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Biography & Autobiography Asian & Asian American

Beijing Confidential

A Tale of Comrades Lost and Found

by (author) Jan Wong

Doubleday Canada
Initial publish date
Jun 2008
Asian & Asian American, Personal Memoirs, Editors, Journalists, Publishers
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    Publish Date
    Jun 2008
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Jan Wong has returned to Beijing. Her quest: to find someone she encountered briefly in 1973, and whose life she was certain she had ruined forever.

In the early 70s, Jan Wong travelled from Canada to become one of only two Westerners permitted to study at Beijing University. One day a young stranger, Yin Luoyi, asked for help in getting to the United States. Wong, then a starry-eyed Maoist, immediately reported Yin to the authorities. Thirty-three years on, and more than a decade after the publication of her bestselling Red China Blues, Jan Wong revisits the Chinese capital to begin her search for the person who has haunted her conscience. She wants to apologize, to somehow make amends. At the very least, she wants to discover whether Yin survived.

As Jan Wong hunts through the city, she finds herself travelling back through the decades, back to her experiences in the Cultural Revolution, to places that were once of huge importance to her. She has changed, of course, but not as much as Beijing. One of the world’s most ancient cities is now one of its most modern. The neon signs no longer say “Long Live Chairman Mao” but instead tout Mary Kay cosmetics and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Places she once knew have vanished, bulldozed into oblivion and replaced by avant-garde architecture, trendy bars, and sleek condos. The people she once knew have changed, too, for better or for worse. Memories are everywhere. By searching out old friends and acquaintances, Jan Wong uncovers tantalizing clues about the woman she wronged. She realizes her deepest fears and regrets were justified. But Yin herself remains elusive–until the day she phones Jan Wong.

Emotionally powerful and rich with detail, Beijing Confidential weaves together three distinct stories–Wong’s journey from remorse to redemption, Yin’s journey from disgrace to respectability, and Beijing’s stunning journey from communism to capitalism.

About the author

Jan Wong is the author of five non-fiction bestsellers, including Out of the Blue and Red China Blues, which was named one of Time magazine's top ten non-fiction books of 1996. (Twenty years later, the book is still in print.) She has won numerous journalism awards and is now a professor of journalism at St. Thomas University. A third-generation Canadian, Jan is the eldest daughter of a prominent Montreal restaurateur.

Jan Wong's profile page

Excerpt: Beijing Confidential: A Tale of Comrades Lost and Found (by (author) Jan Wong)


Mission Impossible

On the tarmac at Newark International Airport, a heat wave makes the August air dance. Inside our Boeing 777, a black flight attendant sings out the standard Chinese greeting. “Ni hao,” she chimes, mangling the tones. Nevertheless the passengers, mostly mainland Chinese, seem pleased. When even this American female is trying to speak their language, it reinforces their view that the Middle Kingdom is, once again, the center of the world.

My husband, Norman, and I lived in Beijing for years during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. On this trip back, we are bringing two reluctant fellow travelers, our teenaged sons, Ben, sixteen, and Sam, thirteen. As usual these days on flights to Beijing, every seat is taken. The Chinese passengers in their knock-off Burberry outfits are more self-assured than the handful who left the mainland during Chairman Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. In the 1970s, the Chinese who traveled abroad were members of official delegations, kept on short leashes, tight schedules and tiny cash allowances.

Foreigners heading to China faced obstacles, too. Beijing rarely issued visas to Americans, but Norman was deemed to be “friendly.” His father, Jack Shulman, had been an aide to William Z. Foster, longtime head of the Communist Party USA. In 1965, Jack had gone to Beijing to polish English-language propaganda at Xinhua, the state-run New China News Agency. To the Chinese, it was natural for a son to join his father. Filial piety, however, wasn’t Norman’s motivating factor. The Vietnam War was. At twenty-two, he was looking for an interesting place to dodge the draft.

