Stuart Beaton was interviewing authors long before he began his podcasts at http://rastous.podomatic.com/. I’m beyond thrilled that he’s offered this old interview with writer extraordinaire Jan Wong. Without further adieu, here’s Stu and Jan from back in 1997:
In the small hours of June 4th, 1989, watching helplessly as the Chinese Army opened fire on the crowds in Tiananmen Square, Toronto Globe and Mail staffer Jan Wong did the only thing she could: try to stay calm, and take the best notes of her life.
Those notes provide the basis for her riveting reconstruction of the massacre at Tiananmen Square in her book, Red China Blues. “For me, seeing the troops coming in and shooting at everybody was very much a shock,” Wong said. “I knew many dissidents, so I think it was more traumatic for me than for some of the other reporters.”
Indeed, as the troops moved and the people scattered, Wong was watching more than the emphatic silencing of China’s nascent democratic movement. She was experiencing the death of her own hopes for the society she once thought represented an enviable ideal.
Her memoirs of China have yielded a remarkable book. Part humorous, self-deprecating diary and part informed analysis, Red China Blues is like flavoured vitamins — fun and tasty, with the added bonus that they’re good for you.
Wong first arrived in China in 1972, a starry-eyed Maoist from Montreal. The daughter of a wealthy Montreal restaurateur, Wong attributes her decision to travel to China during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution to a mixture of Vietnam-era radicalism, teenaged naivete and an urge to revisit her cultural roots.
Initially travelling on a three-month tourist visa, Wong readily fell under the spell of what she saw at the time as a socialist utopia, free of discrimination by class or race, and free of exploitive capitalist ideology.
So taken was she — and in hindsight she admits, so wilfully blind to the dark underside of Mao’s China — that she applied and was accepted to study at Beijing University.
Wong ended up spending six years reforming her “bourgeois thinking” in China: studying Marx and Lenin (in Chinese), learning Maoisms by rote, and doing long hours of backbreaking labour in the name of the “people.”
It wasn’t until the abrupt end of the Cultural Revolution following the death of Chairman Mao that Wong forced herself to admit that there was another side to the society she had travelled halfway across the world to join.
“One announcement [from the Communist Party] and we were consigned to the dustbin of history,” she recalls in her memoir. “That, I suddenly realised, was how dictatorships worked. Overnight, every single person I knew made an abrupt ideological switch. Now, everyone told me, the Cultural Revolution had been a bad, bad thing. They said they had been waiting for the madness to end … I felt betrayed, the victim of a massive practical joke.”
After six years as a bit player in what she calls a “real-life propaganda movie”, Wong left China and embarked on a journalism career, eventually returning to China as The Globe and Mail‘s correspondent in Beijing in 1988.
“At first I felt sort of sheepish about writing my memoirs,” Wong said during our interview. “I’ve always thought that was something for people to do after a long, accomplished life. But I realised that because of my experience living there, I had a unique perspective and I had something to say.
“Really the book is about China and how it’s changed,” she is quick to add, displaying a journalist’s characteristic unease at being the subject of the story, rather than merely its interpreter. “My experience is just an example of what has happened there in microcosm.”
If her personal journey represents a full circle — from bright-eyed idealism to crushing disillusionment — Wong’s views on China since Tiananmen Square reflect a cautious optimism for the future of the country her grandparents left almost a century ago.
“My optimism returns when I see how energetic and enterprising the Chinese people can be,” she says in the final chapter. “They may behave like sloths under socialism, but when they work for themselves they make money hand over fist.”
She sees these experiments with capitalism as both a success, and a failure. “They’re a success in the way that they’ve improved the Chinese economy. But with that, they’ve brought back all the old evils that the Communists once fought against – such as venereal disease, prostitution, drugs, and corruption.”
The corruption even extends to China’s military – the Peoples’ Liberation Army. “Everyone wants their cut. If you want an operation in a hospital, you have to bribe the doctors, the anaesthetist, the nurses – otherwise, they’re going to botch your operation. It’s not just to get better service. It’s so they don’t do something bad to you.”
And it is this corruption that she believes will be most damaging to the “economic miracle” that is Hong Kong. “Hong Kong thrived because information could be exchanged and reported freely. At the moment, if corruption was found in a big company, then it’d be reported, and action would be taken.” Wong fears that after the handover, this will cease. “If an official from the Peoples’ Liberation Army is involved in a company, then that corruption will never come to light. So all of a sudden, business people and investors won’t know the real picture of what’s going on, and they’ll have to make decisions based on partial information.”
On July 1, the day Hong Kong reverts to Chinese sovereignty, millions of Hong Kong residents will line the streets waving red flags in a ceremony with more pomp than the festivities surrounding the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. But even before the handover date, China is already heavily influencing the Hong Kong population – with many leaving, rather than stay under communist rule. “Democracy is also very tied up in Hong Kong’s prosperity – and China will not be able to tolerate dissent or outspokenness. Look at the recent attempt to erect a monument to those who died at Tiananmen – no-one will dare allow the statue to be erected, because they know the Chinese will be really upset. I think it’s going to be very bad when they do take over.”
As for Wong, who has settled into life in Toronto with her husband Norman (another former Maoist) and her two children, she compares finishing her book to closing the file on a twenty-year story.
“I don’t know,” she shrugs when asked if she plans to continue writing about China. “But I guess I’ll always follow events there — China does that to people. Once you’ve been there it changes you.”