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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 43.
- Review Date: 2008-10-06
- Reviewer: Staff
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.)
Journalist faces her past in China
Few among us can look back without regret at some silly youthful decision that had unforeseen consequences. Canadian journalist Jan Wong has had an even bigger burden to bear than most: A Chinese Canadian, Wong was one of the first Westerners allowed to study at Beijing University in the early 1970s. The Cultural Revolution was under way, and Wong, an inexperienced enthusiast of 20, was a Maoist. When a Chinese student acquaintance named Yin Luoyi asked Wong to help her get to the U.S., Wong promptly reported Yin to her Communist professors. Years later, as a foreign correspondent with few illusions, she covered the Tiananmen Square massacre for the Toronto Globe and Mail. When she ultimately remembered her casual betrayal, she realized she had "thoughtlessly destroyed a young woman I didn't even know."
A Comrade Lost and Found, Wong's second book on China, is about her quest to make amends to Yinand to tell the story of Beijing's evolution from its grim, xenophobic Maoist past to its recent pre-crash incarnation as flamboyant boomtown. Wong is known for the amusing but ruthless candor of her celebrity interviews, and she brings that quality to her own tale. She structures the book as a search for Yin, as she travels back to Beijing with her husband Norman, himself an old China hand, and their very Canadian teenage sons. With little to go on, she pesters old friends and professors for information.
She learns through them how many Chinese have failed to come to terms with the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, even as they return to a pre-revolutionary culture of entrepreneurism and conspicuous consumption. Old Beijing is disappearing; the new city lacks distinction. Her university Red Guard pals now vie for the biggest homes and sneer at rural migrants, while remaining silent about their own tragedies and betrayals.
As the book's title indicates, Wong does eventually find Yin, with unexpected results. It turns out to have been worth the trouble, for Wong and for readers of this honest, funny, illuminating book.
Anne Bartlett is a journalist in Washington, D.C.