In Custody along with Famous American Peking Opera Actor Playing Female Roles (Part 6)

Starved labor camp prisoners

Starved labor camp prisoners

Walter Sent to Labor Camp for Wanting to Go to the US to Visit His Mother

One day in February 1972, I met Walter on my way home. I had left the study class but he still remained there because unlike my interrogators his interrogators were hard to satisfy. We walked home together.

He told me that he wanted to go to the United States to see his mother. He had not seen her for a long time and missed her very much. I said that it would be very difficult because at that time, there was no diplomatic relation between China and the United States. I knew that China used to contact the United States through Poland. I wonder whether Walter could find a way through Polish Embassy inChina. However, as Poland was at that time regarded as a revisionist country, he might be in trouble if he contacted the Polish Embassy.

Walter said that he contacted the policeman in charge of residence registration several times, but the policeman said that he could not go to the United States because he was a Chinese citizen and the United States was China’s enemy. Walter said that he was not a Chinese but a US citizen. He always went to the US embassy or consulate to celebrate US national day when there was such an embassy or consulate in China. The policeman said that Walter was a Chinese citizen because his father was a Chinese.

I asked him where he was born. Walter said that he was born in the United States. I said that according to the law of the United States, a person born there was a US citizen, but according to Chinese law, a child has his father’s nationality. Usually, a person who has two nationalities can choose one of them. As there was no diplomatic relation between China and the United States, there was no way to resolve this problem at that time.

Walter said he knew US president Nixon would soon visit Shanghai and that he planned to block the way of the president’s motorcade and appeal to him. I told him that he should never do such thing. I said that security would be very tight at that time and that it was utterly impossible to go near the president’s motorcade.

I said, “you should wait till some sort of diplomatic relationship between China and the United States was established after Nixon’s visit. Then you can contact the agency set up by the United States in China. You will be able to find help there. You shall not do anything now because we do not know what will be the results of Nixon’s visit.” He said nothing and I had the impression that I had not convinced him.

Just as I had expected, when Nixon visited Shanghai, all people the authority regarded as unreliable were kept away from the streets. I learnt that the members of the study class were kept in their classroom until late in the evening. I was at that time told to remain at home.

When Nixon had left, I learnt that Walter was sent to an education- through-labor camp before Nixon visited Shanghai. I guessed that his interrogators had learnt his intention and did that as a precautionary measure. I do not see any difference between reform through labor and education through labor. People who received education through labor were imprisoned in the same way as the prisoners who were receiving reform through labor. The only difference was that the former were imprisoned in education-through-labor camps while the latter, prisons.

From 1972 till 1979 when I left Shanghai for Hong Kong, there was no news about him. When my wife visited Shanghai later, she learnt that Walter had gone to the United States. I was very happy to hear that.

Preserve Chinese Cultural Legacy

We Chinese often are proud of our long history and culture, but it seems that while the bad things in our culture often come back, we fail to preserve the cream of our culture. China is too slow in restoring the art of Chinese operas. There are few well-trained Chinese opera actors and actresses now. In this area, we fall far behind of not only Western countries but even Japan. Japan regards kabuki as its national treasure and preserved the tradition of male actors playing female roles. In China, there is now only one young male actor playing female roles. He received training when he was an adult and his performance can by no means compare with old ones who have received orthodox training.

This is the last part of my memoir “In Custody along with Famous AmericanPeking Opera Actor Playing Female Roles”.


In Custody along with Famous American Peking Opera Actor Playing Female Roles (Part 5)

The Mystery of Walter Looking Young When He Was 47
One day, my wife was preparing our supper in the kitchen on the ground floor. She heard my voice when Walter and I entered our lane, walked out and saw Walter. I introduced Walter to her.

