Snapshots from China, September 1989

by Sara Tung

Sara Tung’s Shanghai Jiao Tong University work ID (工作证)

I had always been curious about China, my parents’ homeland. In the early 1980s, the country was opening to the world just as I was finishing university. After a student tour of China in 1982, I returned the following year and stayed from 1983 to 1987, first teaching English, then selling—or trying to sell—computer systems to Chinese industries. That time in China was marked by hope for China’s future, as well as a spirit of idealism. Many of us, both Chinese and foreign, felt lucky to be part of the country’s modernisation. Those four years were among the happiest of my life.

On 4 June 1989, I was about to take final exams at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. That summer, I had lined up an internship with Jardine Fleming in Hong Kong. Upon arriving a few weeks later, I heard eyewitness accounts from friends who had been evacuated from the Motherland. When my internship ended ten weeks later, I promptly flew to China to see what had happened to my former home in the wake of Tiananmen.

It was like walking into a nightmare. The government was trying to identify people connected with the demonstrations. So many groups had participated. And everyone at some point had gone onto the streets to support the demonstrators. People were living in fear.

Shanghai, 6–10 September 1989
Peace Hotel, South Building

My friend David (aka Wang Da Wei) wanted to talk when I met him at his suite at the Peace Hotel, South Building. The soot-covered mid-19th century Renaissance-style building was one of many the British had erected along the Bund, the boulevard facing Shanghai’s historic harbour. Its furniture and carpet, however, looked “early post-Mao”—sturdy and utilitarian, but definitely worn. David and his two buddies, former Fudan University exchange students from Australia, the U.S. and the U.K., had turned the suite’s bedroom and living room into a live-work space for an early startup manufacturing down products for export. Since their arrival seven years ago, the boys had become fixtures in the Shanghai foreign community.

A couple of years earlier, I’d made an unannounced visit from Beijing, where I was then based. No one was home. But once I told the Peace Hotel fuwuyuan I was an old friend of David and his buddies, I was let in, no questions asked. When the boys came back, they found me asleep on top of one of their twin beds.

That night in September 1989 when I stayed up late with David, however, would not leave such a sweet memory. We sat in the living room in stuffed chairs adjacent to each other on the worn, rose-coloured carpet. In the past, David, ten years older and trained in the seminary, would advise me. Now it was my turn to support David. As he chain-smoked Marlboro Lights, he became shrouded in a white haze that matched his pale complexion and camouflaged his red beard. So as to be more supportive, I asked for a cigarette to join him. We were waiting for a phone call from his Chinese fiancée, Lily, who was in hiding.

“Where is she?” I asked.

“Somewhere between here and Nanjing,” David said. “She moves to a different house every night and calls to tell me she’s OK. She was supposed to call at six…”

It was already eight.

“I kept telling her not to get mixed up in the demonstrations, but she wouldn’t listen,” David said.

In crisis, he spoke with the diction of a Shakespearean actor and the solemnity of one who had once served God. Perhaps this was fitting for someone who loved China and would never leave but was growing over time to hate it.

During the demonstrations here, Lily, a teacher at the Shanghai Foreign Languages Institute, had encouraged her students to participate. Cameras on the lampposts at the Bund had videotaped her shouting into a loudspeaker. When her colleagues began to disappear one by one, Lily went on the run. If the crackdown had occurred one week later, Lily might have gotten her student visa in time to leave for Australia. But at this moment, her passport was stuck in the Australian Consulate, which was not issuing any visas for now.

How could Lily hide in a country of one billion people when the government was telling everyone to report on everyone else? When citizens were required to register any time they visited a residence or work unit not their own?

Somehow, within the next two weeks, she managed to get out.

Much later, I heard that someone had pulled strings at the Australian Consulate to get Lily’s student visa processed. She was able to leave China before getting caught in the dragnet.

