It was Chinese New Year’s eve. Fireworks exploded outside. Inside, my friends Rich and Lei Lei were showing me old letters they bought at a local junk shop, dozens of them spanning fifty years.
Some of the letters were written in the careful penmanship of the husband, a man I'll call Wang Ming. He was in prison hundreds of miles away in the mountains bordering Tibet. Others were written by his wife, who was left behind to raise seven children on the Street of Eternal Happiness.
Today at this address, their stucco townhome still stands. It's surrounded by dumpling stands, boutique fashion shops, swanky hotels, capitalism in all its manifestations.
But 60 years ago, being a capitalist could ruin your life.
A government song from the 1950s forecasted painful days ahead for those on the wrong side of communism: “A storm of struggle, criticism, and transformation is fast approaching," the chorus goes, “the working class will reinvent the old world.”
Wang Ming was part of that old world. After communists took over China, they seized all the country's private factories, including Wang's silicon steel factory in Shanghai. But government officials had no idea how to run Wang's plant. After months of repeated failures, local official privately encouraged Wang to start a separate factory to help save the reputation of the government-controlled one.
In a letter yellowed by time, Wang writes in the meticulous calligraphy of China’s educated class, explaining what happened next:
After I built my own factory, the government sentenced me to 15 years in prison for making money in an illegal way. I was sent here to Qinghai to be reformed.
Wang was sent to De Ling Ha prison camp, a thousand miles away from Shanghai in the remote Tibetan highlands of Qinghai province. In a letter dated Sept. 6th, 1958, Wang’s wife Li Shuyun writes to her husband that life at home is getting difficult:
Dear Ming, We’ve run out of money. I’ve had to sell a lot of our things to get by. I’ve just found a job at a factory. The eldest daughters are taking care of the younger ones…so please don’t worry. Work hard and accept your re-education. Becoming a new person is the only way out.
Re-education meant that Wang had to unlearn things like individualism and capitalism, and realize society can only reach its goals without classes, where everyone shares everything -- the end of economic exploitation. His classroom was a labor camp, where prisoners were routinely beaten and starved.
Wei Xie Zhong, a retired professor in Nanjing, was a fellow inmate of Wang’s. "The camp was in the desert," remembers Wei, "If you tried to escape, you’d die from exposure, so there weren’t even any walls around it. Guards were more concerned about inmates stealing food."
It was the time of Mao’s Great Leap Forward campaign. A propaganda song from the era praises the collectivization efforts of the campaign: “By achieving better and faster economic results,” the song goes, “we’ll create heaven.”
At the end of the three-year campaign, tens of millions of people had starved to death, one of the worst famines in recorded history. Wei says most prisoners at the labor camp were lucky to survive. "I remember going out in the morning and seeing inmates too weak to work, leaning against the walls. After the sun went down, I’d come back and they were dead."
Back on the Street of Eternal Happiness, Li Shuyun continued to struggle. In a letter to her husband in 1964, she says she’s so poor that she’s had to give away their youngest daughter:
She was adopted by the family of a carpenter. Don’t worry. Someday we’ll be reunited, as long as you diligently study proletariat thought and get rid of your bourgeoisie ideas.
Proletariat thought and bourgeoisie ideas: the letters are full of slogans Wang and Li wrote to please government censors who were inspecting their mail. But in 1970, Wang ignores the lingo in a letter to his wife:
Dearest Shuyun, It’s my fault that you’re alone with all the burdens and responsibilities of raising our family. I feel so alone. Please send pictures of the family so that my homesickness can be cured.
There are more than a hundred letters between Wang and Li. They share news of how the children are growing and changing, working at factories after school, becoming adults, and getting married, all without the guidance of their father.
After reading these letters, I began looking for Wang and Li’s family. I start at their old home on The Street of Eternal Happiness, where an elderly neighbor tells me the family left years ago. “The father died,” she tells me, “but the mother’s still alive. She left China five years ago with her only son to go to America.”
I tracked down Wang Ming’s son in New York City. Before he agrees to talk to me, the son asks that his family’s real names not be used. He still has sisters back in China, and the family’s been through enough political trouble as it is.
Wang Jie is 56. He lives with his mother in the first floor of a house in the Chinese community of Flushing. Li Shuyun is now 87, she’s suffering from Alzheimer’s.Wang’s spent his life taking care of her -- he never got married. Wang works at a factory in Queens, repairing cell phones, earning minimum wage.
It may not be the American dream, but Wang says he’s okay with that.
"After the hell my family has been through," Wang tells me, "this is heaven."
Wang tells me his father died three years ago. He spent his last years in a nursing home, which is odd in China, where it’s customary for the children to care for parents at home as they die. Wang doesn’t explain why, but when I ask him if he blames China’s government for what happened to his father, he hints at how his family saw his father. "His salary was good and we could have all lived a stable life, but he was unsatisfied and he wanted to make more," Wang says of his father. "He should have known running his own factory was illegal."
Wang doesn’t like to think about his life back in China, but one memory stands out. When Wang was 20 years old his father was released from prison. Wang remembers going to the Shanghai train station with his sisters to pick him up. "The problem was we didn’t know what he looked like," remembers Wang. "He didn’t recognize us, either, so we missed each other completely."
After looking for some time, they went home and waited. It was on the Street of Eternal Happiness where he finally met his dad. Today, the family home has the same weathered red door and the same creaky stairs, but it’s surrounded by a completely different China. The propaganda music from decades ago is gone. A street musician prefers to play songs from pre-Communist China.
I ask Wang about the letters. Would he like to see them?
He doesn’t even pause to think. "No," he says. "They weren’t anything special. Talk to any Chinese who lived through that time. We all have the same stories."
He says his parents’ letters should have been left in a trashcan years ago on the Street of Eternal Happiness.
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