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Sunset a Reminder of Turbulent Years in a Troubled Land

October 13, 1998|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Chen Chen was a little girl living in Berkeley, her mama would call to her at day's end, "Come watch the sun go home!"--referring to their native China. This is the fitting title of Chen's memoir chronicling life during 50 years of turbulence in her country.

Chen is a pseudonym chosen by the author--who now lives in Los Angeles and works in the film community--to protect her adult children in China from possible consequences of her political outspokenness. "Home" to her is Peiping, now Beijing, where she was born under Japanese occupation in 1939. But her insights come from living in both Eastern and Western worlds.

"Come Watch the Sun Go Home" (Marlowe & Co., 322 pages, $22.95) begins in 1937, with Chen's newlywed parents forced by illness in the family to cancel plans to come to Berkeley. There, Chen's mother had a scholarship for graduate study at UC. Within weeks, though, the Sino-Japanese war broke out, making it impossible for them to leave China.

Eight years of Japanese occupation followed. Chen tells of her father being imprisoned and tortured, recalls curfews and food rationing. And, she observes, "from a very tender age we knew what could be said in public and what in private." Good preparation for what was to come.

Chen's engrossing narrative includes a description of the family's 1944 flight to Free China, evading Japanese border patrols as they negotiated perilous mountain trails with mules carrying their belongings and Chen and her baby brother, Toto, grasping the mules' tails.

One awful night, Toto began crying uncontrollably, endangering the lives of their convoy of 30. Chen's mother later told her that, had he not stopped, "she might have had to suffocate him to save the group, as many Chinese mothers in similar situations did."

Settling in a small town near Chunking, the family "knew next to nothing about the progress of the war in Europe and the Pacific" until, one night, celebrants with torches, gongs and drums, "a moving chain of light," paraded through their town, proclaiming, "Sheng li le!" ("Unconditional surrender!")

In 1948 the family finally made it to Berkeley, this time with 9-year-old Chen and 7-year-old Toto. At 40, Chen's mother fulfilled her dream of studying English at UC. They would be away from China for 17 months.

"A momentous change took place in China while Toto and I blissfully underwent our Americanization--the peaceful takeover of Peiping by the Communists at the end of January 1949. . . . We came back to a different world."

Her parents' optimism about China's future quickly faded. The family was forced to sell its big house to the government. In school, Chen learned that all important technology had been invented by Russians. And, as she'd lived in America, she was instructed to tell her classmates about its "evils."

Chen's father, a senior bank official and thus a member of the hated middle class, was taken into custody. Dogs, including the family pet, Tiger, were annihilated, ostensibly for "germ control." As cats were spared, Chen surmises that dogs' barking "interfered with the activities of plainclothes agents."

She frequently offers absurd glimpses of life in Communist China as well. Under Chairman Mao's "Great Leap Forward" of 1958, "one of the first leaps was against sparrows," which ate too much grain. On Sparrow Elimination Day, citizens wielding drums, gongs, pots and pans, anything that made noise, chased the hapless birds until they dropped from exhaustion.

The Great Leap was followed by a famine that, Chen writes, "took more than 20 million lives . . . but no one was supposed to . . . know anything about it." She remembers a wedding reception in the early 1960s where "all the guests were allowed to pick one item--one candy, one Popsicle or one cigarette--at the door."

Later, with the Cultural Revolution, came a crackdown on artistic people like Chen, who was a music writer married to a musician. With her 14-week-old son, she was sentenced to solitary confinement for making derogatory comments about Mao's second wife, Chiang Ching. When released six months later, she learned former friends had betrayed her.

In 1969, she was in a cadre sent to the country to be reeducated, living in peasants' homes and working the fields. Chen, who was bilingual, devoured Western literature that was passed around clandestinely. "I wondered about 'Lolita' when I fed the chickens and mused about 'The Naked and the Dead' as I hoed a corn patch."

Despite the hardships and suffering, Chen feels little bitterness. She views the Red Guards, for example, as victims themselves, denied an education, "a lost generation, sacrifices to Mao's last machinations." But she is saddened by the architectural devastation of Beijing, and by the disappearance of old ethics and courtesies.

Under Mao, American films were banned and Chen "grew up watching saber-waving Cossacks . . . conversing in fluent Mandarin on the screen" in politically correct movies. At 40, she was to embark on a second career--as a translator of American films. In 1989, while studying film in Madison, Wis., on a Rockefeller fellowship, Chen responded to the Tiananmen Square massacre by granting an interview to a local TV station in which she denounced the bloody attacks on unarmed citizens as brutal and cowardly. Picked up by CNN, it was seen in China. "I knew then," Chen writes, "I had reached the point of no return."

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