Frances Wong Sing left her privileged life in Hong Kong 55 years ago to help build a New China. She tells Kevin Sinclair how she's still living with the consequences
IN THE AUTUMN of 1949, hundreds of thousands of people were pressing down through Guangdong, desperate to enter Hong Kong. Walking against that flow of humanity, Frances Wong Sing and Li Zhao-xin tramped in the other direction.
The young idealists didn't know it, but the seven-day trek from the border to Guangzhou was a journey taking them not only into the promise of a rejuvenated nation, but into peril.
Wong was one of the true believers who left Hong Kong in 1949 to answer Mao Zedong's call to help build a New China. A daughter of wealth and privilege, she studied at the Diocesan Girls School and then arts at the University of Hong Kong. She and her husband turned their backs on a comfortable middle-class life in 1949 to march with 1,000 other young idealists over the border. They wanted to work towards creating a new, fair, honest society. That decision branded their lives.
The idealism turned sour for the young married couple. After years of faithful service they were branded 'evil ghosts', or counter-revolutionaries, in the Cultural Revolution. Wong was separated from her four children, who were sent down to the countryside in widely scattered provinces. She was banished to learn from the peasants, labouring on a Jiangxi farm for eight years.
Looking back on what happened to her and her family, would she make the same decision? 'I've thought about that a lot over the years,' Wong says during a recent trip to Hong Kong. 'In my 20s, I was naive, adventurous, romantic, a little patriotic. The four decades of experience in China were not without advantages and gain. I can say I know China, really know it, and that's not easy. But I didn't learn that without paying a price.
'Was our decision right in 1949 to march forward with the New China? Honestly, I haven't thought seriously whether it was right or wrong. For myself, there are no regrets. For my children, well, they could have had a better education.'
Wong believes everybody has a story. At the age of 82, the English literature professor at Guangzhou's Jinan University is writing 10 short novels based on the lives of people she has known in Hong Kong, China and the US.
She's already written her own life story, China Bound, a saga that embraces the extremes of love, horror, belief, politics, upheaval and tragedy. And hope. Wong says she wrote it to explain her life story to her grandchildren. The book is being printed in Guizhou and she's looking for an international distributor.
Her silver hair immaculate, her English faultless, Wong is the picture of ageless Chinese beauty. At her computer, she's busy writing - and talking. She does both very well.
She teaches the plays and sonnets of William Shakespeare. What relevance do these have to students in 21st century China? She throws back her head and laughs. 'Not much,' she says. 'Most of the students want to make money, and Shakespeare doesn't make a financial profit. But I use his works to help younger students polish their English.'
The fact that she can teach the writings of the English bard in today's China is significant: if she'd thought of doing that 35 years ago, she would have been severely punished by censorious Red Guards.
'Just being able to read Shakespeare is one sign of how much China has changed,' she says. 'I officially retired years ago, but I still hold regular short courses at Jinan. I can't stop working.'
In her gripping autobiography, Wong recounts horrific details of looting, rape and butchery during the Japanese invasion. The 19-year-old fled her home in Nathan Road and headed across the border. Her English Literature studies abandoned at the University of Hong Kong, she enrolled at Sun Yat-sen University, then situated north of Guangzhou. There, she met Li Zhou-xin, a master degree student one year her senior. They fell in love, married and had two children in China during the war, then two more when they lived in Beijing during the 1950s.
Today, one son has a successful business in pharmaceuticals in Hong Kong, two daughters live in California and her other daughter lives in Beijing, still suffering physically and mentally from her torment during the Cultural Revolution.
During the second world war, Wong's husband went to Chongqing to join the fight against the Japanese, working for the Nationalist government. She waited out the war in Guangdong, living in a small town with her mother.
What she saw burns in her memory. 'I was disgusted with the Kuomintang government. When the Japanese troops came, their soldiers retreated,' she says.
Peace came, and with it turmoil. The government was corrupt and decaying. The country was in chaos. She returned home to Hong Kong convinced only the communists could save China. She worked for Xinhua News Agency as a translator and spoke with her husband and friends of the New China being born.
'We were living in a nice flat in Robinson Road,' she says. 'We were both doing translations for Xinhua. They would send someone to my home with the articles and when we had finished the work, they would send someone back to pick it up. It was a pretty good arrangement.'
The talk was constantly of the momentous developments in China. The communist armies were sweeping south. A new era was dawning. News of the liberation of Guangzhou electrified Hong Kong. Firecrackers exploded in the city through the night.
Wong and her husband were transfixed. She says they wanted to work for the New China. 'There wasn't much discussion about it. Although I worked for Xinhua I wasn't really super patriotic. But I was his wife so wherever Zhou-xin went, I was to go. My husband felt the call and wanted to go to China, so, of course, I followed him. The old China under Chiang Kai-shek was very corrupt. We thought a change would be good for China. We didn't hesitate. I went of my own free will, believing in the New China.'
As they left urban Hong Kong, organisers told the couple to dress as peasants and rendezvous with others at a remote spot in the New Territories. They got over the border and started the march north. It was an emotional journey.
'The first time I saw our new five-star flag flying my eyes welled with tears,' Wong remembers, 55 years later. 'I had waited so long to see this.
'In Guangzhou, we slept 10 to a room. We had come to join the revolution and we were prepared to rough it. Things were difficult at the beginning. But with the liberation of the whole country, and with the passing of time, we believed that things would soon be fine. After a year, they were sent to Beijing. 'You didn't choose where you worked. You went where you were needed.'
At the Foreign Ministry, she collated news from foreign news agencies and radio stations. 'We were the eyes and the ears of the central leadership,' she says.
Work was constantly disrupted by political upheaval. 'Every five years there was sure to be a political movement,' Wong says, listing the periodic turmoil. 'Intellectuals were always the targets, and the ones who suffered most.'
The couple survived their first eight years untouched. But the fear always hovered that one day it would be their turn to be victims. 'When we first went to China, it was with hope in our hearts. I knew in the beginning things would be hard. But I was always hoping things would be better, if not for me, for my children.
'Over the course of 10 years when things did not improve I felt very frustrated, disillusioned.'
They managed to survive unscathed until the Cultural Revolution. 'It was a most brutal, chaotic and shameful political movement that drove our country to the precipice of economic destruction.'
She was sent to Jiangxi, her banishment lasting eight years, ending only when the fury of the Cultural Revolution ended. Slowly, life returned to normal. Wong was allowed to go to Guangzhou, where she worked as a teacher. Eventually, she managed to get her children back.
'From the 1950s, I couldn't have left China, even if I wanted to,' she says. 'I didn't have papers. From 1949 right up to the 1970s, China was in a terrible situation. After the reform and open policy you can see it is getting better.
'In 1986, my husband and I were invited to go to the US as exchange students by the American Academy of Sciences. We stayed for 14 years teaching at 11 institutions. He came back to China in 1999 and would not leave. So in 2001, I came to join him.'
Wong says returning to China three years ago was like waking from a dream. 'It's getting better and better for the ordinary people,' she said. 'At first, it was a surprise. Now I'm getting used to it.'
Sadly, her husband passed away on September 16 after a long battle with colon cancer.
Once more, Wong muses on the decision that led her to leave the comforts of a merchant's home in Hong Kong for the uncertainty of revolutionary China.
Would she do it again? She smiles, and packs her bags to return to Guangzhou.