Saturday, November 14, 2009

Chapter 3: On the Port

Kaohsiung: a place where no one had ever heard of before, a place where people had dark sun-kissed skin, a place where the Chinese actually sounded like an entirely foreign language. She lost communication with her husband in the turmoil but had two soldiers accompanying her. Cradled in her arms was the one who ate then slept, woke then ate -- Ying Da.

Mei-jun sized up her surroundings... the streets were packed with disoriented refugees, their faces grim and anxious. This day in May was exceptionally hot but the refugees wore their tattered cotton clothes still. Take it off and indecently expose a bare body, keep it on and endure the insufferable humid weather. A spell of heavy rain suddenly caught the refugees off guard, sending them fleeing for shelter in all directions, only to find that there were no roofs to hide under. Resigned, many sat on the floor and let the rain pour down.

With the army disbanded and husband lost, Mei-jun could no longer claim to be a "military dependent"... all at once no one cared about her anymore. Those two soldiers, sons of village farmers, lost their military status as well. Mei-jun actually never fully understood this major historical turning point, but soon grasped its consequences -- from now on, aside from herself, there was no one else to count on.

Mei-jun fished her pockets and scooped out a well-hidden five ounce piece of gold, heading out to find a place called Lingya Market. There, she began her independent life in an eight square foot - or 2.4 x 2.4 meters - vegetable vendor stall. At night, the two young men slept on the floor while Mei-jun tightly embraced her baby on roof of the stand, sharing one thinly covered blanket.

The next morning before it was light outside, Mei-jun instructed the two young men to buy several large watermelons, cut them into thin slices, place them out on a wooden board, and peddle them at the harbor. As fleets of boats flowed towards the port, evacuated military personnel and refugees arrived like water spilling over a levy. Her purpose in selling watermelon on this blisteringly hot day was two-fold: she could scrape some money together, but more importantly she could search for family -- if her husband was even still alive, he would most likely one day appear at that port.

Mei-jun's quickly expanded her little street stand. This daughter of Chun'an coolly observed her surroundings and realized that refugees were rebuilding their lives, starting with houses. They needed bamboo, nails, hammers, string, and other types of building materials. From that, Mei-jun earned a bit of money. She then noticed that the majority refugees were from Shandong, and quickly stocked up her store with sacks and sacks of rice noodles. Southern accents and Northern tones filled the city air, but the refugees knew that not only could find everything that they needed at Mei-jun's shop, but the owner also spoke Mandarin, was generous, warm-hearted, and kind-spirited.

Mei-jun shed her cheongsam and began to only wear loosely-fitted frocks, providing for her child and accepting the burden of hard labor.

However, the lively Mei-jun also embraced periods of quiet solitude. After parking her truck at the entrance of a large warehouse, she rode a bicycle that was reserved to deliver goods and head towards the harbor alone. Military ships slowly docked and slowly departed... waves of people flowed into the port, waves of people dispersed. The sounds of whistles resonated and lingered in the air, curling in the wind.

A policeman in uniform patroled by the entrance of a large warehouse, glimpsed upon the delicate silhouette of a young mainland woman, and could not resist to take one more peek.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Chapter 2: Hiding From the Rain

[Translator's Note: Wow. Just wow. I always knew that translation was not going to be easy, but I'm finding it extremely difficult to find words in the English language that can even somewhat match the breadth of feeling that is the Chinese language. English is obviously my first language, but this exercise was completely eye-opening. I cannot say that I'm confident in my work below, but hey, it's a start. Also, you will notice that there's a lot of commas going on here. The Chinese love their long sentences but they become run-ons only when you convert it into English. I had to chop some of these behemoth sentences up to my own discretion. There's also a bit of slight added improv to make the translated sentences make sense in English. Now, I present to you my first Frankenstein.]

The migration from Chun'an was a difficult and arduous one, hopping from train station to train station, passing through rivers, through lakes, over mountains. After a year and a half, it was impossible to understand how things came to be. Mei-jun was confused to find herself standing at this chaotic port on Hainan Island. Here, waves of migrants surged towards docked vessels, looking for a way to salvage their lives, having already lost communication with their husbands stranded on the wrong side of the shore.

Hainan Island was the official point of retreat. It was May of 1950 and the People's Republic of China had already been officially established for half a year, but not for Hainan Island and parts of the southwest. Here was war. Battalions of Nationalist soldiers under orders to provide cover for this official retreat fulfilled their responsibility as they were hotly pursued under gunfire from the Liberation Army, only to reach the port and find themselves standing helpless by the shore, abandoned by their very own warships. As cannon rounds hit the warships' bulwarks, those now safely on the ships fought back heavy tears as they witnessed their saviors, these soldiers who had protected them from incoming assault, left behind and completely forsaken. Injured soldiers stranded at the port and now devoid of hope, crumpled to the ground and sobbed. Those yet uninjured stood at the shore as if they had reached the edge of the world -- behind them were their homes cut off by ten thousand li of war front, before them was the cruel rejection of the vast sea.

