As the last hundred years of Chinese history has had more than its share of upheavals, every Chinese family has stories of separation, betrayal, imprisonment, exile and death. In A Village With My Name: A Family History of China’s Opening to the World, Scott Tong writes about his search for his own family’s story.
Scott Tong is a Chinese American reporter who lived in China from 2006 to 2010 as bureau chief for NPR’s Marketplace program. In China, he reconnected with relatives and began a deep dive into the history of his family. In this quest, Scott traveled to remote villages, including one where everyone’s surname is Tong, to cities such as Nanjing, Chongqing and Hong Kong and to a derelict prison camp near Tibet. In his memoir, he puts his forebears’ and relatives’ lives into the context of the trajectory of Chinese history and China’s interaction with the rest of the world.
I am Chinese American too. Even though I am significantly older than Scott, we are both “one step removed” Chinese, clumsy in the language and unsure in social interactions. While Scott grew up in Poughkeepsie, NY, I have lived in St. Louis my whole life except for the first eight years in China and Hong Kong. Like Scott, I have tried to understand what life was like for my parents, my grandparents and my living relatives still in China. Both our families were separated for a quarter century by Cold War politics. Neither China nor the United States permitted its citizens to communicate with people in the other country.
Also, both our families in China had extensive ties to foreigners in the first half of the twentieth century. Scott’s great grandfather attended a Japanese university in the early 1900s. In those years, many young Chinese intellectuals went abroad to bring back Western knowledge and technology to bolster the crumbling Qing Dynasty. (The Japanese government had opened Japan to the West in 1868.) Scott’s maternal grandmother, Mildred, got her education at an American Methodist school in Nanchang, one of China’s smaller cities. In a stroke of luck, Scott found a stash of Mildred’s letters to her American teachers in the Boston University and Swarthmore College archives.
As Catholics, my parents’ families gravitated toward the French. Shanghai natives, my parents met as medical students at the Jesuit Aurora University in Shanghai’s French Concession. All their classes were in French. Decades later, they spoke French when they discussed things they didn’t want us kids to know. Like Mildred, my parents became very close to the faculty members. They often spoke of Pere (Father) Germain, the principal, a WWI vet, and Pere (Father) Audic, the physics teacher. Father Audic even came to St. Louis to visit us sometime in the ‘60s.
Everyone in China suffered to some degree under the Japanese during WWII (1937-1945). Scott’s family suffered unforeseen long-term consequences. My parents lived under Japanese occupation for eight years. Because my mother’s family lived in the French Concession, which was slightly more protected as a foreign entity, relatives in other parts of Shanghai flocked to Grandpa’s house. Fortunately, Aurora University stayed open and my parents were able to finish their medical studies. Living in the French Concession not withstanding, my mother’s brother was drafted into Chiang Kai-shek’s army.
When WWII ended, civil war raged between Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists and Mao’s Communists. Mao declared victory on October 1, 1949. This event led to many family separations, including for Scott’s family and mine. Scott’s grandfather took his mistress and Scott’s dad, age ten, to Taiwan in 1949. He left behind a pregnant wife and a two-year-old son. Scott’s grandmother Mildred left for Hong Kong with her three young daughters, including Scott’s mom, in 1950. They moved to a district called Diamond Hill— a place that would become home to my family, too. .Mildred’s husband Carleton decided to stay in Shanghai. He ended up being jailed and died in a “re-education camp” after years of hard labor.
My folks graduated and married in 1946, a year after WWII’s end. Again, they chose to cast their lot with Westerners. Bishop Cuthbert O’Gara recruited them to an American Catholic hospital in Hunan province. This is where I was born. Dad did general practice. Mom delivered babies and was principal of the nursing school. With the help of the Americans, Dad got a position in a hospital in New Jersey in 1948, one year before Mao’s victory. He planned to return to China after a couple of years. Mom stayed on until fighting between the Communists and the Nationalists broke out near the hospital in Hunan. She took me and my six-week old sister, born after Dad left, on a harrowing journey back to Shanghai. It turned out my parents would not see each other again for seven years.
