Quill and Quire

REVIEWS

« Back to
Book Reviews

Jan Wong’s China: Reports from a Not-So-Foreign Correspondent

by Jan Wong

Jan Wong may be her own worst enemy. Anyone not familiar with her work as The Globe and Mail’s talented Beijing correspondent from 1988 to 1994 should be; otherwise they may dismiss her as the somewhat snide, judgmental Globe columnist who invites unwitting celebrities to “Lunch with Jan Wong.” This would be a great pity.

A Canadian who spent several years in China, first as a young Maoist in the 1970s and later as a journalist, Wong capitalized on the unique experience in her acclaimed 1994 memoir, Red China Blues.

As Wong notes in the introduction to her latest work, that first story was really about her. Wanting to follow up with a bigger book, she revisited China this year. The result is an engrossing and compelling portrait of a country and a people in flux.

Wong argues that the basic contradictions facing modern China have not changed much since she left her Beijing post five years ago. Economic capitalism continues to take root, even while the Communist party is desperately trying to maintain its political control. Wong’s views on China haven’t changed much, either. In fact, except for a few anecdotes at the outset, very little of Jan Wong’s China seems to be based on her latest trip; rather, most of the material comes from her earlier experiences there. Those familiar with her first book will recognize some of the stories, many of the characters, and nearly all of her ideas.

There is no doubt that Wong has a keen understanding of the political, social, and economic hurdles that China must overcome as well as a great compassion for the people she writes about. Her own experiences as a Maoist student in Beijing round out her reporting, while her penchant for mockery finds an easy target in the Communist party secretaries who toil to fill their quotas for drowning victims in cities and take citizens to task for using the wrong colour pen to address their envelopes. The new capitalists and their latest excesses (instant-coffee baths, for one) do not escape her sights, either. Wong employs her cutting humour far more judiciously than she ever does in her North American reporting.

Jan Wong’s China is an engaging read and a must for all China watchers; however, fans of Red China Blues may find that Wong’s first book upstages her second.