The soldiers that made it onto the vessels were stunned senseless at the turn of events. Virtually wiped out at The Battle of Xu-Bang, the remaining survivors from the 64th Corp made it onto the emergency boat evacuation. Out of the 7,000 officers and men, over 1,000 were young prisoners captured en route.

The boats were to depart for Taiwan, but where was Taiwan? The captain of the ship didn't know either.

After the vessel pulled away from cannons' range of fire, the Navy navigators took out their map and searched for Taiwan.

A soldier asked his superior, "When will we reach this place?"

The officer said, "I'm not sure, but we'll know when we get there. We've never been to this 'Taiwan', but I heard it's not a bad place."

Even as Officer Jian Bu-Cheng from the 64th Corp comforted his men, he too was filled with profound dread and anxiety. He himself hadn't the slightest clue as to where Taiwan was or what it was like. Like faithful and courageous Su Wu in his shepherding days, Officer Jian had endured and survived battles from snow-covered lands all the way to Hainan Island, his body and spirit now completely depleted and consumed. After consoling his soldiers, he turned to comfort himself. "Life is hard and the journey is long. We can take a short break and hide from the rain at this place called 'Taiwan'."

Never in his wildest dreams did he think that while waiting out this period of "rain" it would soon be 1964.

Pale faced Mei-jun warmly held an infant sound asleep in her arms, welcoming the baby to the world just a few days after her birth, but make no mistake, this was another child. Mei-jun's other child that she had brought with her from Chun'an was just dispatched to his grandmother in Hunan, but this particular infant was born on Hainan Island. She was given the name "Ying Da" (應達). The reasoning behind this was to bestow hope amidst insurmountable obstacles so she could reach (達到) her goals. This was a good name, an appropriate name.

Countless small boats jammed and bumped against each other as they ferried soldiers and their families onto the large ships that could not dock at port. Once the boats were positioned, hysterical passengers crawled like spiders up a web of rope ladders draped against the bulwarks. Many did not have the strength to climb, many could not hold on, and so many fell into the sea.

The cannon blasts exploded overhead, triggering a stampede and causing many of the small transport boats to flip over. Some of the boats were almost within reach of escape but could not make it in time, their passengers left blinking in a stupor. Distressed pleas for help from the port filled the air as the ships sailed off, falling on deaf ears. A heavy curtain of fear fell.

The sea that day was a scene from a silent picture film, with head tops bobbing, sinking, floating, struggling as far as an eye could see across the horizon. Whenever a head popped above water, you could discern a pair of eyes filled with dread, a mouth wide open gasping for air... but no sound. We cannot hear words projected from the bottom of the heart. We cannot hear their mind's dying shout. History is always silent.

Suitcases, countless suitcases that now blanketed the water, bobbed up and down amongst the oil-stained ocean.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Chapter 1: Mei-jun Leaves Home

[Translator's Note: I translated Chapter 1 after already completing 2-4... not exactly sure why I skipped this chapter in the first place, perhaps because it wasn't all that dramatic compared to the others, although now looking back it would have helped since it sets up the story. I manually dated this entry November 7th although I published this entry retroactively on December 28th, 2009 so that readers can enjoy a certain order.]

Mei-jun left the old city of Chun'an on January 1949, shortly after the cross-strait steamship Taiping (太平輪) sank.

She was a 24 year old woman with short hair permed to the latest fashion, wearing flats that were easy to walk in and carrying a chubby infant bundled on her back. Two soldiers accompanied mother and son to Changzhou (常州市) in Jiangsu province, where Mei-jun's husband served as chief of military police.

It was already a time of chaos and turmoil when Mei-jun was pressed to take flight. Her words of departure to her mother were nothing out of the ordinary: "I'll be back soon." Although she knew that her thin frail mother, a woman with bound feet, stood by the doorway watching her leave, Mei-jun did not turn around to look back at her even once.

Mei-jun never looked back at Chun'an.

From Mei-jun's point of view, the deep yawning courtyard, the sound of horse hooves on the cobblestone lane, and the crystal clear Xin'an river than ran behind her old home were all as immutable as the moon and stars. A simple fact of life, for who would consider to say goodbye to the moon and stars even in a state of unrest? People die. Families scatter. Dynasties fall. But who would believe that an entire city, especially a city with over a thousand years of history like Chun'an, could possibly disappear? Mei-jun was never overly sentimental. She was smart, decisive, and resolute. All the townspeople knew that daughter of the Ying Family was a formidable woman, one who at the age of 17 could travel alone down the river to Hangzhou (杭州) and peddle off an entire boat's cargo by herself.

