Thirty Years from Tienanmen Square

Thirty Years from Tienanmen Square

June 4, 2019 marks the thirty year anniversary of a dark day in Chinese history – what is known in the west as The Tienanmen Square Massacre.

I remember this day very well. I had just graduated from college a month before. I had just gotten married a week after college graduation. We were in Chicago for a friend’s wedding, and I remember waking up on Saturday morning and watching the broadcast of the Chinese military, under orders from Premier Deng Xiaoping, starting a methodical and violent clearing of the pro-democracy protests which had been going on in the square for some time.

Tienanmen Square is one of the largest city squares in the world. On one end is the Forbidden City, the former home of the emperor, now adorned with the iconic picture of communist leader Mao Zedong. Mao’s massive portrait looks out over the square and keeps a close watch on his own mausoleum on the opposite side of the square where the preserved body of Mao continues to be proudly displayed in a rather grim and solemn granite structure.

Chinese university students had been occupying the square, demanding a fifth modernization to go with Deng Xiaoping’s emphasis on science & technology, agriculture, industry, and defense.  Deng’s leadership had brought China out of the darkness of the cultural revolution which had decimated the Chinese economy and had proven how backward the Chinese regime had become. The cultural revolution ended with Mao’s death in 1976, but its lingering effects had worn down a weary culture. Deng’s modernizations were a welcome shift, but with modernization came new attitudes and desires for more than just economic relief. The students in the square were seeking that fifth modernization: political freedom. They even erected their own version of Lady Liberty to stand in stark contrast to the staunch communist eyes in Mao’s portrait.

The Chinese government could only take so much political embarrassment and bad international press, and on June 4, they moved in to squash the demonstrations. It was brutal. Hundreds died. Perhaps more. No one really knows. Many were arrested and the air of freedom which hung in the optimistic spring of 1989 was violently halted. I watched it all on TV as I readied myself to go the wedding. Little did I know that I’d be standing in the middle of that square just three years from that day.

I traveled to China for the first time in the summer of 1992. I was to teach at an English camp for Chinese English teachers in Dalian. On our way through Beijing, we got to see all the sites including the Great Wall and, of course, the square that was still very much in my memory. Before we arrived in China, we were instructed very clearly not to mention anything about what happened in 1989. Don’t bring it up. Don’t have an opinion. Pretend it didn’t happen.

On the particular day I visited the square, it was a far cry from the images on the TV. There were some vendors and some tourists. Modest lines waited to visit the body of Mao and others queued up in front of Mao’s portrait to tour the Forbidden City. I spent an entire summer in China and heard nothing whatsoever about this historical event. But it wasn’t hard to imagine what many were feeling underneath their skin.

Authority may destroy the movement of freedom, for a time, but it can’t change the thoughts we have within. And who doesn’t want freedom? Who doesn’t want to be able to focus on “the pursuit of happiness?”  Even the great Vietnamese communist leader Ho Chi Minh understood this. If you visit his mausoleum in Hanoi, you’ll see etched across the granite facade one sentence: “Khong co gi qui hon, dap lap, tu do” – There’s nothing as precious as independence and freedom.

China is a generation removed from the incident of Tienanmen Square, but I can’t help but think the underlying desire of true political freedom hasn’t change one bit.

beijing-china-4655_1280

Great Hanoi (& Haiphong) Rat Massacre

I ran across this fascinating article a while back which I wanted to share. It’s about the great Hanoi rat massacre during the time of French colonialism. I don’t want to spoil the entire article because it’s a great read, but the crux of it gets to the amazing entrepreneurial spirit of the Vietnamese people. The French colonial administration wanted to address the growing rat population within the underground sewer systems of Hanoi. The modern sewer system was meant to civilize things in the capital of Tonkin, their crown jewel of a colony. But the idea of increasing sanitation backfired when the rats soon discovered that the drains and sewers were perfect places to live, thrive, and have baby rats. The rat infestation became unbearable until the French administration came up with a brilliant idea: pay Hanoi residents for dead rats. This sent a rash of rat hunters into the sewers in search of the critters. They only had to turn in the rat tails. The French had no desire to have to deal with actual rat bodies. So each tail turned in would yield a monetary reward. But the clever Vietnamese saw an opportunity. Killing the rats would actually diminish their ability to make money off of killing rats. So what was the solution? Simple and brilliant. Cut off the tails, turn them in, but don’t kill the rats. Soon the city was infested with tail-less rats who could still reproduce to have more rats. This was French planning at its worse. Read the entire article at the link:

Great Hanoi Rat Massacre

I can’t think about rats in Vietnam without remembering what our team-teaching colleague did for us during our third year teaching in Haiphong in 1997. My second daughter was just born in a hospital in Thailand. We spent six weeks there preparing for the baby’s arrival. We lived in a small shared apartment at the Maritime University with our teammate, Joe. The living quarters were Spartan, to say the least. Actually, they were not very nice in accordance with western standards, but we did our best to make it a home for us. Joe also had been in Thailand for a conference, and he headed home first before our return with our newborn child. When he arrived and entered the kitchen, it was as if a war zone had manifested itself in our living space. Trash and chewed-up food stuff was scattered all over. Tupperware and storage containers had been chewed through. Rat poop was all over the place. The citadel had fallen. The rats had taken over.

