Philip J Cunningham

You are currently browsing articles tagged Philip J Cunningham.

Last spring we ran a series of excerpts from Philip J. Cunningham’s book, Tiananmen Moon. Cunningham alerted us to his recent postings of “sneak preview” materials from the CCTV National Day programming at his blog, Frontier International. He wrote:

Walking through cramped studios and cacophonous corridors filled with actors and extras singing, chatting, rehearsing their lines and doing last-minute checks of costumes and make-up brought back memories of working on epic China films such as The Last Emperor and Empire of the Sun. It always amazes me to see how relaxed and informal show business people are immediately before and after stepping on stage where they then get into character, momentarily transforming themselves into living works of art.

Here, then, a sneak preview of CCTV’s National Day extravaganza, with pictures taken on an Iphone.

IMG_0843

IMG_0844

IMG_0842

Visit Cunningham’s blog for short video clips as well.

Tags: ,

6/4/89: The Night of No Moon

This piece is excerpted from the manuscript of Philip J. Cunningham’s forthcoming book, Tiananmen Moon, part of an on-going China Beat feature of excerpts from Cunningham’s book. Interested readers can see more at Cunningham’s website.


(June 4, 1989 excerpt from Tiananmen Moon)
You didn’t have to be a fortune-teller to know Tiananmen was the target, but what were they going to hit it with and when? The long anticipated crackdown had been postponed so long, getting it over with might resolve the political impasse, but it wouldn’t bring justice, it wouldn’t buy back the mandate of heaven.
Being part of the teeming mass as the army approached, I had little choice but move in tandem. It was well nigh impossible to stand still, to move against the flow would beg injury. Only when I reached the concrete and steel divider in the middle of Chang’an Boulevard, guided by those in front, pushed by those behind me, could I pause and wring myself free of the seething throng long enough to climb on top of a cement road barrier to get a better view of what was going on.
A military vehicle that looked like a tank came careening recklessly through the sea of people like an icebreaker cracking through thin ice. Tanks on Tiananmen Square! It was crazy, what was the PLA doing, what did they think this could achieve? The armored vehicle roared down thickly people Chang’an Boulevard as fast as its heavy treads would permit, not as a peacekeeper, but provocateur. Then there appeared another metallic monster, begging for a clash, beckoning blood.
The reckless charging of two heavy vehicles in the middle of a crowd of thousands shocked me; the rules of engagement had changed. The military’s admirable discipline and restraint had been abandoned, giving way to reckless, violent acts. The armored vehicle was so unforgiving, so heavy, so hard, the bodies it bolted past so vulnerable and soft.
So far, no one had been hit or run over but it could happen any second now. It was a deadly game of “chicken” in which the winner was the last one to flinch, but the rules were supremely unfair, pitting tank against man. I shuddered in dread of seeing people mowed over, but amazingly the men and women around me seemed emboldened by the prospect of conflict.
It was as if the daredevils possessed a belief in mind-over-matter, like the martial arts warriors of the late Qing Boxer Rebellion who convinced themselves they were invulnerable to bullets. I’d seen plenty of people tempt fate crossing streets in busy traffic, but never did I dream it possible to slow a tank’s advance by jumping in front of it!
Numb and immobilized I watched the vanguard dart back and forth in front of the armored vehicle, taunting the unseen driver. The armored continued to penetrate the crowd, slowing to turn around, speeding up on the straightaway, heading directly at the flag and banner-waving provocateurs like a mad bull aiming for a matador. With each sweep, the crowd parted, some running for their lives, others, tempting fate, holding their ground.
The passionate insanity of the moment was contagious, after a second silent signal, which caused the people immediately around me to snap into action, I stumbled, and then without really thinking about it, joined the fray.
The heavy concrete and steel road divider that I had been standing jerked sharply and suddenly lurched into the air. I lost balance fell hard, the shock of my tumble softened by the unfortunate people I landed on. I tried to right myself, feeling like a surfer who had just wiped out only to get caught in the undertow. My first reaction was annoyance at having the ground pulled out from under my feet, and being at the mercy of agitated strangers.
I was floundering below a turbulent crowd that was attempting to yank a heavy road divider from its moorings. A lengthy section of the concrete and iron barrier, once broken free, was rotated 90 degrees, from its original east-west mooring to block traffic on the boulevard. The heavy railing, momentarily made featherlight by hundreds of hands, was dropped to the ground with a thud.
Once I regained my footing, with the unexpectedly attentive assistance of the two young men closest to me, I joined the crowd in its tug of war with the barrier. We rotated it in slow increments, like the jerking second hand on an old clock, lift, drop, lift, drop. Whose idea it had been was impossible to say, for nobody was really in charge. No one had told me what to do either, for that matter, rather it was instinctive, a collective move to slow the arrival of hostile invaders. I doubted it would seriously deter the movement of army vehicles such as the ones we saw buzzing the crowd, but taking fate into one’s hands and doing something felt better than doing nothing.
By the time we had the concrete barrier in place, the offending vehicle had moved on. The men around me breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Only after the intense and immediate sense of danger had subsided did anyone realize, or have the time to react to the unusual fact that there was a foreigner on the team. Several sweaty men in T-shirts, arms and wrists no doubt aching after the sudden bout of weightlifting, offered trembling hands. One man welcomed me, the other called me friend.