In 1966, his journey from New York City to Beijing would take days. The United States had no diplomatic relations with China. To obtain a visa, Norman had to fly to London. From there, the only air route to mainland China was a twice-monthly Pakistan International Airlines flight to Canton, now known as Guangzhou. PIA normally refueled twice en route, in Karachi and Dhaka. At the time, India was at war with Pakistan, so Norman’s flight was rerouted through Colombo, Sri Lanka. When his flight finally landed in Canton, he was a jet-lagged wreck. But the arrival of a foreigner was a rare chance to feast at government expense. Hungry local officials insisted on feeding him a ten-course banquet, after which they bundled him aboard a three-hour flight to Beijing.

Forty years later, Continental Airlines flight 89 takes thirteen hours. With the Cold War over, it zips across the Arctic Circle and the former Soviet Union. Our tickets are a bargain, too, 80 percent less expensive in real terms than when I first went to China in 1972. The Middle Kingdom is still on the other side of the world, but it’s no longer far away.

• • •

Ben and Sam spent their earliest years in Beijing. They were born during my ­six-­year posting as China correspondent for the Toronto Globe and Mail. Sam was one when we moved back to Canada in 1994. He remembers nothing. Ben, who was four, has fragmented memories. He recalls making little cakes from Play-Doh with Nanny Ma. He remembers wandering into the kitchen to sit on Cook Mu’s lap.

In 2003, the year severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, broke out in Beijing (and Toronto), Norman and I figured the Great Wall might not be too crowded. After the all-clear, we took the boys back for the grand tour. Along with the Wall, we visited the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the terra cotta warriors in Xi’an, the Shanghai Bund and the Yangtze River. We picked grapes in Kashgar and sledded down sand dunes in the Gobi Desert.

Now, when I propose a holiday in Beijing, my sons both groan. Ben would rather hang out in Toronto with his girlfriend, Tash, and go mountain biking with friends. Sam prefers to play road hockey and chat on MSN. The boys grow markedly un­enthusiastic when I mention I also plan to hire a Chinese tutor in Beijing so they can start each day with private Mandarin lessons.

“Um, do I have to go?” Sam asks politely, hoping good manners will get him off the hook.

“Yes,” I say.

“Why do I have to go?” Ben asks belligerently, hoping attitude will get him off the hook.

“Because,” I reply enigmatically, “I need you.”

I promise the boys we won’t go sightseeing. I promise I won’t make them visit a single museum. I swear we will not re-climb the Great Wall. I bill the trip as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to live, briefly, in a crazy, amped-up city. Indeed, that’s why I’ve persuaded myself to come back. I already know the city well, or at least I think I do. But the ancient capital I knew is disappearing fast. If I blink, it might vanish. So on this trip back I want to write about the city I loved and about the new, modern, shiny one that is obliterating the old. I figure it’s now or never.

We have exactly twenty-eight days in Beijing. August is brutally hot, but earlier in the summer the boys were busy with hockey camp, invitations to friends’ cottages and mountain biking at Whistler in British Columbia. In September they have to go back to school–and I have to go back to work.

Now, as we settle into our seats on the plane, Ben asks, grumpily, for the umpteenth time, “Why do I have to go?”

“Because I need you,” I reply, for the umpteenth time.

I need Norman, too. A software developer, he prefers to sit at home and read technical journals. He already lived in Beijing for twenty years, and unlike me, the journalist, he sees no need to spend yet another month there. But his deep experience is a big reason I want him with me there. He first arrived in China in 1966, on the eve of the Cultural Revolution. He saw the Ming-dynasty city walls come tumbling down. He cut ice from the lakes in winter to store for use in summer–before the advent of air-conditioning and refrigeration. He knows Beijing better than I do. And his spoken and written Chinese is excellent. Norman even has a real Chinese name: Yulu. Jack, as the patriarch, named him after Jiao Yulu, a rural official lionized as a model Communist. Like any good peasant’s name, Yulu combines the dual dream of wealth and job security. Yu means riches; lu means an official’s salary in ancient China. Norman has always objected to my translation: Fat Paycheck.

• • •

As the plane rumbles down the runway at Newark, I’m acutely aware that I still haven’t explained to my boys why I need them. The fact is I’m too afraid to go alone.

