Hercules Book Club Visit

I enjoyed talking to the wonderful people at Christine’s book club meeting. They were gracious to thank me for Living Treasures. We ate Chinese food and talked like old friends.


Some spoke of the wonderful travel experience when they visited China, how warm and friendly people were, and the amazing services at the hotel. I couldn’t agree more, that many Chinese people were affectionate, kind, and generous toward their guests. As for the beautiful city landscape, many local residents suffered as the government put their best face forward to please the visitors and foreigners. For example: thousands of people were displaced due to the construction of the Olympic Stadium in Beijing. The brave people who spoke against it became dissidents and were exiled.

We joked how every person thinks they came from the “best” country in the world, while in reality, there were a lot of social problems in their home countries, and the rosy view did nothing to improve the society. My view of patriotism is divided: love the people, culture, and food—of course it is the best in the world, no matter where you came from. But not the state or government, there is always room for improvement.

I shared a true story. When I gave a book talk at San Francisco Public Library, a woman in the audience spoke about the forced abortions done in the Chinese hospitals: If the drugs couldn’t kill, a nurse injected medicine on the baby’s temple when the mother was pushing.

Then she told another story. Her own sister-in-law was brought into the hospital to have an abortion on her DUE DAY. Luckily, the building lost electricity that night. Her sister-in-law had a healthy baby girl overnight. The hospital was furious but had to let them go. The girl couldn’t get a residence card or food ration, no health benefit, nor citizenship. She, the aunt, being a resident of Hong Kong, threatened to adopt her niece and bring her to Hong Kong. She held a long negotiation with the local government. After ten years of hard work, her niece finally obtained her residence card.

A heartwarming story stemmed from unthinkable brutality. Living Treasures also tells an inspiring story of human goodness and resilience. These “grass people” make China a better country, not the autocratic government.

We talked, listened, and argued in the cozy living room like people telling stories in front of a bonfire. This is the great joy of storytelling.

Thank you, Christine, for your hospitality, your awesome friends and wonderful book club.

KTSF Channel 26 Talk Tonight: Interview

I was fortunate to be invited to Jiayu Jeng’s Talk Tonight show on KTSF Channel 26. I enjoyed her shows and loved her warm manners and engaging style. My mother was a fan of Jiayu. She wanted to advise me on how to answer the sensitive questions about the Occupy movement in Hong Kong.

“Mom,” I said. “If she were interviewing you, you could give her your answers.”

I didn’t mean to be rude but had to clear my head. I wrote in English, in part to avoid being judged by my own family. Now an interview in Chinese would put me in the spotlight. I would only give my honest opinions.

Jiayu was tall, slim, and gorgeous, wearing a white dress sewn with black stars at the bosom that flaunted her enviable curves.

“What does my dress remind you?” she said. “Look, black and white! We’re going to talk about pandas.”

My jitters relaxed into warm gratitude. I felt like royalty even in my plain clothes.

It was my first time in the studio. There were two cameras, one on my left and the other behind me. I didn’t know where to look.

“Look at me,” she said.

Her face, so pleasing, her smile, so warm, she could be my sister. Jiayu began the interview by praising my novel.

Jiayu: As I started reading, I couldn’t put it down, honestly. I had to find out how it ends, and I finished last night. It was almost like watching a spy movie, so vivid and gripping. The social background was lovingly rendered, the characters well drawn.

Yang: Bao (the protagonist) moved me, too. I rewrote the story several times over the years. Bao gradually lost her radical political views and became a human rights activist. I grew with my heroine, Bao, and gained a deeper understanding of her story.

Jiayu: How did you plot this story, connecting the dots: giant pandas, the one-child policy, and the student movement?

Yang: I always loved pandas. They are national treasures. The story takes place in 1989, during the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre. It was a national tragedy, as China lost a historical opportunity. But I wouldn’t dwell on the tragedy. I wanted to see hope, so I let Bao, a law student, fall in love with Tong, who is a soldier.

Since they are lovers, of course she becomes pregnant. But the social environment is not right for their child, so she loses the child. She begins to question what kind of a woman/mother she wants to become. She starts to grow and finds her inner strength. When she meets Orchid, a village woman hiding from the one-child policy enforcers, Bao is no longer the meek teenager she once was. She makes a personal sacrifice to save Orchid. 

Her tragedy is a metaphor of the Tiananmen Square massacre. But the story ended differently for the students as it does for Bao, who rises from her tragedy with the help of her soldier boyfriend and becomes a grassroots human rights activist. The students in 1989 yearned for a democratic government. In my opinion, the difficult grassroots work will eventually bring democracy to China.

A panda is a national treasure. Through writing my novel I learned Chinese people are also national treasures. Every child is a living treasure. Only after 1.3 billion Chinese people become living treasures, will their human rights be protected in China.

Jiayu: Have you always wanted to write in English?