“Huanying ni!”
“Pengyou!”
Their words moved me, almost to tears. The verbal embrace was at once formulaic and reassuringly real.
Meng, who had been separated from me by the erratic movement of bodies when the APC came streaming through, had closely observed the roadblock incident from the other side of the divider.
“I saw that. They are taunting us,” he muttered bitterly. “They are trying to break our will. They are trying to incite violence.”
“So, what’s next?” I ask, wanting to know, wanting him to have the answer.
“Nothing will happen, I think. The government is just trying to scare the people.”
We backed away from the crew, scanning the swarming multitude for some indication of what might happen next. Suddenly Meng’s face lit up in recognition of some familiar faces coming our way.
Two women were walking their bicycles, weaving through the jumpy crowd in front of Tiananmen Gate. After negotiating the uppity throng gracefully, they parked their bikes next to the BBC’s tripod as if it were a parking meter.
Soon they were deep in a whispery conversation with Meng, pouring out words too fast for me to keep up with. I stood back, content to watch the beautiful, expressive faces of three people who knew each other well, baring their souls in the subdued lamplight on the Square.
“Jin Peili,” Meng said, pulling me over, trying to include me. “These are my classmates. They study acting at the Central Drama Academy.”
We all shook hands, exchanging smiles. Despite the unsettled if frightening outlook of the evening so far, time was had become malleable and that fleeting but somehow poignant encounter was imbued with an enduring beauty. Ordinary life, as we had come to know it, was slipping away by the minute. Nothing would be the same, nothing could be taken for granted. Win or lose, the final showdown was at hand. I observed the drama school comrades as they huddled close, the pale outlines of the Goddess of Democracy glowing behind the trio in the darkness. The night sky was absolutely black –no moon, no stars.
Here on the northern periphery of the square, there were no workers manning barricades, or students urging restraint or marchers singing the Internationale, not even the usual idle onlookers.
The unsung, unseen heroes who had kept the peace for over a month could retroactively be appreciated by their absence. Student types were in scant evidence this night. Instead there were warriors with agendas unknown pressing in on us. No overt hostility was directed at the crew, but the seething anger and lust for violence was palpable.
The May Fourth spirit was gone, replaced by something murky and malevolent. There was a new element I hadn’t noticed much of before, young punks decidedly less than student-like in appearance. In the place of headbands and signed shirts with university pins they wore cheap, ill-fitting polyester clothes and loose windbreakers. Under our lights, their eyes gleaming with mischief, they brazenly revealed hidden Molotov cocktails.
The camera lights, in this dark and troubling hour, seemed to attract all species of insect.
“Turn off the lights!” I yelled at Wang Li. “This isn’t working, turn off the lights! We better get out of here!”
Who were these punks in shorts and sandals, carrying petrol bombs?
Gasoline is tightly rationed, they could not come up with these things spontaneously. Who taught them to make bottle bombs and for whom were the incendiary devices intended?
Lights still blazing, Ingo started shooting from the hip to capture some pictures of the provocateurs. The noose of spectators tightened.
Lights out, the shoving match subsided. But the troublemakers lingered, smiling inappropriately as they stared at us. Frustrated, I led the crew to the most obscure and least crowded spot I could find, aiming for the massive outer wall of the Forbidden City. Not surprisingly, we were jeered for making an apparent retreat.
“Look, foreigners! Ha ha!”
“What are they doing there?”
“The foreigners are scared!”
“Hel-lo? Where are you going?”
“They don’t care about China!”
“Cowards!”
“They are running away!”
Some of the comments sounded like veiled threats. I pretended not to understand in order not to have to react. We were not running away, but I didn’t owe them an explanation. The technical requirements for a well-lit interview were hard to meet under such agitated conditions.
Could the mass yet turn on us? Were we dealing with rational individuals or an irrational collective? How could one possibly distinguish good from bad in such a vast gathering of people?
We walked with our heads down in silence, a solemn file of five Caucasians and two Chinese. Finally we set up tripod and camera next to some trees along side the majestic vermilion wall lining Worker’s Park on the northeast corner of the Square. On the other side of the wall was a potential sanctuary, the entrance courtyard to the Forbidden City.
The relatively secluded location gave us about a minute to tape before things got out of control again. There were ogling onlookers as before, but the random mix of townspeople in our new location was less implicitly threatening than the Molotov cocktail gang. When things got tight, merely switching the lights off sufficed to relax the stranglehold of the instant gaggle that coalesced around us.
Looking at the indecision and fear on the strange faces watching us, I felt we were much alike in our unspoken desperation, looking to one another for cues on how to act, grasping at straws in the wind, trying to figure out what was going on. Given the communal uncertainty, it was easy to understand how an incandescent circle of light on a dark plaza might be mistaken for a meaningful vortex of activity.
While Simpson brushed his hair, Clayton made notations on her producer’s sheet, Ingo unwrapped his camera, Wang Li fumbled with the lights and Mark readied the sound gear, I would try to explain to the usual knot of people closing in on us what we were doing in order not to excite too much attention.
“We are the BBC, English television, we’re just doing a random interview, please step back, we appreciate your cooperation, thank you.”
In no time at all, interviewer became interviewee.
“What do you think will happen?”
“What information do you have?”
“How many killed at Muxudi?”
While I was trying to cope with such questions, Simpson shouted that another APC was heading our way. Everyone dropped what they were doing, immobilized by fright as the green monster bore down upon us.
As before, the horde parted only reluctantly from the path of the careening vehicle, and usually not a second too soon, leaping away left and right, defiantly till the last possible moment. The BBC crew swiftly backed onto the sidewalk, wisely regrouping behind some trees that offered a modicum of protection. The threatening vehicle then lurched to the left, veering away.
My pace quickened as I approached the stalled vehicle, infected by the toxic glee of the mob, but then I caught myself. Why was I rushing towards trouble? Because everyone else was? I slowed down to a trot in the wake of a thundering herd of one mass mind.
Breaking with the pack, I stopped running, exerting the effort necessary to free myself from the unspoken imperative to follow others forward.
Someone tossed a Molotov cocktail, setting the APC on fire. Flames spread quickly over the top of the vehicle and spilled onto the pavement. The throng roared victoriously and moved in closer, enraged faces illuminated in the orange glow.
But wait! I thought, there’s somebody still inside of that, it’s not just a machine! There must be people inside. This is not man against dinosaur, but man against man!
Meng protectively pulled me away to join a handful of head-banded students who sought to exert some control. Expending what little moral capital his hunger strike signature saturated shirt still exerted, he spoke up for the soldier.
“Let the man out,” he cried. “Help the soldier, help him get out!”
The agitated congregation was in no mood for mercy. Angry, blood-curdling voices ricocheted around us.
“Kill the mother fucker!” one said. Then another voice, even more chilling than the first screamed, “He is not human, he is a thing.”
“Kill it, kill it!” shouted bystanders, bloody enthusiasm now whipped up to a high pitch.
“Stop! Don’t hurt him!” Meng pleaded, leaving me behind as he tried to reason with the vigilantes. “Stop, he is just a soldier!”
“He is not human, kill him, kill him!” said a voice.
“Get back, get back!” Meng started screaming on the top of his lungs.
“Leave him alone, the soldiers are not our enemy, the government is the enemy!”
The former hunger striker howled until his lungs failed him, his voice weak, raspy and hoarse. Meng’s head-banded comrades descended on the stricken vehicle but were unable to placate vigilantes keyed up for action.
“Make room for the ambulance,” one of the students yelled. “Please cooperate, please step back!”
I watched from 20-30 feet away as the students tried to extract from the burning vehicle the driver who had nearly killed them. He had trouble walking, he appeared to be injured and in serious pain, but the quality of crowd mercy was uneven.
“He’s not a person, he’s a thing, kill him!” voices continued to shout out. Hotheads were deliberately instigating violence, putting them at odds with conscientious demonstrators who had no intention of hurting anyone.
The assembly surrounding the armored vehicle shared a paroxysm of joy in stopping it, but was of more than one mind about what to do next. At least one surrendering soldier was safely evacuated to a waiting ambulance, but then the ambulance itself was attacked, the back door almost ripped off by protesters determined to punish the man in uniform.
Up until now, the volunteer ambulances were symbols of the movement’s caring side, carting collapsed hunger strikers away from Tiananmen to hospitals for physical restoration. Until this night, city ambulances, plying slowly through the pack with that familiar, almost reassuring up-and-down wail, had been sacrosanct and untouchable.
A man with a metal pipe smashed the rear of the ambulance, breaking the tail-light. Two or three other men pounded on the back door demanding that the limp body of the soldier be handed over. The driver desperately begged the vigilantes to leave the injured man alone, to let him be taken to the hospital.
The back door of the ambulance swung open and the injured soldier was about to be extracted for a bout of “people’s” justice when the vehicle lurched forward, and raced off in the direction of the Beijing Hotel. Student traffic directors trying to impose a semblance of order did their best to hold back those seeking blood long enough for the ambulance to escape.
So it had come to this. The dream was over, people were killing each other. The mutual restraint, one of the things I admired so much about all parties in this monumental conflict of wills, was breaking down.
The students lost control, the crowd started cracking, and the movement was breaking up into splintered mobs. There were calls for cooperation and shouts for vengeance, the blood thirst made me nauseous.
Meng was distraught. “Don’t use violence!” he yelled, straining his voice to persuade anyone who would listen. “Don’t fight!” he cried hoarsely, over and over. But whipped up into a state of true turmoil, few cared to listen.
The ambulance was gone, the APC was now a flaming hulk, billowing black smoke that masked the sky. The ghoulish glow of distant fires – one could only imagine what might be going on –reinforced the gloom of this moonless night.
The BBC crew reassembled, shaken but unhurt. Before we could gather our wits, however, the sky was suddenly pierced with red shooting stars.
“What in the world?” I had never seen anything like it before.
“Tracer bullets,” shouted Simpson. “We better get out of here!”
The red traces of speeding projectiles crisscrossed Chang’an Boulevard. The cracking sound of gunfire was steadily audible in the distance. The now seething mass was not easily intimidated, and became only further enraged. Empty-handed civilians cursed the government, venting violent epithets.
I looked at the anguish in Meng’s face, tears welling in his eyes.
“This is no longer a student movement, he said. “This is. . .” He paused, fists clenched with rage, face lined with resignation. “This is a people’s uprising.”
As the fighting worsened, with gunfire close by, I had to physically drag Meng; so reluctant was he to leave the street, towards the Beijing Hotel for shelter. There he joined the BBC crew, along with Wang Li and myself, in room 1413 to sit out the lethal madness. Patricia, the Hong Kong journalist, joined us shortly afterwards.
But the Beijing Hotel was no longer a safe haven. “What are you doing here?” one of the guards had barked at Meng as we crossed the threshold. In our haste we had failed to notice the gatekeepers were in place again, guard posts fully operational.
“He’s with me!” I answered firmly. Not wanting to get stuck at the guarded elevators, I took Meng by the arm and led him away from the heavily monitored entrance into the long central corridor ringed with dimly-lit lounges. The guards did not follow us, so we first lingered there, taking comfort in the incongruous fact that the deserted coffee lounge was still operational.
We gathered up an armful of yogurts and soft drinks for the crew and went up to 1413 by a less guarded passage. From my balcony high above Chang’an Boulevard, we surveyed the horizon. It looked like nothing less than war as I had imagined it as a child; fire and flares in every direction. Burning vehicles emitted an oily smoke that funneled upward, linking with its long black columns the murky sky and the ground.
Screams and gunfire could be heard almost directly below, more distant cries and rumbles intermittently carried by the breeze. Tracer bullets fired from somewhere across the street arched upwards along a parabolic path and fell behind the hotel. The frequency of gunfire intensified.
We watched in stunned silence as the tanks rolled in. As bodies were rolled out on carts. As the once defiant crowd was bent, then broken. Sporadic gunfire could be heard all night long.