During our supper, she asked me whether Walter was married. I said he was single. Then she asked me what Walter’s job was. I said that he had been a well-known Peking opera actor, but was then unemployed. My wife said that it did not matter because the Cultural Revolution would inevitably end and then Walter would resume his artistic work. It was a good bet for a girl to marry him when he was now in poverty. She said she was looking for a potential boyfriend for her friend Shifang. I knew Shifang. She was quite a pretty girl about 20. My wife planned to do matchmaking for Walter and Shifang. I said no. She asked me why. I said Walter was too old for Shifang. My wife said, “No, Walter looks younger than you.” I said that Walter was at least 14 years older than me. I knew from a novel that Chang Ling-fu died in 1947. It must be some time before 1947 that Walter was invited to dinner by the general. He must at least be 20 then, but I was 5-6 years old in 1947. Therefore, he must at least be 14 years my senior.

My wife did not believe my words. The next day she waited for us in the lane and looked at Walter carefully to see whether her impression was wrong. She told me she could not believe that Walter was then at least 44 (I later learnt that Walter was 47 at that time). No man at that age could look so young. I said perhaps Peking opera actors playing female roles had their secret in keeping young. Mei Lanfang also looked much younger than his real age.

Walter not only looked young but was also mentally young. He walked, moved and spoke like a young man. Perhaps, it was because of his optimism. He was hard up at that time, but he was still happy and often laughed heartily when we joked in our study class. The four guards watching us were different. One of them was very strict and did not allow us to chat. However, the other three were not so strict. They allowed us to chat and sometimes chatted with us when the strict one was away. It was so boring to sit there silent all day long.

Teasing Walter
One day when we were chatting in our study class, I said, “Walter, I believe that you look very beautiful when you make up for a girl, but I do not believe that people can accept you as a girl.”

He looked unhappy and asked me why.

I said, “You are so tall, taller than the actors acting men’s roles. Chinese people usually do not accept a beauty taller than men.”

He said, “You are so ignorant. Males on the stage wear boots with high soles while I wear shoes with low sole. This makes me shorter. Moreover, there is a problem only when I am standing by the side of a male if I am taller than him. I would look awkward then. However as my knees are covered by a long skirt, I can bend my knees a little to look shorter. There has never been such a problem. I am always well accepted.”

One day when Walter and I were walking together, I joked with him. I said that General Chang Ling-fu was handsome and well-known for his achievements in the War of Resistance against Japan. Many girls were crazy about him. I asked Walter, “If you were a girl, would you fall in love with him?”

“Don’t ask me such a foolish question. I am a man not a girl,” said Walter.

“OK, you are a man not a girl. However, you cannot deny that as you display perfect female beauty in your performance, many men are crazy about you. They wish that you were a girl so that you could marry them. On the other hand, as you are so handsome and so good in your performance, you certainly have lots of female admirers. Many of them are young and beautiful. Have you dated any of them?”

He did not reply.

“Are you not interested in girls because you are always playing female roles and have lost interest in beautiful girls?” I asked.

Walter said, “I would like to keep my private life secret.”

I said, “I had no intention to probe into your private life. I asked the question because my wife wanted to do a matchmaking between you and her friend.”

Walter said, “No, I am unemployed and have no income. I cannot afford having a girlfriend.”

“Yes,” I said, “I told her so, but she made me interested in whether you have any intention to marry.”

In Custody along with Famous American Peking Opera Actor Playing Female Roles (Part 4)

Sexy Chinese lady in Peking Opera

Sexy Chinese lady in Peking Opera

Peking Opera’s Exquisite Description of Female Beauty
As Peking opera is one of the best parts in Chinese culture, I would like to say something more here. Through more than one thousand years of development, the artistic description of female beauty reached the zenith in China’s Peking opera. Every movement is a dancing movement. For example, the mere walking of a young lady. Her steps were so light as if the lady has no weight. Therefore, it was a pleasure when I watched Walter walking. It was so elegant.

For another example, when a young lady enters a room. There is no room, nor door or threshold on the stage, but the young lady performs the movements of opening the door, going across the threshold as if there were really a door and a threshold. All her movements were so elegant and beautiful dancing ones that you cannot help love her.

