Yuan Hong rec'd an interview a while back, and I made a mental note to read it after his Mom replied with a sentimental tweet. I had some time while baking this afternoon. I ended up doing no baking and I can't make myself presentable for a girls' outing and I stayed in bed and cried my eyes out. This is my loose translation of it. I'm still balling, I have to keep swiping my drenched keyboard, eye blurred posting, so bear with me.
I have not been put through this reading an interview ever, living with this unbearable leaded heaviness. Mr. Gao (高秉涵), 77, is a reputable TW lawyer before his retirement, leaving his hometown in ShanDong as a 13 yo, the year was 1948, after almost a decade of the SinoJapanese occupation, WWII followed by an ongoing nasty civil war with KMT at the losing end.
'Those who have not wailed in the darkness of the night, will never know Life fully.' Its title, a quote from Mr Gao.
'I boarded the ship trampling on corpses.' Each ship could hold 10,000 passengers+/-, but there must be 10 times that number of KMT soldiers and refugees swarming to board like a human tidal wave of flesh. He's fled 6 months on foot fr his little village in ShanDong, Northern China to the archipelago of 'Golden Gate'/Kinmen off the coast of the mainland in Fujian, his leg wounded and infested with maggots. Holding a twig for walking, he's completely lost, clinching onto his mother's every words, 'Follow the crowd, and, live on.'
'You either tread forward crushing on those in front of you, or you'll be part of the 'path' of human flesh and bones.' Saved by a general dragging him by his shoulder just as he felt a heaviness, another soldier was about to use him as a human carpet, his shoes were long gone, he's plodding on warm flesh. No walking, he was shoved, skidding on top of the fallen. That's how he boarded. When the gates was closing, ship about to set sail, those stuck had their heads dicapitated, shooting everywhere along with severed limbs. Rather than the visual, the 13 year old child was most traumatized by the horrifying cries from land, wails from the doomed with their only lifeline just out of reach. Soldiers who didn't make it, opened fire at the ship, the deck was blood red. He hid in the bathroom, cramped with 7 or 8 others, not a wiggle room to move a hair, all the way to TW.
His parents started a new school in the rural village of HeZe (literally 'waterlily pond') in ShanDong. His grandfather has deep KMT roots, a renowned member of the party and inner circle of Dr Sun. 1948, the civil war was at its devastating peak, his dad, the schoolmaster was shot during a roughing, his sister vanished. It was much later they heard she went to YanAn a few province west. She shouted propaganda enthusiastically while Father was gunned down, later awarded a medal of honor from MZD, the model young female comrade she was.
His Mother was getting anxious for his safety, she put $20 KMT dollars, his middle school admission letter, a tassle from his dad's uniform worn at his death in his baggage. After 3 bows at Dad's grave, she sent him on his way to seek refuge at the school in Nanking.
His Mom was by his side all the way to the eastern outskirt of the town to board a horse drawn cart, there were around 20 children, all sitting on their baggage as seats. The sun rises just when they were all seated. His Mom pinched his ear to make him remember, 'follow the troops with a sun on their caps, don't come back until they do, or else you'll end up like your Dad, do you understand?'
It was September, pomegranates in season. Grandma shoved him one into his hands, it's so ripe the juicy arils are bursting out. The child takes a look at the red, glowing seeds, can't help but pick one up to eat. At this very moment, his classmate pokes him, 'Your Mom is calling you!'
He turns his head just when the cart turns around the bend. He missed seeing his mom for the last time by one turn.
The 77 yo Mr. Gao said, 'I have never eaten a bite of pomegranate for the rest of my life.'
There is a black scar on his calve. He has never worn shorts nor went swimming. Even though I know it's a very old scar, I still hesistate running my hands all over it. I lightly put my hand on it as if offering a covering, there is no meat, just swatches of black skin. He smiles, 'All eaten by worms.'
