Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Chapter 7: Not Seeing You Is an Impossibility

I'm very pleased to introduce our guest translator, Scott! He's a friend of mine from NTU's International Chinese Language Program and has taken an deep interest in participating in this translation project. I think it is very interesting to see how others read and interpret Lung Yingtai's writing. Thank you Scott for your contribution in bringing this Big River Big Sea's stories to the English-speaking world.

I arrived in Guangzhou. When I asked the locals if they had heard of Tianhe Airfield they all shook their heads. No one seemed to know.

Finally someone said "I haven't heard of Tianhe Airfield but there is a Tianhe Sports Center." and so I went there.

It was an enormous stadium bounded by streets jammed with cars and people. I wondered where among all this chaos would I find the remains of an old military airbase. But when I turned around my heart almost stopped. Across the street stood a solitary old wall next to a deserted bus depot. On the wall was written neatly "Air Force Logistics - Guangzhou Office." To my surprise, the characters were in the traditional style no longer used after 1949.

Well. This is definitely the place.

Mei Jun's husband Long Huai Sheng, had once brought his military policy company here to defend Tianhe Airfield. Soon thereafter, he would feel his life's most glorious duty had arrived.
?May 1949, the President has taken Zhong Mei 1 (中美一號)and arrived at Tianhe Airfield. Vice President Li ZongRen (李宗仁), Administrative Head Yan Xi Shan (閻錫山), and other high level senior officials were waiting at the airfield to greet him. During this time, we are heightening surveillance and urging everyone to maintain increased vigilance. We are prepared for any contingency."
I leafed through Huaisheng's handwritten memoirs, thinking to myself, Dad, in May 1949, Chiang Kai-Shek had already stepped down and was no longer president. How could you forgot that May? The capital Nanjing had already fallen and Shanghai would soon follow. Chiang Kai-Shek had taken the warship "Taikang" (太康) with Jing Jiang Lun (張靜江) and was scouting the islands between the Taiwan and Zhejiang coast; investigating the conditions and considering how best to deploy his forces for an eventual counterattack. In May he was nowhere near Guangzhou! Look: in Chiang's own diary, May 18th 1949, he's written his investigation of Penghu.
"Yesterday in the late afternoon I went sightseeing along the coast near the hotel. I looked out over the coast of Yu Weng Island (漁翁島). Although the area was vast, nowhere was its elevation more than 50 meters and on the beach were very few trees. It does not appear vegetation grows easily here. In regards to animals while it appears that there is some abundance of Indian cows there does not appear to be enough excess feed to raise other livestock. The salinity of the soil appears to be quite high. Whether livestock or crops, neither will be easy to raise. This area is also frequented by a great many typhoons. Nevertheless this location is of prime importance as it is the center point of Taiwan, Fuzhou, Xiamen, and Shantou; not just a protective screen for Taiwan. As I had overlooked the heat and extreme humidity of this island I took a bath upon my return and listened to Xia Gong Quan (夏功權) report on the situation in Xiamen. Afterwards I went to bed at 10."
As a thirty year old Military Police Company Commander, Lung Huai Sheng was earnestly defending Tianhe Airfield he naturally didn't know that on the larger historical chessboard matters were already settled: He was a pawn in enemy territory. But at that time he merely stood looking out over the streaming crowd of people, this tide of refugees, pouring along the large road in front of Tianhe Airfield and bound for the HuangPu docks. He definitely didn't know, that in that crowd of people rushing before his eyes were over five thousand high school students from Shandong. In exile for thousands of miles, their principals at that moment in talks with the national army generals, how could these children board the boats before them bound for Taiwan? And yet that island whose "salinity of the soil appears to be quite high. Whether livestocks or crops, neither will be easy to raise." The Penghu island "frequented by a great many typhoons" was opening its mouth, awaiting their arrival.

That year, as the President of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology was setting a new record in high temperature superconductivity, famous physicist Zhu Jing Wu (朱經武) was a seven years old boy; a child who liked to play in the mud, catch mud fish, and do electricity experiments with broken bits of iron and bronze. He had followed his parents and siblings, eight of them as well as a grandmother, from Wuhan on boats and in cars on a road steadily bound for the South. Before leaving the gates of their city they had taken a small yellow dog with them, carried him seemingly to the ends of the earth. But Jing Wu didn't realize, as soon as they boarded a train, that the dog would leap out the window and vanish without a trace. Our little Jing Wu almost cried.

