The persecuted journalist who fled Mao’s China for Hong Kong and the granddaughter out to tell family’s story in a graphic novel

Artist Tessa Hulls visits Hong Kong and Suzhou to learn about the remarkable life of grandmother she grew up with in California, and finds tracing her roots helps her bond with her own mother

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 January, 2017, 12:31pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 January, 2017, 5:31pm

Artist Tessa Hulls is working on her biggest project yet: a graphic novel that begins amid the chaos of Shanghai following the 1949 communist takeover. The main character in the story’s first section is a persecuted journalist and single mother, who eventually flees China with her young daughter for a new life in Hong Kong, and then the United States.

But the tale is no piece of fiction. It is based on research by Hulls, who is on a mission to piece together the life of her late Chinese grandmother, Sun Yi – the persecuted journalist in her novel. Sun’s daughter is Hulls’ mother, Rose Kappeler Hulls.

The San Francisco native’s journey of discovery has led Hulls on her first trip to Asia since she was an infant, to spend two months in Hong Kong and Suzhou, where her grandmother was born. Hulls has been joined on the trip by her mother, who still has old friends in Hong Kong.

“I grew up with my grandmother [in San Francisco]. She mostly spoke Shanghainese with my mum, and with her mental state I never got to know her,” says Hulls, 32, adding that her grandmother had bipolar disorder. “I knew she was a writer and journalist, but her voice just wasn’t accessible to me.

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“After she died [in 2012], I felt a lot of regret over that and wanted to reconnect with her story.”

Eighteen months into her project, Hulls has collected a large binder full of scanned photographs, translated articles and other research materials. She also has a sketchbook of bold black-and-white ink drawings depicting her discoveries in Hong Kong.

Seattle-based Hulls envisions her graphic novel being more than 300 pages long – the first section starting with her grandmother’s birth, the next revolving around her mother, and the final part dealing with her own life up to the present day.

Hulls learned from her mother that Sun was born in Suzhou in 1928 and, being smart, was able to enter college without finishing high school. She later became a journalist, working for right-wing newspapers that were later shut down when the communists took over.

Kappeler Hulls, 66, also helped by sharing a copy of Sun’s first book, a memoir entitled Eight Years in Shanghai. In between the paperback’s fragile, yellowed pages is a glamorous portrait of Sun, and the cherubic face of Kappeler Hulls as a child.

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Eighteen months ago, Hulls had the book translated into English, and what it revealed was astonishing. It recounts Sun’s life in Shanghai after the communist revolution – including state control over citizen’s lives, and power struggles. It also details Sun’s numerous romances with generals, a mayor, taipan and a bank manager. Another affair was with a Swiss diplomat, who was the father of Kappeler Hulls, born in 1950. Soon afterwards, he was transferred back to Switzerland, never to be seen again.

“I’ve had the book in my possession the whole time, but I was ambivalent about it being translated,” says Kappeler Hulls. “Reading the book brought back visceral memories without cognitive memory. I cried a lot because there was a lot of grief in the book. To think of what my mother went through I can literally feel myself on the edge of tears talking about it.”

When I read her [memoir Eight Years in Shanghai], I started remembering when I was three, four, five years old. I remember my anxiety of her being targeted and persecuted
Rose Kappeler Hulls on her mother, Sun Yi

Sun’s work for right-wing newspapers made her politically suspect. Kappeler Hulls recalls that the neighbourhood committee would intrude into their living space several times a week.

“I have no memory of growing up, but when I read her book, I started remembering when I was three, four, five years old. I remember my anxiety of her being targeted and persecuted,” she says, adding that her mother was once taken away to a police station for interrogation, and told her carer she didn’t know when she would return.

“My family in Suzhou says my mother was normal with an artistic temperament. But for eight years she was persecuted; surveillance, trauma and interrogation broke her health. I remember she had severe ulcers,” Kappeler Hulls says.

Another anxiety for Sun was the struggle to make enough money for her and her daughter to survive.

“My dad did leave a sum of money for her, which lasted for the first 2½ years of my life, because I remember there was a nanny. But it was maybe when I was three that we became destitute, until we left China.”

According to an obituary Hulls has unearthed, Sun applied for permission to leave China with her daughter four times between 1949 and 1957. They were finally allowed to leave in 1959 during the Great Leap Forward – when the country was gripped by famine. They took a boat to Macau and then got smuggled into Hong Kong.

Within a month of arriving in the city, Sun wrote Eight Years in Shanghai, and it became a sensation. The publishers planned multiple editions; however, Sun was only paid for the initial print run. Being short-changed triggered Sun’s paranoia and bipolar disorder, Kappeler Hulls says.

A year after settling in the city, Sun collapsed and was admitted to Kwong Wah Hospital, where she was diagnosed with anaemia. It was to be the first of frequent hospital stays. Kappeler Hulls, who was then a boarder at Diocesan Girls’ School, says she only saw her mother at weekends, and it was years before she found out her mother was receiving psychiatric care at Castle Peak Hospital.

When my grandmother died, my mum ... hugged her corpse because she could finally embrace her body again ... I don’t want to have to wait for my mum to die so I can hug her
Tessa Hulls

“I felt her profound love, that she was trying to protect me by putting me in boarding school,” she says. “Once I got a phone call at boarding school, which we weren’t allowed to receive. It was my mother’s landlady, who said, ‘You have to come home now because your mother is throwing bottles at people under her window’. So I rushed back and when I arrived she was fine because she didn’t want me to see her craziness.”

Sun nevertheless continued writing, and produced several more books, including Pyjama Story (the only one translated into English), as well as a collection of short stories called The First Good Morning, a novel titled Revelation, and a newspaper serial made into a book called First Night of the Thirteenth Moon. She also wrote for the Hong Kong Times and Sing Tao newspapers.

In 1970, Kappeler Hulls migrated to the US to attend university in Wisconsin. After settling in the San Francisco Bay area, her mother moved to live with her from 1977 until her death in 2012.

Researching the lives of her grandmother and mother has been quite a journey for Hulls, who says she feels both terrified and excited by the scale of her planned book.

“I feel focused. I’ve been a professional artist for a decade and this will be my first adult project ... [but] I’ve never tried to do anything this large before,” she says.

She has visited various museums, such as the Maritime Museum, to see what the harbour would have looked like when her mother and grandmother lived in Hong Kong, what the currency looked like, and even had a chance to visit the museum and archives at Castle Peak Hospital.

More importantly, though, the family history project has brought Hulls closer to her mother, she says, as their relationship had previously been distant. Seeing her mother’s reaction to the translated memoir of her own mother gave Hulls a greater understanding of what she went through and how it has profoundly affected her.

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“One thing that was powerful for me to hear was that my mother was the caretaker for my grandmother, basically from the age of eight onwards; she had no choice in that,” Hulls says. “I remember her telling me that towards the end of my grandmother’s life, she found that because of the whole burden of responsibility that had accumulated, she couldn’t embrace her mother. When my grandmother died, my mum told me she hugged her corpse because she could finally embrace her body again. And in this project, it’s really this feeling that I don’t want to have to wait for my mum to die so I can hug her.”

Kappeler Hulls agrees that her daughter’s project has helped them communicate and given them an opportunity for emotional reconciliation. The divide had to an extent been cultural, she says. “Growing up in Hong Kong I thought I was so Westernised, and then going to the United States didn’t really feel like there was any huge cultural adjustment because I was 18, 19 at the time. But raising kids is where I saw this cultural divide.”

Follow Tessa Hulls on Instagram @tessahulls