A life less ordinary

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 January, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 January, 2003, 12:00am

AT 14, TAM SO-LAN ran away from home to join Mao Zedong's army. The year was 1949, it was a school holiday, and a friend asked if she wanted to become a communist soldier. Despite her father being a ranking Kuomintang officer, she said yes, bid her grandmother goodbye and left.

Her immediate family never saw her again. Years later, she tried to trace her father and brother (her mother had died when she was a girl) but they seemed to have been swallowed up in that epic period of China's turbulent history.

Tam, now Polly Edwards, 67, has had an equally tumultuous past. But hers is a story that has remained in the background of her public life with Jack Edwards, 84, a former Japanese prisoner of war and honorary chairman of the Hong Kong Ex-servicemen's Association and the chairman of the Hong Kong and China branch of the Royal British Legion. Married to Jack since 1990, Polly can be seen at all former-POW functions, encouraging and supporting those who need help. It seems a natural role to play for someone who has lived a more dramatic life than most.

More than 50 years after leaving her family home in Wuhan in Hubei, she recalls her first day at Changsha in Hunan province - where she enlisted - and the excitement and romance the army seemed to promise. At 6am, the new recruits were roused and given 20 minutes to make their beds and get ready for their first drill. 'We were all young girls and boys, hundreds of us, marching on this big ground. Turn left, turn right; turn left, turn right,' Polly says, turning her torso this way and that, head held high.

The marching continued until 8am, when breakfast of congee, vegetables, meat and nuts was served. 'We never had a table,' she remembers, explaining that meals were eaten sitting on the floor. The rest of the morning was spent in the fields, farming vegetables, and from 2pm, there were three hours of classes in Chinese, maths, Chinese literature and history. After dinner came self-criticism sessions, at which recruits discussed their shortcomings and vowed to improve themselves. Lights out was at 10pm.

Polly, who was known in the army as Tam Ping, says the first month of endless marching taught her the importance not only of self-respect and independence but also doing as she was told, namely to 'work hard and be a very good girl'. This appeared to pay off when a female officer showed up at Changsha to pick dancers and singers. The recruits stood to attention while the woman pointed to individuals, telling them to join one of two groups.

That was how Polly's career as a dancer in Mao's army began. Having no choice in the matter, she knew only that she was expected to obey and train hard to become part of the army's travelling troupe of entertainers. Her days started at 5.30am with exercises before breakfast, followed by more exercises, classes and performances. She learned ballet as well as Russian and Chinese military-style dance, using wooden guns for props. Within six months, Polly was leader of a group of 20; she would later dance for troops throughout the mainland.

Though she recalls enjoying her time especially in Hainan - where 'the people were friendly, and the weather was nice' - there were harsh lessons to be learned. In 1953, after a performance by her troupe in Kwangsi, they were told there was 'something special' for them to see. Taken to an open field, they saw a 'group of wretches, their hands tied behind their backs and long sticks poking out from behind their heads with their names on them'.

A firing squad made short work of the group in front of the dancers. No explanation was given. 'It was horrible. We were so shocked and frightened,' Polly says, clutching her chest. 'Even today, my heart beats very fast when I think about it.' Explaining that executions on the mainland are carried out in the same fashion today, in fields, open to public view, she adds that her troupe was probably made to witness the killings because party superiors wanted to drive home the message that there were consequences for not toeing the communist line.

In 1958, Polly married an army instructor. He had seen her dancing and had been impressed; she was flattered by the attention of someone senior to her in both age and rank. With no parents to show her the proper steps to take, she agreed to 'a union of mutual consent': the couple hosted a dinner for friends and were considered married.

Three years later, she came to another crossroads in her life. While performing a pirouette, she twisted her left knee and had to undergo surgery. Told she could no longer dance professionally, she resigned from the army and received a lump sum gratuity payment of 600 yuan. Her monthly salary, after having spent more than 11 years in Mao's army, was just 30 yuan, six times the amount she earned as a fresh recruit.

In 1962, pregnant and tired of waiting for her husband to send for her from Hong Kong, where he had gone several months earlier in search of work, Polly burned all traces of her identity and sneaked across the border. She never found him.

Recalling how helpless she felt - knowing no one and unable to speak the local language - she now credits Mao's army with helping her survive the next few years. 'The army was excellent training to be self-sufficient,' she says. 'So you have no one to help you? You help yourself. That's what happens in real life.'

Polly quickly found work as a Putonghua teacher, which saw her through her pregnancy. And after her daughter Lillian was born, she supported them both by teaching and working as a private dance instructor. She learned Cantonese by day and English at night school, where she chose for herself the name Polly, having seen it on a class list.

The real impetus for improving her English, however, came in 1974, when a friend introduced her at a party to Jack Edwards. She liked dancing; he liked singing - and the rest is history.

Her eyes light up as she recalls part of their first conversation. 'He said, 'I was a soldier and I had a real gun.' So I said, 'I was a soldier too, and I also had a gun: a wooden gun.' ' When Jack discovered the gun was a dance prop, 'he laughed so much, he couldn't stop laughing', Polly adds. 'Then he said, 'I think it's a great job using a wooden gun for dancing'. And we laughed together.'

At their home in Sha Tin, however, Jack remembers their relationship was not without its trials. For instance, Polly didn't see a need to marry him, saying, 'We're already happy; we don't need to be married,' he recalls. 'I couldn't make her understand that she must have my name and my ring on her finger. She didn't appreciate how important it was to me that she must get the respect of the world.'

Though he couldn't introduce Polly as his wife when he was awarded his MBE for his services to the community at Buckingham Palace in 1984, he made sure everyone knew she was Mrs Edwards on his return to the palace in 1997 to collect his OBE.

On September 4, 1990, 16 years after they met, the pair finally exchanged vows at the Sha Tin registry, with Polly's daughter as maid of honour. It was the second marriage for both. Taking care to look every bit the bride, she wore a full-length cheongsam and carried a bouquet of orchids. Jack played his part admirably, too. To satisfy guests curious to know how the bridegroom would carry his bride across the threshold, he swept Polly into his arms and held her chest high to loud cheers and applause.

The following day, he did the job properly when he carried her into the house he had bought in Cardiff, Wales, Jack's home country. They have since sold the place, deciding once and for all that Hong Kong is home. They now welcome visitors from around the world, including other former POWs they have met through Jack's work.

Although life had already dealt Polly several hard blows, she faced yet another challenge in the summer of 2000. 'I was in the living room when I heard this bang,' Jack recalls. He rushed into the kitchen, thinking she had fallen. Instead, she was on the floor, having a heart attack. Worse was to come. While undergoing heart surgery, Polly suffered a stroke.

Her recovery was quick, however. Three weeks after the operation, she was admitted to Sha Tin Hospital to recuperate. She spent a month receiving physiotherapy and exercising. By autumn she was dragging a foot, but walking without a cane. Today, there is no visible trace of the stroke.

If the truth were known, Jack says, concern for him was the main factor in her extraordinary return to full mobility. 'I am completely dependent on her,' he admits. 'She even thinks for me, stubborn and opinionated old goat that I am.'

So how do they explain their happiness? Jack looks at Polly, his chest puffing out with pride, 'She's known throughout the world wherever former POWs gather,' he says. 'We found our heaven through our private hells.'

As part of celebrations for our centenary this year, we will be featuring personal stories of long-time Hong Kong residents. If you have an interesting story to tell, or know someone with wonderful memories of days past, please contact Virginia Maher at [email protected]