While Lily’s fortunes improved, David’s did not. Within a couple of years, she had left him. In my experience, this was not an unusual ending for relationships between Chinese and foreigners at the time. David later married another Chinese woman with whom he had two children, but this proved to be another poor match. Meanwhile, business was booming. While David stayed in Shanghai for work, his wife moved to Australia with the kids. David lived alone for many years at the Portman Building, the first international standard combined commercial and residential complex in Shanghai. He and his buddies loved to talk about old times at Fudan, when they were discovering China just as it was opening to the world. After David’s move to the Portman, they joked that he would need to leave the complex to see what China actually looked like. By the early 2000s, however, much of Shanghai looked just like the Portman.

As time went on, David’s buddies returned to their home countries. David continued to smoke heavily and drank every night at the Long Bar in the Portman. In the end, his driver found him unconscious in bed, where he had lain for three days. He had developed lung cancer that had metastasised to his brain. Although David had been a friend to whom many of us turned for support, he was never able to care for himself. He hadn’t been to see a doctor in years. By the time he was diagnosed, he had only two weeks left to live. David was fifty-seven at the time of his death in 2007.

In a way, China had destroyed him. David had stayed too long, hating China more than loving it, but he was never able to figure a way out. For people like David, China was a dream that had turned into a nightmare from which they would never awaken.

Shanghai Jiaotong University

I had arrived in September 1983 to teach English at Jiao Da, a top university in China known for science and technology. It was my very first job after university.

In my year-and-a-half there, I taught several classes of gifted students. Now I’d returned to find out what had happened to my most brilliant students, a class of twenty-seven seniors culled from various departments to join the Foreign Trade Department of the newly established School of Management. Considered the best of the best, these students would go on to plum positions in Shanghai government and industry, where their exceptional English and technical skills would serve them well in doing business with the outside world. They were expected to become leaders of Shanghai, and perhaps one day the country. Only two years younger than I, they were light years ahead of me in terms of smarts and savvy. My English was better, but I never felt as if I’d taught them much of anything. Rather, our classes seemed like exchanges about life in China and the U.S.

I arrived this afternoon in a white blouse, long skirt and sandals. As a plainly dressed huayi, I easily passed for a student or a young teacher and got past gate security without any questions.

As I walked along one side of the rectangular courtyard, I passed the modest two-story teacher’s residence on the left, and, on the right, the statue of Mao that looked down upon us from his pedestal in the centre of campus. My bedroom window was just opposite Mao. Every morning, I would open the shutters and see the Great Helmsman waving at me.

Seeing my old home reminded me of the night of the unusual earthquake. A few minutes after the tremor, around midnight, I heard voices outside my suite. I opened the door to find a student I had named Michael with two of his classmates. They had come to check on me. I was touched by their concern, but they needn’t have worried. They didn’t realise I had grown up in California, the land of earthquakes. This one had been a baby quake.

Turning right at the corner of the courtyard, I walked by the three-story Victorian brick library, then continued along the narrow, unpaved path that cut through campus and passed the yellow-tiled façade of the faculty dining hall. Soon a familiar concrete building appeared on the right. I mounted the stairs to the second floor. Below and to the right was a classroom. It was four o’clock, and students were in their last class period, scribbling into notebooks as the middle-aged teacher wrote on the blackboard. I wondered if the students were actually concentrating during this uncertain time.

I remembered the day my students had, at my request, risen and sung the Chinese national anthem, full of faith in China’s future and a sense of their own destiny. Early in my teaching, I started to bring The Best of Life, a book of Life Magazine photos, to class. One day, after flipping through several pages, we ended up talking about Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. That was the very day Professor Jiang of the management school sat in on my class. Neither he nor anyone in authority ever raised an objection.

More to the point, my students were hooked. However, I never imagined that future Chinese students would take these ideas to heart and call on party leaders to apply them to the governance of China.

In another few minutes, I rounded the corner and arrived at the Foreign Trade Department office. A young administrative staff person stepped out. I introduced myself and explained that I used to teach there. I asked him if he knew the whereabouts of students in Class 12342, the first class to have graduated from the department in 1984. He told me he thought all of them had left the country for graduate school. In fact, the three female students were all in America.

I thought of the night these students, Ann, Elizabeth and Margaret, had invited me to one of their homes. They taught me how to wrap dumplings, before we proceeded to make dinner for ourselves and talk about boys.