Like Scott’s grandmother Mildred, my mom decided to leave China. In 1952, in a high stakes gamble, she insisted she had to see her dying aunt in Hong Kong, and got permission for a two-week stay. Despite not being able to get a visa to enter British Hong Kong, she took me, my sister and her dad on the train to Hong Kong. While on the train, she found someone who would smuggle us over the border. We got off the train before the border station and walked what seemed like a very long way to a five-year-old me. In Hong Kong, we shared an apartment with two other families in the Diamond Hill district.
When I read about Scott’s grandfather Carleton, I thought of my own grandfather. He was a frail, mild mannered man. He had been a successful business man in Shanghai. He lived with us in St. Louis until his death in 1966. No doubt, if he had stayed in China, he would have been caught up in one or another of the purges. He would have suffered as surely as Scott’s grandfather had. A wave of relief washes over me when I think of how close he came to a terrible fate. It was not a sure thing he would leave Shanghai. Mom told him, “I am leaving regardless. If you decide to come with me, I’ll find a way to get you out.” He replied, “OK, I guess I’ll go.”
Scott’s mom in Hong Kong and dad in Taiwan thrived.They excelled in school and went to America to further their studies. They met at a Chinese Student Association Dance in Minnesota. Scott’s Dad went on to his dream job at IBM.
Our family received refugee status to enter America after three years in Hong Kong. We reunited with Dad in St. Louis in 1955. Then, I too became part of the model-minority, American-dream story. I did well in school, became a doctor, had a child, and now, I have grandkids.
The folks who didn’t leave China had a much more difficult life. My mother had a taste of it before she fled. She had to attend indoctrination sessions. She pulled me out of kindergarten because she feared I would let slip that we were Catholic.
The two great national traumas in post-WWII China were the Great Leap Forward (1958-61) and the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. During the Great Leap Forward, the top-down economic policies led to mass famine. Between 36 to 48 million people starved to death. It hit home when I visited China and my relatives in 1977. I was part of a “Friendship Delegation,” which was the only way to get into China in those days. Because I left China at age five, my cousins were virtual strangers. My oldest cousin looked like an old man and had lost all his teeth. He said they all fell out during the “Great Leap Forward.”
The Cultural Revolution was instigated by Mao, ostensibly to restore ideological purity. It became a time of mass hysteria. Throngs of people marched through the streets waving Mao’s “Little Red Book.”They rampaged through homes destroying anything that they considered “bourgeois.” Anyone in authority — officials, bosses, teachers, members of the previously-moneyed class—was targeted. The wife abandoned by Scott’s grandfather was a school principal and was humiliated and punished. My aunt lost vision in one eye from being beaten by the Red Guard.
In the United States, during the years of the Cultural Revolution, I was a campus radical. Our main goal was protesting America’s role in the Vietnam War. It was not much of a stretch to support Ho Chi-min, the North Vietnamese and, by extension, Mao’s China. In my youthful zeal, I was very enthusiastic about Mao’s anti-authoritarian and proletarian message. My teachers at Washington University were leftist as well. They were enthusiasts of Mao’s revolution, but had scarce information about conditions in China after the Cold War communications shutdown. I am chagrined that I bought into the popularity of Mao’s disastrous policies. My parents were vehemently anti-Communist.. I thought of them as too emotionally attached to the old ways. I was so wrong. Scott quotes his aunt: “We’re ashamed of what we did during the Cultural Revolution.” Me too.
Scott Tong has woven together the many threads of his family’s history across time, across China and across the globe into this surprisingly intimate story. Next time, I will tell you how it felt for Scott and me to encounter relatives after decades of being away; to try to imagine what life was like fifty, seventy-five, a hundred years ago for our parents and grandparents; to grasp the current economic and cultural landscape in what was for us a foreign language.
Tell me: What sorts of separations has your family gone through?