The House of the Ivory Panels

The finest writing on the subject of sex and love in a foreign land was collected in an original anthology of diaries, memoirs, autobiographies and letters in a book published in the year 2000 called, Erogenous Zones: An anthology of Sex Abroad. Edited by Lucretia Stewart, this rich material, arranged by region, makes for exhilarating reading. The contributors are legends; the landscapes remarkably diverse: from Hemingway in Paris, Casanova in Italy, Flaubert in Egypt, Lord Byron in Venice, André Gide in the Congo… and Aimée Crocker in Shanghai. The editor includes Aimée’s bizarre but fascinating story from her biography And I’d Do It Again about the “wonderful house of the ivory panels that turns pleasure into madness.” Crocker, like all of these great writers, offers a mesmerizing, articulate and penetrating glimpse of an exotic, exciting, altogether unknown world.

Erogenous Zones emphasizes the natural connection between travel and sex — that one is freer to experiment and have casual encounters while traveling. Stewart concludes that, “Travel, like sex, is the search for the unknown. What, after all, could be more unknown than a sexual experience in a strange land, or with a stranger? This question, or preoccupation, informs much of the most insightful and eloquent travel writing we have… In the pursuit of pleasure or adventure, or simply another kind of experience, these writers expanded their knowledge of the countries and societies in which they found themselves.”

It is a witty, perceptive, erotic and totally original collection. Aimée’s contribution might be the most daunting and fantastic:

I met two English-women there whom I knew slightly. Now English-women often give the impression that they are very proper and very reserved. But my experience with these two, and a great many after them, has led me to believe that the calm exterior of the British woman conceals something really more adventurous than one ever suspects.

     The story begins when I got into conversation with Miss B. and Lady D. Miss B. was telling the story of the Willow Tearoom plate, and it was very sweet and just what I would have expected from the trim, boyish looking young woman…

     Our conversation covered many things, and it came out somehow that I was interested in adventures. Suddenly Lady D. looked steadily through her lorgnette at her friend and said:

     “You know, we have just time to take her to the most wonderful of all adventures. Do you think she would care to come?”

     Miss B. thought I would, and I protested that I would try anything once. The upshot was that we all hired a chair and away we went to an address that I did not hear. I speak of the fact that we hired a chair, because it was evident that the two English ladies did not want their own bearers to know where they were going.

     However, I was not nervous.

     After threading through the amazing streets of the old city, we came to a courtyard which was hidden away as if to keep the world from knowing about it, but where there was a very decent looking house, clean, and seemingly newer than the century-old buildings about it.

     My guides got out and went to the door and after pressing on a panel, engaged themselves in conversation with an old woman.

     We went in.

     I was amazed to see the luxury inside, for the outside of this house, though clean and decent, would never lead one to suspect the richness that it concealed.

     The walls were paneled. The paneling was composed of strips of carved ivory, worked into lace-like ornamentation, and bound, every panel, in polished teakwood, likewise carved to frame the beauties of the ivory.

     This room was an anteroom, and we sat on two long comfortable benches indicated by the old woman. She in turn left through heavy curtains at the room’s further end and left us alone.

     I had courage enough to ask my friends what kind of experience was in store of us. I learned little.

     “Even if we could tell you,” said Lady D., “it would be useless. But you may believe that it is an experience which you will never forget and which, in your turn, you will never be able to describe.”

     She was right.

     She was so right that I hesitate to go further with this feeble attempt at making you understand it. But it has left such an impression on me, and it is so utterly unheard of, in so far as I know, that, after all these years, I am going to try.

     The aged attendant returned after a few anxious minutes, and she made my companions understand that all was ready. Lady D. looked at her watch, and insisted that there would not be time of us all to “have the experience’ (she constantly used that expression) but that she would withdraw this time so that her friend and I could do so. There was nothing very tense about the place. There was apparently nobody in the house but ourselves, for it was not large and their presence would have been felt or heard. To say that I was bewildered and excitedly curious is putting the case mildly. I was fairly twitching with nervousness.

     The two of us were led into another room, also richly furnished, and then up a staircase to one of the most charmingly feminine boudoirs imaginable. Then three young girls in black satin costumes and tight little caps on their heads came in, bringing loose robes. They made us understand that we were to undress and put on the wraps. We did so, I still more nervously, and even Miss B. growing silent and tense.

     Then the old woman appeared and beckoned to us.

     I insisted that Miss B. go first, and I remember almost better than any other moment in my life the next twenty minutes or so while I sat alone in that strange place, wondering.

