The absolutely best part about the three months that we spent in China was the friends that we made. We were greeted with such open arms, invited into people’s homes and shared many meals. The great majority of these people spoke very little English, but that seemed to be of little consequence when it came to trying to connect with us and making us feel welcome. One of the most fascinating people that we became very close to was Mr. Liu: an octogenarian who had more spirit, energy and verve than most of the 40 year olds that I know.
Mr Liu had a remarkable life story: a life that would have crushed most people and turned them in to bitter, brooding senior citizens. His story is a long and convoluted and one which kind of mirrors modern China’s turbulent 20th century. I was only able to get bits and pieces of it, he was very hesitant at times to unveil it and at other times he would sit for an hour or so and, in his broken English, tell me his story. He and I would meet at 7am every Tuesday and Thursday in Renmin Park and play badminton. Afterwards we would go back to his extremely humble apartment where he would make us breakfast and we would hang out and talk. He was born in the countryside of Shanghai in 1930 and so his childhood was spent under a very repressive Japanese occupation (our Eurocentric North American culture has largely ignored the Japanese occupation and terrorizing of China throughout the early and mid-1900s. It’s a terrifying history and one that is not forgotten by the Chinese. In Nanjing there is an extremely disturbing and graphic memorial to The Rape of Nanjing, which is almost a pilgrimage site for Chinese school children). Mr Liu joined Mao’s PLA (Peoples Liberation Army) in 1948 and was sent to the Northern Heilongjiang province to learn how to fly and so became part of the fledgling PLA Air Force. He talked a lot about the year or so that he spent in Heilongjiang and about the conditions which were a notch above sub-human. He recalled in vivid detail of how, after several months of not being able to change out of his clothes because of the lack of clothing, the lack of water for bathing and the lack of heat in the barracks, he finally undressed and counted fifty-three bugs crawling around in his clothes, he was very adamant about the number and about how that figure and memory had stuck with him. While in the Air Force he flew in a transport squadron and saw action in Korea and Tibet. He had an old photo stuck to his wall of his squadron surrounding a young Mao who they flew on a couple of occasions. In the 60`s he landed a cushy job teaching at the Air Force academy which came to an abrupt end when he innocently challenged the official story of how an American ace had been shot down by a Chinese fighter pilot in the Korean war (he was there and he knew the true story which wasn`t quite as heroic as the official story). He was summarily dismissed and after a few months of no work and of lodging official complaints to his local party boss, he was one night, while having dinner with his mother in a restaurant in Shanghai, picked up by plain clothes police and without any recourse, thrown in jail. A few days later he was shipped inland where he spent the next 16 years in a labour camp. He wouldn`t tell me much about the camp, he said that the memories were too painful, he only said that his military conditioning helped him to survive and that he saw many lawyers, teachers, artists and other intelligentsia, people who were not prepared for the conditions, die while he was there. His most painful memory about the labour camp, and the only time I ever saw him choke up, was when he talked about the wife he had to leave behind. He figured that he was never going to be set free, so after a few years he told his wife that she should divorce him and get on with her life, which she did. Remarkably they both survived and, although they are both remarried, they still see each other regularly. After sixteen years of hard labour Mr Liu was one day, unexpectantly released into a China that he barely recognised. While in prison he had made a point of smuggling in English magazines and books and had taught himself English. Upon his release he set out to become an English teacher a job that he undertook with the same indefatigable spirit that had allowed him to thrive, in such unforgiving circumstances, through the first half of his life
Mr Liu makes an appearance throughout the album in many songs. He is one of the many strangers in Stranger Here; in A Few Bags of Grain there is a direct reference to his story (After 16 years hard labour/He bumped into a neighbour/who told him about a world gone insane); the sound sample used in Sir Francis Bacon At The Net is of him and a friend of his playing badminton. But most importantly it is his real life love story that sets the stage for the fictional love story that sets up the album in the title song Renmin Park. Our adventure in China would not have been the same without Mr Liu, I feel very privileged to have met him and to have spent time with him.
If you’d like to catch up on some past blogs about the Renmin Park album, just click on a link: