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Far From Homeland China, an Actress Waits, Wonders

June 08, 1989|JUDITH MICHAELSON | Times Staff Writer

Why wasn't her father answering his phone at 3 o'clock in the morning in Shanghai? And what about her 82-year-old maternal grandmother, who lives with him? Wouldn't she answer, even if her father, a doctor, was at the hospital? And how was her grandmother coping in a city where markets are closed and the buses are not running?

A world away from China, on a hillside in Laurel Canyon, actress Joan Chen, suddenly looking very pale, was frightened.

"I'm very worried about my family there," she said.

Chen, best known for her role as Wan Jung, Emperor Pu Yi's disturbed wife in "The Last Emperor," had just spent the better part of an hour late Tuesday afternoon talking emotionally about the student uprisings, about her pride in their "growing, beautiful garden of faith" that the government has "trampled all over" and how a government that "hates" its own people is "not going to last."

"Their heroism touches me very much," she said, "and the blood scared me. And I'm very indignant about the army. We were taught to love our army because they protect us. . . . Now they fire on our own people. It's unforgivable."

Then as the interview was ending, the phone rang as it has so often these past few weeks, and distance became an enemy too. Her mother, a doctor and a research chemist, was calling from Wilmington, Del., where she is on a People's Republic-sponsored assignment with Du Pont Co., to say she couldn't reach anyone at home.

Chen said that she had tried to reassure her mother (the phone conversation was in Chinese). After all, there had been no reports--at least up to that point--of bloodshed in Shanghai. But the worry was now transferred. (Chen gives no family names--"just in case.")

"I feel like a spider in a large cobweb" with everyone somewhere else, she said.

Pounding her fists in her lap, a contrast in mood to the serene minimalist decor of her beige and white home, Chen said she keeps asking herself questions. Should she try to get a visa and go back to see if everything is all right? Or should she stay here, as her mother who's afraid for her safety urges her to do? "But I really want to go."

Nevertheless Chen, who at 28 became an American citizen last month, said she will continue to use any leverage she might have as a citizen to extend her brother's U.S. visa beyond a June 15 deadline. (Meanwhile in Washington, the Senate was passing a rare 100-0 resolution on China that included urging extension of the visas of Chinese students.)

Her brother, 30, a painter known professionally as Chase Chenoff, lives with her. He has just finished three years of study at Cal State Northridge, a school she had attended as well. Chen has been in the United States, interspersed with visits back home, since 1982.

Chen also has a 19-year-old cousin in China, a just-graduated high schooler who participated in the massive demonstrations in Beijing. She said she heard about him in letters from home.

Now, she said, she doesn't know where he is. His mother, her mother's sister, is also a doctor at Beijing Hospital, "right next to (Tien An Men) Square" and no one here has heard from her either.

A child of the repressive Cultural Revolution, Chen admits to a confusing childhood. While she noted that she was taught its importance in school, both her parents were sent away to re-education camps when she was 5 or 6. Although her mother returned after less than a year, her father stayed away "off and on" for several years until her early teens, and her maternal grandfather, also a doctor and scientist, committed suicide.

"I remember he was teaching me writing, and I didn't finish my writing that day, and I always felt guilty about that," Chen said.

She also remembers the Red Guards who came to the home of her paternal grandparents when she was 6 or 7 looking for "bourgeois traces" and asking herwhether they had burned certain photographs. They told her they would go away if she told the truth.

"I told them we burned a pile at the back of the house and at the front of the house," she said angrily, "and then they went inside and turned everything upside down."

At 13, she remembers the army came to her high school to recruit and she wanted to be a parachutist, and even wrote a letter asking why girls couldn't do that.

At 18 or 19, an actress as well as a student at Shanghai's Institute for Foreign Languages studying English, German and Japanese, Chen was sent to Japan. The Japanese were "nice, polite, and everything was in good order."

The Cultural Revolution was over, and it was her first taste of the outside world. She also began hearing about the United States from her parents. They had worked at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

Now, she says, her people have tasted democracy "and won't let it go. They want more. China was opening up a great deal, movies and books, people were more open-minded," and that cannot change.

Of all the images from China, Chen said she was most moved by the one man who stood in front of the row of tanks.

"That man, I saw him," she said with obvious pride. "It was very heroic. In classes we learned about heroes. It's built in the blood, this heroism. I remember we didn't study much of classic Chinese novels, the ancient culture that everyone here talks about. We studied about the heroes who were in Korea, the heroes who fought the Nationalists in the war, the heroes who fought the Japanese, the heroes of the armies of today, how they rescue girls, boys who dropped into a river.

"It's like giving of yourself, sacrificing yourself is the highest honor. We were taught that way," Chen said softly. "And now the people are using it against them."

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