Quill and Quire

Jan Wong

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Jan Wong’s bad year

About halfway through Red China Blues, Jan Wong’s 1996 memoir of life at the University of Beijing during the Cultural Revolution, she recounts a dim memory of a fateful incident between herself and a fellow student. Yin Luoyi, a pretty young woman Wong had never met before, approached her out of the blue and asked for help obtaining passage to North America. Because Wong was, at that point, a rabid Maoist completely disenchanted with her earlier life in the West, she not only refused to help but reported Luoyi to the authorities. “Like millions of Red Guards our age,” Wong wrote, “[I was] trying to do the right thing for the Revolution…. The Communist party would save her from herself.”

Afterward, Wong promptly forgot all about what she’d done, and only remembered it almost two decades later, poring through her diaries. Though the incident was clearly a pivotal moment in Wong’s young life, it takes up less than four pages of Red China Blues, mostly because Wong never found out what happened to Luoyi and thus had no way of further illuminating the subject. The chapter ends with her simple plea: “May God forgive me.”

“I still get kicked in the head fairly often [for what I did] by people who write about me,” says Wong now. “They say, ‘Oh, she’s such a horrible human being, she turned in her roommate.’ I get that a lot.” The criticisms are, she admits, a small part of why she chose to write her latest book, Beijing Confidential, in which she goes in search of Luoyi in the hope of finding out what happened to her. “That little piece of my past had been nagging at me for years, and I thought, ‘Okay, why don’t I just go and try to find her and see if I can apologize?’” says Wong. So she packed up her husband and kids, flew to Beijing, and began what turned out to be a month-long search.

Beijing Confidential isn’t just about Luoyi, however – it’s Wong’s attempt to expand the historical scope of Red China Blues. The earlier book covered the period from the early 1970s up to the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square. But in the new book, Wong weaves her search for Luoyi into a broader look at Chinese history, from the 13th-century Yuan dynasty to the new era of post-Tiananmen capitalism. According to Wong, Luoyi wasn’t even originally supposed to be a part of the book – Doubleday Canada publisher Maya Mavjee simply asked Wong to write something about Beijing to coincide with the 2008 Olympics. “I didn’t tell anybody I was going to search for Luoyi, really,” says Wong. “I just told my family.” When she returned, after having found her, she told Mavjee and editor Martha Kanya-Forstner that she had come up with a perfect way into the subject.

Without giving away too much, we can say that Wong’s encounter with Luoyi was very different than what she expected, and that Luoyi – who has since changed her name to Lu Yi – proved to be an ideal embodiment of the ways in which Beijing itself has changed. Though Wong left the city feeling slightly better about her past mistake, she did not feel completely absolved. “In writing this, I had to dig down and find out what it was that made me so open to just going along with this completely new and alien society, and what made me want to conform,” says Wong. The best reason she could come up with was that it was mostly just youthful foolishness. “Mao relied upon the youth,” she explains. “Children and teenagers want to rebel against their parents, but within their group, they don’t want to be different, they want to belong. It’s sort of scary.”

Wong returned from her trip to Beijing in August 2006, and planned to spend the next few months writing the book while continuing to work at her day job as a staff reporter at The Globe and Mail. In September of that year, however, a wrench was thrown into those plans when the Globe sent her to Montreal to cover Kimveer Gill’s shooting rampage at Dawson College. As has been widely reported, Wong set off a firestorm of criticism for implying in her piece that “pure francophone” Quebecers tend to look down upon immigrants such as Gill’s family. The Globe even appeared to distance itself from Wong in subsequent editorials.

According to Wong, the public condemnation – which included non-stop media criticism, several death threats, and even a piece of hate mail containing excrement – sent her into a spiral of depression and ill health. “I was supposed to be writing Beijing Confidential, but I couldn’t,” she explains. “I missed my deadline for the first time in my life.” Eventually, she went on medical leave from the Globe – which she is still on as of this writing – and used two months of already-arranged book leave to finish Beijing Confidential. “It was a killer two months,” she says now.

Wong’s employment status with the Globe has been the subject of much speculation over the past year, but she cannot discuss the situation publicly. “I’ve been gagged,” she says simply. “I’m not allowed to talk about it or I’ll get fired. It’s very Chinese, actually.”

She also declined to discuss another upcoming project, a book inspired by a series of Globe articles about her experiences working as a maid for a month. (Her agent, John Pearce of Westwood Creative Artists, says only that the book is scheduled for publication with Key Porter Books in fall 2008.) All Wong will say is that the previous year has been the worst year of her professional life. Going forward, she will continue to do media promotion for Beijing Confidential, and has even begun to think about trying her hand at fiction. “I have a novel in the back of my mind, about [Chinese] railway workers coming into Canada,” she says. “I’m not sure I know how to do fiction, but to a reporter, it seems like such an easy way to write a book: you can just make it all up, with no research or interviewing! It’s very tempting.”