One Bright Moon, by Andrew Kwong

With Refugee Week (19-25 June 2022) coming up this Sunday, this was a good time to read Andrew Kwong’s memoir of a childhood in Mao Zedong’s China, and his escape to freedom in Australia. Winner of the the Michael Crouch Award for a debut work in the 2021 National Biography Awards, One Bright Moon refers to an image of hope that sustained the author’s family through long years of hardship, oppression and separation.  The memoir begins with the author’s childhood in Shiqi, an administrative town in Zhongshan, not far from the South China Sea.  At this time, his parents were denied work because they had been high school teachers in Hong Kong before the revolution in 1949, and thus were deemed high intellectuals.  For them, their initial hope that the new China would bring opportunities and benefits for them all soon turned to dust when they had to share their house with strangers and no jobs were allocated to them.  They were subjected to years of political persecution including compulsory nightly political meetings and re-education camps, and were reliant on money sent to them by Grandmother in Hong Kong. Little Ah-mun (who renamed himself Andrew as a teenager) was born into the first pure proletariat generation.   On my first day at kindergarten in September 1954, I was proud to already know the revolutionary slogans, songs and jingles.  I’d been born amid the drone of them, into a noisy world filled with enthusiasm for a good life and hatred for the evildoers, both local and foreign who had exploited China for centuries.  Since infancy I’d been infused with cries of revolution, denunciation and the struggle for freedom — indeed, they were my first babbling words, and now I loved shouting them with the other children.  The red stars on the flaps of our schoolbags shone in the morning sun and reflected in our happy faces.  We were a sea of little soldiers in khaki, ready to conquer the bad world under Chairman Mao. (p.11) School consisted of mainly shouting slogans and participating in communal projects such as The Four Pests campaign to support Mao’s grand plans for development.  But from half-heard worried conversations at home and the propaganda he was learning at school, Ah-mun soon discovered that his parents were not as progressive and communistic as he thought they were.  In 1955 the District Head told Baba that he was a capitalist intellectual with an outdated education and this meant that there was no future for the family in China.  It was this District Head  who had the power to approve visas for the only places they could go: Hong Kong (then a British colony) and Macau (at that time a Portuguese territory but now an autonomous region on the south coast of China, across the Pearl River Delta from Hong Kong.)  At five, (after bribes, of course) Ah-mun was approved to visit his grandmother in Hong Kong, but he was too homesick to stay there for long.  It was not long after his return that he witnessed his first public execution of a ‘class traitor’. It was some years later, after his father’s arduous and soul-destroying years in prison, that Ah-mun made the same journey, in vastly different circumstances.  The Great Leap Forward had failed, and the resultant famine was killing millions.  Travelling separately in 1962, Ah-mun and his father made their unobtrusive trip to Macau first, and then the more perilous voyage to Hong Kong. The stretch of some fifty kilometres of unpredictable water between Hong Kong and Macau is known to locals in the Pearl River Delta as the Lonely Sea.  Many people had been lost there to temperamental weather, including frequent typhoons.  July was a calmer season, they said.  However, there were lots of People’s Militia gunboats on patrol looking out for people trying to escape China.  There were also the Royal Hong Kong Marine Police boats that guarded the colony’s waters from people smugglers.  But Third Aunt said that the snake teams [people smugglers] were amazingly efficient in smoothing things out for these expeditions. (p.211) Ah-mun was among others dozing in the dark on the fishing junk when they were suddenly roused. The snake head hurried us down a small ladder to the lower level.  We were now jammed onto a smaller deck, close enough to feel each other’s racing heartbeats.  A doorway was open into the diesel engine’s compartment: on either side of it the walls were covered in wooden planks.  The snake head removed a few panels near the edge of the boat on each side, exposing two entrances to narrow crawl spaces between the wall of the engine room and the outer hull. Then he sought me out, where I hid behind the grown-ups, and told me to squeeze into one of the crawl spaces first.  I stared at the opening, not much bigger than a dog’s kennel, wondering how I would get in there. ‘Go right to the end,’ he ordered. On hands and knees I scrambled over the slimy, damp floor until I could go no further, rocked by the waves underneath as I crammed myself into the pointe

One Bright Moon, by Andrew Kwong

With Refugee Week (19-25 June 2022) coming up this Sunday, this was a good time to read Andrew Kwong’s memoir of a childhood in Mao Zedong’s China, and his escape to freedom in Australia.

Winner of the the Michael Crouch Award for a debut work in the 2021 National Biography Awards, One Bright Moon refers to an image of hope that sustained the author’s family through long years of hardship, oppression and separation.  The memoir begins with the author’s childhood in Shiqi, an administrative town in Zhongshan, not far from the South China Sea.  At this time, his parents were denied work because they had been high school teachers in Hong Kong before the revolution in 1949, and thus were deemed high intellectuals.  For them, their initial hope that the new China would bring opportunities and benefits for them all soon turned to dust when they had to share their house with strangers and no jobs were allocated to them.  They were subjected to years of political persecution including compulsory nightly political meetings and re-education camps, and were reliant on money sent to them by Grandmother in Hong Kong.

Little Ah-mun (who renamed himself Andrew as a teenager) was born into the first pure proletariat generation.  