Yang: I’ve always wanted to write. I couldn’t write in Chinese because of the censorship. I have a Chinese blog on http://blog.sina.com.cn/yangwrites, where the sensitive words and blogs are routinely deleted. If you write “Nobel Peace Prize,” your blog will evaporate in an instant. It’s difficult to write in codes and illusions.

I can write honestly in English. I had studied English for many years and gotten a BA, an MA and MFA and made friends with a lot of writers. Writing is a difficult task, because you have to look into your soul and struggle against the fate.

Jiayu: Are you serious? Why do you struggle against the fate?

Yang: If you only record what happens in the real life, the story can be shocking, but it lacks energy, introspection, or meanings. You must rise above the mundane. You cannot give in to fatalism. Your spirit soars and can overcome tragedies and even death. In writing you can find the hope that is often absent in the real life.

Jiayu: Don’t you enjoy writing?

Yang: I do, very much.

Jiayu: Why is it so hard?

Yang: It must be hard. If you consider yourself talented and write easily, you’re in real trouble, and your work may not be that good. You must overcome your pride and prejudice, peel away the layers of hypocrisy to expose your pristine vulnerable heart, and from the depth of your despair you discover a story that moves the readers. Some stories, that seem so simple, are the fruits of hard labor by the great minds.

Jiayu: What are your expectations for your debut novel: good sales, influence, or made into a movie?

Yang: I hope more people will read Bao’s story. Most young people in China didn’t know what happened in 1989. Western readers learned about it in the history books. They could see the Chinese society at the time in Living Treasures. I lived through that tumultuous time and could visualize the authentic details. Living Treasures is an educational historical novel, especially good for the library, rather like a reference book.

Living Treasures is one of the top ten historical novels of 2014 by the Foreword Reviews.

History will repeat itself if we don’t educate ourselves about the past. We hope the Occupy Central students in Hong Kong will be more effective than we once were.

Jiayu: It’s also a love story. The book speaks to different people on different levels with different meanings. A good novel can accomplish all that. Why is the title called Living Treasures?

Yang: A panda is a national treasure. Human lives are as precious as pandas, hence the title Living Treasures.

Jiayu: Although Bao doesn’t take part in the student movement, the topic of student movement is as relevant today as it was in 1989. There were student movements in Taiwan: the Wild Lily student movement and the Sunflower student movement. There is Occupy Central in Hong Kong today. You must have followed the student movements in all three parts of China. What are your opinions? How are the students different in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland?

Yang: We envied the students in Taiwan, who lived in a democratic society. They could protest when the government didn’t represent their will. They could voice their dissent and win the support of the public. The students in Hong Kong know they are free people, and they are fighting for the voting rights. We are in support of them.

The mainland students in 1989 didn’t think that they were free people.

Jiayu: You took part in the democracy movement, right?

Yang: I did, as a participant in the mass demonstrations. I wasn’t a leader. Democracy is so important. We wouldn’t have eight-hour workdays, minimum wages, or woman’s voting rights if people hadn’t fought for them.

But I was more interested in the human rights issues. Human rights include the rights to life, property, dignity, posterity, and pursuit of happiness. Human rights are the most fundamental rights. Without them there will be no democracy, equality, and justice.

Many people say that China is too populated, and people are not well educated, or that China is not ready for democracy. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? If people couldn’t express their opinions, they had to bribe the officials. The officials have the absolute power. This leads to the corruption and wealth gaps that plague the Chinese society.

I agree with President Ma Ying-jeou. When China is prosperous and powerful, now is the perfect time for democratic reforms. “Let some people go democratic first!”

Jiayu: (Big Smile) You know his words by heart! But his approval rating is low in Taiwan. In a democratic society, you can criticize the president.

Yang: President Obama’s approval rating is not high. There is always dissonance in a democratic society, as people have meaningful debates.

Jiayu: Your book launch party is on Nov. 18 at Green Apple Books. Where can people buy Living Treasures?

Yang: Living Treasures is available at Green Apple Books in San Francisco, Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com, booksamillion.com, and other sites. Readers are invited to my launch party at Green Apple Books in San Francisco. I will sign the books. If you drop me a line, I will send you bookmarks and autographs for free. See my website www.yanghuang.com for details.

Jiayu: Congratulations! I hope Living Treasures will sell well and become an influential book.

Yang: Thank you. I look forward to discussing Living Treasures with the readers.

I left the TV station at midnight, feeling a bit dazed but energized. Jiayu seemed easygoing but asked some difficult questions. She patiently waited to hear me compare the student movements in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland. This touched a nerve. Would my mother disapprove my political stand? I came from the mainland where people are not free. A majority of people are used to being told what to think, how to feel, and overtime, they are afraid of freethinking. I know how many years it took me to start thinking again, greasing the rusted hinges of my mind with freedom, a luxury not available to most people who were brought up by the propaganda machine in China.

When the audience called in to get my book giveaways, a lady moved me with her comment. “There will be a day when Living Treasures can be published in China. We should have hope.”

For this hope I have written a book of love for China, her people, her treasures, and the pandas that grace the mountains of Sichuan.