Being chicken isn’t characteristic of me. In 1972, the first time I went to China, I went by myself. I had just finished my third year at university, majoring in Asian history and student sit-ins. I was nineteen and believed I was invincible. Canada had diplomatic relations with China, but in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, Beijing was issuing few visas. It did, however, make exceptions for ethnic Chinese, most of whom were too scared to go. I wasn’t.

When I arrived in China, I confused everyone, including myself. I was a Montreal Maoist who looked Chinese but couldn’t speak Chinese. The authorities could not wrap their minds around the fact that I was a Canadian, and a third-generation one at that. My grandfather had arrived in Canada in 1881, one of thousands of coolies who built the Canadian Pacific Railroad. My other three grandparents had arrived at the turn of the last century, and had paid the discriminatory head tax on Chinese immigrants.

Miraculously, my solo jaunt through China ended with an invitation to study Mandarin at Beijing University. As part of the Maoist curriculum, I worked in a factory, dug ditches and hauled pig manure. Along the way, I narrowly avoided getting expelled–this is true–for contact with another foreigner. Looking back on the mystery of it all, I believe I was accepted at Beijing University because I was in the right place at the right time. After six years of Cult Rev xenophobia, Beijing was trying to thaw relations with the West. In 1971, it had invited the U.S. table-tennis team to Beijing. In 1972, I was the logical next step, the first Canadian to study there since the Cultural Revolution.

Later, as a reporter in Beijing, I hadn’t been afraid of much, either. Like lots of resident Western journalists, my phone had been tapped, my mail opened. The secret police tailed me, interrogated my sources and sometimes arrested them. In 1989, a few days after the massacre at Tiananmen Square, plainclothes police mistook me for a student and tried to kidnap me. I fought back, screaming–in English. The agents stopped trying to stuff me in the back of the unmarked car. Still shaking on the sidewalk, I belatedly realized that if only I had gone along with them, I would have had a great story.

About the same time, someone stole the Globe’s aging Toyota hatchback. Fat Paycheck discovered that the thieves were the Beijing police when, a year later, he caught them red-handed using it as a squad car. They had even strapped red flashing lights over the roof. I wasn’t afraid. I hustled right down to the station and made the police give me back my car. Now that was a great story.

But on this trip I’m nervous, because I’m returning to Beijing for another reason. I am not only planning to chronicle the future of this great city; I also need to come to terms with my own past. For this, I want moral support. I need my family to reassure me that I’m not a horrible human being. Or that, if I am, they love me anyway. Thirty-three years ago, in one thoughtless, misguided moment, I destroyed someone’s life. This is what I did: in 1973, I ratted out a stranger at Beijing University who wanted to get to America. At the time I did not give it much thought. I certainly did not understand the enormity of what I had done. I recorded the incident in my diary, and forgot about it. A month or two later, I left Beijing and shipped my diaries home, where they lay unread for years in my mom’s basement in Montreal.
In the ensuing years, I graduated from McGill University and returned to Beijing University for another degree in Chinese history. In 1979, I became the first news assistant in the Beijing bureau of the New York Times. After earning a master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University, I worked as a business reporter for the Montreal Gazette, the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal and the Toronto Globe and Mail. In 1988 the Globe and Mail appointed me its thirteenth China correspondent.

Before I left Canada, I retrieved the dusty box from my mom’s basement. I wanted my diaries with me in Beijing–­for what, I wasn’t sure. For six more years, I never looked at them. Then, in 1994, when I was ending my posting, I paged through the small three-ring binders. In 1973 my handwriting had been girlish and neat, each letter painstakingly formed with a fountain pen in blue ink. Some pages I’d typed, using a battered Hermes portable left behind by a British visitor. The paper was cheap and lined. I had hole-punched the sheets by hand.

After a day’s reporting and writing stories for my newspaper back in Toronto, and in between making arrangements to pack up our household, I would hole up alone with my old diaries in the Globe’s whitewashed office in Beijing. I read about my struggle to integrate into a hermetically sealed society, about wielding a pneumatic drill at the Number One Machine Tool Factory, about my ludicrous efforts to overcome my bourgeois affinity for rock and roll. I had been an enthusiastic participant in my own brainwashing. The Chinese used the term xi nao, “washing the brain,” approvingly. After all, you wash something to cleanse it of filth. Reading about my misguided youth, I occasionally smiled. More often I winced. Then I read an entry about a stranger who had invited me and Erica Jen for a stroll around No Name Lake. With a sinking heart, it all came back. How could I have ever ­forgotten?