Zhu's father was a Chinese-American who had studied piloting at Portland Aeronautic University (波特蘭的航空學校). In 1931, after the 918 incident broke out the then high spirited 26 year old Zhu Gan Ting (朱甘亭) felt his blood boil. His mind was in tumult day and night until finally he made a fateful decision: giving his beloved Harley-Davidson motorcycle to a good friend (this friend was shocked at Zhu's new found [Warrior with a cut wrist*] mentality) Zhu Gan Ting turned and left San Fransisco; flying to Nanjing where he enlisted in the Chinese Air force.

[Translator's Note: The idiom "壯士斷腕“, which I have translated as "Warrior with a cut wrist" is far superior in the original. In the Chinese the idiom refers to a certain type of warrior spirit; that of a warrior who if bitten on the hand by a poisonous snake would chop off that hand so as to continue fighting. Here it is used somewhat facetiously.]

In May of 1949 as the Zhu family reached Guangzhou Second Lieutenant Zhu Gan Ting helped them to the Huangpu docks where they could directly board the ships and wait for his return. Because Zhu was responsible for handling surplus goods and materials, he needed to pledge a case of gold belonging to Airforce Logistics to get on the boat. He told his family, I'm going to hurry up and do this and then I will see you on the ship.

"But," Jing Wu said, "We waited and waited, straight till midnight, but dad never came. The docks were full of people who couldn't board the boat. Outside the refugees slept in the open air and soon the boat was to start. But dad was still nowhere to be seen. My Mom was anxious and scared and my grandmother's face was etched with worry. Finally, at two in the morning, my father finally appeared. Our tension was released. His entire face was covered with sweat. Apparently, when my father's Jeep was passing Tianhe Airfield, somehow, for reasons he couldn't explain, the gold trunk fell off and scattered over the ground. He was stopped by one of the MPs attached to Tianhe Airfield. No matter what, they were not going to let him go. He negotiated till midnight but still they wouldn't release him. Finally, empty handed and lacking other options he made his escape."

"What?" I asked, "Are you saying the military police at Tianhe Airfield?"

"Yes," Jing Wu answered, "That case of gold was taken by the military police. He almost wasn't able to escape. If he hadn't hurried back to the boat it's probable our family would have been broken up. From there the fate of the family- including myself- would have most likely been of two types"

"Slow Down Jing Wu," I said, "Are you saying my dad stole your dad's case of gold?"

He laughed, somewhat pleased with himself. "You could say that."

"Don't laugh, I remember my Dad's memoirs brought up gold. Wait a second."

From the written works room of Hong Kong University's Robert Black College I again took down my father's memoirs and found the section on Tianhe Airfield.
"May 1949. Stopped over in Guangzhou waiting for orders. In charge of Tianhe Airfield security. In addition all along the road from the airport to Hong Kong we will be doubling the watch, in order to ensure the airports security. There is a smuggling organization here headed by a man named Liu (劉) who has provided 500 ounces of gold as a bribe in exchange for our letting 30 trucks of smuggled goods through. Although I am not charged with suppressing smuggling I immediately refused in no uncertain terms and reported the matter to higher authorities."
I noted this part and read it to Zhu Jing Wu word by word, line by line. Then I asked him "What's this? Was your dad "Zhu" named "Liu" in those days?"

A Personal Note: Biking Along the Da Han River

Hello to my (one, maybe two?) loyal readers. :)

A couple of chapter translations are on its way -- things have been a bit hectic on my end recently, mainly because I'm preparing to go back to New York for a couple weeks to celebrate Chinese New Year with my family. It's been almost one year since I left New York for Asia, and I find myself to be fairly anxious to be coming back home... like I'm blanketed by this nervous energy. When I was still in the city, everytime I came back to Flushing I'd always find something new/different/gone with my dynamic neighborhood. Things change, that's a fact. Another fact is that my previous statement is especially true in this particular half-century, as illustrated in Big River Big Sea: Untold Stories of 1949. Our young generation is a mobile one, and this has become the standard, the status quo, even the expectation. Personally, I'm incredibly grateful for this mobility, but with new opportunities come hard choices. Or perhaps it's only hard because we have so many to decide from...

Last week I biked from Wanhua (萬華) to Yingge (鶯歌) with my father. Recently he's taken to staying in Taipei for months at a time; this city has truly become a very comfortable (and cheap!) place for an old retired man to live in. We explore Taipei's bicycle paths quite often because they're extremely well-paved, thought-out, scenic routes. Anyway, this particular trip was special to me because we passed by my father's old neighborhood of Shulin (樹林) on the way to Yingge. Here are some thoughts that I would like to share with you all --

We passed by a sign that said "樹林高中" -- my father was quite the delinquent back in the day, the kind of kid that none of the teachers expected anything out of! Apparently his grades were so low that his teacher told my grandmother that he would never pass the High School Placement Exam and should just shoot for a local high school -- 樹林高中. My grandmother was a formidable lady who fiercely loved her children... one of those rare Chinese parents who never let a teacher beat their child with a ruler or exact any sort of punishment what-so-ever. She basically said "F you" to that teacher and pulled my father out of school for a year to better prepare for the placement exam. I was totally shocked, "You got LEFT BACK?!!!!"... to which he responded, "Taking a break from school for a year isn't the same as getting left back, okay?!!" Not a convincing argument there! I am the proud daughter of a middle school delinquent. :)

What's my point here? My dad not only eventually went to high school, but passed the College Placement Exam, which was a huge deal during his day. Most students couldn't pass the exam back then. Afterwards, he came to the United States to get his Masters Degree, became a computer programmer, worked at Wall Street, raised two children in New York, sent them both to college. Surely his teacher never expected this out of his worst student. I write this to remind myself that current setbacks don't determine your life path, and that success can also be loosely defined.

I asked my father, "Why don't you ever go back to Shulin and take a look at your childhood home?" He let out a sad sigh, paused for a bit, and said, "Things have changed so much since I left. My childhood home doesn't exist in this particular world anymore... only in my dreams. That's why I never want to go back, because then I'd see that everything's gone and changed, and because I'd rather keep living in this dream."

And as if the world wanted to prove him correct, right after he said this we came upon this section of the Da Han River (大漢溪):

"Oh my god! I used to play here when I was a kid! This used to be a waterfall, like Niagara Falls, with huge boulders and the cleanest water. The kids who were stronger swimmers could jump in right where the arc is, while the weaker swimmers would play in these shallow pools farther downstream. During sunny days, you could jump into the water and look straight to the bottom. There were so many fish, all these schools of fish! Even your grandmother would come play sometimes... she'd put on a bathing suit and catch shrimp."

"Clean water? That's a far reach... how about just WATER?" I thought to myself. Readers -- can you imagine this place teeming with shrimp and schools of fish? That is the Da Han River that exists in my father's dream.

My father took this picture on January 20, 2010. Check out this website that I found that shows pictures of this section of Da Han River just a couple years ago. Shocking stuff.

I feel like this experience with my father closely mirrors some of the themes that Lung Yingtai conveys with her stories of Mei-jun, Chun'an, and the Xin'an River. Change is a common phenomenon -- it's a catalyst for improvement, a opportunity to reflect upon choices. I could feel my father sadly ruminating upon the past for those moments, but then we biked along to Yingge and marveled upon the vast improvements Taipei has made since he left the country in the 1970s. Overall, it was one of the best days I've ever had with my father, and I'm sure he feels the same way too.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Chapter 6: The Woman Left Behind

Mei-jun passed through Chun'an's city gates, securely cradling her baby to her chest. She arrived at the Hangzhou train station, a departure point mobbed with refugees desperately jamming themselves onto the next departing train; people were strapped onto the train roof, suspended from the doors, crushed against the windows, crouched under the seats, crammed on the aisles. The train was headed towards Guangzhou, but stopped mid route at a small desolate town -- the train had run out of coal. To keep the train moving, military officers appealed to the passengers for donations, collecting money to replenish their fuel supply.

The train continued to Guangzhou again, but not for long. The train tracks before them were twisted and needed to be realigned. Everyone must wait. While waiting, Mei-jun narrated, the mother sitting next to her, a woman who on the entire journey tightly held her four, five year old child, said to her little boy, "Darling, wait here, okay? Don't move."

The woman crawled over the other passengers and climbed out of the train car, walking a fair distance along the tracks. She squat behind a small shrub to relieve herself. Finished, she straightened up and headed back to her train car, but it was too late. The train was moving again.

"All we could do was stare in horror as this woman futilely tried to chase the train down. She called and ran after us, and upon realization that the train would not slow down, was reduced to crying and stumbling along the train tracks. Her little boy in the train car howled for his mother, but no one had any power to make the train stop..."