But Joe, being the incredible guy that he was, wasn’t going to allow the place to be infested with rodents with our newborn baby on the way. He got to work. He set traps. He laid down poison. He physically beat rats, chasing them with a stick. All in all, he killed nine of them in our kitchen, if my memory serves me correctly. He threw out all infested items and bleached and cleaned the dingy tile until it was about as clean as it was ever going to get. We arrived home to a spic-n-span apartment. A sterile and safe place for our child. When he told the tale of what had happened, we knew that the great rat massacre of 1997 had occurred, and we were blessed to have such a caring teammate to live with.

Thank you, Joe. And thanks also for not saving the tails for me.

The Tribal Groups of Vietnam

If you haven’t seen this stunning collection of many of the tribal groups in Vietnam, please click HERE to see them. They are beautiful.

French photographer, and Hoi An resident Rehanh, is making an effort to photograph all 54 tribal groups in Vietnam, many of them on the verge of extinction with only a few hundred people remaining. I wholeheartedly support this effort of highlighting the lives and cultures of these special people.

In my ten years living in Vietnam, I had the privilege of coming into contact and learning about various groups. As is stated in the photo essay, many young people leave their culture and assimilate into the “Kinh” or as we know them, the majority Vietnamese people. I taught in the Thai Nguyen Teacher’s Training University for several years and there were students from many of the far-flung provinces who were ethnically not Vietnamese, and would go out of their way to hide that fact. Not that they were ashamed, but so they could compete with everyone else without drawing racial distinction.

This reminds me of a conversation I had in the province of Hoa Binh with a high school girl from the ethnic group the Black Tai. (Yes, related to the Siamese, Thai, Laotian, etc…) I was staying in one of their long-houses over night as their guest, and we chatted in Vietnamese about her prospects of passing the university entrance exams coming up. Yes, she was planning to travel to Hanoi, a big commitment for her family, and try to pass the exams. It would most assuredly give her more opportunities in life. But in that rather sobering conversation I had with her, she told me she didn’t have a chance when competing head to head with the students in the capital city. The Black Tai students have an arduous walk daily just to get to school, trekking up into the mountains until they come across the closest village school. Of course, even if they make the long journey to get to school, their facilities are poor and their teachers poorly trained. The Hanoi students will have much better schools, and even better “tuition” centers in the evening which help them study for the test. Still, even in the face of daunting odds, this young girl was trying her best. I couldn’t help but be moved by her determination.

It’s sad to see the dying out of cultures. It feels like we will all miss a little bit of the human experience when some of these groups finally succumb to the whims of time. But at the same time, I can’t blame anyone of the younger members who decide that city life gives them a better chance at a better life.

Way Cool Pictures of Hanoi & Its Rare Statue of Liberty! (and an Excerpt)

I came across these amazing and rare photos of the famous Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi from the time of French Colonialism. And to my astonishment, they had an actual French-made replica of the Statue of Liberty. Look at these cool photos from the turn of the 19th century. Rare Photos

This lake and I have a lot of history. Hanoi is my old stomping grounds. Used to ride bicycles then motorbikes around that lake many-many-numerous-too-many-to-count times. There was no Statue of Liberty at that time. The French were roundly defeated in 1954 and who knows what actually happened to the statue. That lake is the heart-and-soul of Hanoi. On any given morning or evening, thousands of Hanoians are out and about doing a myriad of activities and …  you know what? I’ve written about this. Here’s my description of the lake from my first novel, “Beauty Rising.” Enjoy!