The staff person’s news was a relief, though I wondered how accurate his information was. Hopefully, my students were safely out of the country.

On the way out, as I crossed the grassy courtyard and Chairman Mao, I saw Mr Song of Jiao Da’s Foreign Affairs Office on his bicycle, perhaps twelve metres from me. He was among the more human, less political members of that office, whose mission was to handle—and monitor—all matters related to foreigners at the university. I had learnt an early lesson in ming, or fate, from his family.

Shortly after my arrival in 1983, Mr Song invited a couple of us foreign teachers to his simple but gracious home to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Old black and white photos on the bookshelf showed Mr Song in baggy, pleated pants and his wife in a full skirt, belted at the waist. They looked just like my parents in photos taken at roughly the same time, but in Chicago. Like my mom and dad, Mr Song and his wife had just gotten married when they posed for these shots. However, I had grown up in a six-bedroom house, and my parents no longer wore clothes that resembled the ones in the photos.

Mr Song and his wife introduced us to their three sons, explained the significance of the holiday, and offered us moon cakes, heavy discs of pastry filled with red bean paste, nuts or other goodies. They expressed concern that I was so far away from my home and family.

The Songs’ eldest son, whom I guessed to be, like me, in his early twenties, worked on a television parts assembly line. The middle son, a year or two younger, was a high school teacher. And the youngest son—who had passed entrance exams after the gaokao resumed following the Cultural Revolution’s end in 1976—was a university student and clearly his parents’ favourite.

I could not help but think of the difference fate had played in the lives of my parents and me and the Songs and their three sons.

This afternoon in September 1989, Mr Song, like many Chinese, rode with his black vinyl book bag slung on his handlebars. However, he was hunched over, and his bangs swept over his wide forehead and the frames of his glasses. He seemed to be looking straight ahead, but was not seeing anything. Mr Song’s black bicycle was tilted at an odd angle. As it wavered for a moment, it looked as if Mr Song might ride toward me, but then he jerked the handlebars to the right and glided toward the gate.

I could not bring myself to call out to him. What could I possibly say to Mr Song now that would take away his sorrow or his worry for his sons?

Beijing, 10–14 September 1989
Tiananmen Square, or Square at the Gate of Heavenly Peace

The thrill I had gotten from seeing Tiananmen Square for the first time in 1982 had long since gone. Once the largest public square in the world, it became part of the background after I moved to Beijing in 1986. For a handful of weeks in the spring of 1989, the square was the site of glorious demonstrations. Now it held only ugly memories for me. The Soviet-looking buildings on the east, west and centre, along with the gigantic obelisk, looked clunky and out of place in the vast courtyard the emperors had built to connect the Gate of Heavenly Peace and the Imperial Palace to the square.

Here was the stage upon which the party presented its version of alternative facts. I had been told the square had been completely sanitised. Tents and bicycles that had been smashed by tanks were later hauled away by bulldozers. Bullet holes from the weapons of the People’s Liberation Army had been filled in. And bloodstains from the dead and wounded had been scrubbed away by workers wielding brush brooms.

One afternoon, I decided to see it for myself. I borrowed my friend’s Yellow Phoenix bicycle and rode the eighteen kilometres from Beijing University, where I was staying, to Tiananmen Square. From the northwest corner of Changan Jie, the Avenue of Eternal Peace, I circumnavigated the square in a counter-clockwise direction, looking for any signs of the massacre.

On this warm, sunny Sunday afternoon in September, only a few young families flew kites in the square, and small groups of provincial Chinese tourists gawked at the Great Hall of the People to the west and to the north, the Gate of Heavenly Peace with the portrait of Mao in the centre.

“Long Live the People’s Republic of China!” read the characters to the left of Mao.

I turned to the centre of the square to look at Mao’s two-tiered box-like mausoleum and the Monument to the People’s Heroes, the ten-story high obelisk at whose base the students had gathered on the night of June 3rd. I tried to imagine them huddled there, wondering whether they should stay or follow the soldiers’ orders to leave.

