A Comrade Lost and Found: A Beijing Memoir

A Comrade Lost and Found: A Beijing Memoir

by Jan Wong

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In the early 1970s, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, Jan Wong traveled from Canada to become one of only two Westerners permitted to study at Beijing University. One day a fellow student, Yin Luoyi, asked for help getting to the United States. Wong, then a starry-eyed Maoist from Montreal, immediately reported her to the authorities, and shortly thereafter


In the early 1970s, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, Jan Wong traveled from Canada to become one of only two Westerners permitted to study at Beijing University. One day a fellow student, Yin Luoyi, asked for help getting to the United States. Wong, then a starry-eyed Maoist from Montreal, immediately reported her to the authorities, and shortly thereafter Yin disappeared. Thirty-three years later, hoping to make amends, Wong revisits the Chinese capital to search for the person who has haunted her conscience. At the very least, she wants to discover whether Yin survived. But Wong finds the new Beijing bewildering. Phone numbers, addresses, and even names change with startling frequency. In a society determined to bury the past, Yin Luoyi will be hard to find.

As she traces her way from one former comrade to the next, Wong unearths not only the fate of the woman she betrayed but a web that mirrors the strange and dramatic journey of contemporary China and rekindles all of her love for—and disillusionment with—her ancestral land.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“This deft intertwining of personal and historical perspectives makes for a riveting, human-scaled look at a nation so ambiguous to the West. A.”—Entertainment Weekly

Publishers Weekly

As a young student, award-winning Canadian journalist Wong (Red China Blues) spent a year in Beijing on a foreign exchange program during the cultural revolution, and in this suspenseful, elegantly written book, she recounts her return to the city in an effort to find a former classmate she betrayed with grave consequences. As a fervent young Maoist eager to fit in with her compatriots, the author had voluntarily informed on Yin Luoyi, who had been interested in visiting America at a time when expressing approval for the "imperialist running dogs" could lead to expulsion, ostracism or worse; Yin was expelled from the school. Wong returns to a transformed Beijing. Gone is the semirural capital where the author's "revolutionary" course of study included bouts of hard labor and "self criticism" sessions. In its place are eight-lane expressways lit up "like Christmas trees," shiny skyscrapers and the largest shopping mall in the world. Wong is a gifted storyteller, and hers is a deeply personal and richly detailed eyewitness account of China's journey to glossy modernity. (Feb.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
Toronto journalist Wong (Beijing Confidential, 2007, etc.) recounts an extended trip she took to China to seek out a fellow student she had denounced during the Cultural Revolution. In 1972, self-described "Montreal Maoist" Wong was invited to study at Beijing University. The 19-year-old, third-generation Chinese-Canadian was the first student there from the Great White North since the start of the Cultural Revolution. As a True Believer, she was the perfect guinea pig to restart an international student exchange, even though she did not then speak Mandarin. Indeed, she was such an enthusiastic collaborator in her own brainwashing, she admits, that she denounced a Chinese student, Yin, who confided that she wanted to get to America. Yin was subsequently expelled, and the author lost all trace of her. Guilt over her plight continued to plague Wong, and she resolved to track down Yin and apologize. In August 2006, the 53-year-old author boarded a plane with her white husband (whose Chinese name she humorously translates as Fat Paycheck) and her two reluctant teenaged sons. In search of Yin, she tracked down old acquaintances at the university, bouncing among cell-phone numbers in the new Beijing, where change was the only constant. Along the way, she confronted the great void left by the Maoist era. After Chinese society's stunning about-face from fanatically revolutionary to zealously capitalist, participants in the Cultural Revolution had opted for collective amnesia, and 28 years of university records simply didn't exist. Wong's memoir offers a penetrating, frequently hilarious glimpse inside this teeming culture of wily rule-breakers and bargain-hunters on the eve of the 2008 Olympics,as Beijing was transformed by cataclysmic construction. Her private journey proved fruitful, allowing the author to explore a painful, confusing past, soothe old wounds and seek clarity and catharsis. A candid, rewarding memoir that achieves both distance and intimacy.