Tags: , , , ,

This piece is excerpted from the manuscript of Philip J. Cunningham’s forthcoming book, Tiananmen Moon, part of an on-going China Beat feature of excerpts from Cunningham’s book, and describes the set-up for one of the most famous interviews of the final days of the student movement. Interested readers can see more at Cunningham’s website.

A petite sun-bronzed woman wearing a stained white tennis shirt and dusty beige trousers sits next to me in the back of the taxi, grimacing as if in pain, weeping quietly to herself. Named to the police blacklist, she says she fears imminent arrest. Up front the driver sullenly surveys the streets, scanning the road for Public Security vehicles.
As the car glides down a leafy thoroughfare in the diplomatic district, Wang Li, who had been chatting quietly with the driver, turns around to make an announcement.
“Driver supports the students,” he says. “He will help us.”
“How do you know?” I ask.
“I know. Where you go?” he asks, switching into English.
“Tell him, let’s see… I don’t know, I just don’t know.”
Chai Ling, the so-called Commander in Chief of Tiananmen Square, had come to me this morning saying she wanted to “talk,” but for the moment I couldn’t get a word out of her. I had brought along a small tape recorder and camera along as part of my hasty response to the startling and unsolicited request for an interview, but we had yet to find a safe place to talk.
A graduate student from Shandong studying psychology at Shida, she rose to sudden prominence during the world’s biggest hunger strike. This morning she had approached me in the hallway of the Beijing Hotel as I was on my way to breakfast. It was so weird seeing her there, a fugitive from the police hiding in plain sight in a government hotel lobby. I naively invited her to join Bright, Wang Li and myself for breakfast in the Western Restaurant in the old wing of the hotel. But this wasn’t a Long Island kind of problem that could be worked out in a diner over a cup of coffee, bacon, eggs and toast.
Face drawn with tension, almost morbidly silent, the famous hunger striker, who barely gave her food a second glance, explained in a low whisper that she wanted to record some kind of final statement, a sort of last will and testament. I looked at Bright, who declined to offer an opinion, though her eyes implored me not to get involved.
I got involved, mostly out of curiosity. It didn’t make for a leisurely breakfast, and it left Bright, who had just come to see me, in the lurch, for in no time I was trying to secure a taxi at the front door of the hotel. Chai Ling had so far escaped the notice of the police, but not a group of hawk-eyed journalists from Hong Kong, one of whom recognized her as the Tiananmen commander and begged to join us. There wasn’t enough room in the taxi, so Bright, who was already less than enthused about radical student politics, offered her seat to Patricia, the Hong Kong journalist, and then we were off.
Now we were on the road. Where to, nobody knew.
“Let’s go northeast,” I suggest. “Take the road by Worker’s Stadium, then go to the Great Wall Hotel, you know, around there. Do a big circle around the whole embassy district, okay, we just want to drive around for a while, okay?”
What should we do now? If the fugitive pressing against me in the back seat was truly in danger of arrest, maybe we should go further out of town. In any case, we could stay on the road for a while. The taxi is not cheap, but if no place Is safe, Is it not better to keep moving?
“If policeman follow,” Wang Li says, turning around to peer at us, “I tell you, okay?”
He was speaking English again. What was it with his sudden switch? Who was he trying to impress?
“Where is camera?” he asks a moment later, and then I understand. He, a mere student at some kind of culinary school in the provinces, is trying to impress Chai Ling, the radical diva from Shida, who has already bagged a degree from Beida.
No sooner had I handed him my pocket-sized Olympus, than he started snapping away with dramatic flair, as if he were a hotshot photojournalist.
While the driver patiently snaked up and down the leafy boulevards of Sanlitun, I suggested to the conspicuously silent woman warrior sitting next to me that we talk now, in the car, but she recoiled from the idea. True, some taxis were bugged, but the odds of that were slim. True, the car was probably too noisy to make a decent recording, but what was all this about anyway? Even if the driver was later quizzed about suspicious passengers and duly filed a report on us, we would be somewhere else, sight unseen.
Despite Wang Li’s suspicious examination of cars going our way, he didn’t think we were being followed. For the last few weeks, Beijing’s secret police had been slacking off on the job, at least it seemed that way. It was enough to make one believe in rumors; either Politburo member Qiao Shi and his Public Security Bureau were sympathetic to the students or the pullback of policing was a deliberate trap.
Chai Ling, lost in a silence so deep that she seemed almost voiceless, quietly vetoed the idea of doing an interview in the car. Instead of talking, she penned a stark message on a piece of scrap paper:

