Ode to the conscience of Nanking
The late Chinese-American journalist Iris Chang never doubted that the Rape of Nanking was a crime against humanity. Haunted by childhood tales of her grand-parents' narrow escape from death in the six wintry weeks after the Japanese entered the city, on December 13, 1937, she set out to discover the truth behind the massacre. Her research led her to Nanjing, where she talked to many survivors and discovered the diary of John Rabe, a German who set up a safety zone away from the atrocities.
'She had insurmountable obstacles,' says Joseph Wong, co-founder of Toronto-based Association for Learning and Preserving of the History of the Second World War in Asia (Alpha). 'She didn't know the language, she was unfamiliar with the culture, and the Chinese government weren't liberal enough then to grant her a journalist visa.'
With an upcoming film titled Iris Chang, the association - which has raised the bulk of the film's budget - has produced a worthy homage to her life and work.
The definitive volume for Chang's work lies in the groundbreaking book, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, which sold half a million copies and has turned the writer into an instant celebrity.
An intense speaker who galvanised others with her passion and commitment, Chang once confronted the Japanese ambassador on television and demanded an apology.
'She was an incredible woman - courageous and persistent in her sense of justice and responsibility.' says Wong, who is a well-known philanthropist within the Canadian-Chinese community. He first contacted Chang in 1997. 'I read an excerpt of Chang's book in Newsweek when it first came out. I went to several stores to find the book, but couldn't,' Wong says.
He called the publisher and found out that only 2,000 copies of the book were printed, because the publisher didn't believe it would sell. But Wong did.
'I bought 2,000 copies of the book for distribution in Canada, and raised funds to invite Iris Chang to Canada on a book tour,' Wong says. 'It was a great book, but it lacked publicity and promotion.'
By the time Chang left Canada, the book had made the best-sellers' list via seven printings, and she became a public figure.
Wong says he was stunned when he learnt of Chang's death. She suffered from chronic depression and her trip to Nanjing had taken a great physical toll on her. On November 9, 2004, Chang was found dead in her car with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to her head.
'It was a big blow to me,' Wong says. 'She had such integrity. I asked myself, 'How can I pay tribute to such a courageous woman and at the same time educate everybody about [the Rape of Nanking]? I wanted to do something for her.'
Wong thought of making a docu-drama of Chang's life. 'I wanted to tell the story of the Nanking massacre through her eyes,' he says. 'I wanted to continue her legacy.'
For the next two years, Wong raised millions of dollars through donations and began a nation- wide casting search. Chang's devastated parents didn't want to talk to the media or any writer, but Wong persisted. 'We're very fortunate to have the exclusive rights to information from her parents,' Wong says. 'By talking to those closest to Iris, I hope we can give a realistic portrait of her.'
A versatile young actress has landed the role of Chang: Olivia Cheng, a freelance journalist at Canada's Global News Network and the Vancouver Sun who has also performed with Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church in the television series Broken Trail.
'I first read the book in 2005, after she died,' says Cheng. 'I was so astonished by the content because I knew nothing about what happened in China until my 20s. So I Googled her, and the more I read about her, the more I wanted her to be my mentor - because I'm a journalist too.'
Cheng, who was then studying theatre, was so moved by Chang's account of the Nanking massacre that she resolved to write a screenplay about her. She flew to San Francisco and looked through Chang's belongings, and talked to people who knew her. Then she heard about Alpha's film and the call for auditions. She also resembles Chang. In an e-mail to the producers, Chang's husband, Brett Douglas, wrote of how Cheng 'talks like Iris, walks like Iris, and acts like Iris'.
The film, scheduled for release in December to coincide with 70th anniversary of the massacre and the 10th anniversary of Chang's book, will portray the writer's life chronologically, revealing history through her narrative and film clips.
'Iris Chang reminds me a lot of myself because she was focused, intensely intelligent, articulate and passionate,' Cheng said. 'Yet, underneath the super- woman persona, she was a deeply sensitive and compassionate person. She believed humans are fundamentally good.'
Wong says insufficient tribute has been paid to Chang's spirit. 'Without her, the world would not know the Nanking massacre as it is now,' he says, 'I hope people will see the film and carry on her spirit.'