"Do you remember what she looked like?" I asked.

"I remember the image of her trying to chase down the train, hair disheveled, flying in all directions..."

Mei-jun opened her mouth to say something and then stopped herself. Then she started again, "I often wonder how that child is doing today."

At Hengshan (衡山), Hunan Province, Mei-jun and her two escorting soldiers protected her baby from the throng of people as they pushed their way off the train.

Thinking back to the woman left behind on the train tracks, Mei-jun decided that she would entrust the baby cradled in her arms with his grandmother at Hengshan. The surrounding panic and chaos left her deeply worried that her child could accidentally be crushed to death or die of an contagious disease on the poorly ventilated train cars. Mei-jun saw with her own eyes the number of infants and elderly that never made it to the next stop.

Yingyang (應揚) was passed along to his grandmother at the Hengshan station and watched his mother depart. He was too young to know how to even wave back.

Mei-jun continued down south until she finally reached Guangzhou. Her husband, leading a troop of military police, were stationed at Guangzhou's Tianhe Airfield (廣州天河機場).

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Chapter 5: 96 Upper Zhi Street

[Translator's Note: Firstly, HAPPY NEW YEAR! New decade, new beginnings, a fresh start. :)

After recently seeing several English films with Chinese subtitles, I've come to the realization that translating does not mean that we have to faithfully maintain the original sentence structures and word usage. Different languages have their own unique modes of expression, and a translator's value is his or her ability to transition certain feelings and nuances successfully such that those readers of another cultural background can understand what's being conveyed. Otherwise, we can run everything through Google Translate, case closed! Anyway, I'm going to try to employ this strategy and see whether I'm more satisfied with the results.]

It's been a few years since Mei-jun forgot who I was.

Now after accompanying her on walks, she politely turns to me and says, "Thank you, come again."

I need to reintroduce myself every few minutes, to which she first reacts with flashes of confusion and then quickly gathers herself. Civil and poised, she replies, "Hello."

Even though she cannot remember her only daughter, she strangely enough still remembers Chun'an.

One time while taking her on a drive through Taiwan's Pingtung county, she remained completely reserved, quietly taking in the mountain scenery through the car window. Suddenly, she broke out of her silence, "Straight down this road is Hai Gong Temple (海公祠), and after the bend, drive towards the river and you'll find my house."

[Translator's Note: 海公祠 is the temple erected for Hai Rui that Mei-jun walked by everyday as a child, as mentioned in Chapter 1.]

I took a peek at her from the rearview mirror, noting that although she was already eighty-four years old, she was indeed still handsome and charming.

I asked her, "Are you Ying Mei-jun?"

She happily replied, "Yes!"

"Are you from Chun'an?"

She was pleasantly surprised, "Indeed, I'm from Chun'an. How did you know?"

The sky turned dark and I tucked her into bed. She timidly asked, "Where is my father? My mother?"

I decided to make a trip to Chun'an and find Yu Nian-chun (余年春).

For Mei-jun, I searched for the old village that she would never see again.

Yu Nian-chun was of the same age and village as Mei-jun. In the few years before the completion of the Three Gorges Dam, the Chinese government moved and resettled millions of residents in the surrounding area. Even after going through great pains to build completely new towns and allocate compensation funds, there were still those lifelong residents who refused to yield a single inch. Yu Nian-chun had stood there with hot tears streaming down his face, knowing that he could not change this grim reality.

He recalled the manner in which the people of Chun'an were forced to relocate in 1958 and 59, how they were coerced to leave their ancestral homes, the same homes their families had lived in for thousands of years.

In 1957, Mao Zedong promoted the slogan "Surpass England, Catch Up To America" (超英趕美) and during the Eight Big Preparation Conference fervently declared that the Communist Party must "completely turnover the backward state that we've been mired in for the last hundred years, in which other countries feel like they can look down and take advantage of us. We will catch up to the world's most powerful capitalist nation: The United States of America. This is one of our responsibilities such that Chinese people do not remain unworthy compared to other races, and that we maintain our membership in the world community."

This eager line of thinking triggered rapid development plans of the Xin'an River. It was deemed that "nation's prosperity" required the relocation of three hundred thousand Chun'an townspeople, thus erasing each and every village, demolishing each and every house. Chun'an, which for thousands of years was many people's very definition of "home", had its society dismantled and villagers displaced to the most barren and remote corners of the world.

