Monday, October 27, 2008

Jan Wong: Beijing Confidential

Beijing Confidential is a memoir written by Jan Wong. She was one of the first few foreign students living in China during the Cultural Revolution, in the 1970s. Her book chronicles her return to China in 2004, and her struggle to find her fellow Beijing University student, who she reported to the Maoist authorities, when the student expressed her desire to move to America.

The book is very well written, and grabs you in from the first page. It reminds the readers of the ancient history of China, the rise of Beijing city under three imperial rulers (Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties), the ascend of Maoist Communist Party, and the birth of new China, which we all witnessed during this year's Olympics. The author travelled to China when they were still building the new Beijing International Airport, the largest in the world, in preparation of the Olympics.

This book also reminded me that the Cultural Revolution, and the Tiananmen Square massacre (1989) did not happen too long ago. The China we saw in August on our television screens is different from what it used to be a few decades ago. The book showed, how far China has come. There was a time when people were not allowed to own property, or keep pets, and the entire neighbourhood had to share one public latrine. During her journey, Wong couldn't help herself from drawing comparisons between the 1970's Orwellian Beijing, and the prosperous cosmopolitan that it is now. But these details are presented so beautifully that one does not get bored by the facts.

Tiananmen Square is such an important part of Chinese history. I first learned about the massacre in 1997, when I was watching the Hong Kong handover ceremony. I remember being glued to the TV, because I thought this was going to be the single-most-important milestone of our lifetime. I remember they had put up a big countdown clock in the Tiananmen Square, and the BBC reporter kept mentioning the massacre and the 'Tank Man'.

At that point I knew who General Mao was, thanks to the British show 'Mind Your Language'. The show was about new immigrants learning the English language, and having difficulty understanding the English figure of speech. One of the characters was an ardent Maoist, who always carried around General Mao's red book, and wore the Maoist suit.

So the same Tiananmen Square, where so many supporters of freedom and equality (mainly university students) lost there lives at the hands of their own Chinese military, also became the focal point of China's support and joy of Hong Kong's return to the mainland. Few years later, the same Tiananmen Square also brought together Chinese from all walks of life to celebrate their Olympic glory.

I am not saying we should keep living in the past, and keep blaming China for its past. But it is just astounding how far China has come, in just the span of few decades. Jan Wong provides an excellent unbiased account of China and Beijing in this least self-absorbed memoir. She doesn't just talk about Beijing's history and present, but also the people and how their lifestyle and attitudes have evolved over the years. I strongly recommend this book. Once I started reading it, I couldn't put it down.