60 years ago, the Nanking school he fled to closed down, sending the students scattering on their feet. He has no place to go, and too afraid to go home. Following the exodus, he walked 6 provinces, 2000+ miles. There were people everywhere, in the rice fields, on cars, on donkeybacks, soldiers, refugees…. When the troops make camp, he would find a banana leave and beg himself a mouthful of congee. It's on one occasion with the shout of, 'Commie thieves are coming!' that soldiers spilled hot congee on his leg, everyone too busy running for their lives to care. He tagged along, and slowly fell back, in no time, he's alone, deep in the mountains a rainy night. He made himself a raincoat out of leaves, rags instead of shoes, a stick to walk by and fend off boars and monkeys. It was pitch dark when he found an abandoned temple to shelter. Tripping over a guy, he collapsed right next. Before dawn, he's woken up by rats scurrying all over him. He saw them feasting on the ears of the guy next to him. It was a corpse.
His wound was later disinfected and bandaged by a soldier with a star cap, but it worsened. A week later, he's treated by a soldier with a sun cap, he asked the soldier, 'Do you think of your mom?'
'I don't, I just think about survival. I live on because of her.'
He is one of the influx of 20 million refugees to the small island of TW. He slept on the train station bench, scavenged food after stray dogs had their pickings. 'I had no tomorrow. It was survival, "how do I live through today?" There's no telling how the morrow would fare,' He looks into my eyes, 'Do you understand my feelings? There was no tomorrow.' I can only say defeatedly, 'I understand what you are talking about….. but I can't imagine how it must've felt.'
The letter of his middle school admission his Mom stuffed in his baggage, his only possession left, is his life-saving talisman. It survived him being thrown off a train into a river. Because of the thin piece of paper, he got a chance to sit for the law school entrance exam. Graduating in 1963, he's sent to Kimmen, working as a judge.
'How did you spend the new year when you first landed in TW all alone?'
'Every new year's morning, I would head to the top of the mountain at the break of dawn and cried a good cry at the direction of mainland. I never cried back then, tears are for weakenings, so I didn't shy a tear. I just shouted at the top of my lungs.'
'What did you shout?'
'Mom. I screamed as loud as I could, 'Mom, I am thinking of you!'
He's been conversing in Mandarin all along. This is the only sentence he said with his thick ShanDong accent.
The first case under his jurisdiction was the case of a defector. He sneaked out while on duty, trying to swim across the Gulf of Kimmen back to his home in XiaMen just opposite the strait on the mainland coast. The next day, he reached land, he raised his hands in surrender, telling those pointing their guns at him, 'I'm back to see my mother!' He had no idea he swam a night against the current and was swept back to Kimmen.
The defector was not a soldier, he's a fisherman on his way to buy his mom medicine when he's snatched and forced to serve in the KMT army, very common in 1950. Although he knew of the dire straits, he still decided on the swim. It was a fine sunny day. Where he's stationed on duty that day, he could see the rooftop of his own fishing village.
Adhering to the law, he's sentenced to death by Gao.
'When you read out his death sentence, did you ask yourself would you do the same in his shoes?'
He didnt even take a thinking moment and spurted out, 'I would have made my escape faster, much earlier!'
Soldier Cheng asked him to perform the sentence as early as possible. 'He said he wished for the bullet earlier, so his spirit can go see his mom sooner.' Just before his sentence, he gave Mr Gao the package of medicines from 10+ years ago, he laid his hopes in Gao to bring it back to his mom, one day. If not possible, put the medicine in a bottle with his Mom's name 'Cheng He' written and let it drift at sea, maybe it'll travel back to his fishing village. The medicine were almost pulverized to powder at that point, Gao brought the package back home and he cried unontrollably. 'I've become the executioner, a killer of a son on his way back home missing his Mom.'
Just before the execution, there was a small detail he has never mentioned to anybody, because every time he thought of it, the pain is too much to bear. *He gave the dead man walking a cup of strong Kaoliang. He promptly said his goodbye to Mr Gao and started walking. Gao stalled him, 'wait a second.' Holding him back momentarily hoping to buy some time for the liquer to take effect and less suffering for comrade Cheng. Mr Gao broke into tears in the interview retelling.*
1979, he was at a meeting overseas, there were mainland representatives present and he was tempted to ask them to bring back a letter home for him, but the climate then was 'six Noes' No contact, no conversation, no photo….' and we were all under the watchful eyes of each other.' Much later, the letter was sent, via classmates in England, in US….addressed to his Mom Sung in HeZe, ShanDong. 'Mom, I still have the strive to live on all these passing years, I keep on living because I want to see you. Mom, please wait for me to be alive and well back home.'
