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Ernest Hemingway is a name that conjures up images of Paris, Spain, Kenya or the Caribbean, but rarely Myanmar.The famous American author and pioneer of literary modernism did, however, travel to Burma for two weeks in the spring of 1941

Alongside his wife – the journalist and war correspondent Martha Gellhorn – Hemingway honeymooned in Hong Kong, China, and Burma, while both were covering the East Asian theatre in WW2 for different magazines.

Asian Travels: Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman play the writerly couple in the biopic Hemingway and Gellhorn (2012).

It was to be a busman’s holiday – Hemingway and Gellhorn came to Burma in particular to cover the Burma Road. In 1941, the Allied powers built this amazing expanse of tarmac from China to India through the mountain passes of Northern Burma in order to provide Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese nationalist army (the Kuomintang) with guns and supplies to fight the Japanese (who had invaded China in 1931).

While in Asia, the celebrity couple were wined and dined, and in hotels and bars,
they met many dignitaries and world leaders, including Chiang Kai-shek, Madame Chiang (née Soong Mei-ling), and Zhou En Lai (Communist leader Mao Zedong’s second-in-command).

But, unbeknownst to his editors, Hemingway was actually working as a spy for the U.S. Treasury during the trip, reporting back to Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. on the Chinese government’s use of American war materiel. In general, Morgenthau wanted to know that American dollars were being spent in the right places and for the right reasons.

In particular, he wanted to know about the Burma Road. The road was incredibly important to keeping the besieged Chinese nationalist government in Chungking (Chongqing) afloat and fighting the Japanese.

The only problem was that Chiang’s government was not democratic enough for the Americans – Chiang’s enemies were brutally disposed of and freedom of speech was almost nonexistent. Later on, Hemingway relayed his experience at a tea party given in his honor at a Chinese university where the professors “who wished to tell you anything remotely critical of the Kuomintang would be careful to walk away into a clear open space before speaking.”

Nevertheless, Hemingway defended Chiang, writing to Morgenthau, “it is very easy to criticize the lack of true democracy in the area governed by the Kuomintang but we have to remember that they have been at war against Japan for five years now and it is a great credit to China that…any vestiges of democracy should remain at all.”

Gellhorn arrived at a similar conclusion, ultimately lavishing praise on Madame Chiang and what historians have rightly called a “fascist” regime (later on in the 1950s, Chiang’s army, routed and on the run from the Communists, would invade Burma with disastrous results for the fledgling democracy). But in praising the Kuomintang in 1941, Hemingway and Gellhorn knowingly betrayed their Leftist credentials in an effort to bring America into the War.

Once in Burma, Hemingway did not actually ride on the Burma Road, but instead surveyed it from the air and interviewed a number of local officials with a complex knowledge of this life-line to China.

Arriving in Yangon (then Rangoon), Hemingway stayed at the well-known and luxurious Strand Hotel in downtown. The hotel had by this point already hosted such British literary lights as Somerset Maugham and George Orwell, but now it would play temporary home to perhaps the most famous living American author.

Letter from Hemingway to a fan on Strand Hotel stationery: “Someone pinched that book I promised you and I have tried all over town to get one with no success.” Source: the Raab Collection.

By all accounts, however, Hemingway had a miserable time in Rangoon. For one thing, he had been drunk nearly the entire trip, and by the point, he made it to Burma he was on the verge of collapse.

The heat didn’t help, either. Gellhorn said he “laid about like a beached whale, barely able to breathe.” Something of his annoyance is captured in the opening lines of one of his articles: “One thing is as plain in the current Far East situation as the rusty corrugated iron roof that bakes under the heavy metallic Burmese sun as I write this…”

His wife, an accomplished writer and war-correspondent in her own right, had a more measured opinion of the city, though she also withered in the heat, writing “Rangoon may be the pearl of the Orient for all I know. The heat was indescribable.”

Hemingway, forever the narcissist, spent most of his time in Rangoon going around looking to see if the bookshops carried his new book (they didn’t) and writing letters to his editor at Scribner’s asking about how sales were doing (not well, according to Hemingway).

The couple’s impressions of Burma were no doubt colored by the steady disintegration of their marriage. Throughout the entire trip, they bickered and fought, taking jabs at one another in public. It seems that Hemingway resented Gellhorn’s independence and that Gellhorn resented Hemingway’s notorious ego and bullying temper.

Hemingway could be abusive. He made fun of her idealism, saying “Martha loves humanity but hates people.” Gellhorn bit back saying, “I have to get out and dig for my stuff. Ernest just sits around… and gets most of his ideas out of whore houses”.

In Chungking, Gellhorn had contracted what she called ‘China rot’. The skin between her fingers was oozing puss, and she had to apply a foul-smelling cream and wear large gloves over her hands.

Lying on the marble floor of their hotel room, it was their last night together before Hemingway went back to America and Gellhorn continued on to Singapore. The heat, the bickering and the exhaustion of the trip had got the better of them. Gellhorn said that she reached over to touch Hemingway’s shoulder, in a futile attempt to reconcile herself with her husband before they parted.

“Take your filthy dirty hands off me,” he barked. Hemingway biographer Paul Moreira writes that they “looked at each other in silent shock…then they burst out laughing rolling in their individual pools of sweat on the stone floor.”

Despite the laughter, Hemingway and Gellhorn would separate a few years later, the seeds of their divorce having been sown on their trip through China and Burma.

Hemingway’s Asian adventure was not really a success. ‘An unshakeable hangover,’ he called it after the fact. It did, however, foster a life-long interest in China, and his analysis of the political situation was largely intelligent, mostly accurate, and, ultimately, rather prescient.

He concluded that the Burma Road was not the most efficient way to supply nationalist China – airplanes were. When Burma eventually fell to the advancing Japanese in 1942, the Allies would do exactly that, inaugurating the famous ‘Hump’ air route over the Himalayas from India to China. Hemingway was proved right, which was a small triumph for a man who never really liked being wrong.

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