At the end, no matter where those from Chun'an resettled, local residents would always see them as a collection of unintelligible, haggard, and utterly destitute "refugees". They no longer owned fragrant cypress dining tables that seated eight, no longer had any way to convince the wary-eyed and indifferent locals that: "Hey! The bowls that I used to feed my dogs were all Song dynasty porcelains!" Those from Chun'an who had previously basked in the glory of cultivating the most erudite scholars were now degraded to miserable impoverished refugees, nameless residents who were all alone in the world, slowly picking up shattered pieces and starting over again.

If Mei-jun had not left Chun'an in 1949, she would have met the same fate as her father, mother, and even her own child. Those villagers who were forced to resettle experienced the following:

Lian Village (練村) is by and far the most renowned village in Chun'an, with 214 households, 883 residents. It is a very prosperous place that was built with the riverbank in the front and mountain range in the back, where houses boasted black walls, blue-green tiles, and carved beams. On March 1959, they informed us that we would be compensated only 1.21 yuan for a carved amoire. We would receive 0.64 yuan for a cypress dining table. Tthe demolition crew arrived at our village on April 3rd, moving day. Grandmother Shao, a hundred year old lady, sat firmly on her chair crying and howling, refusing to budge a single inch. While the demolition crew worked on dismantling the beams of her house, others went to fetch the old grandmother, carrying both her and her chair out as one unit. The house collapsed as soon as they dragged her over the threshold.

Unable to fully accept his village's fate, eighty year old Yu Nian-chun spent five years to bring his submerged village back up to the surface, one penstroke at a time. Every ancestral hall, temple, government building, every piece of open space, every irrigation canal, every street and alleyway, even every household and storefront -- where was where, who was who, what was what -- Yu Nian-chun carefully gathered all these discarded details, leaving nothing behind. He sought out Chun'an's old scattered residents and interviewed them one by one, verifying each and every account. Then, just like a city planner, he took a pen and carefully composed an intricate blueprint of old Chun'an, bringing back the features of their village that was once so swiftly wiped away.

In front of me was a scroll, a well-ordered map of old Chun'an. It was the first time I laid my eyes on Mei-jun's beloved Xin'an River.

Facing this extraordinary map, I asked, "Do you know where Mei-jun's house is?"

"Yes," said Yu Nian-chun, "96 Upper Zhi Street."

He bent over the scroll and pointed to 96 Upper Zhi Street. Ah, so it was where Mei-jun had said... on the bank of the Xin'an River.

"This is accurate, no?" I asked.

"100% accurate." The old man was completely confident. "Look at this, Mei-jun's father was named Ying Fang-gou (應芳茍). This is what the map says!"

Stooping down to take a better look, I saw that the little grid scribbled 96 Upper Zhi Street indeed boasted those three words: Ying Fang-gou.

"Hmm..." I reflected, "when Mei-jun left Chun'an in 1949, there were two stone lions sitting by the city gates. She left through the entrance that faced Hangzhou (杭州) and then never looked back. Do you have those city gates on your map?"

"Right here." The old man pointed them out with his finger.

The three meter long scroll was splayed on a narrow wooden table, barely illuminated by the sunlight filtering through an old clouded window. Observing that this simple and crude room lacked a desk, I suddenly realized that this old man created this masterpiece standing on his knees. Yu Nian-chun painstakingly recreated Chun'an one penstroke at a time, this old village sunk beneath the waves that no one but those in his and Mei-jun's generation cared to remember anymore.

I returned to my hotel located on the bank of Qiandao Lake and watched a documentary on Chun'an.

To promote tourism, local government officials hired a film company to go to the bottom of the lake and investigate the village's aftermath. Enveloped by a forest of seaweed, Chun'an was fast asleep, discarded by history and man alike.

In the lake's abyss, everything was covered in a vast veil of darkness. The dark had no boundaries, rendering the camera's lights as effective as a small flashlight, leading blindly with a humble disc of light. Among the gently quivering patches of murky algae, an old room indistinctly appeared before our eyes. Carefully chiseled flowers... thick substantial wood -- this, could this be an image of Mei-jun's long lost world with carved beams and blue-green tiles, completely untouched?

The slow crawling light failed to reveal the two stone lions, but in my heart I knew -- without a doubt they were still faithfully sitting at the city gates, right where Mei-jun turned and looked back in 1949.

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