Monday, March 30, 2009

A Comrade Lost and Found by Jan Wong

A Comrade Lost and Found

A Comrade Lost and Found:
A Beijing Story
by Jan Wong

Hardback: 322 pages
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
First Released: 2009

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Source: review copy from publisher

Back Cover Description:
A journalist’s search through Beijing for the classmate she betrayed during the Cultural Revolution reveals three decades of Chinese transformation.

In the early 1970s, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, Jan Wong traveled from Canada to become one of only two Westerners permitted to study at Beijing University. One day a fellow student, Yin Luoyi, asked for help getting to the United States. Wong, then a starry-eyed Maoist, immediately reported her to the authorities, and shortly thereafter Yin disappeared.

Thirty-three years later, hoping to make amends, Wong revisits the Chinese capital, with her husband and teenage sons in tow, to search for the person who has haunted her conscience. At the very least, she wants to discover whether Yin survived. But Wong finds the city bewildering—ancient landmarks have made way for luxury condominiums. In the new Beijing, phone numbers, addresses, and even names change with startling frequency. In a society determined to bury the past, Yin Luoyi will be hard to find.

As she traces her way from one former comrade to the next, Wong unearths not only the fate of the woman she betrayed but a web of fates that mirrors the strange and dramatic journey of contemporary China and rekindles all of her love for—and disillusionment with—her ancestral land.

This book is a memoir covering the author's experiences in China when she was college-aged up until just before the Beijing Olympics. The frame story is about her month-long trip to Beijing to find and apologize to a woman she betrayed when she was much younger. As the author tells about her present-day trip, she segues into relevant information about what China is like now and what it used to be like.

It's China like you probably never imagined it. The descriptions of city life are vivid and made me feel as if I was experiencing the trip with her. From the party held in her honor by her old teachers to roaming the streets and looking into bars and massage parlors, the trip is a fascinating one.

The author has the ability to laugh at herself and all but the most serious parts are told with a touch of loving humor.

Overall, the book was well-written and very interesting. I'd highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in what China (or, at least, Beijing) is like now and how it's changed in the last forty years.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt: Chapter One
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."

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