Dan Ford's books
For print editions of Dan's books, go here      For the e-books, go here


Mamie Porritt finds Shangri-La - 1

[Mamie Hall and James Charlesworth Porritt were married in Shanghai in 1927 and lived there until 1939, when he went home to England to find work. Mamie however became a secretary for Intercontinent, Bill Pawley's personal holding company. Her letters to "Jim Prim" in Bradford, West Yorkshire, happily survived the war and came into the possession of a family friend in Statesboro, Georgia. They were transcribed by Tracy Minter, who shared them with me. Mamie was 39 when she wrote her first letter from Loiwing; Jim was was eight years older. -- Dan Ford]

Loiwing, Dec. 4, 1939 -- Except for malaria, Loiwing is another name for Shangra La. It is simply marvelous country and the climate right now must undoubtedly be the best in the world. It is cold enough for two blankets at night and delightfully warm during the day. The sky is the bluest blue you can imagine and the clouds the whitest white. It is completely surrounded by mountains and the approach is exactly like [the movie] Shangri La.... But best of all -- there is a missionary doctor [Gordon Seagrave] who has lived here for 30 years ... at a place called Namkham about five miles away, where he has a hospital. And they have arranged with him to come over three times a week to look after us. He is certainly an answer to prayer. Everybody likes him and has confidence in him, so I think perhaps the health situation will improve. When it does this is going to be heaven on earth -- until the Japs come over, then of course it's going to be hell.

There is only one word for [the CAMCO manager] Chuck Hunter. He is a hero. You wouldn't believe it possible that he could have come into this place less than a year ago and accomplish what he has. All roads had to be built, everything had to be brought in by trucks, and all labor imported. And believe it or not, they are now turning out airplanes. You couldn't believe it if you didn't see it. There are nine families here and four bachelors. About 2,500 Chinese workmen and they are all housed very well. Electric lights, running water and many more creature comforts. The Club House where I am living is going to be beautiful when it is finished. It sits on a high hill overlooking the valley and is well arranged. As soon as it is finished and the furniture in it there will be nothing more to ask for in the way of beauty and comfort....

I am hoping my baggage will arrive this week. I am reduced to wearing stockings with runs in them. Can you imagine that! But if everybody sends me stockings that have promised me them I shall be swimming in them soon. I have lived in one suitcase since I left Rangoon November second. The clothes situation is far form satisfactory naturally, but I seem to manage somehow or other. All the wives have kindly offered to lend me whatever I need. They know what it is, for they all had to live in grass shacks for months on end.... [The comptroller] Doc Walsh is almost a total wreck physically and mentally and he may be going soon. He has had the responsibility of dealing with the Chinese Government and that as you can imagine is a number one job. Chuck Hunter is pivot around which everything revolves. He has had malaria five times and any number of other things and continues to carry on doing the work of five men and never getting upset or ruffled. The other boys are all good at their job and have worked with him in a way to gladden anybody's heart.

[late December 1939] -- My Rangoon baggage arrived on Tuesday afternoon and I took Wednesday afternoon off from office to unpack. That is one time I enjoyed unpacking. The cedar chest with my winter coats, furs, etc., has not yet arrived and won't be here for some time, but in spite of being the world's most irresponsible person, Wallace [Pawley] got everything there was in Rangoon except these two cases, my dressing case, which is in the H & S vault, and my tennis racquet. He says it is coming, but I rather imagine he left it at some club in Rangoon and I shan't see it again. Doc Walsh is in Rangoon now, so I am not worried about the trunk containing the files and my cedar chest. He will see that I get them. And I have eventually got the receipt for the dressing case out of Wallace. And as long as it stays in the bank's vault, at least it is safe. Two of the trunks that came up contain your stuff. I think perhaps I shall be wearing it before I leave here. I am not going to unpack the big case of silver. I rather imagine it will be scratched and bent by the time we see it again. Two trips over these roads would bend and scratch cast iron, much less fragile silver vases.

Saturday, the 23rd, we are giving a luncheon at the Club House for the Governor General of Burma. So we are all busy with that at present. Saturday night Betty and Andy Sargeant are having a Christmas party. Sunday morning I am going to Namkham to service at the church there. Dr. Seagrave, the missionary doctor there has invited Bill Stoker and Al Anderson to come over and stay for breakfast later, and they have asked me to go along. Dr. Seagrave comes over three times a week to our hospital and we all adore him. He is certainly one of the world's unsung heroes and almost restores one's faith in missionaries. Christmas night we are having a buffet dinner and dance at the Club House. We have to start to work on the 26th. It will be my most unusual Christmas. No shopping at all. But of course I am not grieving over that, for I always hated the job. Christmas Day from 11 to 2 we are invited to Gertrude and Chuck Hunter's for eggnog, and that will be our nearest approach to anything like our usual Christmas celebrations. I am giving my self a saddle for Christmas. It is being made in Kunming and will cost CNC$150 -- about US$10 -- and as soon as it comes I think I'll buy me a nag.... I have to get up early and I work late, so I won't have an opportunity to ride except on Sunday. I might add I also work Saturday afternoon. But it's my own doing. I wanted to come and I have no one to blame but myself. But I am much happier here than I have ever been in Hongkong and perhaps it is better here where everybody knows me than being in Rangoon. If only I can keep well, I know I shall like it.

