Roar, China! Langston Hughes in Shanghai

Langston Hughes

When Langston Hughes, the poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance, visited Shanghai in 1934, he found it not unlike his home country. With barbed wire and guards separating the International Settlement and French Concession from the Chinese sections of Shanghai, and with American race laws (i.e. segregation) applying in the International Settlement, the parallels between segregated Shanghai and segregated America were all too stark. In his autobiography, I Wonder as I Wander, Hughes describes being warned to be careful when going into the Chinese sections of Shanghai, and of crafty Orientals who were likely to swindle him. The reality he found to be very different:

“I found the Chinese in Shanghai to be a very jolly people, much like colored folks at home. To tell the truth, I was more afraid of going into the world famous Cathay Hotel [today the Peace Hotel] than I was of going into any public place in the Chinese quarters. Colored people are not welcomed at the Cathay. But beyond the gates of the International Settlement, color was no barrier. I could go anywhere.”

20 Cathay Hotel

“Colored people are not welcomed at the Cathay”

Upon his arrival, Hughes was surprised to spot a fellow “Harlemite” in a rickshaw – for of course, Hughes was not the only black American in Shanghai. This was the era of Shanghai jazz, and, he says, “Shanghai seemed to have a weakness for American Negro performers,” from Nora Holt at the Little Club, Midge Williams, Valaida Snow at St. George’s Nightclub, Earl Whaley, Buck Clayton, and Teddy Weatherford. Most performed in the French Concession nightclubs like the Canidrome because the French did not apply American race laws in their Concession. Hughes spent time with Teddy Weatherford, who headed “the best American jazz band in the Orient”. He reflected that were he a performer like Teddy, he would “never go home at all”, but alas, Shanghai was too expensive a place for a mere writer to linger.

Buck Clayton and his Harlem Gentlemen at the Canidrome.

Buck Clayton and his Harlem Gentlemen at the Canidrome

Langston Hughes couldn’t stay,  but he left Shanghai, and China, with a call to arms for his Chinese brethren in his anti-colonial poem, “Roar, China!” (published in the New Masses journal, February 22 1938).

“Roar, China!
Roar, old lion of the East!
Snort fire, yellow dragon of the Orient,
Tired at last of being bothered.
Since when did you ever steal anything
From anybody,
Sleepy wise old beast
Known as the porcelain-maker,
Known as the poem-maker,
Known as maker of firecrackers?
A long time since you cared
About taking other people’s lands
Away from them.
THEY must’ve thought you didn’t care
About your own land either—
So THEY came with gunboats,
Set up Concessions,
Zones of influence,
International Settlements,
Missionary houses,
And Jim Crow Y.M.C.A.’s.
THEY beat you with malacca canes
And dared you to raise your head—
Except to cut it off.
Even the yellow men came
To take what the white men
Hadn’t already taken.
The yellow men dropped bombs on Chapei.
The yellow men called you the same names
The white men did:
Dog! Dog! Dog!
Coolie dog!
Red! . . . Lousy red!
Red coolie dog!
And in the end you had no place
To make your porcelain,
Write your poems,
Or shoot your firecrackers on holidays.
In the end you had no peace
Or calm left at all.
Thought you really were a dog.
THEY kicked you daily
Via radiophone, via cablegram,
Via gunboats in her harbor,
Via malacca canes.
THEY thought you were a tame lion.
A sleepy, easy, tame old lion!
Ha! Ha!
Haaa-aa-a! . . . Ha!
Laugh, little coolie boy on the docks of Shanghai, laugh!
You’re no tame lion.
Laugh, red generals in the hills of Sian-kiang, laugh!
You’re no tame lion.
Laugh, child slaves in the factories of the foreigners!
You’re no tame lion.
Laugh—and roar, China! Time to spit fire!
Open your mouth, old dragon of the East.
To swallow up the gunboats in the Yangtse!
Swallow up the foreign planes in your sky!
Eat bullets, old maker of firecrackers—
And spit out freedom in the face of your enemies!
Break the chains of the East,
Little coolie boy!
Break the chains of the East,
Red generals!
Break the chains of the East,
Child slaves in the factories!
Smash the iron gates of the Concessions!
Smash the pious doors of the missionary houses!
Smash the revolving doors of the Jim Crow Y.M.C.A.’s.
Crush the enemies of land and bread and freedom!
Stand up and roar, China!
You know what you want!
The only way to get it is
To take it!
Roar, China!”



Langston Hughes, I Wonder As I Wander. New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1960.

2 responses to “Roar, China! Langston Hughes in Shanghai”

  1. James Barnett says:

    Fantastic article. Didn’t know Langston Hughes made it to Shanghai. I’m also keen to learn more about the “Jim Crow Y. M. C. A.”

    • Tina Kanagaratnam says:

      Glad you enjoyed it! “Jim Crow YMCAs” refers to the segregated Ys, and the existence of the Chinese YMCA, since Chinese were not permitted to join the International YMCA.

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