This may be my last chance to talk, I entrust (Jin Peili) Philip Cunningham to tell my story to the Chinese people of the world. –Chai Ling, MAY 28, 1989 10:25 AM
Her extended silence gave me time to contemplate the import of the note. I was both moved and disturbed that someone in fear of her life wanted me to speak “to the Chinese people of the world” on her behalf.
Holding in my sweaty palm what was essentially a last will and testament made me realize how quickly the tables had turned. Was this the same defiant young rebel who had risen to prominence during the hunger strike, supported by enthusiastic crowds of a million or more? Was this leader of the Square, the strident voice of the public address system, the Joan of Arc of the movement who refused to talk to journalists?
Little of that was evident now. The intense young woman sidled up next to me in the back of the taxi was in a deep funk, vulnerable, isolated in her own heavy thoughts; the only ambition she betrayed was her quiet persistence in trying to arrange an interview.
“So, where are you going?” The taxi driver asks, shooting me an impatient look in the mirror. For all of Wang Li’s shenanigans, he has failed to impress even the driver. It was also safe to assume that the driver expected me to do the paying, in FEC of course. But if he were greedy, he wouldn’t have minded the last half an hour of going in circles. What he minds is the lack of clarity about our destination.
“I’m thinking,” I answer. “Just go north for a while.”
All I knew is that we had to get away from the omnipresent gaze of the state security apparatus. I gave the driver some seemingly firm coordinates, north, east, north, east, as I needed to keep him busy until I could up with a safe destination. It was against the rules of martial law for journalists to interview student leaders and I wasn’t even on a work visa. I’d been arrested before, for activities inappropriate for a foreigner, and didn’t relish being taken into custody again. Where could we do such an interview? I leaned forward, face in my hands, unsure of what to do next.
The temporary BBC office in the fancy hotel came to mind, but it was a day too late because yesterday was my last day working for them. And BBC’s London-centric producers were not exactly sensitive to things I cared about. For one, they struck me as nonchalant if not naïve about the degree of government surveillance that they themselves were under and the possible impact it might have on any Chinese who visited their well-watched offices. I knew better than to bring apolitical friends into such a fishbowl environment, let alone a student rebel on the police blacklist.
The American TV news outfits had similar security problems. Although I knew Eric Baculinao, a former student radical from the Philippines would be interested, NBC’s office was no place to bring a fugitive from the police; they were located in the belly of the beast, renting facilities inside the state-run CCTV television center. CBS News had chosen to set up camp way out in the west Beijing boondocks, ensconced in comfortable but remote the Shangri-La Hotel, while CNN and ABC at least had the advantage of being on this side of town. But taking Chai Ling to a news bureau full of official snoopers and electronic surveillance was risky if not stupid. We had to go somewhere unofficial, somewhere off the map. The kind of place I’d take a friend, the kind of place I’d be comfortable taking a date.
“That’s it! I know a place! ” I announce, giving the driver directions to an expatriate apartment complex out on Airport Road. If we got past the front gate and then past the doorman in my friend’s apartment block, we’d be okay.
The car picked up speed. After half an hour of random turns and amateur plotting on the part of the unusual collection of passengers, the driver was relieved to get some concrete instructions so he could be rid of us.
Finding an unmonitored residential location where foreigners and Chinese could mix without being carded and closely observed by guards at the door was a habitual problem in Beijing, especially vexing for stubborn believers in free cultural exchange like myself. Things were basically set up so that foreigners could socialize with other foreigners, tourists with tourists and Chinese with Chinese. Maybe we could make that work for us.
On this day our group defied easy categorization, composed as it was of two Chinese citizens; one a fugitive listed on a police most wanted list, the other a young rebel not nearly as well-known as he wanted to be, and two non-Chinese; an aggressive Hong Kong reporter and an American freelancer less than enthusiastic about playing journalist with police on our tail.
In a way I was the most obvious problem, being the only laowai made me a lightning rod for attention. Caucasians in China, whether newly arrived or resident for decades did not have the option of disappearing like a fish in the sea of the people. We were rather more akin to lighthouses, forever emitting signals that revealed our presence.
So, the best way to become less glaringly obvious was to find an enclave where there were lots of other equally distracting people, such as a suburban hotel designated for foreigners, or an expatriate residential compound.
I chose the latter. Living in gritty Beijing had given me some practical experience in seeking out comfort zones. Wanting to avoid the watchful gaze of the police rarely had anything to do with politics, it was more a question of pride; an effort to establish a sense of human dignity and to lead a half-normal social life. While I was aware that even native Chinese couples had problems of their own finding privacy, at least they could meet with relative anonymity in an apartment block or even in a gated park, whereas a mixed couple was an easy target for neighborhood snoops and zealous watchmen.
One place where I had found a semblance of normalcy on previous occasions was the Lido Hotel and its associated apartment complex, located on the northeast edge of town. Though the Lido was technically restricted to foreign passport holders, it had a large ethnic Chinese population from overseas and it was easy enough to bring Chinese friends inside to use the pool and eat in the restaurants there. Bright and Jenny both liked it; they found it less intimidating than the grander hotels. But it was still a hotel.
As the driver approached the Lido, I advised him not to enter by the hotel gate but instead to go around to the back in order to directly enter the apartment complex. The driver paused at the rear gate while the sleepy guard gave us a brief visual inspection. Waved through without incident, we all breathed a bit easier once inside the compound. I had the driver follow the meandering course of a private drive that led us past a pair of empty tennis courts adjacent to a low-rise apartment block.
Wang Li and I briefly discussed the merits of keeping the car, since taxis were a rarity except at the big hotels and a new one might be hard to find. But the driver had no interest in waiting, so I paid him and he sped off. If were to be questioned, he could always plead ignorance.
I lead the way, taking a deliberately roundabout course to make sure we weren’t being followed, detouring past some well-stocked shops, including a pharmacy and a grocery carrying pricey imported goods from Europe, Hong Kong and America. As we walked past window displays and shelves stocked with consumer items that most Chinese could only dream about, Wang Li paused to clean his smudged glasses for a better look. I could tell he liked the place already.
Adjacent to the shopping wing of the Lido was a quiet path leading to the low-rise tower where Lotus and Albert lived. Wang Li came up to me as he surveyed the premises with interest. “Almost no Chinese around,” he exclaims, nodding his head in approval. Chai Ling and the Hong Kong journalist, both about the same height with hair about the same length, followed silently a few steps behind, like traditional women.
I shepherd our group past the front desk of the “foreigners-only” apartment building, hoping it won’t be necessary to answer any questions, but if it is, it will fall on me to do all the talking.
As luck has it, the doorman is not at his station so we easily slip into the dark lobby and hurry into a waiting elevator. I hear the guard returning to his post just as the elevator door closes. So far, so good. By force of habit, I check the ceiling of the elevator for the familiar protruding lens of the surveillance camera, usually wedged in the corner, but there was no sign of that.
We get out on the top floor and I run ahead to the door of Lotus and Albert’s apartment, knocking excitedly. The door opens a crack.