My living at the Club House seems to be working out all right. Wallace Pawley [the youngest of the brothers, and evidently in charge at Loiwing] has arrived and he and I had words about the way he handled my baggage--he didn't know a thing about it and after I had burned up the wires with a couple of cables he found he had it all but two cases in his own packing cases. Then one night he made a filthy remark in my presence and Al Anderson and Jack Sheridan didn't half tell him where he got off. They told him that the boys not only invited me to live there but wanted me and if he couldn't behave like a gentleman he could get out. Pretty strong words to tell the boss's brother. However, I know him of old and we manage to get along all right, and he is kindness itself usually, but heaven help you if he has to do anything pertaining to work or a job of any kind. Right now he is starting a poultry farm. Wonder how he and the chickens will get along. He will probably forget to feed them.

All the other boys are swell -- even if you don't like that word. Al Anderson is one of the nicest kids I ever met, quiet and shy and unassuming and hard working. Bill Stoker is grand when Mary's away (which she is), Jack Sheridan is a sketch. He is Doc's assistant and I work with him. Doc is in Rangoon now and the other day I asked Jack if I could have the afternoon off and he said yes -- where are you going I'll go with you. Walter Sobol you remember. He brought us in from Mokanshan that time. [Sebie] Smith is a bit of a lad but a great boy and Roger Reynolds, one of the finest test pilots in the world, renews my faith in the human race. Of course, I've always thought the world and all of both Chuck and Doc. Doc is not well and is worried about everything, including his family, but he is still kind and good to me.

Jan. 7, 1940 -- Loiwing is still lovely. The sunshine is like liquid gold and why I can't get rid of this cough I am sure I don't know. Doctor Seagrave has been a darling in looking after me, but he knows how to pick out horrible medicine and that's no joke. Personally I think a good dose of castor oil would have been better than all the high powered muck he poured into me....

We've been having lots of visitors to this place. Our last one was Sir Stafford Cripps. He and his party spent the night here last Monday. I didn't get to meet them as I was in bed, but they had their dinner from one of our tablecloths. The Governor General of Burma came up on Dec. 23rd, and there seems hardly a day that we don't have to put up a company dinner. It really is a treat to have no one but the family for a meal.

Doc and Chuck have certainly looked after me well. I don't know what I've ever done to deserve so much attention. I know one thing. Doc likes to tell me his troubles and he takes my advice about a lot of things. We sat out in the sun for two hours before lunch today talking over stuff and things. He has just told me that he is going to arrange for my salary to be paid in gold at the highest rate I was getting before exchange broke. He says it will be fixed up and he will talk to Bill [Pawley] about it when he has done it. Is that a pal or is that a pal! So don't worry too much about the old finances. I should be able to save something here. I can't spend any money except my mess bill and that can't be too high, although we certainly live well....

Jan. 15, 1940 -- Things in the factory are moving along all right. Of course there are troubles and tribulations but that is to be expected, I suppose. It is marvelous what has been accomplished. Walter Winchell talked about us in his New York broadcast on January 6th, a great deal about Chuck as Winchell deals mostly in personalities. Time magazine had an article about us sometime during the latter part of October or early November.

18 Feb 1940 -- I am feeling very well now and am able to work hard all day without being tired. As a matter of fact I think I feel better than at any time since I've been here. But I am keeping my fingers crossed, the mosquitoes are still with us. My room is screened and I sleep under a net and the room is flitted constantly. I don't know that there is any more I can do. The malaria mosquitoes only bite after six o'clock. I have ordered a pair of soft leather boots from Rangoon. They come up to my knees and as soon as I get home from office I intend wearing them, even if I am dressed up in my best evening dress....

Went to a party Tuesday night at Bill Stokers and had a very good time. Doc said it was all right if I went if I didn't stay too late. Came home at one though some of the crowd made a night of it and got in at 6 A. M. After the dancing and supper they got into a poker game and that screwball Wallace was betting a hundred rupees a time. This after Bill coughed up, the latest rumor says, US $10,000 to keep him out of jail in Rangoon because of gambling debts. I played bridge with him last night and took him into camp. I knew if I bided my time I could take his number....

We are test flying planes now. It is very thrilling watching them being built and then flown. Whenever I have time I go out into the shop and watch them building on the Hawks. Next we build Vultees and some C.W. 21's. They are the babies we need, for they can take off and be up in one minute. Roger Reynolds, chief test pilot, is a whiz. I believe he could fly anything that had wings. He is a grand person along with it too. Drinks very little and looks after his health like nobody's business. He is recognized as one of the first eight test pilots in America, and I imagine that means the world, because certainly in aviation America is tops. We understand that England and France have bought about 3,000 Wright engines recently.

[The Hawk III was a Curtiss-designed biplane fighter-bomber, the backbone of the Chinese Air Force in the 1930s. The Vultee V-11 was a slow, single-engine attack plane, and the CW-21 was a fast interceptor developed from a Curtiss sportplane. -- DF]

March 2, 1940 -- Factory construction is going along very well. We hope to finish this lot of planes by April 15th, and then the big contract begins. Right now sidewalks are being built, the runway has been crowned and drained and roads are being graveled, all in preparation for the rainy season. All the houses are being screened and although work seems to move slowly, it is really surprising the improvements that have been made in the three months that I have been here. The Americans all seem to be getting restless, and want to take vacations or resign or do something crazy. Right now when it is so necessary that things move fast they are all asking for their two weeks' vacation. Al and Bill Stoker left Saturday morning at 5 o'clock, intending to drive to Rangoon in two days. No one thinks they will do it, but Al says its only a breeze.

continued in part 2