Helen Foster Snow – A Utah Pioneer

by LAUNA GARDNER

Born in Cedar City, Utah, on September 21, 1907, Helen Foster Snow was a journalist who traveled to China in the 1930s to report on the emerging revolution in China. Snow produced an abundance of writings from China during this time, which was full of severe turmoil. She recorded everything she could on the Communist Movement in China, her perspective of Chinese experiences during World War II, and the ultimate victory of the Revolution. Snow’s writings also showed her exemplary ability as a journalist of politics and war. (Long)

Helen Foster Snow was 23 years old in 1931 when she set sail from a Seattle port for the Far East aboard an American Mail Line vessel called the President Lincoln. Originally, Snow travelled to Shanghai to start a new position as secretary to the managing director of the China Finance Company in the American Consulate. According to Snow, traveling to China was a dream come true: “I have read about the Orient and dreamed about the Orient for three years and now I am really sailing for the Orient; it’s too good to be true.” (“Miss Helen Foster”)

Personal Photo, Helen Foster Snow Collection, L. Tom Perry Special Collections Library, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

During Snow’s stay in China, she married, and later divorced, Edgar Snow of Missouri in 1932. The Snows both taught journalism at Yenching University in Beiping, the former name of Beijing. There, Helen Snow met a number of patriotic students in her classes, many of whom were associated with the Communist underground. Helen Snow, known to her friends as “Peg,” urged communication among her students as to what was happening in China, which prompted her excitement on current events during that time. Such events also made Snow sympathize with the people in China during such perilous times. In addition, Snow and her husband supported the December 1935 Chinese student movement, which helped spur resistance to the danger of the Japanese conquest in China. (Long)

As a journalist, Snow wrote multiple articles for newspapers back in America, all sent by mail in a journal-like fashion. For The Salt Lake Tribune in the early 1930s, Snow recounted the fear she and her colleagues felt during such tense times in her article “Tenseness Prevailing in Shanghai Recounted by Former Salt Lake Girl.” According to Snow, Shanghai was dangerous—a place where people had to be alert and prepared for any situation with war on the horizon:

“Every minute we are expecting the Japanese fleet to steam into the peaceful Whangpoo River. Several transports of marines come in now and then, but you could hear a pin drop as far as actual war is concerned. However, when a pin drops there probably won’t be much left of China but 400,000,000 lost souls looking for a concession. If you only knew how tragic and strange it is to be here now!”

Snow also wrote about how the undeclared war between the Nipponese and the Chinese affected business in the area. In her article for The Seattle Star titled “Shanghai Busy City Until War Stifles Its Commerce” published on March 23, 1932, Snow described how the market once boomed in the new place she called home. Low silver values helped pave the way for the development of local industries, and high gold exchange triggered foreign capital to hurry over to Shanghai at a time where it could be invested at an excellent rate of 5-to-1. However, once Japanese troops made it to Shanghai, a deadly message came alive in the form of machine guns and rifles. As Snow described it: “While we in Shanghai were congratulating ourselves smugly upon an unprecedented activity in industry and while the rest of the world twiddled its thumbs in enforced idleness, down swooped calamity.”

Personal Photo, Helen Foster Snow Collection, L. Tom Perry Special Collections Library, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

Among Snow’s writings were her private journal-like entries, most of which were printed onto paper by typewriter (Snow had stated that she was “practically illiterate with a pen”). One entry, in which she refers to her memoirs as “mem-wars,” discusses her day-to-day experiences in China. Interestingly, after only a few weeks stationed in China, Snow became accustomed to the war going on in her neighborhood of “gunfire raging within a few blocks” and described the fear she felt and how she got around the violence—she didn’t let the violence stand in the way of her having a good time. Describing one of her days of fun during her stay in China, Snow wrote: “Sunday, I got up at my customary twelve o’clock meridian for ‘tiffin,’ watched a cricket game for two hours, then went home to dress for a tea dance at five o’clock at the French Club. Then I had dinner and went to the ‘Canidrome’ that’s a famous dancing place where they have greyhound racing.” (Personal Writing)

Snow also had the honor of putting together an American Independence Day in China. According to an article in The China Press from July 3, 1932, Snow was in charge of many festivities, some of which included a flag raising ceremony and a baseball game.

Personal Photo, Helen Foster Snow Collection, L. Tom Perry Special Collections Library, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

Although war surrounded her, Snow found a certain beauty about China, and she felt as if she were living in a fantasy. One of her writings, which she labeled “Americasian Eurasian,” notes that she was “thrilled” to be in China. According to Snow: “I occasionally stopped short in my busy days at first just to remember that I was actually in China. I couldn’t quite believe I was in China, it seemed like a dream, not to be taken seriously somehow, like being in costume at a masquerade party.”

In another entry titled “The Inimitable Chinese,” Snow beautifully describes how she saw China’s people: “Alice in Wonderland could not be more amused and astonished than I in this Land behind the looking glass. What wonderful strange people are these inimitable children of China!”

In 1937, Snow set out to visit Yan’an, located in northwest China. Here, Snow visited a Communist stronghold. She used the information she garnered to write her book, Inside Red China, later published in 1939. The book was largely compiled of Snow’s writings that describe up-close and personal accounts of destruction and sympathy. With her husband, Snow also helped establish the Chinese Industrial Cooperatives (industrial worker’s cooperatives) Gung Ho (work together). (Snow)

By December 1940, Snow was ready to come home. She returned to America where she spent the remainder of her life in Connecticut. Snow died on January 11, 1997. In 2011, The Salt Lake Tribune reported that five performing arts students from Southern Utah University had the opportunity to go to China to perform their play on Snow, The Dream of Helen. A statue of Snow also stands at Cedar City’s Heritage Center.

Helen Foster Snow continues to be a significant figure in American and Chinese history because she was a native of Utah who made a copious number of contributions to China during the 1930s. She was respected as a friend of China and as a savior by students and colleagues during her time spent overseas. Snow’s journalistic ability and reports on the war also gave people in America a personal account of global affairs; as a woman in the 1930s, such recognitions are major. For many people, Snow will always be one of the most influential cultural pioneers in Utah’s history.

Launa Gardner is a senior at the University of Utah. She is majoring in mass communication and will graduate in August 2012.

 

Sources

Helen Foster Snow. Inside Red China. New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1939.

“Shanghai Busy City Until War Stifles Its Commerce,” Seattle Star, March 23, 1932.

“Americans To Celebrate Glorious Fourth Here Tomorrow In Grand Style,” China Press, July 3, 1932.

“Americasian Eurasian,” Helen Foster Snow Collection, Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

“Miss Helen Foster,” Helen Foster Snow Collection, Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

Personal Writing, Helen Foster Snow Collection, Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

“Tenseness Prevailing in Shanghai Recounted By Former Salt Lake Girl,” Helen Foster Snow Collection, Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

“The Inimitable Chinese.” Helen Foster Snow Collection, Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.
Kelly Ann Long. Helen Foster Snow: An American Woman In Revolutionary China. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2006.

“Remembering a 1930s-era Cultural Pioneer,” The Salt Lake Tribune, July 24, 2011, D2.

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