One time after selling all her goods at Hangzhou, Mei-jun caught a ride back with a family also heading to Chun'an, their boat full with salt. Halfway home they were stopped by soldiers looking to seize any illegal cargo. The people on the boat, their faces grey with worry, were so panic-stricken that they looked like they were going to jump ship. It dawned upon Mei-jun that the salt on this boat was mostly civilian and thus unauthorized by the government.

Mei-jun observed the panic-stricken elders, appraised the circumstance, and took ahold of the situation. She waved at everyone to listen and said, "Slow the boat down."

She ordered the workers to first quickly bring the two sacks of government salt to the front of the boat, then fetch a young buxom woman to sit at the entrance of where they stored the civilian salt. She asked the woman to take off her top, only leaving her undergarments. Like a movie director, Mei-jun instructed the woman where to sit, how to sit, and then appraised the scene, adding, "Loosen your hairpin and let down your hair."

They heaved to a stop, letting the inspection boat come closer. One by one the gun-toting soldiers leaped onto the boat. Mei-jun invited the soldiers to first examine the two sacks of salt in the front of the boat, where they checked the labels, then grabbed a few handfuls to rub and sniff for closer verification. Satisfied with the first batch, the soldiers turned towards the back of the boat, where they suddenly found themselves facing an attractive southern Jiangsu woman sitting at the doorway, seeming to be putting her clothes back on. Her torso was milky white, her back smooth and exposed. The soldiers were completely startled, and Mei-jun quickly stepped in to excuse the young woman, "We're very sorry! My sister-in-law just finished breastfeeding her baby..."

Rattled, the head inspector hastily stuttered, "We won't bother you any longer, you can go."

When the elders of Chun'an retold this story to me, Mei-jun just sat there chuckling to the side.

Mei-jun told me that the last time she left Chun'an she did something out of the ordinary - she actually turned around to look at the two stone lions flanking the city gate for many many dynasties. The day she left, the lions crouched there so reassuredly, leaving her no reason to doubt or wonder that they would continue to stay there until the end of time.

Chun'an was established by the great General He Qi for Kingdom of Wu during the period of the Three Kingdoms. At that time, Chun'an was a simple agricultural society called Shan Yue (山越), eventually developing into a small sophisticated town in the Kingdom of Wu. The famous upright official Hai Rui once served as Chun'an's county magistrate, and to honor him the people of Chun'an built a temple (海公祠) in his name. As a little girl, Mei-jun passed by this temple everyday.

Mei-jun would describe to me the furnishings in her old home: a cypress dining table that seated eight, the wood releasing wafts of fragrance that assailed your nostrils; her mother's bed, the headboard completely detailed with delicately carved flowers; the courtyard's black ceramic water urns, each all filled with tall and proud pink lotus flowers; the portraits of three generations of ancestors hung in the middle of the lobby, which despite the fact that Mei-jun could not discern who was who, she still proudly explained, "Somebody in the very last row of ancestors wearing Qing Dynasty government official robes is Great-great grandfather. He passed the triennial provincial civil-service examination and served as a liushou (留守) in Qu Zhou (衢州). He was a high government official!"

I asked her, "What does a liushou do?" She tilted her head to the side and thought for a bit, finally saying, "I'm not sure, it's probably... hm, chief of police?"

[Translator's Note: "Liushou (留守)" is historically defined as the person who runs the capital city in the emperor's absence or someone who is in charge of a provisional capital. It seems like Mei-jun's great great grandfather was indeed someone very important! I thought it was amusing that Mei-jun thought that Great-great grandfather was perhaps the chief of police, which is what her husband is. :)]

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Ready, Get Set, Go!

Just to prevent any confusion, this project will be translating only the first few chapters to pique interest in Big River Big Sea - Untold Stories of 1949 (大江大海一九四九). Just from feedback from my American-born Chinese friends and some general scouring on the internet, there seems to be substantial interest from English readers in the content of this book despite the obvious language barrier.

The titles of the entries will list which chapter in case someone decides to purchase the actual book and use this as a reference. Of course, I am not a professional translator, so this is my disclaimer for any shortcomings. :)

In addition, I would like to encourage readers to submit any family stories related to this subject. All Chinese have been affected by the events of 1949 and onward, but each tale is unique and worth sharing with the world. If you feel inspired to, please let your story be heard and share it with this blog.

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