“Who’s there?” asks Lotus, clearly not expecting company.
“It’s me, the homeless traveler,” I say, joking so as to not raise alarm. The chain was undone and the door opened wide.
Lotus smiles warmly. “Philip! Good to see you!” she exclaims buoyantly. “I see you brought some friends. Come in. Welcome everyone. Come in!”
She greets me with her customary bear hug. “You just missed Al, he went out to play basketball with Justin.”
“Lotus,” I start. “I gotta talk to you. We have an unusual situation here.”
“That can wait, Philip, first things first.” Lotus was possessed with the angelic patience of motherhood, the non-stop experience in dealing with unusual situations.
She gave my disheveled friends an approving look and greeted each of them warmly in Chinese. She knew the face of someone in trouble when she saw it, putting her arm around the gaunt, almost catatonic Chai Ling, as if to comfort her, before I even had a chance to make introductions.
“Come on, come on inside!” she said. “Don’t be so polite! You all look so hot and tired, let me fix you something to drink.”
“Lotus, this is Chai Ling, a student leader from Tiananmen…”
To Lotus the name or fame of a person mattered not a bit. But the fact that I brought along a protester from Tiananmen Square did. Lotus, still a 60’s activist at heart, and a true believer in people power, the power of ordinary, everyday people that is, had been an enthusiastic observer of the demonstrations since the students started marching.
She had us sit down in the American-style dining room while she scurried about the kitchen, putting the kettle on and preparing some snacks. Wang Li scrutinized the apartment intently. Was he judging it for security features, or just trying to sate his unquenchable curiosity about the world of luxury and privilege behind high walls, a world from which ordinary Chinese were normally barred? Unable to remain still for long, he leapt up and joined Lotus in the kitchen to get a closer look at some of the modern, imported appliances.
When Lotus tried to make some small talk in Chinese, she used a motherly tone of voice that reminded me of the way she spoke to her daughter in front of guests.
“Philip has many Chinese friends, even though he is a foreigner, a white foreigner, he likes to be with Chinese people.” She went on and on, sometimes switching to Mandarin, her accent even more heavily Cantonese-inflected than that of the junior journalist from Hong Kong.
“Lotus, come on already!” I was impatient, not only because I’d heard this description a dozen times before, but because we had more important things to worry about. “This girl, I mean this woman, is on the run,” I explain, imploring Lotus to give me her full attention. “She wants to talk about something, something serious.”
Lotus looked at me with a quizzical smile, not fully comprehending.
“Sorry, I don’t know if it was a good idea to bring her here, but we are really in a bind. I hope this doesn’t get you into trouble, at least I don’t think we were followed.”
My friend in need reads between the lines expertly. “Are you asking me if this place bugged? The apartment I don’t know, probably not. But the telephone? Yes.”
“I don’t want to get you and Al in trouble, I mean he works for a big company, you’ve got your family here, this could be a bit risky.”
Lotus and Al, like many of their peers from the top of the baby-boomer generation enjoyed a solid income from the corporate world but still had a lingering fondness for radical causes. And they were sincere about it.
“Look, what are friends for? I want you to relax with your friends for a minute, I will talk to Al when he gets back.”
“Where can we talk?”
“Just make yourselves at home,” she answered. “Boy it’s noisy here, what’s that outside? Construction or something?” As I pulled the small handheld tape recorder out of my bag I realize with some disappointment that we had traveled a long way only to find a noisy location. “I want to do a taped interview.”
“Nia’s room is quiet,” Lotus volunteered. Nia, whose name was inspired by the word Tanzania, in recognition of early Chinese communist efforts at diplomatic outreach to Africa, was just getting into her teenage years.
Lotus knocked tentatively on the door of her daughter’s room. “Nia? Can you come out for a minute? I’d like you to say hello to Uncle Philip and his friends.”
Nia reluctantly emerged, mumbled a shy hello and ran back into her room, closing the door.
“Uncle Philip and his friends would like to talk in your room,” Lotus adds, trying to coax her pretty teenager out of her private fortress. “Is that okay, honey?”
The door pops open a crack and Nia peeks out, as if in partial acquiescence to her mother’s request, but the look on her face indicated it was anything but okay. She was probably wondering why Uncle Philip and the visitors couldn’t just talk in the living room like regular grownups did.
“Nia, please come into the kitchen. I want to talk with you about something,” Lotus insists. As soon as the teenager was pried from her room, we got the green light. “Okay, guys, go ahead. Sit down inside, sit down! Nia said you can borrow her room. Right, Nia?”
We awkwardly filed into the small bedroom, acutely aware we were invading the private realm of a teenage princess. There were dolls and teddy bears, a McDonald’s poster, an unmade bed of pastel sheets and an armchair.
“Everything okay?” Lotus inquires.
“I guess so, um-huh.”
“Just a minute!” Lotus disappears, seeking to placate Nia who is understandably confused.
After getting Nia settled in the living room to watch TV, Lotus busies herself in the kitchen. “That’s a good girl,” I hear her say to her daughter before she come back to us with a tray of sliced oranges. “Sorry I don’t have anything better than this.”
“Oh, thanks,” I said, taking the tray and putting it down.
“Philip?” Lotus says with a touch of admonishment. “Why don’t you serve these to your friends?”
“Thanks, of course,” I pass the orange slices around, then ask Lotus if I could borrow her video camera.
“You want the Handycam? You’re lucky. I just charged the batteries, they will last for two hours, is that long enough?”
“I certainly hope so,” I answer with a laugh. I figured this thing, whatever it was, would be over in five, ten minutes, max. While Lotus went to get the camera, I examined the room.
With the window closed and the air conditioner off, the room was quiet enough for an interview, but with four of us in there it was already starting to get quite stuffy. I decide to open the Venetian blinds open for light, inviting in the dry heat of the sun.
Wang Li peers out the window to survey the surrounding courtyards before settling next to Patricia on the floor at the foot of the bed.
Lotus comes back in and snuggles into the armchair, fidgeting with the dials and buttons of her camera. I move some stuffed animals out of the way so that Chai Ling and I could sit down next to each other on bed facing Lotus and the camera. I confer quietly with Chai Ling in Chinese, instructing her to introduce herself and tell us about the student movement.
“Do you have enough light, Lotus?” I ask, switching to English. “How’s the sound?”
For some reason Chai Ling takes my comments to Lotus as a cue to begin talking.
“The police are looking for me,” Chai Ling starts, breaking her long silence. “My name is on a blacklist. If I am caught, I will get fifteen years in prison.”
I got the tape recorder rolling, but Lotus was still fiddling with the camera. Meanwhile the cramped, poorly-ventilated room was starting to feel like a sauna.
“I’m sorry, just a minute please, I say, trying to cue Chai Ling to the camera. “Lotus are you ready?”
Our hostess has finally found a reasonably comfortable way to film without a tripod by scrunching up in the armchair, balancing the camera on her knees.
“Okay, Chai Ling,” I say, signaling the start of the interview. “Why don’t you tell us who you are and how you got involved in the student movement?”
My interview subject is slow to react, as if weighted down by her own thoughts. She looks away from the camera, staring blankly at the wall.
“No, I think it’s better if you look this way.” I say, pointing to the blinking red light of the camera. “Here, hold the tape recorder yourself.”
The student leader takes the compact cassette recorder and holds it in front of her mouth, as if she was addressing her followers with a megaphone. I motion for her to keep it down, away from her face, to put it in her lap.
“Okay, let’s start, what do you want to say?”
“I think these might be my last words, the situation is getting grim,” she says, words emerging slow and methodically at first. “My name is Chai Ling, I am 23 years old. Isn’t it strange, my birthday was on April 15, the same day that Hu Yaobang died?”

