he had left something behind.
This piece is adapted from “A Floating Chinaman: Fantasy and Failure across the Pacific,” recently published by Harvard University Press.