Monday, October 27, 2014

The Silent Traveller in Boston - Chiang Yee

Another bad cover photo.  I promise I'll do better.  In my defense, this is an old, well-worn, plastic-covered library book.  That's Park Street Church and a corner of Boston Common on the cover.

The author, Chiang Yee (1903-1977), was an admired Chinese author, poet, and artist.  He illustrated this book with his own watercolors and black and white drawings.  He left China, and his wife and children, to attend the London School of Economics.  While in the US, he taught at Columbia and Harvard.  He went back to China two years before he died.

Chiang Yee travelled while in England and wrote several books as The Silent Traveller.  He also came to the United States and wrote books about New York, Boston, and San Francisco.  The Boston book was the one that interested me because I lived most of my life in or around Boston.  He lived on Beacon Hill, at 69 Pinckney Street;  I lived a few blocks away at 25 Revere Street a couple of decades later.  It was interesting to note the differences between Boston in 1959, or thereabouts, and Boston from 1971 on.

I recognized most of the places he wrote about:  Boston Public Garden, Boston Common, The Union Oyster House, the Museum of Fine Arts, Church of the Advent (where they still ring changes, as in the Dorothy Sayers book The Nine Tailors, hard to find churches in the US that still do this).  I was puzzled when we wrote of Fenway Court until I realized he meant the wonderful Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum by The Fens.

The Silent Traveller strayed outside the city limits, too.  He visited Nahant (where I lived for a few years) and Marblehead (where I lived for six months), Rockport, Salem, Concord (canoeing on the river, where we used to canoe), Plymouth (near which we lived, too).  He went to hear the Boston Pops at the Hatch Shell, beside the Charles River, conducted by the great Arthur Fiedler, and the Boston Symphony (where I tended bar one night).

In addition to places, he wrote about the people of Boston.  Who they are and who they were.  I must admit that he socialized mostly with 'proper Bostonians', not with the working classes.  Boston is the site of many 'firsts', so he admired Bostonians for their ingenuity.  He admired the New England work ethic and ability to adapt without giving in, and the determination to be free.  Chiang Yee explored the history of Boston, the Pilgrims, and science and literature in Boston, Cambridge, and the surrounding areas.  He admired Bostonians and he proclaimed Beacon Hill the most livable place he'd ever been to.

There were times when he went off on a related tangent, comparing China and Boston in both political and social ways.  There are several pages on the Chinese porcelain trade and how porcelain was made in China, on dragons and unicorns (there's a unicorn, for Scotland, on the top of the Old State House in Boston, as well as the British lion), and on Confucianism and Taoism.

It was fun for me to follow the author to places I know well and to discover a few new ones.  We'll be back in Boston in a few weeks, so I have a list of addresses and things I want to see.  But it's sad for me, too, because I love Boston and I miss the many friends we left there when we decided to  move closer to my family.

But I want to be able to see my family whenever I want without planning a twelve or sixteen  hour roundtrip.  My oldest niece just made Halloween costumes for my three grandnieces.  One of the 2-year-olds wanted to be a butterfly, so my niece made her wings.  When her mother put them on her, she thought the wings were broken because she couldn't fly.  I wouldn't want to miss a sweet moment like that.


  1. Thanks for pointing me in the direction of Chiang Yee I'll definitely be reading the book he wrote about Edinburgh.
    Those wee girls are so cute. Boys are so different, mine were only ever warlocks or more usually pirates - I do love a pirate though.

    1. I enjoyed the book. His writing was a bit stilted at times and I wasn't as interested in some of the non-Boston-related pieces. When I read a travel book, I want to feel that I'm there with the author. I felt that most of the time, but not when he wrote about China.