It’s the last few days of AAPHM month this May and I recently completed an interview with Miko Lee of KPFA that you can find here. I mentioned in passing that my dad was a freedom swimmer and made the swim from China to Macau to escape the Communist regime in China at the time. Miko and Lucy encouraged me to document the story and at dinner one night, my dad and I took out the globe and went back to 50 years ago to a time before I was born.
I was born in 1983, the year of the pig. My Chinese name is 鄧美祺 (dèng mêi qí) - it is not the Tang of the Tang dynasty but the same Tang as Dengxiaoping- the communist leader known for catapulting China’s economy into the modern era. My name literally means Tang beauty and felicity. The word beautiful we are talking about here is the same beautiful that America is derived from, 美 國 or beautiful country. For my parents to have their first born be an American citizen is a crazy personal triumph considering how improbable the journey truly was.
My dad was born 36 years before me in 1947 also the year of the pig and our upbringings couldn’t have been more different. He worked in rice paddies, I took the SAT's. Pigs are known for our wealth and luck and perhaps the Chinese zodiac may not be so far off.
China in 1970 was a different place from what it is today. China/US relations were just starting to thaw but the Communist regimes’ policies had already taken a severe toll on the day to day livelihood of the people in the country. My paternal grandpa, 爺爺 (Ye Ye) had been a teacher in China and not looked kindly upon during the Cultural Revolution for being scholarly- he lost his cushy teaching job. The government encouraged children to rat out their parents if they were found to be touting ideas that were anti communist! Food was scarce, opportunities even scarcer. You only got a full chicken egg to eat once a year on your birthday if you were really lucky. The twinkly lights of commerce in both Hong Kong and Macau were intoxicating and it’s really difficult for me to imagine just how bad communist life in China had to be in order to risk your life to then have to rebuild your life from nothing.
The journey began in my mom and dad’s hometown of 開平, 廣東 ( Kaiping, Guang Dong province). After plotting, mapping and practicing their swimming for months, my dad got on a bus with a friends’ brother. They were scared at the time that an entire family could perish through hypothermia, gunshots, sharks, drowning or jail so they strategically all swam separately with non blood relatives. Communist soldiers were known to shoot indiscriminately into the water and patrolled many of the main arteries in and out of the country especially during the day time.
Several people did not successfully make the journey and my dad knows of a poor guy that tried seven times and never made it out. My Uncle, my dad’s younger brother made the swim from Shenzhen to Hong Kong (8 whole hours in the water!) and my dad went straight from Kaiping to 前山 (Qianshan) on a bus.
Many parts of China that are developed today were once upon a time lush forests, rice paddies, agricultural land and some was still wild unkempt land.There was a lot of hiking involved once they arrived in 前山 (Qianshan). They hiked, crunching around in the dark of night all the way to 南屏(Nanping) to avoid communist soldiers. No flashlights, no real shoes.
Above is a rough approximation of the route completed both on foot and swimming.
Just as the day broke- they could see the twinkling lights of the casino in Macau as their only directional guidance. It was actually time to get in the water with a little tiny plastic intertube- the kind the children swim with in swimming pools. Their clothes were tucked into a little tiny plastic baggie with only the bare necessities. Once you were actually in the water- it was really difficult to see the twinkly lights and you had to hope that you were not turned around and just swimming back into China or out to sea. They swam for an hour through the estuary, hoping they weren’t shot, caught or eaten by a shark. My dad arrived on the shore of Macau at the A Ma Temple which is coincidentally dedicated to the sea goddess and quite possibly from where the name Macau originated. He was blessed that night to make it although starving, cold and wet after the long hike and swim and with only one wrinkly vintage $5hkd bill gifted from his uncle several years prior.
He couldn’t spend his money on anything but a cab straight to his half sister’s place. Eventually, after earning enough money - he hopped on another illegal ferry for the bright lights of Hong Kong instead. Then from Hong Kong to the United States where he got married, had children and we are lucky to be where we are today because this story could have gone many other ways.
There are too many stories much like this one to tell. I hope that you will consider wading into your families’ history to unpack a bit more about how you got here too. It takes a little bit of effort but this effort is worthwhile. We cannot hope to write our own stories without understanding the stories of our past.