On my first day at kindergarten in September 1954, I was proud to already know the revolutionary slogans, songs and jingles.  I’d been born amid the drone of them, into a noisy world filled with enthusiasm for a good life and hatred for the evildoers, both local and foreign who had exploited China for centuries.  Since infancy I’d been infused with cries of revolution, denunciation and the struggle for freedom — indeed, they were my first babbling words, and now I loved shouting them with the other children.  The red stars on the flaps of our schoolbags shone in the morning sun and reflected in our happy faces.  We were a sea of little soldiers in khaki, ready to conquer the bad world under Chairman Mao. (p.11)

School consisted of mainly shouting slogans and participating in communal projects such as The Four Pests campaign to support Mao’s grand plans for development.  But from half-heard worried conversations at home and the propaganda he was learning at school, Ah-mun soon discovered that his parents were not as progressive and communistic as he thought they were.  In 1955 the District Head told Baba that he was a capitalist intellectual with an outdated education and this meant that there was no future for the family in China.  It was this District Head  who had the power to approve visas for the only places they could go: Hong Kong (then a British colony) and Macau (at that time a Portuguese territory but now an autonomous region on the south coast of China, across the Pearl River Delta from Hong Kong.)  At five, (after bribes, of course) Ah-mun was approved to visit his grandmother in Hong Kong, but he was too homesick to stay there for long.  It was not long after his return that he witnessed his first public execution of a ‘class traitor’.

It was some years later, after his father’s arduous and soul-destroying years in prison, that Ah-mun made the same journey, in vastly different circumstances.  The Great Leap Forward had failed, and the resultant famine was killing millions.  Travelling separately in 1962, Ah-mun and his father made their unobtrusive trip to Macau first, and then the more perilous voyage to Hong Kong.

The stretch of some fifty kilometres of unpredictable water between Hong Kong and Macau is known to locals in the Pearl River Delta as the Lonely Sea.  Many people had been lost there to temperamental weather, including frequent typhoons.  July was a calmer season, they said.  However, there were lots of People’s Militia gunboats on patrol looking out for people trying to escape China.  There were also the Royal Hong Kong Marine Police boats that guarded the colony’s waters from people smugglers.  But Third Aunt said that the snake teams [people smugglers] were amazingly efficient in smoothing things out for these expeditions. (p.211)

Ah-mun was among others dozing in the dark on the fishing junk when they were suddenly roused.

The snake head hurried us down a small ladder to the lower level.  We were now jammed onto a smaller deck, close enough to feel each other’s racing heartbeats.  A doorway was open into the diesel engine’s compartment: on either side of it the walls were covered in wooden planks.  The snake head removed a few panels near the edge of the boat on each side, exposing two entrances to narrow crawl spaces between the wall of the engine room and the outer hull.

Then he sought me out, where I hid behind the grown-ups, and told me to squeeze into one of the crawl spaces first.  I stared at the opening, not much bigger than a dog’s kennel, wondering how I would get in there.

‘Go right to the end,’ he ordered.

On hands and knees I scrambled over the slimy, damp floor until I could go no further, rocked by the waves underneath as I crammed myself into the pointed end.   (p.217)

Ah-mun doesn’t know what happened when heavy boots hit their deck, because he passed out.  The crawl space had turned into an oven, and we were being baked alive, slowly.  When they had somehow dodged the Royal Hong Kong Marine Police, someone pulled him out of the crawl space, delirious.  But he had made it, and miraculously, his father was able to make the crossing undetected too.

But in 1966 the Cultural Revolution triggered unrest in Hong Kong, and as corpses began to float down the Pearl River into the waters of Hong Kong, Baba began to look for somewhere safer for his son.  An uncle was brutally murdered because he refused to give up his collection of Chinese classics and letters from Shiqi became rare.  Ah-mun’s sister Weng was taken out of school and sent to work in a remote rural village to learn from the peasants.  Overseas study seemed like the solution, and an Australian teacher triggered the idea that Australia was a place as far away from China as possible. With his father’s permission, and funds from family in the US, the teenager used his own initiative to apply for an Australian student visa and in 1969 he set off to finish his secondary education in Sydney.  He went on to study medicine, to marry and have a family, and to forge a career as a GP on the NSW central coast.

However, his mother and sisters remaining in Shiqi were tormented with further persecution for failing to report Baba’s escape, and the family was not reunited for many years.  Colour photos included in the book show that neither of Andrew’s parents were able to attend his graduation as a doctor in Australia, but his father, at least was able to attend his wedding in Sydney in 1977.  It was not until after Mao died and Deng Xiaoping (paramount leader of China from 1978 to 1992) introduced reforms that his mother was able to leave the country and make a home in the US with her daughter Ping.  With American citizenship she as able to visit Sydney in 1983.

The memoir concludes like this:

I often think of Mama’s perseverance and patience as she waited so long for the dark clouds to disperse, and I thank my lucky stars — and the guardian angels, the door gods, the spirit of General Guan Gong and God — that she persisted, and that, at last, a bright moon shines for us all. (p.332)

You can find out more about Andrew Kwong from this interview at the NSW State Library site. Since this year’s Refugee Week’s theme is ‘healing’, this excerpt caught my eye:

Your descriptions of hunger – living on the verge of starvation, fantasising about food, even eating algae – are vivid. Can someone ever recover from that desperate experience? 

Hunger and starvation, war and massacres of innocent people, untold hardship and challenges are all part of a humanity that has learned little from history; so human sufferings continue. ‘In the end love and family are the most powerful forces in our lives’, is what author Susanne Gervay reflected after reading my book. I do believe most people can recover from desperate experiences, given time to heal, with compassion from others and the power of love and family.

You can find other suggestions for Refugee Week reading here.

Author: Andrew Kwong
Title: One Bright Moon
Cover design by Hazel Lam, Harper Collins Design Studio
Front cover image courtesy of the author
Publisher: Harper Collins, 2020
ISBN: 9781460758625, pbk., 332 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh $34.99