Posts Tagged ‘A Few Bags Of Grain’

Renmin Park, Volume 1 – Mr Liu (Stranger Here, A Few Bags Of Grain, Renmin Park)

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

The absolutely best part about the three months that we spent in China was the friends that we made. We were greeted with such open arms, invited into people’s homes and shared many meals. The great majority of these people spoke very little English, but that seemed to be of little consequence when it came to trying to connect with us and making us feel welcome. One of the most fascinating people that we became very close to was Mr. Liu: an octogenarian who had more spirit, energy and verve than most of the 40 year olds that I know.

Mr Liu had a remarkable life story: a life that would have crushed most people and turned them in to  bitter, brooding senior citizens. His story is a long and convoluted and one which kind of mirrors modern China’s turbulent 20th century. I was only able to get bits and pieces of it, he was very hesitant at times to unveil it and at other times he would sit for an hour or so and, in his broken English, tell me his story. He and I would meet at 7am every Tuesday and Thursday in Renmin Park and play badminton. Afterwards we would go back to his extremely humble apartment where he would make us breakfast and we would hang out and talk. He was born in the countryside of Shanghai in 1930 and so his childhood was spent under a very repressive Japanese occupation (our Eurocentric North American culture has largely ignored the Japanese occupation and terrorizing of China throughout the early and mid-1900s. It’s a terrifying history and one that is not forgotten by the Chinese. In Nanjing there is an extremely disturbing and graphic memorial to The Rape of Nanjing, which is almost a pilgrimage site for Chinese school children). Mr Liu joined Mao’s PLA (Peoples Liberation Army) in 1948 and was sent to the Northern Heilongjiang province to learn how to fly and so became part of the fledgling PLA Air Force. He talked a lot about the year or so that he spent in Heilongjiang and about the conditions which were a notch above sub-human. He recalled in vivid detail of how, after several months of not being able to change out of his clothes because of the lack of clothing, the lack of water for bathing and the lack of heat in the barracks, he finally undressed and counted fifty-three bugs crawling around in his clothes, he was very adamant about the number and about how that figure and memory had stuck with him. While in the Air Force he flew in a transport squadron and saw action in Korea and Tibet. He had an old photo stuck to his wall of his squadron surrounding a young Mao who they flew on a couple of occasions. In the 60`s he landed a cushy job teaching at the Air Force academy which came to an abrupt end when he innocently challenged the official story of how an American ace had been shot down by a Chinese fighter pilot in the Korean war (he was there and he knew the true story which wasn`t quite as heroic as the official story). He was summarily dismissed and after a few months of no work and of lodging official complaints to his local party boss, he was one night, while having dinner with his mother in a restaurant in Shanghai, picked up by plain clothes police and without any recourse, thrown in jail. A few days later he was shipped inland where he spent the next 16 years in a labour camp. He wouldn`t tell me much about the camp, he said that the memories were too painful, he only said that his military conditioning helped him to survive and that he saw many lawyers, teachers, artists and other intelligentsia, people who were not prepared for the conditions, die while he was there. His most painful memory about the labour camp, and the only time I ever saw him choke up, was when he talked about the wife he had to leave behind. He figured that he was never going to be set free, so after a few years he told his wife that she should divorce him and get on with her life, which she did. Remarkably they both survived and, although they are both remarried, they still see each other regularly. After sixteen years of hard labour Mr Liu was one day, unexpectantly released into a China that he barely recognised. While in prison he had made a point of smuggling in English magazines and books and had taught himself English. Upon his release he set out to become an English teacher a job that he undertook with the same indefatigable spirit that had allowed him to thrive, in such unforgiving circumstances, through the first half of his life

Mr Liu makes an appearance throughout the album in many songs. He is one of the many strangers in Stranger Here; in A Few Bags of Grain there is a direct reference to his story (After 16 years hard labour/He bumped into a neighbour/who told him about a world gone insane); the sound sample used in Sir Francis Bacon At The Net is of him and a friend of his playing badminton. But most importantly it is his real life love story that sets the stage for the fictional love story that sets up the album in the title song Renmin Park. Our adventure in China would not have been the same without Mr Liu, I feel very privileged to have met him and to have spent time with him.


Created with flickr slideshow from softsea.

If you’d like to catch up on some past blogs about the Renmin Park album, just click on a link:

Renmin Park – Introduction

Renmin Park – The Place

Renmin Park – The Sounds

Renmin Park – The Music

Renmin Park – The Lyrics

Renmin Park – A Few Bags of Grain

Renmin Park – Little Dark Heart

Renmin Park – My Fall and I Cannot Sit Sadly By Your Side

Renmin Park – A Walk In The Park

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Renmin Park, volume 1 – A Few Bags Of Grain

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

One of the main reasons for my family going to China for three months was to bring my two daughters back to the land of their birth; a chance for them to experience it firsthand. The latest trend in international adoptions is “homeland visits.”  Parents are encouraged to take their adopted daughters on a two week tour of China, culminating in a trip to the child’s orphanage. It’s definitely a worthy idea (and a smart way for the adoption industry to make a bit more cash), but my wife and I have always felt that to take your kid from the suburban splendours of North America head-first into the urban sprawl that is modern China would be a little too mind-blowing for even the most prepared and sophisticated child. So when we were offered an opportunity to spend three months living in a small city in China, which would give this homeland visit a bit of context, we jumped at it. We thought that the experience of walking into an orphanage and seeing a room full of squalling babies laid out in their cribs on wooden boards wouldn’t be as traumatic for our daughters if they had a better sense of the difference between living conditions in China and those in the West. We were wrong, of course.

A Few Bags of Grain comes specifically out of that experience – of returning to the girl’s orphanages. We always talk about the birth-mother in the adoption stories that we are told to tell our kids, but I don’t think we are capable of truly representing her. We usually portray her as a stereotype – a tragic, romantic figure. We also talk about abandonment in these stories, but what do most of us truly know and understand about abandonment? Returning to the birth towns and the orphanages was an awakening for us as parents and a life-altering experience for, at least, my eldest daughter (who had just turned eleven). When we began the journey, my wife and I had no idea what were heading in to. My daughter, on the other hand, seemed to have a much deeper understanding of what lay ahead. As we were, literally, stepping out of our apartment to head off on this journey, she pulled us aside and out-of-the-blue said,  “OK…I’ll go to the orphanage, but I don’t want to go to the place where I was found…”. She already knew what this trip was really about and what it was that she was going to have to face.

The song is about the “worthlessness of girl,” an attitude that exists not just in China, but all around the globe and shows itself in different ways. And, it’s about, that worn old saw, the indomitable nature of the human spirit.

Here is a video taken inside one of my daughter’s orphanages. Don’t watch this if you are in a public place, unless, of course, you don’t mind bawling in public.

If you’d like to catch up on some past blogs about the Renmin Park album, just click on a link:

Renmin Park – Introduction

Renmin Park – The Place

Renmin Park – The Sounds

Renmin Park – The Music

Renmin Park – The Lyrics

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