     I heard almost nothing through the thick curtains that concealed the door through which she had passed, but there was a vague whining sound, like music. It reminded me of a violin, playing far away. Sometimes, when the sound was more distinct, I would feel a slight perspiration and a shiver. It is hard to explain.

     After a while, there was dead silence.

     Finally I heard the shuffling of slippers, and the curtain was drawn back. It was Miss B. returning.

     She was staring straight ahead of her. She did not see me. Her eyes were dilated, her face was flushed. She seemed in a trance. It was as though she had taken a powerful drug. What was it? I almost decided to run away, but the old woman was motioning to me, and I felt obliged to follow her through the door into darkness.

     I say darkness. That is not exact. There was the soft glow of a lamp… a single flame, burning like a soul. It made shadows on the carved ivory panels of the walls. The shadows flickered over a large Chinese bed in the room’s center. There was a grass mat on the floor, and absolutely nothing else in the place. The one window back of the bed was covered by an impenetrable curtain. There was not a sound.

     The old woman’s hands were held out for my robe. Frightened to refuse, I gave it to her, but I was terrified to give it. It seemed as though my last defense… against a mysterious, imagined something… were being taken away.

     She softly pushed me to the bed and motioned me to lie down. I did, as if I were hypnotized. Naked I lay out straight on my back across the bed. I could see nothing but the flickering shadows of the lamp, and the old woman departing.

     Then suddenly there was some one in the room. I had not seen him come in. It was an old man, a very old man, with a thin, wax-like face.

     Almost without a sound, he shuffled in silken slippers over towards me, stopped about two yards from the bed and peered at me in silence. His hands were folded under his large sleeves. His eyes glowed and picked up the light of the lamp from in back of me.

     Then, still looking fixedly at me, he unfolded his arms and brought out from somewhere a small stringed instrument with an abnormally long neck. He sat down cross-legged on the floor, turned his back on me, and began to play.

     That first note… it was as though it were drawn from my heartstrings. It was as though something in me were being played with a bow. It drew from the vitals of my life and being and plunged me into a voluptuousness that cannot be described.

     It was as though invisible hands were touching me and pouring a rich current of electricity through me and into me. My eyes closed, my body relaxed. Like a million hands pressing my body, torturing me with a delicious torture, that sound… or was it music?… enwrapped me and carried me out of myself into an orgy of physical hysteria.

     No, I cannot explain it. I cannot make myself clear. It was not alone sexual, not alone sensual. It transcended every and all physical pleasure I have ever known. All my body, all my soul and mind and conceptions were thrown into a maelstromic wave of incomparable joy, of supreme pleasure that was not unlike pain. For ages or minutes I was not capable of thought or action, only of the exquisite drinking of sensation. I felt myself going mad. Then I writhed on the bed, a prisoner of senses and pleasure. Faster and faster and more rich the sound came from the little man’s hands, rhythm after rhythm consumed me and lighted fires of passion and madness in me that are unspeakable, unfathomable….

     Then it stopped.

     I was left panting and in pain at the contrast. I was hardly conscious. Every nerve in my body was torn and strained, every muscle exhausted, every fiber of me trembling. I did not see the old man go nor the old woman come in with my robe, and I hardly regained complete understanding of actual life again until I was being led downstairs by Miss B., whose firm arm was tightly around me, guiding me and bracing me for fear that I fall. I tried to speak, to ask questions, but I found no voice. I felt myself being led out to the waiting chair and carried off by our coolies.

     Then I fainted completely from exhaustion, and knew nothing until I found myself in the ladies’ dressing room of one of the foreign Clubs of Shanghai with an Irish attendant holding smelling-salts under my nose.

     I asked after Lady D. and her friend, when I could talk.

     “Lady D.?” queried the girl. “But it was a gentleman brought you here. He said you had a fainting spell and to look after you, Lady. But there was nobody else.”

     A man? Who? Where had he found me? Where were my English friends? What did it all mean?

     I never found out. I have never been able to find the house of the strange Chinese violin. I could not find my two friends in Shanghai again, either to thank them or to learn more of the extraordinary “experience.” And before I could ever trace them or the wonderful house of the ivory panels that turns pleasure into madness, I left Shanghai… quite suddenly and precipitately.

     Explanation? None in so far as I know. I have read of strange experiences with vibrations. It is a fact that the medieval Chinese could kill by breaking the nerve cells of the body with the vibrations of a gong. It is true that at a certain Tabernacle in America, so called “religious” fanaticism which was really sensual or even sexual, has been produced by a hidden organ pipe which vibrated at a certain pitch which the ear could not detect. But I have never had an explanation for what I shall always remember as my “experience of the Chinese violin.”

Asian stringed instruments from the 1890s. Photos by Sir Henry Norman