Tags: , , , ,

This piece is excerpted from the manuscript of Philip J. Cunningham’s forthcoming book, Tiananmen Moon, part of an on-going China Beat feature of excerpts from Cunningham’s book. Interested readers can see more at Cunningham’s website

 

Philip J Cunningham with “Commander-in-chief” Chai Ling in front of the student command center 
By Philip J. Cunningham 
On May 26 I got another glimpse of student command central, when Chai Ling was at the height of her power. She was holding court in the broadcast tent, the ideological hothouse of student-occupied Tiananmen Square. It wasn’t easy getting in. I had to pass three rings of student security to secure an “audience.” 
The BBC had yet to give me any kind of ID, so I learned to talk my way into things. My only “press” pass was my wit, which worked okay because I liked to talk and could do so in Chinese. There were times when the well-known call letters BBC did not suffice to gain entry, while merely saying I was looking for a friend from Shida might do the trick. The closer I got to the student center, the higher the likelihood I’d run into someone who’d seen me before, which also helped expedite entry. I could remember most of the faces, if not names, of the hundreds I’d spoken to in the last few weeks, so overall I had a high degree of mobility on the cordoned-off, people-controlled Square. 
As a provincial student leader, self-appointed or otherwise, Wang Li expected and obtained a certain amount of access to the Beijing student command center at the Broadcast Tent. What Wang Li lacked in social cachet as an unknown provincial student from Xian, I think he started to make up for by speaking on behalf of the BBC, since he was now on the payroll and knew he could impress fellow students with his important international connections. Student security guards were vigilant about keeping ordinary Chinese away from their “leaders,” but by becoming a leader, or media person, many of the petty controls could be circumvented. 
Wang Li put in a word for me with the provincial students, but they seemed terribly disorganized and no interviews or memorable conversations came out of that effort. After jointly touring the provincial student outpost near the museum, we cut west and headed towards the broadcast tent in the center of the Square. The amateur security got woollier and woollier as we pushed towards the center, so we temporarily split up when he got permission to enter a controlled area that I couldn’t enter. Wang Li rushed ahead on his own, to see if he could find a student leader willing to talk to me. In the meantime, I decided to wing it, slowly working my way past various student gatekeepers until I ran into a familiar face from the Sports Institute. 
“Hey Jin,” yelled a boisterous baritone, “what are you doing here? Good to see you, come over here!” 
It was Crazy Zhang. When he got within arm’s length he gave me a few friendly punches that actually hurt. He wasn’t called crazy for no reason. The last time I saw him he was wearing a khaki green cap with a red headband around it. 
“Go fight someone else!” I shoved him back. 
“Better not try anything or I’ll have to throw you out of here,” he said with a straight face. 
The smart-aleck muscle man grabbed me by the arm and led me up the north steps of the monument’s marble base past a guarded security rope. He directed me to descend the steps on the east side of the monument to a roped off area from which it was possible to enter the broadcast tent. When I got inside that zone I found Wang Li standing outside the tent. He waved me over with his usual sense of urgency. 
“I’ll leave you here,” said Zhang, this time with a gentle pat on the back instead of a threatening punch. “See you later.” 
Wang Li ran over excitedly, barely avoiding a collision with the solidly built Zhang. 
“Jin!” 
“What is it?” I asked. 
“Come now!” he said excitedly, “Chai Ling, she wants to talk to you.” 
“Chai Ling? Where is she?” 
“By the tent,” he shouted. Since we were both already inside, the innermost perimeter, it was just a matter of turning the corner of the monument to reach the entrance of the broadcast tent. 
There she was, the queen bee in the middle of a humming hive. She was petite and pert, wearing a loose-fitting white sports shirt with sunglasses hanging on her collar. She smiled in greeting when she saw me approach, but didn’t say anything. There were people on her left and people on her right and from the looks of it, they all wanted a piece of her. There were excited discussions about some pressing matter or another, but I couldn’t hear very well because a noisy diesel generator was roaring a few feet away. Just as I was about to ask her a question she was called away, disappearing for a few minutes into the shadows of the truck-sized tent. 
The petite, bronze-faced leader popped in and out of the broadcast tent a half a dozen times in as many minutes while attending to the minutiae of running the tent city of Tiananmen Square. Behind a well-secured safety rope, there was yet another group of student supplicants bearing urgent requests. There was a small patch of empty ground in front of the broadcast tent where I thought I might hold a quick interview, if one didn’t mind the hundreds of onlookers just a few feet away on the other side of the rope. I could already feel the heat of open-mouthed stares building up. Who is the laowai and what is he doing on the inside? 
This was the command center, where strategic decisions were made and announcements broadcast to tens of thousands on slow days like today; a week ago it had been the center of a swirling human cyclone a million strong. No wonder the student organizers are called leaders, with crowds of that size some kind of structure is necessary. 
Deep in the throng of wannabes who did not have permission to enter the command center were three familiar white faces: Eric, Fred and Brian. Being good journalists, they didn’t take no for an answer, they wanted in. 
When the usual, “We’re BBC!” didn’t work its charm, they started pointing to me, as much as a ruse to slip in as a bid to get my attention. They were turned back, however, and there wasn’t much I could do about it. To make matters worse, a student warden asked me to translate, leaving it to me to say, “It is not allowed to go inside the rope without special permission.”
Rather than say that, I just hinted to the crew that I was working on it, and went back to the leadership tent to see if I could arrange something. I stood around, baking in the heat of the sun and soaking up unwanted glances when Chai Ling finally walked over and offered me her hand. 
“Ni hao,” she said, stepping forward to greet me. 
“Ni hao. You’re at Shida, right?” 
“Yes, graduate student, educational psychology.” 
“Do you know the service building? You know, the Insider Guest House above the campus store. . .” 
“I know that building. You speak Chinese very well.” 
We were interrupted by a young man who whispered to Chai Ling a flurry of messages and handed her some hand-scribbled notes on onionskin paper. The exchange went on for a few minutes, then the young man withdrew back into the tent. She turned around to resume our chat, apologizing with a weak smile. She was sunburned and looked tired, I started to have my doubts about arranging an interview. 
“Maybe I can talk to you somewhere else, some other time” 
“Now is fine, but I only have a few minutes.” 
“Is it okay for them, um, you see my BBC friends, over there, for them to come in here? We can set up the camera right here.” 
“You can do that,” she replied. Wang Li heard the word and went to get the crew. Chai Ling got called to the side with another student matter, and I helped the crew get inside the rope. 
“What’s going on Phil?” Brian asked impatiently. 
I explained that one of the top student leaders agreed to talk to us. 
“Why don’t we set it up over here?” I pointed to the “front gate” of the tent and Eric and Fred went to work. Held back by a human chain of interlocked arms, student guards and rope, the curious throng strained to get a glimpse of news in the making. It was a relief to have student security handling crowd control this time around.
 