It was true. All signs of the killings had been magically erased, and Tiananmen Square had entered the Twilight Zone. Feeling a bit queasy with this new reality, I thought of pulling over and stopping, but in the end, I kept going around the square, pedaling slowly. As I pushed down on the pedals, the bike teetered and the worn out tires scraped against the dented fenders. The sound made me think of the bicycle rickshaws that plied the boulevards of Beijing with flatbeds full of cabbage and other vegetables. In the early morning hours of June 4th, peasants had pedalled back and forth from the square, risking their lives to carry the bodies of fallen demonstrators to hospitals and what little medical help they could find.

When I looked down at the front tire, something off to the right caught my eye. It was the white, knee-high metal fence that surrounded the square, separating it from the lanes of traffic on all four sides. This was not the old, beat up fence that looked as if it had been there for decades with its rust, chipped paint and missing bars. This fence was brand new. Only people not from Beijing would have been fooled. To me, it stood out like a row of tombstones.

IBM China Corporation, Lido Office Building

IBM was one of the first multinationals to hire and train Chinese employees for professional positions, as well as foreigners like me who were already living in China and familiar with the language and culture. When I worked in the Beijing office in 1986–87, the company moved from the Great Wall Sheraton Hotel to the Lido Office Building adjacent to the Holiday Inn Lido Hotel. The Lido complex was complete with a Chinese restaurant, a Western restaurant, a café, a bowling alley and later the first supermarket in Beijing that sold international brands like Kellogg’s and Nestle’s. Such international standard amenities represented progress in China’s development, even if they seemed incongruous on a long, dusty stretch of Airport Road dotted with single-story buildings and willow trees.

In the IBM office, 120 employees from China, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, the U.S., Canada, Australia, the U.K., Belgium and the Netherlands worked together in the sea green cubicles on the fourth floor. These cubicles turned into the proverbial beehive of activity, with Chinese and foreign professional and admin staff working side by side to market and service mainframe computer systems to Chinese ministries and industries. After hours, we socialised together, too. Most of us foreign staff lived at the Lido Hotel or Apartments and frequently invited Chinese colleagues to our homes.

In the days immediately following the massacre, the foreign staff had been evacuated to Hong Kong, leaving the Chinese staff in Beijing. By August, everyone was back together again.

Now everyone worried, especially the Chinese. There were whispers of a witch-hunt. Former colleagues stopped me on my way in to tell me about a hotline people were instructed to call to report on relatives, neighbours, co-workers or anyone involved in pro-democracy, counter-revolutionary activities. One colleague, whose father was a high-level government official, broke with him when he insisted the killings were justified.

As I walked by my old cubicle in the southwest corner of the office, a group of Chinese marketing reps and systems engineers had huddled, apparently discussing how to proceed in this new, uncertain environment. Raised, high-pitched voices were followed by responses in sharper tones than I was accustomed to hearing.

In one awkward moment, a former colleague who had been a guest in my family’s home in Los Angeles mentioned my visit and asked the others to join us for lunch.

“What?” Another snapped. “I don’t have time for her now!”

I turned my head and pretended not to have heard. But I understood. They had more urgent priorities now. The optimism and sense of possibility in the early- to mid-80s, when the office was first established, had been replaced by a dread I had never encountered before.

Less than a month after my visit, I learnt that one of my Chinese colleagues, a marketing rep named Sun Jianguo, a slight, quiet man in his mid-twenties, had swallowed rat poison to end his life. I was told he had suffered from depression, a condition that no doubt would have worsened with the ongoing crackdown.

Within the next year or so, most of my foreign colleagues would decide to leave China, and my Chinese co-workers would be on their own again until the international community deemed that China was once again good for business.

Beijing University

I was staying with my friend Ai Hua, another huayi, at Bei Da’s foreign student dorms. “Ai Hua” means “to love China,” and I thought it fitting to stay with her near the heart of the demonstrations here, where so many of its leaders and participants had been students.