In 1972, Erica and I were the only two Westerners studying at Beijing University. She was a pink-cheeked, extremely smart Chinese American my age from Yale. Our studies had been approved at the highest levels of the Chinese government. As the first foreign students, we had our own teachers, our own cook and our own dormitory. Everyone who befriended us had been carefully vetted by the Communist Party. Beijing University even moved in hand-picked female students to fill the emptiness of the foreign-student dormitory.

Erica and I had been there nearly a year without one spontaneous encounter. So we were delighted when someone new approached us. The young woman had no inkling Erica and
I were both starry-eyed Maoists. As we walked around the campus lake, she peppered us with questions. How much money did a worker make in America? Did every American have a refrigerator? What kind of class background was required to attend university? When we told her how much workers earned, she gasped. We grudgingly acknowledged that everyone had a fridge. And we conceded that there were no class-based restrictions on university attendance.

Suddenly she said, “I want to go to America. Can you help me?”

We were shocked. Our roommates had never expressed the slightest interest in the West. For nearly a year, our teachers had taught that China was a proletarian paradise. But perhaps
I shouldn’t have been surprised. Only a few months earlier, I had personally experienced the dark side of paradise. I had nearly been expelled from Beijing University for an innocent friendship with another foreigner, a young Swedish diplomat in Beijing. When the crisis was resolved, I had simply resumed classes. But it was my first experience with thought control. Everyone–my teachers, my classmates, the officials in the Foreign Student’s Office–all pretended it had never happened. Only Erica assured me I wasn’t delusional.

That incident had shaken my faith. Yet I still stubbornly, desperately wanted to believe that socialism was superior to capitalism. I was still in love with China, and falling out of love would be a long, slow, painful process.

Erica was even more left-wing than I was. That night, we discussed what to do. Helping the young stranger leave was out of the question. We reasoned that the workers and peasants had paid for her university education. Anyone who accepted this privilege was duty-bound to stay in China and help develop the country. We could have done nothing. Certainly, we both felt squeamish about tattling. Then we decided our discomfort was just another manifestation of the bourgeois Western sentimentality we were trying to overcome. Chairman Mao had exhorted us to “let politics take command.” Any other considerations were superfluous.

“We didn’t do it to earn brownie points,” Erica, a research professor in mathematics at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, told me years later. But maybe I did. Having almost been cast out myself, I now wanted desperately to be accepted, to be part of what I then called “New China.” Perhaps this was an opportunity to prove my revolutionary fervor. A radical classmate back at McGill–now a family physician in Vancouver– recently told me that my letters to her at the time had sounded “ferocious.” She sent me a photocopy of a letter she’d saved from 1972. In it, I talk about the constant struggle to transform myself. I suggest, quite seriously, that “propaganda work really needs to be done.” I actually quote Mao. I write about “making revolution.”

I was that very dangerous combination: fanatic, ignorant and adolescent. In 1973 I thought I knew everything about China, but I actually knew very little. I knew that it was unacceptable to express a desire to leave the motherland, but I didn’t know there were labor camps for dissidents. I didn’t know that China during the Cultural Revolution was a crazy place where someone could be ruined, imprisoned or beaten simply for accidentally ripping up a newspaper that happened to contain a photo of Mao. China’s human rights violations weren’t common knowledge then.

Editorial Reviews

Praise for Red China Blues:

“A marvellous book by one of Canada’s best foreign correspondents at the top of her form.”
The Gazette (Montreal)

“Totally captivating. A wonderful memoir.”
The Globe and Mail

“With her unique perspective, Wong has given us front row seats at Mao’s theater of the absurd. It is hard not to laugh and cry . . . this book will become a classic, a must-read for anyone interested in China.”
The New York Times

“This superb memoir is like no other account of life in China under both Mao and Deng. . . . Unique, powerful and moving.”
Publishers Weekly

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