Letter III (Couldn't Hear)

LETTER III (Couldn’t Hear)   36″ x 48″   2007

The painting Letter III (Couldn’t Hear) incorporates parts of a letter written in October of 1937, about two months after the letter-writer witnessed a bombing incident in Shanghai. In the summer of 1937 Japan had resumed its invasion of Chinese territory. There was fighting between Chinese and Japanese soldiers around the city of Shanghai. On August 14, the woman who wrote this letter witnessed bombs falling into the streets near Garden Bridge. The bridge crosses a small tributary called Suzhou Creek just above where it enters into the main channel of the river that cuts through Shanghai. The letter-writer happened to be standing on the river-front near the gate at the entrance to the garden of the British Consulate, very close to the bridge:

I have been out in the garden and at the Bund gate watching the stream of terrified refugees pouring over Garden Bridge – every few minutes they broke into screams & roars and ran, thousands of them – and I asked the N.O. in charge of the guard here (he was staying with us) why they were doing this, and he said bombs were being dropped in Yangtsepo … they bombed a certain building just over the creek and, as I pointed it out to him three Chinese bombers came out of the clouds (they were very low that morning as, to add to the confusion and despair, there was a typhoon blowing!) and came straight down on the Idzuma moored just off the Japanese consulate. You can imagine how appallingly near us that was, and the noise was deafening. They missed … but the terrible havoc those bombs wrought among those poor frightened refugees.

The bombs that fell came from Chinese planes which had attempted to attack Japanese warships anchored in the middle of the river. Instead of hitting their target, the bombs fell into the streets filled with terrified civilians. She describes the scene in the garden:

telephones were useless as you couldn’t hear, and large pieces of anti-aircraft stuff simply littered the garden one piece we picked up was almost half the size of a soup plate and over half an inch thick …

The letter-writer decided to go to the Cathay Hotel for the night. The Cathay was at that time one of the luxury hotels in Shanghai. The thicker walls there would provide more protection from bombs, she thought. But the hotel, too, had been bombed:

We told the chauffeur to take us to the back entrance … everywhere was broken glass and dismembered portions of maimed and burnt humanity and piles of corpses awaiting removal, and streams of blood running freely along the road.

I have used sections of these words in this painting, repeating some:

couldn’t hear



and large pieces

the garden

size of a soup plate

In the following months Japanese bombers destroyed vast areas of Shanghai. But the targeted areas lay on the north side of Suzhou Creek. The land on the south side of Suzhou Creek fell within the boundaries of the portion of Shanghai under the control of Britain and France. In its aerial bombing Japan avoided the European areas of the city. Therefore Suzhou Creek became a tacit boundary for their air attacks. The bombing of Shanghai began four months after the better known bombing by German aircraft of Guernica in Spain on April 27, 1937. The two events mark the beginning of the general use of air war against urban populations. A year later W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood travelled to Shanghai to witness the continuing war. In their book Journey to a War they wrote that the city north of Suzhou Creek was like a “barren moonscape”.

The original of this letter is gracefully written in pen and ink. The recipient of the letter gave it to me many years ago.

In 1996, and again more recently, I walked along the river bank in Shanghai more or less exactly at the place where the letter-writer witnessed this event.