Ai Hua’s boyfriend, Xiao Li, a foreigner with exceptional Mandarin skills, was working as a translator for the San Francisco Chronicle. On the night of June 3rd, he, like many others, was hanging out in the square. When the soldiers started firing, he hit the ground. After Xiao Li got up, he saved the life of a wounded journalist, picking him up and carrying him to a bicycle rickshaw driver with instructions to go to the nearest hospital. People in the Square handed Xiao Li bullets, shouting, “Go and tell the world what has happened!”

Meanwhile Ai Hua, who had been out in Xidan, returned to her room at Bei Da. Xiao Li tried repeatedly to reach her by phone. Suspicious about who might be calling, Ai Hua did not answer for a while. At the same time, a contact at a foreign corporation who had organised an evacuation of foreigners was calling Ai Hua to arrange a time to take her to the airport. Somehow both Xiao Li and this contact got through to her, and she was whisked to the airport. Xiao Li then paid a bicycle rickshaw driver 200 RMB to take him from the square, along back alleys to evade the tanks and soldiers, then through the city to Airport Road and Beijing Capital Airport—a distance of thirty kilometres—where he and Ai Hua boarded one of the limited flights available for the mass exodus of foreigners from China.

Ai Hua had time to pack only a small daypack. After arriving in Hong Kong, she and Xiao Li checked into a spare, compact room at the Hong Kong Hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui. Once they got to the room, Ai Hua immediately tried to wash out Xiao Li’s bloodstained shirt in the bathroom sink.

My friends told me this story over tea at the Peninsula a few weeks later, shortly after I had arrived in Hong Kong. Bellhops in white caps walked by, their message boards tinkling. Xiao Li, dressed in a T-shirt and shorts from Ai Hua’s daypack, looked around the lobby with its gilded columns and velvet furniture.

“Can you imagine what this place will be like when the Chinese take over?” He asked. “They’ll be spitting on the carpet.”

Sometime in August, Xiao Li left for graduate school in the U.S. Ai Hua returned to Beijing with other foreigners who had been evacuated, all of whom were welcomed back by a government willing the country to return to normal. She continued her stay at Bei Da. When I arrived, Ai Hua introduced me to the minders of the dorm as her cousin, and they welcomed me to the university.

Bei Da’s campus was as beautiful as always. Its pagoda-roofed buildings were spread atop sprawling lawns. Red, blue and gold dragon gates flanked its east, west and south edges. And sprinkled throughout its grounds were trees of willow, eucalyptus and gingko. Now, however, the university was unusually empty.

Marshal law, launched on May 20th, was still in place. One night, as my taxi approached the east gate, a car behind us flashed its headlights. We stopped, and a policeman in olive uniform walked up and ordered the driver to open the trunk. The driver popped the trunk but stayed in the car. The policeman shone his flashlight into the back, then waved us on.

Confronted with martial law, I was suddenly offended. What could they possibly be looking for, I wondered? Everyone at the university who had participated in the demonstrations was either dead, imprisoned or had fled. No one would be coming back to the university right now.

“What are the police searching for?” I asked. “Counter-revolutionaries?”

“Counter-revolutionaries?” The driver spat out the words as he eyed me in his rearview mirror. “The students were on the side of justice!” He said, his voice cracking.

In the past, I had often argued with Beijing taxi drivers about overcharging or taking longer routes than necessary. I had never heard a taxi driver express a political opinion. Yet now this driver had spoken without reservation. I was humbled.

That night, I found myself in unexpected communion with this taxi driver.

There was no one who had not been affected by Tiananmen, the demonstrations and the crushing of the democracy movement.

By the end of 1989, Ai Hua would join Xiao Li in America, leaving the China that had been home to them for seven years.

Sara Tung’s passport stamps from her September 1989 visit to China

Sara Tung studied creative writing at Stanford University, where she earned a BA and an MA in history and an MBA. Raised in Los Angeles, she spent nine years in China, Hong Kong, and Southeast Asia. After teaching English at Shanghai Jiaotong University, Sara worked for IBM China, Booz Allen and Hamilton, and Hutchison Whampoa. She also consulted to nonprofits in Bali and the San Francisco Bay Area. Most recently, Sara administered and mentored students in international policy, management, and public service programs at Stanford. She is currently working on a novel about China.

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