Books

The two faces of China

Jan Wong’s China: Reports from a Not-So-Foreign Correspondent

Jan Wong,Susan Oh November 29 1999
Books

The two faces of China

Jan Wong’s China: Reports from a Not-So-Foreign Correspondent

Jan Wong,Susan Oh November 29 1999

The two faces of China

Books

Jan Wong’s China: Reports from a Not-So-Foreign Correspondent

Jan Wong

Doubleday, 321 pages, $32.95

Former foreign correspondents are seldom at a loss for stories about their postings. Jan Wong, currendy a Globe and Mail columnist and the papers Beijing correspondent from 1988 to 1994, has enough of her own for two books. A follow-up to her best-selling 1996 memoir Red China Blues, Jan Wongs China is an account of another visit to her old stomping grounds in the run-up to the republics 50th anniversary in the spring of 1999.

Red China Blues was internationally acclaimed for its insight and self-deprecating wit. The book is her chronicle of how she, as a starryeyed 19-year-old Maoist, left sheltered privilege in Montreal for Beijing in 1972, only to find disillusionment.

It also includes her observations on a return to China in 1988 as The Globe and Mails Beijing bureau chief.

Jan Wongs China includes some details from her two earlier visits—and sometimes

A reporter goes back to a nation of stark contradictions

it is not clear which stint she is referring to—but mainly the book takes the reader into the China of today, an astonishingly two-faced country of run-amok capitalism and totalitarian socialism.

China now has McDonalds and Ikea, but central planning still dictates yearly quotas for everything from corporate bank loans to the number of drug dealers to be executed. Wong portrays a country plagued by rampant corruption, gross economic disparity, unemployment, drug addiction, pollution, prostitution and a people lost in a moral vacuum. The problems, like Chinas potential, are made that much bigger by a 1.3billion population. Considering the scale of her subject, Wong provides an admirable panorama—richly coloured and with memorable people and places—of a giant in the throes of unprecedented change.

When Wong, a woman of Chinese descent who learned in adulthood to speak Mandarin like a native, writes about chowing down on yak penis or navigating guanxi, the interlocking social and political connections that

actually govern China, there is a sense of getting the real goods from someone who understands how the country works—or doesn’t. Wong chats with dissidents and gay and lesbian groups, poses as a prostitute and crashes a mental institution. Despite the bureaucracy’s infuriating attempts to keep Wong from visiting Tibet—officials tell her that there is “not enough oxygen”—she manages to sneak in and render a finely nuanced view of a situation less clear-cut than Richard Gere and other supporters of Tibetan sovereignty would have the West believe.

Jan Wongs China, though personal and liberally laced with her trademark acid-dipped humour, contains much more of China and less of Wong than her last book. Ar times it could do with even less. Old China hands may raise an eyebrow over the presumption of its title. And the account of her “sneaking” back into China on a tourist visa, which starts the book, seems little more than cheap drama. Far more prominent media critics of the nation did just the same as little as a year after the Tiananmen massacre, and it’s a common practice for correspondents covering the region. Wong overplays her sweaty palms at the border—based on the experience of other journalists, it seems the worst thing that could have happened to her would have been expulsion for “activities incompatible with her status.”

Meanwhile, the book suffers from some groan-inducing metaphors. “When Chinese ate Big Macs,” Wong writes, “two hours later they hungered again—for freedom.” And such forced puns as the “driving ambition” of car owners and “looking for Mr. Right and not any old Mr. Wong” dilute an otherwise strong narrative. The author wisely avoids pat predictions or conclusive endings. And while Wong does not offer any piercing new insights, her latest book should satisfy fans of her first. Jan Wongs China reaffirms her preeminence as one of the Canadians who best understands a country that has always mystified foreigners, both within and outside of its borders.

Susan Oh