“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
— Mark Twain

A Christmas Day Tale – Errol Flynn in Shanghai

Posted: December 25th, 2011 | No Comments »

It’s become a sort of China Rhyming tradition (and I do like tradition) to offer up to you dear reader a longer tale on Christmas Day – see here for last year’s tale of a warlord converted – and this year I thought I’d dig out that old swashbuckler and all round swordsman (as they used to say of men who were able with the ladies) Errol Flynn and his Shanghai sojourn. So here from his 1959 autobiography My Wicked, Wicked Ways is Flynn’s own account of his Shanghai:

We lined up at the end of Hu Tung Avenue, where the recruiting barracks were. Inside the low-slung structure, a clammy horrible-looking fortress, there were hundreds of us. Some had beards, some were clean-shaven, but apparently they were just as much out of a job as we were.
A young, fair-haired English subaltern with a blond moustache, five hairs on the left side of his upper lip, about seven on the right, with a notebook in his hand, followed by a corporal, was trying to get some order. An officer stepped forward and told us what our duties would be. We would go to Shanghai, already under fire, and barricade it before the Japanese had a chance to move in any further.
We were now soldiers.
We were issued a rifle apiece. Ammunition would be given to us in Shanghai, because the available bullets didn’t fit the available rifles. It would probably be cold in Shanghai, so we were issued greatcoats.
We were marched to the wharf. There we took ship for Shanghai, about four hundred of us, on a small China coaster.
I was a British subject, Koets was an American, and by joining up he had lost his citizenship, although this never occurred to him at the time. Americans who enlist in foreign wars are frowned on. Through all this passage he managed to hang on to his magic steel box containing all his paraphernalia, personal belongings and photographic equipment – and even some snake juice.
Three days later we disembarked. We could hear gunfire. Shanghai was already under siege. It was being attacked on the far bank. Boats anchored in the harbour were under fire.
“This is it, Koets! We’re in it!” Now for the loot, the jade, the daughters of the Mings, the treasures of ancient Cathay!
On the wharf we were greeted by another little Englishman dressed in a fancy uniform. He said we would immediately be put in the front line against the Japanese.
While we listened, what really engaged our attention was the heavy snowfall all around. The snow was two or three feet deep. I hadn’t seen snow in a long time, not since Tasmania. I stood there shivering, wearing that too-small army coat and glad I had it.
“Now,” said the little officer, “hand over your guns.”
The guns were taken away from us. What the hell was this!
Suddenly a squad of Chinese came on to the scene carrying big heavy shovels and they were going down the ranks handing each of us a shovel!
“Shitz!” growled Koets, lapsing into dialect, “Vat kind of a war is dis!”
The commanding officer barked, “You will proceed to the outskirts of the city and there entrench!”
Koets and I asked what this was for. We were told, “Shut up and just do the job. You are Hong Kong Volunteers.”
The next three weeks we dug and dug. First we had to dig away the snow. Then we had to turn up the earth and pile up embankments behind which Shanghai would defend itself. Barbed wire went up. Trenches took form.
The food was not for description. The sleeping accommodation was meant for Chinese beetles.
Treasures of Cathay! I was doing more fast thinking than I had done since I put one over on the Lului chieftain back in New Guinea.
While we dug, occasional bullets were flying over our heads. Some fell short of where we were digging.
For days Koets and I gave each other odd looks, expressive of ideas, schemes, designs.
Finally our feelings burst from us simultaneously.
“Look at your hands,” I said, feeding him a small touch of sedition. “Full of blisters! Those hands of yours were meant for operating with.”
“You are absolutely right, you idiot, absolutely!”
“Why don’t we beat it?”
“Watch your vocabulary, “ I whispered.
“That’s what it is – but I’m for it. I’ve had enough!”
For the next few days Koets did the primary scouting. He found a couple of Chinese boys who agreed to take us to a spot on the waterfront nearby where we could get a packet headed down the coast. If we had the money, our passports and a Shanghai Province Permit to get out with, we had a deal.
What the hell was a Shanghai Province Permit?
Koets, whispering to me between shovelfuls of earth, explained that the Shanghai Province Permit might present the greatest problem. It was a small card, rudely comparable to a visa, which said foreigners could not over-extend their stay in the Shanghai Province without official sanction, and meaning it was okay to leave before a certain date stamped on it.
We located someone in the Hong Kong Volunteers who had such a permit. I examined it. What I saw gave me hope and an idea.
I looked through my kit of personal effects. Among the papers, receipts were several Chinese laundry slips. Now to get two of these fixed properly…
I worked over one of them. Down in one corner were the words in English: not responsible for laundry left here over six months. Good, that was the spot to cover with a big British sixpence stamp. I affixed a big blub of sealing-wax, with my thumb print on it. Next to that I wrote boldly in thick black ink: OK, ERROL FLYNN. I performed the same operation with Koets’s slip, and he signed his name with the same OK.
I forged some Chinese hieroglyphics to it. Then, for the first time since childhood, I prayed, however irreverently, to God. “Look, Sport,” I said to Him, “Get us out of this Egg Foo Yong.”
Koets had some medical equipment and we now had enough Shanghai to get on a boat.
One evening when, ostensibly, we adjourned to the latrine, we stole out of the barracks.
We hustled down to the waterfront, where we met a wizened little fellow who said, like I had heard in whorehouses in New Guinea and the Philippines, “The money, please,” with his hand held out.
We were taken on board a bedraggled little packet no more than twenty feet long and perhaps a third of that in the beam. It smelled as if it had been well lived in.
The captain asked to see our credentials, just in case he was stopped en route anywhere and questioned why he was carrying two foreigners. We showed him our papers.
I had carefully stamped this pink laundry slip in a Chinese lettering which meant ‘Good until December 1933’. He fingered that with care, looked at it suspiciously, as Koets shoved some Shanghai at him.
The laundry slip was okay. So were the Shanghai. We could get out of China.
If we were in luck, our arrow was at last pointing west.
I think I might justly claim to be the only man who travelled through China with a laundry slip for a passport.

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