In 1972, Jan Wong became one of only two westerners admitted to Beijing University at the height of the Cultural Revolution. One day, a student, Yin Luoyi, sought Jan’s assistance to help her get to the United States. Jan, then a start-eyed Maoist from Montreal, was the most dangerous combination in the young i.e. ignorant, innocent and idealistic – and she reported Yin to the authorities. Wong knew nothing of what ensued. Indeed, Wong completely forgot about her brief encounter with the young stranger until many years later.
Now, 33 years on, Wong returns to Beijing to search for the woman who has haunted her conscience. She hopes to apologise, perhaps somehow to make amends, at the very least, she wants to find out whether Yin has survived. Preoccupied by the past, fascinated by China’s present and future, Jan Wong searches out old friends, foes and comrades in this half-familiar city, finally uncovering the truth about the woman she wronged.
While in search of LuoYi, Jan came in contact with many of her classmates, Scarlet, Cadre Huang, Spring Plum, Cadre Cai and her teachers, Fu and not Lacking virtue Pan, and observing the earth shattering changes in China.
- Feminism in China is defined differently. To me, feminism has always meant having a career and financial independence. But Jan quipped “But now I understand that women’s liberation has no allure without freedom of choice. Under Mao, all the women of Luna’s mother’s generation were forced to work, like it or not. I was shocked. I can’t decide whether this is horribly retro – paying women to stay home – or wonderfully cutting-edge – putting a cash value on running a household (as the husbands are paying the wife to stay home)?”
- Preferring all that is Western, Star Architects (Star-chitects) built the highest and swankiest monuments and skyscrapers. Employing westerners in their companies is a symbol of status. IKEA is making huge money selling furniture to the affluent middle-class. 30 million piano students learning to play the western classical music. Real estate developments with names such as “Chateau Edinburgh”, “Rancho Sante Fe”, “Versailles”, “Palm Springs” etc.
- The plight of the hinterland migrants migrating to Beijing and other cities. Between 1982 to 2000, about 200 million peasants left the country sides, the largest demographic shift in the history of the world. Working as construction building workers and domestic helpers, earning an average of 20 yuan (£1.80 today’s ex rate) a day, compare to the average Beijinger of 128 yuan (£11.44) a day.
- Beijing is so polluted that it recorded 9 Blue Sky days in April. While it rained 28 days in July it washes the pollution scoring 29 blue sky days, an 8-year record.
- Every year 1,600 people die in traffic accidents in Beijing. Nationwide, traffic fatalities exceed 100,000 a year, with 7 times that number injured. Beijingers report that they now use bicycles for 20 percent of trips, down from 60 percent a decade earlier. With 3 million cars on the road, many driven by rookies, bike paths are shrinking, some vanished entirely.
You wonder why I even bother recycling or conserving energy and trying to reduce my carbon footprint at home when millions more people are wasting it away! The book also convince me that it will not be a possible option to dream about moving to China for work, if the environment poses such a health hazard especially for respiratory system.
Jan also revisits Chinese past, recalling personal and her classmates’ involvement in denouncing her friend LuoYi during Cultural Revolution, and China’s Tiananmen Square Massacre (in 4 June 1989), the identity of “the tank man” (The man that clambered up on one of the tanks) at every opportunity.
The odds are high to look for LuoYi in the vast human sea of 1.3 billion, 30 million in Beijing. Over a span of 33 years, LuoYi might have moved many places and changed many mobile phone numbers. Jan did not even know LuoYi’s last name.
Then against all odds Jan found LuoYi.
The life of Yin LuoYi epitomised China’s cycle of change for the past 3 decades. A Beijing history student, an intellect banished to the country side Jilin at the outskirt of Manchuria to do hard labour, due to expressing an ideology that opposes the Communist government (in her private diary, mind you). For not besmirching her father, she also changed her surname. Then Mao’s regime overturned, LuoYi’s verdict was overturned and she was exonerated. She is given her diploma from Beijing University that helped her leapfrog back to the higher pay white collar job market. The oil-field she worked on gave her 5 years of back-pay differential and she became richer overnight. She pursued graduate studies in Law at Henan province, and taught law the Military Prosecutors Institute in Badachu and finally obtained the permission to go back to Bejing, 14 years after she was banished. Then she went off to the USA, left her husband of 20 years, together with her daughter JiaNing. LuoYi taught Chinese in the USA, came back to Beijing after 9/11 to run a business. She now remarried to a Professor in high tech, rich and owning many properties, with a grown up daughter and fluffy white cat. Phew! What a life.
Chinese Whispers tells a unique and unforgettable story of communism and capitalism, of guilt and atonement, of remembering and forgetting. Book as such will probably not found in popular non-fiction or bestsellers list, but this is what I love reading best. A true story, with astute eyes for details and observations, Jan tells China’s past, present and future with wry humour, heartfelt honesty and downright disgusting (jokes, the purpose of spitting, misadventure at an underground nightclub, watch without batting an eyelid as her teenage sons drinking plenty of cheap booze etc.) and mouth-watering meticulous rendition of Chinese food menu, (a waitress brings “boneless fillet of yellow-croaker fish sautéed in a rice-wine sauce of fresh bamboo shoots and white cloud ear fungus . . .”), even while eating at home with LiuXinyong, her driver, Liu prepares boiled peanuts, corn on the cob, poached shrimp, soy-braised ribs, stewed egg plant, dill pickles and slices of sweet Hami melon. Lunch with the Beijing University Alumns were lavish, thinly sliced fice-spice beef; braised fresh bamboo; cold poached duck in rice wine; chestnuts; prawn with fresh peas; sliced bonless seabass with Chinese water spinach; fresh crabmeat sauced with oil-poached egg whites and served over blanched asparagus; sweet-and-sour pork garnished with fresh Beijing peaches; emerald green Chinese brocoli; a whole steamed Mandarin fish. This is one book that made my mouth waters, literally.
It is an entertaining read. Seeing China through the eyes of another Chinese journalist, are both profound and insightful. I have walked the same streets of Beijing, encountered similar experiences as some of Jan’s, that make it all the more vivid and real.
What I like most about the book: Well researched materials, good sense of humour, Part politics, part memoir, entertaining for all the reasons said above. A vivid portrayal of life in present China.
What I like least about the book: Nothing really.
About the Writer:
JAN WONG is a third generation Canadian from Montreal, whose father owned a prosperous Chinese restaurant. In 1972, after leading agitation and student sit-ins at McGill University, she set off for China as a starry-eyed Maoist. She enrolled at Beijing University and tried hard to fit in. After six years she returned to Canada, finished her studies at McGill, obtained a master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University, and in 1988 returned to Beijing as the Globe and Mail China correspondent. Maoist rhetoric gave way to a journalist’s cynicism. She made her name with vivid eye-witness reporting of the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 1989. Five years later, she returned to Canada and produced a best-selling account of her life experiences called Red China Blues. In researching that book she came across a diary item from 1973 that reminded her that she had “ratted out” a Chinese student to the university authorities for expressing a desire to escape to the United States. The student, Yin Luoyi, was expelled at a department-wide meeting and disappeared.