Entry to student-controlled zones was tightly guarded at times 
Allowing a foreign news crew to enter the “VIP” zone just added to the air of intrigue. In a flash, we were the center of attention. Several Europeans with cameras tried to sneak into the command center by following on the coattails of the BBC crew, but they were all stopped by truculent student guards and turned back. Some of them started to make a scene, yelling angrily in English. Just to keep up appearances and to indulge student illusions of control, journalists had in recent days gotten into the habit of flashing any old ID cards before walking into student-controlled areas loaded with cameras and recording equipment. But that gambit didn’t work this time. 
“Vie kant vee go in?” pleaded one of the Europeans. 
“Vee also are from zee press!” his companion, added. 
“Vie you let zem in?” the first man complained. “It is not fair is it?” 
Unlike our tension-fraught visit to the water strikers last week, this time BBC was on the inside and our “competition” was left dangling on the other side of the ropes. Among my colleagues, who knew very well what it was like to be excluded, I could detect not an ounce of sympathy for those left on the outside. 
Foreign newsman at Tiananmen were generally supportive of the democratic tide but not one another. By now even student media handlers like Wang Li knew the value of exclusive access, and the access game worked both ways. Some journalists had been to Tiananmen everyday, and not without justification could they feel indignant at being refused access, or having to settle for reduced access. 
After some heated deliberation, the student guards agreed to allowed a single photographer to come in, but not the two complainers with video gear. Instead, a photographer from Vogue, French edition, was respectfully escorted in and started snapping pictures. At one point he turned to me to ask some questions about Chai Ling. He said he was working on a story titled “Role model for a Generation of Women.” 
By the time BBC had set up camera, Chai Ling was back. The generation/gender role model and I did a short pre-interview chat while the French photographer did his thing. She and I talked about the relative merits of Shida and Beida. She liked both campuses, but she had joined Beida’s hunger strike committee because she had more friends there. 
Eric gave the signal that the Beeb was ready to roll. I had suggested to Chai Ling that we do an informal interview, hoping we could get a few candid comments on tape without a formal set up, but Brian had different ideas. 
“Move out of the way, Phil!” he said, nudging me to the side to take a stand between the two of us. 
“What do you mean?” I said, trying to regain my footing. “I’m talking to her.” 
“I do the talking, Phil!” he said, “Okay Eric, start rolling.” 
I stepped back dejected but not defeated. I watched Brian talk, then gesticulate, then resort to primitive pantomime, as Chai Ling was not able or willing to converse in English. Seemingly oblivious to the language gap, he went on doing this for a few minutes, getting lots of puzzled looks but no words in response. Chai Ling looked at me, then at him and back at me again. 
Brian threw up his hands in frustration and walked away.”Turn off the camera!” he instructed Eric, then turned to me. “Listen, will you? We need someone who speaks English.” 
While the BBC reporter paced about impatiently, apparently looking for another interview, Chai Ling resumed talking to me with rapid-fire delivery, telling me things I hadn’t even asked about. She started to give a very emotional account of her involvement in the movement. I don’t think she knew much about video recording and perhaps she did not care, because the camera was not rolling. It wasn’t even mounted on the tripod anymore. I detected pain in her expression and listened intently, trying not to be distracted by the mumbling and grumbling behind me to the right. She kept on talking and I kept on listening. 
Out of the corner of my eye I could sense the crew was busy, probably packing up, but I did not break eye contact because I wanted to hear what this intense young woman had to say. There was something dark and troubling in her countenance. 
She continued to pour her heart out. After a few minutes I realized that the film crew had definitely not just stepped back to change tapes or put in a new battery. Going, going, gone. They wrapped in a huff and disappeared without saying a word. 
Chai Ling and I shared the mutual embarrassment of having an interview fall apart even as we spoke, leading us both to shrug our shoulders and laugh. She continued talking politics, in a low voice but with great energy and emotion, telling me the student movement had come to a crucial turning point, the future was full of uncertainty. There were serious conflicts between rival student groups. The Beijing students were tired but tempered from weeks of demos and the hunger strike. It was the provincial students, relatively late arrivals, who were pushing for action. Chai Ling said there was a plot to destroy the movement and she didn’t know who to trust anymore. She spoke of betrayal, of fear, and of her sense of responsibility as a leader. We were interrupted again, this time by a student messenger. Upon the receipt of some urgent communique, she turned to me and said she had to go, asking how to get in touch. 
“Bei-jing Fan-dian, 1-4-1-3,” I said, giving her my room number at the hotel. 
“I want to talk more,” she said with a soft-spoken intensity. “Can I trust you?” 
I waited for her to say more, trying to understand. 
“I want to run away. . .” she said. 
“What?” 
“It is getting very dangerous!” 
“Yes, you should be more careful,” I said. “But what did you say, run away?” 
“A Chinese person told me that the British Embassy is offering political asylum to student activists. What do you think about that?” 
“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s possible, but not likely. Who told you that?” 
“I think it may be a trap.” 
“I just don’t know.” 
“Can you ask about that for me?” 
I told her I didn’t know anyone at the British Embassy but I said that maybe one of my “good friends” at the BBC did. Then I added my own advice. “Be careful about dealing with foreign embassies. If you go to a big embassy, it could be used against you politically. Maybe the embassy of a small, neutral country is better.” If she went to the US Embassy I was afraid she would become a political pawn in US-China relations. I didn’t think that the British Embassy would be any better. Worse yet, what if it was a trap? What if the asylum offer had been made by an undercover agent, a trap set by Chinese police to discredit the nationalism of the students? 
“Jin, I must go now,” she said. “See you again!”

Tags: , , , ,

This piece is excerpted from the manuscript of Philip J. Cunningham’s forthcoming book, Tiananmen Moon, part of an on-going China Beat feature of excerpts from Cunningham’s book. Interested readers can see more at Cunningham’s website. 
By Philip J. Cunningham

On the evening of May 22, BBC asked me to take one of the crews to the Square for a closer look at the protest, which was thought to be on the wane now that martial law was coming into force. We did the usual look-see, I conducted a few spot interviews and the talented camera crew captured ironic and iconic visuals. Then we took a break in front of the History Museum, parking the hotel van near the camp of the provincial students. 