May 12th the next year, he received his first letter fr home. When his letter got to HeZe, his mom was dead for a year. His brother said, ' After you left home, there was no laughter. Mom never ate during new year's eve dinner, she would only weep. She would sit on the side, with a bowl and a set of chopsticks set for you, "ChunXin (spring born, Mr Gao's nick), no matter if you are dead or alive, it's new year, have a meal with your mother.'
Under her pillow, there are 2 belongings she's kept all through the years, a photo of him as a child and a small padded jacket she made for him as a toddler.
When she was sewing the jacket for him, his Mom will hum a rhyme, 'Cold wind billowing, freezing rain spattering, the babies wandering need their coats.'
'How did you remember every word of the rhymn?'
'I need my coats in winter as I need my Mom. Winter coats are like our Mothers, right? The freezing rain and the cold wind are the adversities in life, I need warmth like I need my Mom'
A grandpa pushing 80, when he said 'Mom' it's still in the soft cooing of a child.
With his mother's passing, Mr Gao poured his emotions to the land. He said, ' Chiang KaiShek once said we would fight back, get back China, less and less likely as time passes.' He thought he could never go back, so he got married and have children in TW, his only criteria (in picking his wife) was an 'iron ricebowl' I don't understand, he explained, ' We were afraid of more wars, I could be a casulty any moment. I need to find a woman who can work, who can take care of the children by herself.'
He wrote 15 diaries for his offsprings, recording every minute detail of his childhood: plants, toys, scents, birds, animals, trees, his playmates and their games. His diaries are now worn from the years of reading by his kin from the same village in exile, some destroyed in the flood. Many of his 'brothers' have no education, no working skills, no wife nor family, some of them open small restaurants of their home specialties, living on through the small yearnings of home.
In early 80s, there was a HeKe villager who has since emigrated to Argentina, he stopped by TW en route, bringing along snacks and specialties from HeKe and 3 kg of dirt, distributed to 100+ oldtimers fr HeKe in TW. Each family can only get a spoonful. Mr Gao kept half his share carefully wrapped in plastic in his security box. The other half he split to 7 portions and drank them in a teapot of water. ' The water went in my mouth, but instantaneously left me through my eyes. I let out more than 7 pots of tears!. There was a Yuan songwriter, he said ones harboring wounds in their hearts are scattered at the far ends of the world. Only if you are a drifter away from home without a date of ever going home will you truly be one broken inside'
It has been 28 years. In his freezer there is still the sesame candy fr ShanDong and a pepper soup base in its package. It's too precious for him to eat it, his children have no interest in touching them, it's now hardened to bricks.
October 15th 1987, the ban on TW residents visiting Chinese relatives was lifted. In May 1991, Mr Gao made his trip home, at the entrance of his village, he stood there frozen for half an hour, he can't lift his leg to step inside. ' I was petrified, I was scared to make a move forward. No words could've described the feelings sweeping me, 'The fear of being close to home.' Our founding fathers (who've wax poetry over the notion) are all knowing, there is no more poignant description.
There was an old man at the entrance asking who he's looking for, he said, 'I was looking for Gao ChunXin.' His very own childhood nick.
'Aiya, GaoChunXin was dead long time ago, he died far away from home!' It was then he recognized the old man was his childhood playmate, he asked him if that playmate was around. The old man realized it was Gao ChunXin in front of him. They hugged and laughed and cried.
His house was long gone, his family moved away, only the old elm tree is left standing. He pulls a young fruit from the old tree, green and bitter, the taste he remembers as home. He cries a good cry, with tears, in front of his Mom's grave. The child who has left at 13 is finally home as an old man, almost 60 years has passed.
'Her wish was for you to live on, and you did it. What do you think of your Mom's hopes she has placed on you?'
'She was from a big, well-to-do family, and she planted herself in a small village to teach. I think her hopes was to light a glimmer of hope in dark places. I don't harbor hate or revenge, because the epicness of my time is not for me to cry over my body full of wounds. Through it all, against all odds, I survived. I have reached the coast and it is clear. I want to use my life to give out a bit of light or hope. I want the dead (my Mom) to have less suffering. I can't live in hate.'