————————–Excerpt from “Beauty Rising” ————————————

We crossed the street and started walking around the edge of the lake. People were everywhere doing everything. A group of old men sat under a lamp post playing Chinese chess. A steady stream of joggers weaved their way through the commotion. A group of boys carrying wooden boxes approached every foreigner asking if they wanted a shoe shine. Couples snuggled close on benches gazing at the lake, perhaps hoping for a turtle sighting. Sellers balanced a scale-like bamboo contraption over their shoulders hawking exotic fruit and freshly baked baguettes while others sold toothbrushes, toiletries, and toothpicks. One small boy tagged along with our threesome halfway around the lake imploring us to buy a pack of Wrigley’s gum from him. The chaos overwhelmed my senses, and I became entranced by the ceaseless action and the unrelenting flow of people. Every few seconds I saw that girl, the one I had clung on to, the one who stole from me, the one with the innocent face and the smooth skin. The one that nearly smiled at me. There she went again and again. Every thin face, every curved body, every long-haired girl looked identical to her. I wished the girl, whom I had held in my tight grip, had smiled at me. What would I have done? My dad knew what to do when a girl smiled at him. I was not like my dad.
Magical. My heart stood squarely in a magical place. I could feel the swelling of my hands and the lump in my throat. This is Vietnam. This is where my dad left his soul. This is where the girl smiled at him. This is where my dad will remain forever.

Did Truman Start the Vietnam War?

The headline is purposefully provocative. How could Truman, who came on the scene after Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, have started the Vietnam War of two decades later? He didn’t, of course, but the case could be made, and was made in my thesis, that Truman instituted a policy shift towards Indochina which set the groundwork for what was to come. Here’s a snippet of my introduction on the topic.

Harry S. Truman, Vice-President and former Senator from Missouri, assumed the office of the Presidency on April 12, 1945 after the death of the longest serving U.S. President, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Truman immediately found himself in charge of a nation embroiled in the most all-encompassing war in human history. Unprecedented in scope and in challenge, President Truman faced the ravages of war waning in Europe but with the likelihood of a long and costly affair in the Pacific Theater against Japan. The Truman administration was charged with the task of managing war reparations, checking Communist advances, attacking an entrenched Japanese army, and balancing fragile relations with Britain and France. This would have been enough of a challenge for a seasoned leader like Roosevelt, but for the inexperienced Truman, it was truly daunting.

Truman had served as Vice President for only a matter of weeks before Roosevelt’s death. His senatorial background gave him limited experience in the realm of foreign affairs, and Roosevelt did not include the new V.P. in important matters of state during the nascent hours of FDR’s fourth term.  In fact, Truman had been excluded from most executive branch conferences on foreign policy, leaving him to gleam his knowledge of world events mostly from reading newspapers and listening to Capitol Hill chatter (Donovan xiv).  When he became president, Truman did not know about the Manhattan Project (Bradley 103), and had not been informed of what Roosevelt had said at the meetings in Tehran and Yalta earlier in the year (Donovan 10).  He entered the Presidency as a neophyte in foreign policy with no experience in the art of negotiating (Donovan 10), and he brought with him a new Secretary of State, James Byrnes, who also had little foreign policy training (Donovan 17).  This lack of experience, coupled with Roosevelt’s confusing and often contradictory foreign policy, presented Truman with great challenges as his administration tried to bring closure to two wars while balancing world peace.

Not surprisingly, Truman said very little publicly about foreign policy over the first few months of his presidency, but a closer look at the actions of the executive branch in the early days of his administration reveals a clear shift in foreign policy which favored an understandably strong commitment toward France and Britain as tensions heightened with the Soviets over the make-up of post-war Europe (Lucas 13).  In July 1945, the discord over Poland unraveled the trust between the two war-time allies and put Warsaw firmly under control of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (Donovan 57). This undoubtedly gave Britain, France, and the U.S. a great deal of apprehension concerning the Soviet Union’s long-term plans. The U.S. viewed the Soviets in purely ideological terms, thinking that worldwide Communism was the goal (Lucas 13). By the end of 1945, most American policy experts viewed Soviet aggression as the greatest threat to world security, and they saw the Soviets emerging as the dominant power in Asia (Buhite and Hamel 370). Because of this, Truman’s focus on repairing European alliances in the summer of 1945 made a lot of sense; however, this European-focused foreign policy shift would have grave consequences for the peoples of Indochina.

Reflections on Tet ’68: The Power of Media

Happy TET everyone! It’s almost become a tradition here to conjure up remembrances of Tet ’68 every year. This is a post I originally posted over two years ago and I thought I’d let it fly one more time. Have a great new year!  (By the way, no self-respecting Vietnamese would ever call it Chinese New Year. Just so you know.)

Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, conjures up a lot of meaningful images for me after living there for 10 years.  Kumquat trees, banh chung (traditional New Year cake made of sticky rice, mung bean, pork, etc…), fireworks, jolly visitors arriving at all hours, red envelopes of money for the kids. Someone has said Tet for the Vietnamese is like Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas all rolled into one. Whether true or not, it’s the undeniable yearly celebration for the peoples from the Red River Delta.

But for a previous generation of Americans, Tet brings back memories of a very different kind. Mention Tet, and many people will know it by the ‘Tet Offensive’ of 1968.

