Monday, 19 September 2011

Book Review - Chinese Whispers

Chinese Whispers: A Journey Into Betrayal
Jan Wong
London: Atlantic House, 2010

I read my first Jan Wong book, Red China Blues, when I was in third year at UBC, Vancouver, Canada. I was an aspiring sinologist at the time, eager to learn more about the country which would become the heart of my studies until this very day. At the time, I thought Red China Blues was a great book. Easy to read, intersecting between history, personal anecdotes, and stories of places that I had never been to, but would love to visit some day.

And so, I had much anticipation when I started reading Chinese Whispers; it superseded all my expectations. Since my UBC days, I’ve read a considerable amount of books on China, some of them having the similar theme of comparing China now and then. But none grabbed my attention more than Jan Wong’s Chinese Whispers. None kept me from enjoying a pirated DVD of a Hollywood blockbuster on a Sunday afternoon.

Maybe it was because Jan wrote about China, particularly Beijing, partly in the years when I was in Beijing. Thus, many of the images she drew coincided with how I viewed Beijing. The post-reform, pre-Olympics Beijing.

Maybe because Mrs. Wong provided me with answers on the question I most asked when I traveled the many parts of Beijing “What was this place like before China opened up to the world? What kind of life did they experience here before Beijing was decided as the site of the 2008 Olympics?” My first trip to China was in 2003, and even then I noticed so many changes to the city. I cannot even begin to imagine the differences between 1970s Beijing and now.

Maybe because Jan intelligently tied in her own observations (both as an ultra-leftist in 1970s China, as a reporter of the Globe in the 1980s, and as a mom of two half-Chinese Canadians in this century) with current facts, historical accounts, reflections by well-known sinologists, etc. Other writers have tried the same, but Jan was more successful than others, with her writing style, running like water, very easy to read, understand, and take in wholly.

And maybe because Jan’s comparison of the old and new China was developed within the framework of her own very interesting story: to find Yin Luoyi and seek absolution of past mistakes. Everything built up from the bottom, brick by brick, each piece of information emerging one at a time, filling in the gaps, one by one. Of course, some account does not go into detail, but it was enough, more than enough.

I smiled and giggled… I used my highlighter to underline lines I wanted to use as quotes… I was taken back to Beijing and its unusual people… Well, at least, unusual from my perspective…

Jan Wong’s travel story is not only about her physical travel to a changed Beijing, but also her personal account of travelling during China’s most changing times (the Cultural revolution, the Tiananmen time, and post-Tiananmen development), and more importantly, an account of how China and the Chinese have changed over the years. Their views and feelings… Their pain and vindication… Their optimism for years to come.

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