In March, 1975, Bright Precious Wong joined her Beijing University classmates on a 48km hike to a farm outside the Chinese capital. There, the undergraduates engaged in a workstudy experiment similar to the reform-through-labor punishments meted out to millions of Chinese during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). At the end of another exhausting day of labor, the students dined on what Wong calls the “stir-fried slop du jour” and settled in to discuss the ideological fruits of their efforts. Wong opened the meeting with a confession: she was educated, well-read and could play the flute in part because “my father exploits the workers at his restaurant in Montreal.”
Bright Precious Wong was none other than Jan Wong, the 22-yearold daughter of a prosperous Montreal businessman (“Bright Precious” is her Chinese name). A third-generation Canadian, the teenage Wong embraced campus radicalism at Montreal’s McGill University by transforming herself into what she would later call a “stark, raving Maoist.” Her ancestral home seemed a natural destination, and in 1972 she became one of the first Westerners allowed to study in Mao’s China. Wong’s initial task was to learn the language of her ethnicity. Her eventual fluency, along with her ability to pass for a local, would serve her well 16 years later when she landed a job as the China correspondent for The Globe and Mail. Red China Blues is a delightful memoir of her complex relationship with the Middle Kingdom.
The book is blessed with a naturally dramatic narrative spine. Wong’s six-year term in 1970s China coincided with the tumultuous final half-decade of Mao Tse-tung and the emergence of the new/old order of Deng Xiaoping. Globe reporter Wong’s tenure in Beijing, from 1988 to 1994, made her an eyewitness to the Tiananmen Square massacre, as well as the subsequent, and
ongoing, evolution of China into a society of conspicuous consumption and ever more conspicuous inequalities. The book also chronicles the private drama of Wong’s odyssey from youthful zealot to mature observer. A true believer, she once turned a professor and his wife in to the authorities for asking her help in getting a daughter to Canada (Wong never learned of their fate). Returning to China as a journalist served as partial atonement for incidents like these.
“In the 1970s,” she writes in the book, “I had sometimes deliberately heard no evil, seen no evil and spoken no evil. Now, in a small way, I wanted to make amends.”
For Wong, who spent most of the 1980s working as a North American-based business reporter for various newspapers, making amends started with her coverage of the massacre in Beijing. She watched the army’s assault on the student enclave at Tiananmen Square first from the square itself, and then—as the terrible night of June 4, 1989, gave way to a still more terrible next day—from a balcony in the nearby Beijing Hotel. Her blow-by-blow account of the successive assaults of the army, and of the unarmed crowds who rushed the soldiers until they were mowed down, is among the best on record.
“The guns at Tiananmen Square killed my last illusions about China,” she writes. Her post-Tiananmen pieces on the dire conditions in rural areas— the selling of brides, the reappearance of prostitution, and, most of all, on the Chinese gulag and the plight of dissidents—testify to the thoroughness of Wong’s makeover. In isolation, these articles often made for uncomfortable newspaper reading; back to back in Red China Blues, and supplemented with details of the rigors of investigative journalism, they constitute a remarkable window onto contemporary Chinese society.
But Wong the journalist is not simply a crusader. Her trademark humor and quirkiness are on display throughout the memoir. When not referring to her husband, an American draft dodger 2 turned businessman she had met 1 in Beijing, as “Norman (Fat Pay8 check) Shulman,” or engaging in z a love of wordplay—a local shop ^ is the “inconvenience store”—she S is serving up an account of the ï penis-enlarging operation of the 2* “felicitously named” Dr. Long. Of
1 her staff at the Globe residence in g Beijing, she muses: “It was poetic
2 justice that an ex-Maoist like me be condemned to manage four Commie servants. I paid their salaries, and they bossed me around.”
During her stint as a journalist in China, much was made in Canada of Wong’s talent for getting stories otherwise unavailable to most Western journalists. In a sense, Red China Blues confirms the asset of race: Wong sits quietly in a university dormitory as an official, unaware of her identity, warns a student not to talk with the Canadian reporter; posing as a translator in the gulag province of Qinghai, she convinces townspeople to tell her where the prison factories are located, and then is briefly shown inside
a warehouse of forced-labor products.
Still, the best clues as to why Wong’s writings about China are so original can be found in both the self-deprecating tone of Red China Blues and in her epic struggle to abandon the ideals of Mao’s totalitarian paradise. Both qualities are typical not of a Western journalist, but of a Chinese intellectual. Wong writes with such empathy about Chinese people less because she likes them than because she is like them, and can identify with their unique sensibility. A lack of distance between a reporter and her subject is usually considered a professional liability. In Wong’s case, the opposite holds true: her intimacy allows for greater insight, her bias for a deeper understanding.
Wong, now a senior features reporter at The Globe and Mail based in Toronto, is at once rueful and bemused about her days as a Maoist. “I was coming from an environment [in middle-class Montreal] with so few problems that I’d magnified them out of proportion,” the 43-year-old journalist told Maclean’s in an interview last week. Her first time in Beijing, she found herself in a genuinely unreal setting. “China was hermetically sealed back then,” she says. “Everyone seemed to agree with the government. Everyone had a rationale for going along.”
Though it took nearly two decades, Wong’s political views have undergone a complete reversal. “First, I thought totalitarianism was great,” she says. “Then I decided it was a necessary evil for a country like China. Finally, I decided the people didn’t need that kind of government. They weren’t blue ants. They could think and act for themselves.”
She confesses to a love-hate relationship with China. “I feel a lot of affection for the Chinese,” Wong says. “On the other hand, they can also be obnoxious. When you know someone too well, you become easily annoyed by their shortcomings.” Being back in Canada suits her fine, especially as the mother to two young boys, five-yearold Ben and two-year-old Sam. “The first thing my husband and I did when we returned in 1994 was take out memberships at the Royal Ontario Museum, the Ontario Science Centre and the Metro Zoo,” she laughs. “Just being able to bring the kids to a quiet park seemed a miracle.”
True to her profession, what Jan Wong misses most about China are the great news stories. “Journalists in Toronto have to work to find things to write about,” she says jokingly. “In China, there were so many amazing stories I couldn’t get to half of them. The stuff people were doing was so absurd all I had to do was copy it down. I knew readers back in Canada would be cracking up.”
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