American found itself embroiled in a quagmire of a war by the turn of the New Year in 1968. The Johnson administration had tried its best to manage the war in the media, consistently re-enforcing the narrative that the Americans were winning against the tenacious North Vietnamese Communists led by the ardent followers of the aging national hero Ho Chi Minh. The proof of the American advantage were the casualty totals given by the defense department which showed, correctly, that the Viet Cong consistently were taking more casualties than the Americans; the logical conclusion of this data was that America was winning the war, right?

As it turns out, those daily statistics fed to the media meant absolutely nothing. As North Vietnamese General Nguyen Vo Giap said, “We can lose a thousand men for every American that is lost; at that rate, we will win.”

And so on the eve of the 1968 Tet holiday, the Viet Cong pulled off a stunning and completely unexpected attack on nearly 50 South Vietnamese cities and American strongholds – all in one night.

The words of the U.S. government fell hollow. The war was not being won. The war was not even close to being finished. It was a depressing reminder that we were caught in a war which many Americans were having a hard time remembering why we were fighting it. The ‘Tet Offensive’ was a decisive turning point, not on the battlefield, but in the minds of the American public.

The fact is, the US military, though blind-sided, reacted brilliantly, clearly winning every decisive battle of the offensive.

But that mattered little. The American public saw the pictures, heard the reports from the networks, and realized that the war was far from over. Johnson’s popularity numbers fell even more. There was little hope in sight.

That set off one of the most volatile years in American history. President Johnson announced he wouldn’t seek another term as President. Robert Kennedy was assassinated. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Riots ripped apart American cities.

It all started with the Tet Offensive.

New Excerpt from “The Reach of the Banyan Tree”

In this excerpt, the small teen, Long, who is large in spirit and hatred for the French colonialists, insists on trying to shoot a rifle and almost ends up shooting an Allied plane. Setting: Tan Trao – Tonkin, French Indochina – July 16, 1945. Enjoy.

“Can I try?”

“We don’t allow skinny school boys to shoot,” said one of the gruff soldiers.

“I’m not a school boy.”

“Well, you should be.”

“I wouldn’t go to a French school if you paid me,” snapped the precocious teen.

“Well that’s good because there aren’t any French schools around here, and I wouldn’t pay you to wipe my boots. What are you? Eight?”

“I’m fourteen, and my uncle says I can join the revolution in eight months.”

“I didn’t know they were allowing babies into the army now,” another soldier jested with him.

“I’m not a baby.”

“You could have fooled me. You have to be taller than a rifle to actually shoot a rifle.”

The gaunt, malnourished, height-challenged youngster scoffed at those petty remarks. He may have been small, but he had the spirit of a warrior who wanted nothing more than to help the revolution. His uncle had taught him a hatred for the French that bred easily amongst the weary-laden souls living in a war-torn colony that had suffocated under eighty years of the foreigners trying to squeeze blood from their Asian turnip. The French, somehow, found a steady stream of income where there was no money or resources, with only the raw-boned determination of the Vietnamese peasants willing to work all day for a bowl of rice gruel. The abuse was all well documented—the rubber plantations that used corvee labor in near slave-like conditions to produce the sap to profit the large French corporations. The French imposed a quota on alcohol that each village was required to purchase whether they wanted it or not and whether it took away from their necessary grain purchases. They opened opium dens, addicting large portions of the male population while forbidding the sale of opiates of any kind in France itself. They purposefully kept the education system unattainable for the vast majority of the population, giving a French education to just enough Annamese to fill the necessary low-level administration posts in order to serve the colony and the French Empire.

“Come on. Let me try one.”

“Go ahead. Teach him a lesson,” said one of the soldiers.

“All right. Here you go.”

He put the outdated French relic on his shoulder and pointed it down-field towards a broken wooden crate with an “x” painted across it.

“Watch this,” said the cocky young man.

His eye lined up along the barrel and pulled the trigger hard but nothing happened.

“You have to pull it back further.”

“I know,” said Long.

“You know about as much as my ox.”

He flinched once and pulled back with his finger as hard as he could. The barrel went flying upward and the shot rang out into the heavens as Long blew back onto the ground.

“What are you shooting at?”

“Must be that plane there,” chimed in another soldier.

On the horizon, the rolling hum of a C-47 pierced the sky.

“Idiot! That’s a friendly plane. It’s the Americans.”

Long hoped that the trajectory of the bullet didn’t find its way into the path of the Allied plane. As he watched it get closer, shouting could be heard in the camp.

“They’re coming! They’re coming!”

“Slim. You better hurry or you’re going to miss it!” yelled Long.

You can pick up a copy of The Reach of the Banyan Tree HERE!

Kindle $2.99  Paperback: $10.79