Anna and the kings

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 April, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 April, 2005, 12:00am

If your life were a book, would anyone want to read it? In the case of Anna Chennault, one tome alone would not be nearly enough to contain an extraordinary life spanning more than seven decades and two continents, including friendships with a dozen presidents and prime ministers on both sides of the Pacific. Probably that's why Chennault has written 52 books so far.

Her name may not be a familiar one to young people, but Anna Chennault's story is an authentic example of just how much one woman can accomplish if she sets her mind to it.

In the 1940s, she helped set up the first airline in China. Then, in the '70s, she worked with both the Vietnamese and the US governments to end that tragic war. And in the '80s, she worked hard to bring her beloved homeland and her adopted homeland together.

Anna's larger-than-life story began in the early 1920s. As one of six daughters born to a well-to-do diplomat, she was known even then as being talkative and outspoken - this in an age when Chinese girls were rarely seen and virtually never heard.

By the time Chen Xiangmei - as she was then called - reached her teens, China was fighting a war against the invading Japanese army. Anna's father wanted to send all six daughters abroad, where it would be safe to continue their studies. But she refused to go and so was sent to middle school in Hong Kong. Arriving from Beijing, she had to learn both Cantonese and English. She stayed in Hong Kong for four years, until the city fell to the Japanese. 'Hong Kong was a small place then, only half a million people - can you imagine!' she recalls.

At the age of 20, Xiangmei joined the Central News Agency, becoming the Nationalist news service's first female reporter. The job was to change her life, because it was while working there that she met the famed American flyer Claire Chennault, who was helping to defend China with an all-volunteer squadron of American fighter pilots.

Known as the Flying Tigers - because of the distinctive tiger's teeth painted on their airplanes - the Americans repeated aerial victories against the far larger Japanese air force had made Chennault and his men immensely popular among Chinese peasants and soldiers. When arriving to interview the lean, leathery legend, Anna had her hair neatly braided, schoolgirl-style, making her look even younger than she was. Her father, who already knew General Chennault, had asked him to look out for his daughter. General Chennault agreed. Despite the fact that the two came from two different universes, and he was already in his 50s, the fiercely independent squadron commander soon fell in love with the outspoken cub reporter.

General Chennault was wise in the ways of China, Anna remembers. 'The general was very smart. He played bridge with my grandfather every day,' she says. 'Although he was a skilled bridge player, he pretended to lose to my grandfather.' In doing so he soon won the favour of the old man and was accepted into her distinguished Chinese family.

The couple married in Shanghai in 1947, and Anna had to deal with the realities of 1940s Chinese society, where love affairs between proper Chinese girls and foreign men were not readily accepted. Despite this, their relationship flourished. 'After the war, China badly needed air transportation,' Anna says. The couple then set up what is believed to be the first airline in China.

In 1949, Mao Zedong came to power. General Chennault, who had worked for Chiang Kai-shek during the war, moved his new family to Taipei, where he and Anna set up another airline. Soon two baby daughters were added to the Chennault family and Anna became a full-time mother.

The family made occasional trips back to Claire Chennault's home in rural Louisiana. 'I was not only the only Chinese there - I was the only Asian!' Anna recalls with a still girlish giggle. Their life together was sweet, and is chronicled in one of Anna's seven best-selling English-language books - A Thousand Springs.

But after 11 years of marriage, General Chennault died, leaving Anna a 33-year-old widow with two young daughters.

Unable to return to her family home in Beijing and now with two growing children who were part-American, Anna moved to Washington, DC, in 1960, where she became a US citizen. Soon after arriving, she found a job translating Chinese textbooks into English for Georgetown University.

Her English ability quickly improved, which gave her the confidence to hold her own in Washington's elite international society. 'I decided to live in Washington because I wanted to start my own career,' she says. 'At that time, I was very much alone. But if you are not afraid, and you really want to learn, you can always be successful.'

Between working and raising her daughters, Anna returned to her lifelong love of writing, producing two more best-selling books, an English-Chinese dictionary which is still used by Georgetown, and a book about the Flying Tigers. At the same time, she began writing books in Chinese, which were popular in Taiwan.

As her name became known in Washington, she was hired as a programme host for the Voice of America. In 1963, president John F. Kennedy named her the chairman of the Chinese Refugees Relief Committee, making her the first Chinese to be named to the White House staff. She also became friends with presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan.

She became active in Republican politics, eventually being made co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee's finance committee. During the height of the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon asked her to be a secret mediator between the South Vietnamese government and the US. Although an energetic player in US politics, Anna maintained her links to Taiwan. When Chiang Ching-kuo became president there, she pressed him to allow old mainland soldiers living in Taiwan, who'd not seen their homes for 40 years, to visit relatives in China.

After Ronald Reagan became US president, Anna was sent to Beijing as a special ambassador to meet Deng Xiaoping, along with a delegation of American senators. At the Great Hall of the People, Deng asked Anna to sit next to him, announcing: 'There are over 100 members of the US Congress, but there is only one Chen Xiangmei.'

In 1989, Anna headed a trade group from the US Council for International Co-operation - which also included Taiwan businessmen visiting China, marking the start of Taiwan business activities on the mainland. 'It was very difficult to build a bridge between China and the US back in the '70s and '80s, because people in this country [the US] knew nothing about China, and China knew nothing about the US.'

Anna continues to travel to Beijing and Taiwan several times a year. Using royalties from her books, she has set up funds for college teachers and donates money to build primary schools in China's rural areas. In 1990, she launched the Chen Xiangmei Education Fund in more than a dozen provinces, to reward teachers who had made outstanding contributions to education. 'The increase in women's confidence raises the quality of the nation,' she said at the time.

'I don't like to make a big deal about the things I do, because that makes it easier to get things done,' she says.

Her love of writing continues: 'As long as I can hold a pen, I will continue writing.' She is working on her 53rd book, to be published late this year; a study of the famous Chinese novel, Dream of the Red Chamber. Asked about the 2008 Beijing Olympics, she says: 'I already have an invitation!'

Regarding the current pebbly rapport between China and the US, Anna says: 'China and America have come a very long way in their relationship, but there's still lots of work to do.'

Anna's latest honour came this month in the form of a lifetime achievement award in the category of 'international co-operation' from the Committee of 100. The committee is a noted New York-based Chinese-American group which includes such distinguished Chinese Americans as designer Maya Lin, cellist Yo Yo Ma, and architect I.M. Pei.

A dedicated feminist decades before the word was ever uttered, Anna says: 'I am proud of being the widow of Claire Lee Chennault; I am also proud of creating my own career.'