Few among us can look back without regret at some silly youthful decision that had unforeseen consequences. Canadian journalist Jan Wong has had an even bigger burden to bear than most: A Chinese Canadian, Wong was one of the first Westerners allowed to study at Beijing University in the early 1970s. The Cultural Revolution was under way, and Wong, an inexperienced enthusiast of 20, was a Maoist. When a Chinese student acquaintance named Yin Luoyi asked Wong to help her get to the U.S., Wong promptly reported Yin to her Communist professors. Years later, as a foreign correspondent with few illusions, she covered the Tiananmen Square massacre for the Toronto Globe and Mail. When she ultimately remembered her casual betrayal, she realized she had “thoughtlessly destroyed a young woman I didn’t even know.”
A Comrade Lost and Found, Wong’s second book on China, is about her quest to make amends to Yin—and to tell the story of Beijing’s evolution from its grim, xenophobic Maoist past to its recent pre-crash incarnation as flamboyant boomtown. Wong is known for the amusing but ruthless candor of her celebrity interviews, and she brings that quality to her own tale. She structures the book as a search for Yin, as she travels back to Beijing with her husband Norman, himself an old China hand, and their very Canadian teenage sons. With little to go on, she pesters old friends and professors for information.
She learns through them how many Chinese have failed to come to terms with the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, even as they return to a pre-revolutionary culture of entrepreneurism and conspicuous consumption. Old Beijing is disappearing; the new city lacks distinction. Her university Red Guard pals now vie for the biggest homes and sneer at rural migrants, while remaining silent about their own tragedies and betrayals.
As the book’s title indicates, Wong does eventually find Yin, with unexpected results. It turns out to have been worth the trouble, for Wong and for readers of this honest, funny, illuminating book.
Anne Bartlett is a journalist in Washington, D.C.