Grass People of China

There is no secret that in today’s Chinese bureaucracy, corruption is the rule, not the exception. When a senior official falls from grace, he is transformed from a tiger into a roach overnight. The vast majority of victims who suffered at the hands of corruption, the “grass people” in China, cannot effect change. The corrupt officials can only be taken down by the powerful hands at the higher places.

A famous Tang poem, Grass, symbolizes the commoners throughout Chinese history:

Far far across the plain, spreads the grass

One year to another, it withers and returns

Never extinguished, by the prairie fires,

With spring wind, it leaps back to life


China has its unique challenges as the country with 1.35 billion people, roughly 20 percent of the world’s population. Of this great mass of humanity, more than 99 percent people have no political power, their voting rights a mere sham, for they can only vote for the preselected candidates. They are essentially the subjects to be ruled. Many writers and intellectuals have been so demasculinized and even bought off they are widely regarded as eunuchs, merely a channel of propaganda for the Communist Party.

The “grass people” are not all economically disadvantaged people. An increasing number of them are middle-class and have good jobs, and their living standards have risen significantly in recent years. They have much to be grateful for, compared to their parents’ generation. Among them are successful entrepreneurs, real estate moguls, doctors, teachers, entertainers, with more opportunities than ever. Yet, they are still grass people without voting power or representation in the court.

For example, when an ordinary family’s house is in the way of project development with government backing, they are forced to move with little compensation. It is not a matter of choice, and any resistance will be swiftly vanquished. 

The grass is not always greener on the other side, so to speak. I have three high school friends, the talented men who became officials. They all went to prison on the corruption charges. We had studied together for six years, from age twelve to eighteen, in a class of twenty-three students at the most prestigious public school in Yangzhou, Jiangsu province. I couldn’t imagine how the once innocent boys, who had been like my brothers, became white-collar criminals.

Mr. Z, my former classmate, confided in me. “It is a difficult life, when you have to deal with briberies.” If you refuse the money, you fail to cultivate work relationships and cannot operate on your own. You’ll lose your job anyway. If you take the money, and somehow you cannot make everyone happy, in Chinese terms, “Keeping the perfect balance like holding up a bowl of water,” sooner or later you’d be denounced and sent to jail.

It is a dangerous profession. Many Chinese officials have sent their wives, children, and savings, overseas for safekeeping, while they weather the storms at home. They become so-called “naked officials.”

Grass people of all social and economic classes share a certain equality and egalitarianism. They have a collective voice, one that is neglected but never silent. They are in good company. They live like the prairie grass, with freedom, grace, and short splendor, and take root in the beautiful, irresistible, and fertile land abound with opportunities spilled over from the powerful few.

In the spring of 1989, the university students in China took a historical opportunity to rally the mass and demand for democratic reforms. The world heard their voices, before the movement was crushed on the dawn of June 4th. China moved on, buried the inconvenient past (thanks to its censorship and propaganda machines), and braced itself for astounding economic growth, coupled with system-wide corruption and unprecedented pollution that is affecting the whole world.

As a witness and participant, I experienced the hope, joy, and heartbreak of the 1989 student movement. For many years I couldn’t hear of any criticism for the students’ “foolhardy” optimism. Where was hope, if grass people couldn’t even dream of changing a society doomed to corruption, nepotism, and injustice? Should we all close our eyes and make money like robots?

While I was writing my novel Living Treasures, I learned about Chen Guangchen, a civil rights activist who worked on human rights issues in rural China. Blind from an early age and self-taught in the law, Chen is a “barefoot lawyer” who advocates for women’s rights, land rights, and the welfare of the poor. In 2005, Chen organized a landmark class action lawsuit against authorities in Linyi, Shandong province, for the excessive enforcement of the one-child policy.

He would be a role model to my heroine, Gu Bao. In my novel, Bao is more mature and confident than the average students in the 1989 democracy movement. With her brave action she offers a constructive critique: the student movement that began in Tiananmen Square shouldn’t have ended it there. People could take it further by doing grassroots work and helping the downtrodden peasants. To make a real change, even a small one, you cannot expect it to be passed down from the government, but rather, it needs to start with you and your actions. The victory isn’t measured by the talks in Tiananmen Square but in every action you do, every person you help, and every sacrifice you make for the common good.

Chen Guangchen believes that even small actions undertaken in defense of human rights can have a large impact, because “Every person has infinite strength. Every action has an important impact. We must believe in the value of our own actions.”

In the end, grass people are like the turtle in the race. You can come out ahead when timing is right and you are persistent and never give up. Political purges may remove the once powerful enemies but will never eradicate many corrupt officials in China. You can strive to live with dignity and honor in an unjust society. Some may choose to emigrate to a foreign country and become grass people in their host country. After all, the “grass people” is always present even in the most advanced democracy.

“People are like grass;

their beauty is like a flower in the field.

The grass withers and the flower fades.

But the word of the Lord remains forever.”

1 Peter 1:24