When my friend Raymond told me about Song of the Azalea: Memoir of a Chinese Son by Kenneth Ore and Joann Yu (Penguin Canada, 2005), I went online and bought it without thinking twice.
He wasn’t joking when he said it was a powerful story. I found it to be one of the best books I’ve read about Hong Kong during WWII and perhaps the only I’ve read about the colony during the Cultural Revolution.
Before reading Song of the Azalea last week, I had so many questions about Hong Kong during the Cultural Revolution. In his memoir, Kenneth Ore answers them.
Ore’s mother is sold at an early age to help pay off her father’s gambling debts. Lovely. But rather than selling her into prostitution or forcing her to become the concubine of Old Mr. Ore, the Ore family allows her to marry one of their young sons. That and her husband’s willingness to support her through medical school seem to be her only fortunes in life.
Young Kenneth is shuffled between Hong Kong and parts of mainland China during WWII and the civil war between the Communists and the Nationalists. After witnessing violence and murder, he decides to devote his life to promoting peace and equality in Hong Kong, where he moves back with his mother, sister, and brother before 1949.
As Kenneth reaches adulthood, he’s an underground Communist operative in Hong Kong and blindly follows the Party line. Sacrificing his salary and time with his family, he gives everything to the Party.
So I wanted to know if people in Hong Kong really knew what was going on in China in the mid-to-late-60s. (And for personal reasons, to better understand the climate when my mom’s family visited Hong Kong in 1966, the start of the Cultural Revolution.) Ore says some right-wing Hong Kong newspapers reported on the starvation and murders in China during the Cultural Revolution, but he and other leftists didn’t believe it because they didn’t trust the sources.
What I gathered from the book is that people knew what was going on, but maybe didn’t suspect the scale of the violence north of the border. (I don’t even think people in China got the full picture until fairly recently, but that could just be me.)
Ore’s depiction of Hong Kong and China’s complex political and socio-economic climates last century show how easy it would have been for someone to drink the Party Kool-Aid. As Mao once wrote, “Revolution is not a dinner party.” Sadly, as history has shown, it wasn’t even enough to sustain people on a daily basis.