Sunday, June 03, 2007

The Lady and the Panda

This is a great book by Vicki Constantine Croke about Ruth Harkness (and not the memoir by Harkness herself).

The Lady and the Panda tells the story of Ruth Harkness, a 1930s socialite and dress designer in New York who finally marries her boyfriend of ten years just before he goes off on an expedition. He dies in Shanghai and she decides to take up his cause: to capture or kill a giant panda.

Back then, no one knew if pandas were fierce killers or what they ate or where they lived (except kind of generally up around Chengdu). And the only pandas that had been captured died soon after from starvation.

Harkness had a) no experience in big game hunting, b) no knowledge of China or Chinese culture or language, c) limited amounts of money, d) some nice dresses in her trunk. She did have the help of Quentin Young, a young Chinese American adventurer out to make a name for himself and get out from the shadow of his older brother Jack. And she also had a women's touch, charming officials, playing dumb when ignoring regulations and most importantly, considering bringing powdered milk along in case she found a baby panda.

It's a classic adventure story that doesn't end with her success -- she goes back to China and rethinks the whole panda hunting business altogether.

Croke tells the story well and with the private cache of letters to Harkness' best friend, she's able to tell a lot of the story through Harkness' own words. There are also some nice photos reprinted -- if you think pandas are cute, you should see baby pandas.

For travelers to China, in particular, the book has great descriptions of Shanghai in the 1930s with the International Quarter in full swing, the racetrack still in existence (not yet People's Park and the Shanghai Museum) and all the hijinks that entailed. And then Harkness returns to Shanghai as the Japanese invade the city. Other than that, most of the book takes place to the west around Chengdu.

Quentin Young's biography is told in another book that he first cooperated with and then pulled out of, called Chasing the Panda. He helps fill in some of the romantic goings on that Harkness alluded to in her books.

China Index

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