Jean 静
sima-wensen.jpeg

Under the Shade of Our Tree

A Bridge Between Worlds

It was a Chinese visa that saved Josef Kalmus' life.

Josef was thirty-nine years old and working as a journalist when Nazi Germany annexed Austria in March 1938. Immediately following the Anschluss, anti-Semitic violence raged in the streets of Vienna, and thousands of Austrian Jews were unjustly arrested by the Gestapo — including Josef. Imprisoned in the Brigittenau Gymnasium, he was nearly sent to the Dachau concentration camp, when a friend fortuitously came to his aid. His friend was Dr. Ho Feng Shan, the Consul General at the Chinese Consulate in Vienna, and his actions saved Josef's life.

Ho Feng Shan, appalled by the persecution of Jews in Vienna, went against the Consulate's official policy and provided the desperate refugees with entry papers to Shanghai. In doing so, he offered them a way out of Austria, granting them freedom from horrific persecution under the Nazis. While many who fled Austria with Chinese visas never ended up in Shanghai, simply having these documents made passage to other countries possible. In August 1938, Josef used his Chinese visa to escape a terrible fate at Dachau, fleeing instead to Czechoslovakia. In 1939, he arrived in Britain as a refugee.

When Josef came to London, he must have been keen to start his new life. Being multilingual, he soon resumed his career as a journalist, writing for exile periodicals. After the war ended, he officially changed his name from Josef Kalmus to "Joseph Kalmer" and became a naturalized British citizen. London became his adopted home. Together with his wife Erica, he opened a literary agency.

In a time when Britain was recovering from the devastation of the Second World War, Joseph enthusiastically pursued the translation of foreign works and the representation of foreign writers through his literary agency. He was particularly keen to focus on an old passion — Chinese literature.

How and why Joseph first became fascinated in China and its literature remains a mystery. He had never been to China before, although he had once possessed a Chinese visa. Maybe the kindness shown to him by Ho Feng Shan inspired a need to give back to the Chinese people in some way. Or perhaps he was inspired by his friend Xiao Qian, a writer and translator who had also come to Britain in 1939, to serve as an instructor at the School of Oriential and African Studies (SOAS). Whatever the reason was, China became an inextricable part of Joseph's being, and he was in constant search of Chinese works that could be shared with new audiences in the West.

In early 1947, as Joseph flipped through an issue of the English-language magazine China Digest, one article caught his eye. This article discussed the emergence of China's modern writers and was written by someone who was a well-known novelist himself. Joseph found this article so fascinating that he decided to write to the author, Mr. "Shihma Wen-shen". That man was Sima Wensen — my grandfather.

Joseph's letter spent weeks travelling from London, across Europe and Asia — but finally, it had made it all the way to the bustling, colourful streets of Kowloon in British Hong Kong.

Although the Second World War ended in 1945, China had emerged from the bloody conflict with Japan only to descend back into the Chinese Civil War, fought between Chiang Kai-shek's ruling Kuomintang (Nationalists) and Mao Zedong's Communists. From Hong Kong, the British Colonial Government followed these battles warily, keen to protect their territory. Meanwhile, Chinese migrants and refugees fled the fighting on the mainland and poured into Hong Kong.

It was around this time that my grandfather moved his young family here as well, from the mainland Chinese city of Guangzhou (Canton). In 1946, my grandfather was thirty years old, and already he was an accomplished writer and a well-connected member of China's literary elite. Here in Hong Kong, he hoped to build a more stable life for his wife and two young daughters, who had both been born during the Second Sino-Japanese War. As Hong Kong had bounced back from the war reasonably quickly, it was regarded by many Chinese as a safe haven. In Hong Kong, my grandfather decided to revive a wartime publication he had founded during his sojourn in Guilin; it was called the "Literary Life" monthly magazine, known in Chinese as "Wen yi sheng huo" (文艺生活).

I tried to imagine my grandfather's reaction when he received Joseph's letter. I'm sure a bright smile would have crossed his youthful, handsome face. As the editor of a literary magazine, my grandfather would have corresponded with many, many people, but this letter would have been special. Full of curiosity, he would have read Joseph's words with excitement, no doubt amazed to make this unexpected connection with someone so far away.

Joseph's full letter (translated to English from Chinese), was as follows:

 Sima Wensen (司马文森), aged thirty, with two of his daughters, Sima Xiaomeng (司马小萌) and Sima Xiaolan (司马晓兰). This photograph was taken in 1946, at their home in Hong Kong, the year before Joseph Kalmer's letter arrived.

