Last month I had the opportunity to meet with the daughter of former French Consul General Meyrier, 90 years old Jacqueline Meyrier (nearby). During the fascinating discussion with the group of Old Shanghai fans invited by the current Consul Général Axel Cruau, Jacqueline Meyrier explained that, when she was young, she met with Maryse Hilsz, one of the female aviators of the time, on her way to Tokyo from Paris. As I did not know her, I first decided to google her name to learn about this ususual figure and the event described by Jacqueline Meyrier.
Maryse Hilsz story
Born in 1901, Maryse Hilsz belongs to the group of women who came to the front page in the 1920s 1930s for piloting planes. This group also included Hélène Boucher or Maryse Bastié. At this time, choosing mechanic sports for women sent a strong message to the European male dominated societies. Hélène Boucher, for instance, involved herself in the fight for women's rights. As during WWI, women often replaced men in the factories, they soon learned how to get control of their own destinies. During the "crazy years" also, there was this wind of change, a seek for modernity, symbolized by the Art Deco style in architecture or surrealism in painting. This gave even more opportunities to daring women like Maryse Hilsz to live up to their dream. She first experienced jumping in parachute in 1924 then decided to fly airplanes, eventually becoming a pilot in 1930. In 1932, she won the female record of altitude. As she was aware of the risks of the pilot carreer, she chose not to mary Andre Sahel, another talented aviator. Their relationship ended dramatically when Andre died at the commands of his plane in June 1934, which left Maryse devastated. She nevertheless went on with piloting. In 1935 and 1936, she won the Hélène Boucher Cup between Paris and Cannes. During WWII she helped the French Resistance and enlisted in the French Air Force after the war. She created the first French female flying squadron on the same model with USSR. In 1946 she died in a plane crash.
In 1933, Maryse Hilsz had undertaken to fly from Paris to Tokyo, a two weeks raid, making many stops on the way. After French Indochina Hanoï, she arrived in Shanghai on the 14th April, before heading to Seoul and finally Tokyo. To find more information on this Shanghai halt, I went to the Zikawei Library to look for the French newspaper of the next day. Bingo! I found a two pages article commenting the visit of the famous air pionnier. On the front page, a group photo of a smiling woman holding flowers in front of her plane surrounded by officials and a young girl. When reading carefully the article, I discovered that the characters on the picture were Jacques Meyrier, Jacqueline's father, her mother Edmée and herself at the age of six! No wonder, when looking at the fascinated expression of hers on both photos nearby and below, that the coming of the famous flying lady in her blue Farman F-291 (above) became a lifetime memory.
The journalist also describes Hongqiao airport, a muddy grass airfield at that time, very far from today's modern transportation hub connected to high speed train and Shanghai subway! He also mentions that Maryse Hilsz changed clothes as soon as she got off her plane, which reminds us of the social position of women in those years. Whatever their achievements, they had to remain attractive in a male dominated world. Interesting too is the reference to her "Parisian elegance" and accent that, he writes, the "Shanghai French community misses so much". At that period, French people living in Shanghai French Concession were hardly 2500! No wonder that remembering French roots in the prevailing British culture (Britons were nearly 10 000) was important to these early "expats". When thinking of the one month journey by boat back to France, not need to say that these were scarce. Last but not the least, the description of the official reception process including a press conference at the French Consulate, another at the Alliance Francaise within the College Municipal Français and finally an evening party at the Cercle Sportif Français. A real flavor of the French Concession type of life! Again, I am grateful to the French Consulate to have organized this meeting with an old Shanghai lady, whose young age memories took us back to the fascinating years of Shanghai 1930s!