Monday, December 18, 2017

A Tong Village in China

Book review: A Village with My Name by Scott Tong, University of Chicago Press, 2017

Scott Tong writes about his journey in search of his roots in China. Readers will find his descriptions full of whimsical humor and be charmed by his understated style as he tells of his search in the far-flung corners of China.

With the professional diligence of a journalist, he went to some obscure places and met with many everyday folks and wrote down the trials and travails of the Chinese people as they lived through some of the most tumultuous times in China.

Scott’s paternal grandfather left Shanghai on virtually one of the last leaky boats for Taiwan before the city fell to the People’s Liberation Army. He took Scott’s father, then a young boy, with him but left his then wife and younger son behind. This decision meant that Scott grew up with an all American life experience while his cousins in China suffered from deprivation and castigation as a direct consequence of their grandfather’s decision.

Scott’s maternal grandmother left for Hong Kong shortly after the Chinese Communist took over Shanghai. She had three young children with her; the youngest was Scott’s mother. Scott’s mother was seven at the time and she remembered her father seeing them off at the train station; neither side realized that they would not see each other again. Scott’s parents met in America and raised their family in America.

Between the post WWII period and the early years of Chinese Communist Party’s liberation of China, some of the Chinese with means departed from China. These were scholars that found academic appointment overseas, professionals that followed Chiang Kai-shek to Taiwan or wealthy families that resettled in Hong Kong and neighboring parts of Southeast Asia.

To varying degrees, when this group of emigres read Scott’s stories, they will see reflections of the histories of their own families and the challenges, the hurt and tragedies their relatives faced; all during the era when China transformed from a state in disarray to a modern global power. Some of Scott’s stories are also their stories.

The author was born and raised in America and did not show early interest in his Chinese background. It was after he and his family lived in Shanghai for four years and had already returned to the U.S. that he began to research and search for his family roots in China. He was the founding China bureau chief for NPR Marketplace from 2006 to 2010. 

The book opens with Scott and his father in a van bouncing around a dirt road looking for a place named Fumaying, literally the military camp of the Emperor’s son-in-law. It was an obscure name in a brief moment of Ming dynasty history, named for a son-in-law of the founding Ming emperor (Fu Ma is the title of someone who married a princess). After the founding Ming emperor died, the throne was to pass to his grandson of his first-born son, but the martial fourth son and uncle of the newly anointed emperor swept down from Beijing to usurp the throne and the Fu Ma apparently perished in the cross fire. Soon after, the place faded into obscurity.

Miraculously, the author found some locals that passed him from one source to another to another until they found the village of Tongs near the site of the former Fumaying. From his distant relatives, he extracted the story of his great grandfather who studied in Japan and brought back a Japanese wife and that fact may or may not have saved the village from Japanese atrocities when the conflict began.

His maternal grandfather that his mother barely knew was an important part of Scott’s quest. He was arrested among the first wave of anti-rightest movement in the early ‘50s and sent to a remote and barren region of Qinghai. There he perished without leaving so much as a trace. Yet Scott flew to Xining, the capital of Qinghai and boarded daylong bus ride westward to where the long abandoned camp was supposed to be. He found people he could talk to that could help him frame a likely fate and as an act of closure, brought back handfuls of dirt to honor his grandfather’s memory.

The narrative of his travel and interviews are interwoven with the historical background and color that could only have been obtained from long hours in the library and visits to archives, both in China and in the U.S. Reading his book is to learn a lot about China’s recent history dating from the beginning of the republic era to the war with Japan to the civil war between the KMT and the CCP and then the early years of PRC.

He didn’t try to impress the reader with how hard he worked to tell his story and he didn’t tug at the reader’s heartstrings with some truly sad personal stories of his relatives. He just let them tell their stories. For example, his maternal grandfather put his wife and three children on the train to Hong Kong and said goodbye. Afterwards, he wrote to his children about his lonely feelings going back to an empty house. He fully expected to rejoin them soon.

Scott spent many hours talking to his uncle living in Shanghai. This uncle was the younger son Scott’s grandfather did not take to Taiwan. He grew up during the Cultural Revolution and suffered abusive treatment for having relatives living in Taiwan but he never expressed bitterness about his fate to Scott. Perhaps it is enough that he adopted his mother’s family name and is not a Tong. Yet despite whatever his feelings for the father that abandoned him, he was most hospitable to Scott and met with him frequently and did much to help him understand the China undergoing a revolutionary transformation.

As a U.S. trained journalist, the author could have followed the customary western preoccupation of looking under every carpet for dirt on China.  With the possible exception of James Fallows and Evan Osnos, most western media reports on China show compulsory bias to accentuate the negative, including some of Scott Tong’s own Marketplace reports from China. He himself said, “My time as a reporter in China led me to assume public offices were xenophobic, corrupt, or useless—or all three.”

Fortunately for this book, Scott encountered many willing to tell what it was like to live under the Japanese, Chiang’s Nationalist and Mao’s Communist regimes. By telling their stories simply without embellishments, his portrayals come across as genuine and authentic.

Parts of his book resonated with me. My father, the oldest of three brothers left for the U.S. shortly after WWII to continue his graduate studies. His youngest brother was a member of the KMT party and followed Chiang to Taiwan—also leaving a wife and children behind.

The middle brother was arrested by the CCP and sent to laogai camp in Qinghai around the time of Scott’s grandfather—even perhaps to the same camp. During the Great Famine, the oldest daughter took the youngest son to Hong Kong and met up with the third uncle who took them to Taiwan. The three siblings in the middle stayed in Shanghai with their mother and kept a low profile so as to avoid the verbal and physical abuse for having relatives in Taiwan and U.S.

Scott Tong’s book is a wonderful read and one can learn a lot about China from his multi-generational sagas. However, the reader should keep in mind that what happened to Scott’s family and relatives represent only a tiny fraction of the Chinese population. In the days of his grandparents, far less than one percent of the Chinese population went to college and even fewer went overseas for further education. These, along with the wealthy class, were the people that were persecuted by Mao, not the masses consisting of farmers and laborers.

No comments: