Michele Slung, a veteran book editor, wrote recently to recommend George N. Kates’ 1952 memoir, The Years That Were Fat: Peking 1933-1940:
I finished a few days ago George Kates’ THE YEARS THAT WERE FAT, about his life in Peking in the ’30s. He had no journals, seemingly, yet sat down to write of his seven-year stay over a decade later, publishing the book in ’52. It was lent to me by an Asian-specialist curator friend, who said she’d always loved it and thought I would, too. I’m now pressing her to consider mounting a show centered on Kates and his more than ever “lost” world.
Slung’s friend, Dr. Caron Smith, is curator of the Crow Collection of Asian Art in Dallas.
It’s a little surprising that The Years That Were Fat: Peking 1933-1940 is out of print and forgotten today, as it’s been published no less than four times so far: by Harpers in 1952, then by the M. I. T. Press in 1967 and again in 1976, and finally by Oxford University Press U. S. in 1989.
Kates cames to Peking in 1933 after a short but profitable stay in Hollywood, and settled in a quarter not frequented by Westerners, just north of the Forbidden City. He immersed himself in Chinese life, learning the language and customs and studying their culture (his first book, published in 1948, was Chinese Household Furniture, still considered an essential reference work). Driven out of the city by the encroaching Japanese Army, Kates soon left China. It would be ten years later before he would write of his experiences–without access to notes or a journal, as Slung notes.
The book was well-received when it was first published. Kates’ perspective and voice were particularly noted. “He is excellent when he describes the moods of the city, the street-vendors’ cries, the histories of the palaces and the temples, the practice of calligraphy, the strange habits of ricksha boys, and the hazards of learning Chinese,” wrote Robert Payne in the Saturday Review. Reviewing it for the academic Journal of Asian Studies, Arthur Hummel wrote with un-scholarly enthusiasm:
It is a book that no one who wishes to recapture the spirit of traditional Chinese civilization should miss reading; for, despite its unattractive title, it is a work of unusual depth and charm.
… Much of the charm of this book is attributable to the disciplined prose in which it is written. One must look far to find in it a hackneyed phrase, an ungainly sentence, or a dull paragraph.
Though out of print, the book continues to be mentioned from time to time. Novelist Adam Williams mentioned it in a 2009 talk on literary Peking and Ian Johnson referred to it in a 2008 Wall Street Journal book review.
And, it turns out, digital versions of the 1952 edition are available for free online, thanks to the Internet Archive: http://archive.org/details/yearsthatwerefat008540mbp.