The protesters around us didn’t seem to mind our presence, until we decided to crack out the beverages. It was hard to enjoy the hotel-bought drinks we had kept stored in an icebox in the back of the van while in the midst of so many under-nourished, homeless students from the countryside. 
The problem of eating well in front of people who had less access to food was a familiar one, something I had experienced on the set of The Last Emperor and Empire of the Sun. We almost had a riot one day on the during a location shot on the Bund for the Spielberg film, as the cast and crew ate a hotel-catered lunch in the midst of 5000 hungry extras whose food had been duly paid for but never arrived, due to some sticky-fingered comprador or official intermediary. 
Thus it was with some reluctance that I extracted a can of iced cold soda from the icebox. Just then I noticed a young man in dusty clothes staring at me through thick black-rimmed glasses, eyeing the Coke I had in my hand. He had a wiry build and sported a flattop crew cut that made him look more a police cadet than student. But there was something extremely sympathetic about him too, he had a wide-eyed but vulnerable expression on his face, as if he wanted to talk but was afraid. I offered him a can of soda from the BBC icebox. 
“Thank you, man!” he said nervously in English. He smiled like a baby who had just gotten his bottle. He downed the bubbly drink so fast I felt sorry for him. 
“Here you go, friend.” I said, tossing him another. 
“Do you know about the fighting outside the city?” He asked, face drawn with earnest tension until he burped. 
“What? Fighting? Tell me about it.” 
“The troops starting beating the common people,” he said, rushing into a description of the incident. 
“How do you know about this?” 
“I was there!” he said authoritatively. “Do you want to know about it? Are you a reporter?” 
“Sort of. An interpreter. A freelancer, actually. For the BBC. That’s the crew,” I said, pointing to the tailgate party. 
“Nice vehicle, what model is that?” he asked. 
“I don’t have the slightest idea,” I answered honestly. He looked me over from head to toe as if to say how could you not know what model of car you have? 
“I’m Wang Li,” he said. “I’m from Xian. I give you this information.” He handed me some scribbled ideographs on a crumpled sheet of paper. 
“Listen, little Wang, you can call me Jin, ‘jin’ as in gold. Jin Peili,” 
Taking a closer look at his notes, I could barely make out his writing, but there was a list of some place names, times and dates. 
“Thanks for the information, but the BBC probably won’t have the time to look into such a specific incident, even recorded in detail such as this.” 
“But isn’t this news?” 
“It may be,” I said. “But TV news is, um, different. There’s a lot of information that never makes it on air.” He looked as disappointed as a puppy that had just returned a stick that its owner didn’t want to throw anymore. 
“This might be useful for a newspaper, but TV news is, well, forget it.” 
“Do you want more information?” he asked. 
“Sure, let’s keep in touch,” I said, not sure if I meant it or not. I had met too many unusual characters lately, and some of them were so weird I had lost confidence in the cliché that a stranger was a friend I hadn’t met yet. 
“Okay, I tell you what,” I said, trying not to sound too encouraging, “if you have some interesting news, you can call me at the Beijing Hotel, my room number is 1413. And how can I get in touch with you?” 
“I am always here, on Tiananmen Square, with the provincial students,” he said. “Just ask for Wang Li from Xian.” 
Later that evening he telephoned my room, waking me up. 
“I’m Wang Li,” the husky voice says, “I met you on the Square, I have something very important to tell you.” 
“What time is it now?” 
“12:15, I’m in the downstairs coffee shop waiting for you.” 
“Okay, okay, I’ll be right down.” 
Coffee shop? At this time of night? Not in the Beijing Hotel. This place closes down early. So what does he want? Food, I could offer him, a place to stay? Well. Anticipating his request, I opened the refrigerator and stuffed all the food and drink I could squeeze into my shoulder bag.
 
The lobby is dark and forbidding. The red carpet is inky, almost black. There are no attendants anywhere in sight. When I pass the decorative screen that is designed to keep ghosts out of the lobby I can see some people sitting in the empty coffee lounge. Four young men, no, it’s three men and a woman sitting around a low round table masked in shadow. At an adjacent table I can make out the silhouette of two young men. One of them leaps up and waves me over excitedly. It is Wang Li. 
“Jin, ni hao,” Wang Li says in greeting, approaching me with outstretched hands. “This is my friend Hu, he is also a student from Xian,” he says. Hu and I say hello and shake hands while Wang Li fumbles nervously in his pockets for something. “Here are our student ID cards, I want you to trust us.” 
I scan the cards briefly in the dim light and give them back. I put the fruit juice and snacks on the table and take a seat. 
“Jin, there is so much I have to tell you,” Wang Li erupts, as if we were old friends. 
“Have something to drink first,” I insist, trying to pre-empt his request. I hand him some food and drink. He hands me a jagged piece of paper with notes scribbled on it. I can’t help but notice that the coffee shop menu that lay open on the table had part of a page ripped out of it that matched the angular shape of his note like a jigsaw puzzle piece. 
Written in the coffee-stained margins next to “CHILLED LYCHEES IN SYRUP” and “YOGHURT WITH HONEY” are scribbled the words: “Liuliqiao, army troops, 70 civilians receive injury, tomorrow huge demonstration in protest.” 
Wang Li and Hu gulp down the juice and ravage the snacks as if they had just ended a private hunger strike. While they eat, I look at the other table where a group of four young people are talking in low whispers next to the ornate ghost screen that blocked view from the entrance. 
“Listen, troops have arrived northeast of Beijing. There are thousands of soldiers, tanks, and I heard there are trucks full of ammunition,” Wang Li says, as if trying to earn his keep. 
“How do you know?” 
“We were there,” he says with a hint of pride. And then anticipating further questions, he adds, “We know a journalist needs evidence, so we want to go back and take pictures.” 
“Isn’t that kind of risky?” 
“No, we must do it, Jin. Can I borrow your camera?” He reads the doubt on my face. “You can keep my ID card until I return with the camera.” 
“No, no, that’s not necessary. I trust you,” I respond, using the immortal words of someone about to be conned. Actually I didn’t trust him. If anything his offer of the ID made me a little suspicious. If he were really a student why was he flashing his ID around? No one else did that. 
“Thank you,” he says, looking greatly relieved. “You are a friend.” 
“Where have you been sleeping?” 
“On the Square,” he answers. 
“What about tonight?” 
“No sleep. We will be out all night looking for troops.” 
“You have to get some sleep some time,” I answer, playing the role of older brother. I didn’t have that kind of stamina or drive. 
I was starting to admire this guy’s dedication to the cause. 
“I’ll tell you what, tomorrow you can shower and nap in my room if you want, okay?” 
Even as the words left my mouth I wasn’t sure why I made the offer, but it got me off the hook tonight. And I did feel for these ragamuffins. We shared a powerful curiosity in common; we were interested in finding out what was really going on, but we weren’t journalists, not them, not me. I couldn’t forget how I was almost reduced to sleeping on the streets during the early vigils at Tiananmen. 
“Can you give me some film, too?” he pleads, revealing sharper bargaining skills as my skepticism softened. 
“Yeah, okay. By the way,” I ask, pointing to the figures in the shadows about 20 feet away, “Who are those people sitting at the table over there?” 
“They’re our student leaders. That’s Wang Dan, Wuerkaixi, Chai Ling and Feng Congde.” 
“The student leaders?” I ask in disbelief. Isn’t this a government hotel? 
We got up to leave. I walked past the other table to get a closer look. The quiet conference in progress momentarily went silent as we walked by. On the way out, I give my camera to Wang Li, not sure if I’d see it or him again. Even so I felt a pang of guilt. Is it right for me to encourage him to go running after troops? 
And what are the student leaders doing in the Beijing Hotel in the middle of the night? Is someone protecting them, do they have a powerful benefactor in the building? It’s close to Tiananmen Square, and in a way, it’s a good hideout. After all, who would expect to find them here? Like Shanghai in the ‘30s where the underground communists frequented the same bars, brothels and hotels as the anti-communist city bosses, Beijing was becoming a city of shadowy intrigue.

Tags: , , , ,

« Older entries