Egg on Mao
By Denise Chong
Random House Canada, $32.95
Ottawa author Denise Chong tried to look inconspicuous as she stood at the pre-arranged rendezvous point on a busy street in the Chinese city of Liuyang.
Before arriving, Chong had used a map to memorize the layout of the city and the locations of her clandestine destinations. She did not want to arouse suspicion or provoke queries from helpful strangers by looking lost or in search of something forbidden to foreigners.
Chong is of Chinese ancestry, lived in Beijing for a few years and has travelled to the country frequently, so she has learned how to blend in as much as possible. In her younger days, her glamorous, western-style hairdo and clothes would have instantly betrayed her as a foreigner gliding through a sea of dull Mao suits and stern haircuts.
These days, Chong jokes, she runs the risk of being the dowdy one, the only woman in China, it seems, without a dyed orange streak in her hair.
Amid the traffic of Liuyang, Chong pulled out a faded pink baseball cap and put it on her head. That was the signal. A stranger approached. The two walked towards the Liuyang River. The secrets of Liuyang were about to be revealed.
Those secrets can be found in the newly published book, Egg on Mao: The Story of An Ordinary Man Who Defaced An Icon And Unmasked A Dictatorship. This is Chong's astounding story of Lu Decheng, a young bus mechanic from Liuyang imprisoned for nine years after he and two friends threw 30 paint-filled eggs on the giant portrait of Mao Tse-tung (often spelled Zedong) permanently displayed in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
The incident happened just after 2 p.m. on May 23, 1989, amid the pro-democracy student protests that ended so brutally when tanks bulldozed their way into the crowds, killing hundreds, if not thousands.
Chong's book opens with the egg-throwing. The three men are quickly betrayed by the student demonstrators, turned over to the police and sentenced to long years in prison.
Interspersed with these events are alternating chapters on Decheng's childhood and youth, showing how he came to despise Mao and the communist regime.
This was a regime that disciplined Decheng, while a young schoolboy, for failing to cry at a memorial for Mao, shortly after the death of the communist leader. (This transgression came back to haunt Decheng, the adult, when the authorities were investigating his egg-throwing.)
This was also a regime that tried to prevent Decheng and his girlfriend, Qiuping, both 17 at the time, from living together or getting married. And then when Qiuping became pregnant, the authorities tried to force her to have an abortion because she lacked a birth permit.
This was also a regime that tried to exploit the great love between Decheng, the prisoner, and Qiuping, the dutiful wife, for political purposes. In the end, the regime crushed that love.
By the time Decheng was released from jail, he and Qiuping were divorced. He soon remarried and later fled to Burma, then Thailand and, in 2006, he came to Canada.
Now, in poor health, he lives in Calgary with his second wife and their two sons. Decheng's daughter from his first marriage has also come to Canada.
The other two egg-throwers served even longer prison sentences than Decheng. They have both recently left China to settle in Indiana. The three men have considerable star power within the West's Chinese pro-democracy movement.
Chong had avoided high-profile dissidents while doing her research in China. This was just before the Olympics in 2008. Prominent human rights activists were surely being watched. Meeting such people could have hindered more than helped her.
Chong is perhaps best known for her 1995 book, The Concubine's Children, the story of her maternal grandfather, the wife he left in China and the concubine he brought to Vancouver. That concubine was Chong's grandmother.
A second book, The Girl in the Picture, is the true story of Kim Phuc, the subject of a widely publicized photograph of a screaming, naked Vietnamese girl fleeing an American napalm bomb attack on her village. As with Egg on Mao, Chong had to engage in cloak-and-dagger activities in Vietnam to research The Girl in the Picture. Phuc had been a potent symbol for the Vietnamese communists of American horrors. Her eventual escape to the West thus became a huge embarrassment for the Vietnamese government.
Chong's cloak-and-dagger activities in China could have serious consequences for her and her family. Some of her relatives advised her against writing the book and angering the Chinese government to the point that Chong and members of her family could be prevented from entering China again, even to visit other close relatives.
"There was great pressure from friends, from family," Chong said in an interview. "They said, 'Why did you do this, because you're never going to get back to China?' And did I have unfulfilled ambitions in China? I want to take my son to China. My mother's sister is still alive there. And I said: 'If I don't have the courage to write this kind of story and let it pass by, I'm undermining my whole subject area of human rights.'"
Despite the pressure, Chong says she "never waivered." Her own relatives living in China would want this story told, she believes. "I'm doing my mother's sister a service, too, by writing this story."
Chong does not lecture in Egg on Mao. The story is told in a straight, matter-of-fact manner. There are no particular villainous characters in the tale, even among the police, jail guards and other authorities. The communist system itself is the villain. It is a system that taints an entire society, turning kindly old grandmothers into hectoring shrews forced to meet their monthly quotas for forcing young or unmarried women into having abortions.
Decheng was unsure if he wanted to open up and tell his story to Chong when she initially approached him. He first wanted to read one of her books, but in Chinese. There is a Chinese-language translation of The Girl in the Picture. Decheng read it and was pleased.
"He felt I would treat his story with respect," says Chong.
Decheng's 10-year-old son is better in English than his father. So the boy is reading and explaining Chong's newly published book to him. The boy is especially pleased with the book's prologue, a poetical anecdote from his father's own boyhood that serves as a metaphor for the life to come.
In the prologue, young Decheng and some playmates are at the shore of the Liuyang River to see who can throw a stone into an orange grove across the expanse of water. Only Decheng is successful. This greatly impresses his friends at the time. And, many years later, it greatly impresses a 10-year-old boy in Calgary learning about his father's past.
Chong, too, seemed impressed with young Decheng's prowess at the river. That first day in Liuyang, wearing her faded pink baseball cap, Chong and her secret companion headed straight for the river to see where little Decheng learned to throw rocks to great effect.
Book launch: Denise Chong will launch Egg on Mao on Oct. 27 at 7:30 p.m. at Library and Archives Canada, 395 Wellington St. West.