Denise Chong on Writing About Rightsby Richard Davies
Egg on Mao is Denise Chong’s first book in 10 years, since the Canadian author published The Girl in the Picture: The Kim Phuc Story. Egg on Mao tells the true story of the three Chinese men who threw paint-filled eggs at a giant image of Chairman Mao shortly before the government suppression of democracy campaigners and the infamous Tiananmen Square massacre.
Although Egg on Mao focuses on a single incident that takes seconds to complete but triggers punishments that last for years, the book details much more than the protests of 1989 – it examines the everyday obstacles faced by ordinary Chinese from the 1980s onwards. The life of Lu Decheng, a bus mechanic from Mao’s home province, is the main narrative of the book. Decheng now lives in Calgary, Alberta, after pro-democracy campaigners helped him to flee to the West, and he collaborated with Chong to allow her to create a finely detailed account of his troubled life in China.
“I remember hearing about (the egg throwing incident) at the time,” said Chong, who had wanted to write about human rights after the success of her earlier books. “I was watching the TV intently because my husband (TV reporter Roger Smith) was in Beijing reporting on the protests. But events overtook Decheng and his friends.”
Those events were, of course, the massacre of student protesters who were camped out in Tiananmen Square and the subsequent crackdown on pro-democracy ringleaders. Chong’s publisher suggested that Lu Decheng’s story would make a remarkable book and by the time the world was looking at Beijing and the 2008 Olympics, Chong was deeply involved in research and writing.
“The human rights issues had been forgotten in the rush to do business with China,” said Chong. “Watching the grand, perfect spectacle of the Olympics simply reinforced my determination to write the book. Despite all the gloss, nothing had changed in the past two decades and it was still a regime that did not tolerate dissent or opposition.
“The China of today is very different to the China of the 1980s. Economically, it is a very different place. The aspirations are different – in the 1980s, people might have wanted to own an electric fan and now they aspire to owning a Mercedes Benz. However, they still don’t have the basic rights and freedoms that people want so badly. There is still a fear of reprisal. People don’t want to speak out. Just take a look at the Amnesty International website and you will see what people are being imprisoned for.
“Lu Decheng was a very ordinary man – a mechanic, not an intellectual, not a student. He struggled to be accepted all his life. When I showed him the book and he saw the sub-title on the cover ‘The Story of an Ordinary Man ….” he looked wounded and put his finger on the words ordinary man. ‘But I tried so hard to elevate myself,’ he said.
“Even when Decheng arrived in Canada, he was attacked by the official Chinese media who attended his press conference in Calgary. But he stared them right down even as they questioned his moral character. He is a very strong person.”
Chong spent thousands of hours in the company of Decheng in order to research his childhood, his family, his marriage and the awful years where he was imprisoned and his jailers attempted to suppress his beliefs that China needed to change. Chong also travelled to Decheng’s hometown in order to interview as many of his friends and relatives as possible – this was a dangerous journey.
“I assumed I was always at risk so I took numerous precautions,” said Chong. “I entered on a tourist visa, arranged clandestine interviews, always made sure I wasn’t followed or that conversations could be overheard, I chose my interpreters very carefully, I conducted another research project at the same time as my cover and always carried my Canadian passport.”
Egg on Mao is a remarkable book where the reader will learn much about ordinary life in Communist China from restrictions on marriage and children to life in a work unit and the cost of healthcare. The passages detailing the experiences in prison are particularly revealing, as they show the mental torture applied to prisoners in appalling conditions.
The original incident of throwing eggs filled with paint at the giant picture of Chairman Mao fades into the background as the struggles of everyday life and the constant suppression of freedoms takes a toll.