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Location: Dublin, Republic of, Ireland

Tuesday 1 January 2008

Jung Chang at the Singapore Writer's Festival Dec 1-9, 2007

by Suzan Abrams in Dublin

It is no exaggeration to imagine that the illustrious Chinese-born and British non- fiction writer, Jung Chang holds glamorous court at any prominent cocktail or dinner party.

The distinguished scholar, famed for her bestselling autobiography Wild Swans, would have regaled her mesmerised audience, who may have stood to rapt attention. No fault of theirs mind, such as that which ensures the captivation of Jung Chang's smouldering beauty at 52.

And this being no exaggeration at all.

Meeting Jung Chang close-up at the Singapore Writer's Festival (Dec 1 to 9, 2007), one is immediately forgiven for the initial mix-up with a movie star.

Spotting a schooled elegance, jet-black hair and a short sparkly white dress, she moved with a regal beauty-queen poise and kept her audience in stitches. Of course, irregardless of a little devilment here and there, she looked amused by her own revelry, even if this partying relied on nothing more then an underlying wit and easy humour.

Her dialogues akin to a session of charmed storytelling, were peppered with the happy conjectures of a woman well-contented with her lot; of someone who has perhaps, long moved on from the bloodshed encountered by China from monumental catastrophies that signalled the Mao Revolution and which tragically clouded Chinese history, politics and culture.

In fact, Jung Chang's refined articulation belies the fact of one who may have felt at home with European culture all her life. Not so. The writer came late to Great Britain.

"The only foreigners I had met before coming to the West were some sailors," she remembers with a grin. In China, it was always customary to greet someone by asking, "Where are you going? Have you eaten?

"So in England I kept asking people the same thing and they thought I was crazy. "

With this, Jung Chang breaks into a bubbly laugh, a trademark, I suspect that so easily endears her to people.

Studying on a government scholarship in London and later at university in Yorkshire, meant a rare sweet freedom.

"In my first year there, I did many exciting things. Of course, this did not include my nervous visit to a Soho pub when with my girlfriends, we went to inspect the workings of one. I had never been to a pub in all my life and was warned by the old people in China that it was a very bad place, where all kinds of dark and evil things happened. I had to see for myself. Imagine...my acute disappointment when I finally entered one and saw a cantankerous old man bent over a pint. Just one old man in corner, in the entire pub. Of course, he was not amused by our giggles & he glowered. That ended my exciting pub adventure."

She's in the right mood now and offers other interesting details.

"I did publish a pamphlet on a Moscow agent before I wrote Wild Swans. At that time in 1986, I hardly did any research. I had met my husband Jon Halliday, fallen in love and was more keen to talk to him then to study, write or do research about anything at all.

"Did you know that Moscow kept Chiang Kai-Shek's son as a hostage during the period of 1934 to 1935? The father was desperate to get him back and so sacrificed his own ethics at governing China to do whatever Moscow wanted. In the end, his son was returned to him."

Here it must be explained, although one will find it all in the enormous biography MAO - The Unknown Story (Jonathan Cape, 25 pounds) published by Jung Chang and her husband in 2005; that Chiang Kai- Shek, son of a wine merchant and soldier, had ruled the Kuomintang, with the main aim of giving China a good sweep-up from any faint specks of communism, while using traditional Confucian values in the early and mid 20th century. During Chiang's tenure as leader, major financial reforms and improvements to the transportation and educational systems were carried out.

However, Chiang would later collaborate with Stalin who badly needed support for his dealings with Japan and so betray his own principals of defying a socialist state. A man of compromise, Chiang also freed imprisoned Reds and channelled the beleagured communists to rural provinces in the North, hoping to win favour with local warlords and to impress Stalin enough to free his son. Yet, if justication may prevail, a read of Chiang's autobiography, Summing Up at Seventy and published in 1957, may be in order.

In Jung Chang's book on MAO, the General and China's wartime leader is described as Mao' s stooge. Of course, as a little girl, Jung Chang may have been guilty of the fact herself.

"Mao was like our God when I was a child," she reflects. "We often sang this song at assembly, 'Father is close, Mother is close, But neither is close, As Chairman Mao.'

Little Jung Chang would also "swear to Chairman Mao" for any pact of undivided loyalty or when making an oath for a schoolgirl camaraderie. School rewards did nothing to help.

"If you do well in class, you will see Chairman Mao in Beijing," came the promise. Jung Chang remembers that she finally got her wish at 14, but all she remembered seeing was Mao's back. Largely infactuated with her leader, she desired then only to commit suicide.

On recognising Mao's violence, Jung Chang would later leave the Red Guards.

Together with her husband, Halliday, the couple spent 11 years researching the archives and speaking to political leaders worldwide, for the couple's collaboration on MAO - The Unknown Story. This undertaking included meetings with George Bush senior and Henry Kissinger in the United States.

She recalls with joviality, their 5-hour meeting with the flamboyant Imelda Marcos, widow of Ferdinand Marcos and former first lady of the Phillippines. "All that time, she kept battering her eyelids furiously at my husband Jon," she laughs. "Imelda remarked that Western men had failed to understand her but praised Jon and said that the biography on Mao would be the ideal combination of the Eastern heart and Western man."

Halliday then went on to ask Imelda if she knew of any Western man at all who did understand her. She paused for awhile before answering, "Richard Nixon."

Today, Jung Chang's mother visits Britain but still prefers her solace in China.

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