He's the youngest, a lawyer and the chairman of their HeZe brotherhood. His friends are passing away one by one around him. Since 1992 he has been carrying their ashes from their graves in TW to their hometown. Once he's trapped in a pavillion at the graveyard in a severe rainstorm through the night, exposed to the elements with the ashes as his company. ' No worries, if there were mean spirits, he would've safeguard me.'
The ashes are stored in granite canister, each weighing 7 to 8 kg. He is only 44kg, transporting 2 of them every year in his suitcase. Every time the airport securities will give him a hard time of possibly trafficking drugs, every time he has to give longwinded explanations. He has now almost 50 canisters of ashes under his care to be carried back, he has kept some at his office, and even in his basement against his family's protests. He kept his Mom's belongings in his basement as well, he lives there everyday painting, writing calligraphy, spending time with them, sometimes he'll talk to them. He'll dream of them, after he wakes up, he'll close his eyes and reminisce the dream he just had –that is where his heart is at.
Many of the ashes he brought back to China, has no family to claim home. He'll find a old tree or a large cornfield at the village and scatters the ashes there while chatting with the soul. 'I've brought you home, back to earth. Rest in peace.'
The villagers is saying, this old man is mental.
'Is that longing (to lay final rest home) that important?'
'To us, those who have not wailed in the darkness of the night, will never know Life in full. We have drifted, we have wept through the night. Night after night. That's why our outlook in life is different. This is where the heart yearns.'
His granddaughters are given names blessing his mother and his village. If he has another grandchild, he'll name him/her in blessing of the motherland. 'It's like a puppy, even if you get him a new den with all the amenities, brandnew, rest assured, he'll still climb into his old den at night. Why? He will sniff around and know the new dig's not his scent.'
'Country is a man's den.'
'Don't ask me if it's all worth it. My mom's glasses are one touch from disintegrating, but it's my utmost treasure.' He will lightly touch all her little assessaries from time to time, the things she kept by her side, he take extra caution touching her brooch, afraid he'll rub off the rust. On the wall, hangs his mom's royal blue silk top. There is a spot of dirt near the chest, but he will not take it to the cleaners, he's afraid he'll lose a thread of the silk.
'Everyday I will come to the basement and bury my head in her clothes. It feels like I'm in her arms. I know I'm almost 80 years old, but I will always be a child inside.
The video of the interview:
The lyrics of the song used in the interview is by the famous singersongwriter activist Lo Da Yu 鄉愁四韻, Four Melancholies of Home:
給我一瓢長江水啊長江水 Give me a dipper of Yangtze river, oh Yangtze river
那酒一樣的長江水 The wine-like Yangtze river.
那醉酒的滋味是鄉愁的滋味 The taste of drunkeness is the same as missing home.
給我一瓢長江水啊長江水 Give me a dipper of Yangtze river, oh Yangtze river.
給我一張海棠紅啊海棠紅 Give me a flag of Begonia red, oh Begonia red
那血一樣的海棠紅 That blood-like Begonia red.
那沸血的燒痛是鄉愁的燒痛 The blood-boiling burn is the pain of missing home.
給我一張海棠紅啊海棠紅 Give me a flag of Begonia red, oh Begonia red.
給我一片雪花白呀雪花白 Give me a slab of Snowflake White, oh Snowflake White,
那信一樣的雪花白 Like a letter from home, pure and white.
那家信的等待是鄉愁的等待 The wait for the letter is the wait to go home.
給我一片雪花白呀雪花白 Give me a slab of Snowflake White, oh Snowflake White.
嗯..給我一朵臘梅香呀臘梅香 Ah…! Give me a blossom of fragrant wintry plum , oh fragrant wintry plum.
那母親一樣的臘梅香 From my mother, the fragrance.
那母親的芬芳是鄉土的芬芳 The fragrance of my Mom is the smell of my home.
給我一朵臘梅香呀臘梅香 Give me a blossom of fragrant wintry plum, oh fragrant wintry plum.
YangTze has long been regarded as the cradle of civilization. Its water is the milk of motherland.
Begonia is a bloom common along the YangTze, around Nanking, the scarlet red is also a metaphor for the Red PRC flag.
Snowflake White marble is mined in N. China, close to Carrera, just harder, it's black veins on the pure white is visually as attesting as a letter from home.
Plum blossom has always been a symbol of elegant perseverance in poetry, withstanding the harsh winter with its fragrance warming up the winter, giving us the hope of spring to come.