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt


Mission Impossible

On the tarmac at Newark International Airport, a heat wave makes the August air dance. Inside our Boeing 777, a black flight attendant sings out the standard Chinese greeting. "Ni hao," she chimes, mangling the tones. Nevertheless the passengers, mostly mainland Chinese, seem pleased. When even this American female is trying to speak their language, it reinforces their view that the Middle Kingdom is, once again, the center of the world.

My husband, Norman, and I lived in Beijing for years during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. On this trip back, we are bringing two reluctant fellow travelers, our teenaged sons, Ben, sixteen, and Sam, thirteen. As usual these days on flights to Beijing, every seat is taken. The Chinese passengers in their knock-off Burberry outfits are more self-assured than the handful who left the mainland during Chairman Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. In the 1970s, the Chinese who traveled abroad were members of official delegations, kept on short leashes, tight schedules and tiny cash allowances.

Foreigners heading to China faced obstacles, too. Beijing rarely issued visas to Americans, but Norman was deemed to be "friendly." His father, Jack Shulman, had been an aide to William Z. Foster, longtime head of the Communist Party USA. In 1965, Jack had gone to Beijing to polish English-language propaganda at Xinhua, the state-run New China News Agency. To the Chinese, it was natural for a son to join his father. Filial piety, however, wasn’t Norman’s motivating factor. The Vietnam War was. At twenty-two, he was looking for an interesting place to dodge the draft.

In 1966, his journey from New York City to Beijing would take days. The United States had no diplomatic relations with China. To obtain a visa, Norman had to fly to London. From there, the only air route to mainland China was a twice-monthly Pakistan International Airlines flight to Canton, now known as Guangzhou. PIA normally refueled twice en route, in Karachi and Dhaka. At the time, India was at war with Pakistan, so Norman’s flight was rerouted through Colombo, Sri Lanka. When his flight finally landed in Canton, he was a jet-lagged wreck. But the arrival of a foreigner was a rare chance to feast at government expense. Hungry local officials insisted on feeding him a ten-course banquet, after which they bundled him aboard a three-hour flight to Beijing.

Forty years later, Continental Airlines flight 89 takes thirteen hours. With the Cold War over, it zips across the Arctic Circle and the former Soviet Union. Our tickets are a bargain, too, 80 percent less expensive in real terms than when I first went to China in 1972. The Middle Kingdom is still on the other side of the world, but it’s no longer far away.

Ben and Sam spent their earliest years in Beijing. They were born during my six-year posting as China correspondent for the Toronto Globe and Mail. Sam was one when we moved back to Canada in 1994. He remembers nothing. Ben, who was four, has fragmented memories. He recalls making little cakes from Play-Doh with Nanny Ma. He remembers wandering into the kitchen to sit on Cook Mu’s lap.

In 2003, the year severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, broke out in Beijing (and Toronto), Norman and I figured the Great Wall might not be too crowded. After the all-clear, we took the boys back for the grand tour. Along with the Wall, we visited the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the terra cotta warriors in Xi’an, the Shanghai Bund and the Yangtze River. We picked grapes in Kashgar and sledded down sand dunes in the Gobi Desert.

Now, when I propose a holiday in Beijing, my sons both groan. Ben would rather hang out in Toronto with his girlfriend, Tash, and go mountain biking with friends. Sam prefers to play road hockey and chat on MSN. The boys grow markedly unenthusiastic when I mention I also plan to hire a Chinese tutor in Beijing so they can start each day with private Mandarin lessons.

"Um, do I have to go?" Sam asks politely, hoping good manners will get him off the hook.

"Yes," I say.

"Why do I have to go?" Ben asks belligerently, hoping attitude will get him off the hook.

"Because," I reply enigmatically, "I need you."

First U.S. edition

Copyright © 2007 Jan Wong

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be submitted online at www.harcourt.com/contact or mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

First published in Canada as Beijing Confidential by Doubleday Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited in 2007.

Meet the Author

JAN WONG was the Beijing correspondent for the Toronto Globe and Mail from 1988 to 1994 and received a George Polk Award and other honors for her reporting. Wong has written for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, among other publications, and is the author of three books, including Red China Blues.

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