Saturday, January 3, 2009

Will Rogers in China



Reading Jonathan Fenby’s Penguin History of Modern China I noted he mentioned briefly the trip to China in the early 1930s of the American comedian Will Rogers (left). I’d never of this before and (probably because I’m not an American) have only a vague notion of who Rogers was. Still, interesting.

It seems Rogers enjoyed travelling and had a curiosity about world affairs beyond what you might expect of a vaudeville comedian. He was also close friends with the intrepid and rather theatrical American reporter and later newsreel star Floyd Gibbons (below, around the time of WW1) who had made his name reporting from the front in World War One and wore a rather dramatic eye patch. The two took a trip around the world and decided to visit Manchuria to see the escalating Sino-Japanese fighting.

Rogers sailed from Seattle in 1931, stopped in Tokyo (noting the popularity of bicycles), flew to Korea (fascinated by men’s hats in Seoul). Gibbons and Rogers got to China and Rogers headed off to Mukden (Shenyang) where he hang out with the large contingent of foreign correspondents, many Americans, in the city for the fighting. He then headed north to Harbin (noting the countryside looked like Nebraska. He headed down again to Peking and then by train to Shanghai spending Christmas on his own before heading of by boat to Hong Kong and Singapore.

The legendary JB Powell met Rogers in Mukden and remembered him as writing funny 50 word cables back to the American newspapers criticising and mocking the Japanese much to their anger.

Nothing else to say except it’s a fascinating little footnote of history I hadn’t known before. Rogers was by the time he came to china one of the highest paid stars in America and sadly died in a plane crash not long after in 1935. Whether he was actually very funny or not I have no idea.