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 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 foreign writer.
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 parks, buses 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, reflected in his simple and lyrical prose.
Illustrated with the author's own atmospheric sketches and Chinese calligraphy, 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. Explaining many of the central attitudes of Confucianism through anecdotes and folk tales, this book evokes a China under threat from Japanese invasion and a distant homeland viewed with wistful nostalgia.
CHIANG YEE (1903-1977) was born in China and lived in London before settling in the United States. A painter, calligrapher, poet and travel writer, he produced several volumes in the "Silent Traveller" series as well as the classic textbook Chinese Calligraphy.