The silent traveller in London Chiang Yee New York : Interlink Books, 2002 Softcover. Originally published: London : Country Life, Ltd. ; New York : C. Scribner’s Sons, 1939. xvi, 216 p. : ill. ; 21 cm. Clean, tight and strong binding. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG
By the 1930s Western books about China were common. But a book about the West, and particularly London, written by a Chinese author, was a rarity—and continues to be so.
Chiang Yee’s account of London, first published in 1938, is original in more ways than one. Not only one of the first widely available books written by a Chinese author in English, it also reverses the expected conventions of travel writing. For here the “exotic” subject matter is none other than London and its people, quizzically observed as an alien culture by a visiting foreigner.
Immersing himself in the strange rituals of London life, Chiang Yee set out to learn about Londoners, their habits and their pleasures. In pubs and cafés, cinemas and art galleries, he watched the locals at work and at play. Fascinated by such social conventions as afternoon tea and discussing the weather, he tried to make sense of British society, treating his subjects with a mix of wonderment and affection. Beards, feeding the pigeons, street names: all such everyday phenomena were a source of curiosity. As he lived through the capital’s various seasons, and endured the notorious London fogs, Chiang Yee’s affinity with the city and its people grew.
Illustrated with the author’s own atmospheric sketches, The Silent Traveller in London is also a book about China and a world in transition. Comparing London with his native land, Chiang Yee draws parallels and contrasts, seeking to rectify misunderstandings and stereotypes regarding Chinese life. But China had recently endured revolutionary turmoil and invasion by Japan, and the author was conscious of the impending disaster facing London in the shape of war. His record of London life, fresh and perceptive, is tinged with nostalgia for a lost homeland and foreboding for the future.