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Lord's 'Chinese Mosaic' Propelled by Uprising

June 09, 1990|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the wife of the American Ambassador to China, author Bette Bao Lord served as a special consultant for CBS News in Beijing throughout the seven weeks that students staged their peaceful hunger strike in Tian An Men Square last spring.

Lord had been back in America only four days when Tian An Men Square erupted with the sound of automatic weapons firing on the crowd of hundreds of thousands of people who had joined the demonstrators for democracy.

And like millions of Americans who watched the June 3 and 4 massacre of civilians by the People's Liberation Army on television, Lord witnessed the carnage from the CBS News studio in New York City.

Had she still been in Beijing when the massacre occurred, the Shanghai-born Lord said: "I would have been just undone. I was already undone by what I saw on the street. Those people are part of me."

Within days, the echo of gunfire still ringing around the world, Lord began writing "Legacies: A Chinese Mosaic." Her compelling collection of first-person accounts of life in China over the past 40 years was described by a Time magazine reviewer as "a vivid and startling mosaic of the political struggles that foreshadowed the Tian An Men Square uprising."

"When the massacre happened," Lord said, "I felt I had to tell their story so people wouldn't forget what happened in the square and to tell what is in their hearts even now that China is silenced--to tell how the people really feel, their true feelings."

Lord will discuss both her writing and her impressions of China at The Times Orange County Edition's annual Book and Author Luncheon Thursday at the Red Lion Hotel in Costa Mesa. As in the past two years, the luncheon is sold out.

Lord will be joined on the speaker's platform by Times writer Itabari Njeri, author of "Every Good-bye Ain't Gone: Family Portraits and Personal Escapades," and best-selling author Scott Turow, whose second novel, "The Burden of Proof," is expected to match the success of "Presumed Innocent."

In a phone interview from her home in New York City where she and her husband, Winston Lord, are currently writing and lecturing, Lord explained how she began her sporadic writingcareer.

"I'm the accidental writer, you might say, because I didn't expect to be a writer," said Lord, 52. "And each time I became a writer was because stories that I had heard begged to be told."

Lord wrote her first book, "The Eighth Moon," in 1964. It's the true story of her sister's life growing up in China.

Lord was 8 years old in 1946 when she and her parents left Shanghai to come to the United States. Her father, a government servant, was sent here to buy equipment for China. Lord said they left her baby sister behind, thinking they would be in this country only a year or two. But the family remained in Brooklyn, she said, "because the Communists won the Civil War and we did not want to go back."

The story of her sister's life in China "begged to be told," she said, after she and her sister were reunited 17 years later.

In 1981, she wrote "Spring Moon," her second book and first novel, after having made several trips to China in the '70s. The book, which deals with China from the late 19th Century to the 1970s, was on the bestseller list for 31 weeks.

"That also begged to be told because I felt to understand China today, you really have to understand what happened to China" in the past, she said.

Her third book, "The Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson" in 1984, is a story for children about the Americanization of new immigrant Shirley Temple Wong.

"That story begged to be told because I felt there were so many immigrants coming to the States and having trouble learning English," Lord said. "It is a fictionalized version of my own first year in America."

"Legacies" grew out of her 3 1/2 years in China as the highly visible wife of the American ambassador.

While living in Beijing, Lord began tape-recording interviews with people from all walks of life--from an actress to a journalist, and from a scholar to a peasant.

By the time she returned home to New York on May 30, 1989, she had accumulated 600 hours of taped interviews.

She said she had intended using the tapes "for my own knowledge in writing a novel and also I was thinking this was of great historical interest. I had planned to donate the tapes to an oral history library." With a laugh, she added, "Of course, they're all in Chinese. I don't know how many people can use them."

But after the massacre in Tian An Men Square, she abandoned thoughts of a novel.

"I decided I had to write about the people I knew there," she said. "I felt their stories begged to be told because I felt Americans saw crowds in Tian An Men Square, but not individuals with their own stories."

Bette Bao Lord is hopeful for the future of China.

"Yes, I am, because the reasons why people felt they had to go to the square have never been resolved. And in this past year since the square, the official repression has only added to the resentment and alienated people further."

As with recent developments in Eastern Europe, Lord said, "I think it's only a question of time before the changes that started in the square will be completed in China."

Lord likens the Communist system in China to a ship; the people are the sea.

"Before last year, they had supported the system," she said. "I think now with the turmoil in people's hearts, they are capable also of overturning that ship.

"This was not the purpose of last year's demonstrations. They were peaceful and they wanted to work in the system. But so long as the (Communist) regime continues to radicalize their critics, the danger of overturning is there."

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