JINAN, China — Three years in a Chinese-run prisoner-of-war camp in North Korea was all the convincing James Veneris needed. When the Korean War ended in 1953 and the young American was given the choice of going home or moving to the land of his captors, he didn't hesitate.
He moved to China.
"I loved their spirit, I loved their ideology and what they were trying to do," he said recently of the Communist Chinese, whose newly unified nation was struggling to survive past infancy. "And I wanted to help them build up the country."
But the U.S. government branded Veneris a traitor.
It was the same epithet it had spat out at Joan Hinton, a left-wing nuclear physicist who came to China in 1948 to support the Communist cause. Just who was this "femme fatale with a vengeance," an American magazine asked ominously, "this Mata Hari" whose scientific genius was no doubt being put to use by America's enemy?
The answer these days is a silver-haired, warmhearted woman who lives and works on a dairy farm outside Beijing. Like Veneris, Hinton has for the past half a century made her home in China, a world away from contemporaries back in the U.S.
Veneris and Hinton are among only a handful of Western witnesses to one of the most tumultuous periods in the 20th century: the founding and development of the People's Republic of China, 50 years of famine, political upheaval, hot and cold wars, and momentous economic change.
These "old China hands," a ragtag bunch of radicals drawn by dreams of egalitarian living in a far-off land, were once several score strong. Joined by English and other Western expatriates, they served as translators, or staffed the New China News Agency, among other occupations.
Now they are a dying breed. Few are left to swap stories of the old days, when both China and they were young, idealistic and devoted to a grand experiment. And much of what they toiled to build, a socialist utopia, has been washed away by the tide of China's capitalist reforms.
But the yarns they spin are as dramatic and lively as if the events happened yesterday. Tales of adventure in war. Of hardship in peace. And, at times, of misunderstanding in both their adopted and native homelands. The only thing missing from their stories is regret.
"It was one of the greatest things I ever did," Veneris, 77, said of his decision to move here to Jinan, the capital of Shandong province, where he has lived off and on for 46 years. "I would do it again in the wink of an eyelash."
Their passages to China happened variously. Hinton shucked a promising career--which included top-secret work on the atomic bomb--to follow her leftist ideals and her sweetheart, Sid Engst, across the Pacific. "The mecca of the left at that time was China," recalled Engst, 80, still married to Hinton and still an ardent leftist. "The Soviet Union didn't have any attraction . . . whereas the Chinese Communists were all very open and friendly toward foreigners."
Stumbling Into the Revolution
New Yorker Sidney Shapiro, now 83, was no longer interested in practicing law, so he packed up his gear and set sail for Shanghai in 1947. He arrived on April Fools' Day, stumbled into a revolution in progress and ultimately signed up.
Whereas the others surrendered to their ideals, Army Pvt. Veneris began his Chinese odyssey by surrendering to the enemy.
A recruit from Vandergrift, Pa., Veneris had enlisted to help fight the Communists in Korea--a "blind patriot," he dismissively describes himself now. In the fall of 1950, Veneris' division found itself trapped in the freezing fields of North Korea, surrounded by advancing Chinese soldiers.
On the night of Nov. 28, the Chinese opened fire. Outgunned, Veneris crawled down from the hill where he had taken refuge and, along with other soldiers, gave himself up.
They were eventually taken to a POW camp near the Chinese border. Veneris was impressed with the treatment from his captors, who he said sometimes sacrificed their own meager rations so that the prisoners could eat. "I felt like I was a guest," Veneris maintains today, recounting his experiences in a voice like sandpaper on wood, raspy from frequent drags on the cigarettes he smokes one after another.
The agreement ending the Korean War allowed American POWs to pick where they wanted to settle, and to the U.S. government's surprise, nearly two dozen men elected to move to China. Veneris seized on this "new lease on life" and wound up in Jinan as a lathe operator in a paper mill, a properly proletarian job in the new China of Mao Tse-tung.
By the time Veneris arrived, Hinton, Engst and Shapiro were already veterans of the Communist revolution.