Sima Wensen (司马文森), aged thirty, with two of his daughters, Sima Xiaomeng (司马小萌) and Sima Xiaolan (司马晓兰). This photograph was taken in 1946, at their home in Hong Kong, the year before Joseph Kalmer's letter arrived.

To the Editor of Literary Life, Mr. Sima Wensen:
 
Dear Sir, I was delighted to read your article "Chinese Novelists And Their Writings" in the seventh issue of China Digest. It provided me with a lot of information that I had wanted to know for a long time. As Mr. XXX (China Digest Editors) will tell you, I am a translator in English and German, and am currently publishing the first translation of Lu Xun and Xiao Qian in Switzerland. I am also preparing to translate Mao Dun's short story collection, and have written to him in Moscow.
 
I read one of your novels in the Russian "Chinese short story collection", and I am willing to translate more of your work along with those of other New Chinese writers. We have nearly finished translating Zhao Shuli's "The Change of Li Family Village", and for the second part I am looking for about 50 or so of the best short stories written between 1927 and 1947. Can you help to select them and send them to me? I can cover the expenses. At the same time, I would also be glad to receive your novels "Rainy Season", "The Hope of Man", and "The Record of a Falling City", if you could send them.
 
I have also been paying attention to Chinese poets (Ai Qing, among others), so if you could send some poetry, I would be grateful.
 
I also hope you could send your magazine "Literary Life". We (together with my translator colleague, Mr. Yu), will do some promotional work for New China writers and their work.
 
Joseph Kalmer
16 May 1947, London

Turning off Marylebone Road, I entered into a pocket of stillness.

On each side of this quiet London street stood majestic, auburn Georgian terraced houses, which loomed over parked luxury cars and wrought iron railings. I looked down at my phone to check the address again. I was looking for a specific house: Number 20. As I walked on the narrow sidewalk, I saw a woman with a stroller up ahead. At Number 20, she turned into the little laneway leading up to the front door and pressed the buzzer. The door clicked open, and the woman pushed the stroller into the front hallway, greeting a neighbour inside. As the door slowly swung shut, the sound of voices faded away.

Once, a long time ago, this had been Joseph's house. Every day, Joseph would have come to this doorway, checking for new letters. And one day in the summer of 1947, a long-awaited parcel from Hong Kong would have arrived through that same mail slot in the door.

What a relief it must have been for Joseph to receive my grandfather's warm reply. In his letter, my grandfather expressed deep gratitude towards Joseph's interest, but also told of the harsh realities that Chinese authors were facing as a result of the Civil War:

"... it is difficult to introduce the fine [Chinese] works produced in this decade to foreign countries. There are many obstacles; one is that our country is still at war. Apart from the liberated areas, vast regions have been destroyed by the dictatorship [under the Nationalists]. Progressive books and periodicals have been banned, and the writers forced into exile. Liberal writers have also been arrested."

Joseph, a world away in hard-won peacetime, might have read this and thought of his own experiences during the war. Maybe it was empathy that drew him closer to the Chinese writers. Another part of my grandfather's letter read:

"For many years, your translation work has been something that Chinese writers had hoped for, but was simply not achievable. I will most certainly convey your intentions to the writers. I truly believe that once they have heard of your plans, they will feel as excited as I do."

Eager to help introduce the best of modern Chinese literature to the West, my grandfather promised to send several parcels to Joseph. In this first parcel, my grandfather said that he had enclosed several of his own recently-published novels. Then he signed his letter with a flourish:

"Let us shake hands, for the sake of the world's progressive democracy of culture!"

I felt happier, knowing that my grandfather's novels had once arrived at this address, received by a kindred spirit who dreamt of bringing China to the West. Did Joseph ever translate those novels, which hid the voice of the person I wanted so badly to hear?

Perhaps no one in this house would ever know that two writers once struck up an unlikely friendship here — a friendship that bridged languages, cultures, countries, and experiences. No one living on this sleepy street would know of Joseph, his escape from persecution, his life's work, or his aspirations. Today's London had consumed the many versions of the city that had come before, overtaking layers upon layers of old lives and stories.

And so, I continued my search for the lost translations. There were still more letters to pore through, more clues to follow, and more questions. But all that remained here at Number 20 were ghosts.


Acknowledgements

I am grateful to Dr. Yeung Yuk Fung 楊玉峰 from The University of Hong Kong for providing me with a scan of his 1987 article on Joseph Kalmer and Sima Wensen's unique correspondence. I also wish to thank my aunt Sima Xiaoxin 司马小莘 in Beijing, for sending me scans of the Kalmer-Sima letters, which were published in the August 1947 issue of "Literary Life" magazine, under the title "July Correspondence" or "Qī yùe shū jǐan"《七月书简》.

Jean LiuComment