It is very easy now to show that a woman is sexy. Just let her wear bikini swimming suit. Then you can see all the attracting shape of her body. In old China, women were only allowed to show their hands and face. So in Peking opera, only a lady’s hands and face are exposed. All other parts are hidden in her loose clothes that do not display the shape of her body. Still the lady may look very sexy and make the audience crazy.

That is due to the lady’s deportation, the dancing movements of her waist, hands, legs and feet, her sweet voice, her exquisite facial expression and her bright, keen and expressive eyes. That was the case with Walter. His eyes were so bright and full of expression. Every movement and step of his was so elegant and exquisite that they reflected a lady’s beauty. This kind of sexiness is a fully dressed sexiness. It is irresistibly attractive though most of a lady’s skin and body were hidden in her clothes. It adds the mystery of the lady’s body and arouses a crazy desire in a man to find what is covered by the lady’s clothing. As a result, the lady is sexier than when she is in bikini.

When I was a secondary school student, I liked movies and plays. Usually, I saw at least ten movies a month and one play a week on my own. Movies were cheep then especially in the afternoon but plays were expensive especially Chinese operas played by well-known troupes. Often I had to sit in a cheep seat far away from the stage. I was particularly impressed by the bright and expressive eyes of well-known actors and actresses. I could see their expressions clearly from far away.

I learnt that actors and actresses had to practice since their early childhood gazing at the movements of an incense flame in a dark room, staring at kites flying in a blue sky and looking at pigeons when they soared higher and higher until they disappeared into the clouds. Through such hard practices, they had managed to have bright, keen and highly expressive eyes.

In Custody along with American Peking Opera Actor Playing Female Roles (Part 3)

Photo taken from the Play Guifei Intoxicated

Photo taken from the Play Guifei Intoxicated

War hero General Chang Ling-fu

War hero General Chang Ling-fu

“I Am A Boy Not a Girl,” Yelled Walter: Well-known General Chang Ling-fu Mistook Walter for a Girl
Later, Walter told me he was in trouble again because his interrogators leant that KMT general Chang Ling-fu gave him a dinner.

Chang Ling-fu (Zhang Linfu in Pinyin) was a Kuomintang general well-known for his bravery. He won quite a few battles against Japanese troops and was praised as an ever-victorious general during the War of Resistance against Japan. I guess that Walter met General Chang in the period between 1945 and 1947. At that time General Chang was the commander of the 74th reorganized division, one of Kuomintang’s five elite divisions. General Chang died in the well-known Menglianggu Battle during the civil war.

Walter said that General Chang gave him a dinner and tried to have sex with him. He told me that one day the general came to see his performance and sent someone to ask him to go to the general’s place as soon as he finished his performance without removing his makeup or changing his clothes.

He went to the general’s house immediately after his performance was over still wearing the makeup and costume of a Chinese lady. When he arrived at the general’s house, he was shown into a room and saw that the general was sitting at a table with quite a few dishes of food on it. The general was drinking wine alone. He told Walter to sit down by his side and all other people to leave the room.

The general looked at Walter with admiration and said, “You are so beautiful. I adore you.” Then he held Walter tight and forced a long kiss on Walter’s lips. Walter struggled hard but could not get away because the general was so strong and has such great strength. Walter was very upset and shouted at him, “General, you shall never do that!” The General looked at Walter closely again and then suddenly snatched Walter up in his arms, carried Walter to a room next door and began to take off Walter’s clothes.

Walter struggled and shouted at the top of his voice, “General, general! Don’t forget that I am a boy, not a girl.” The general suddenly realized his mistake and stopped. He said that he was sorry and that he was carried away by Walter’s beauty and mistook Walter for a girl.

“Do not blame General Chang. He did so because you seduced him.” I said that to tease Walter.

“What? No, he did that when I had just met him and sat down,” said Walter. “I have never seduced anyone in my life. Even if I had wanted to seduce him, I would not have had the time to do so.”

“I did not mean that you seduced him on purpose. What did you play before you went to have dinner with him?”

“The well-known play ‘Guifei Intoxicated,’” said Walter.

The Guifei in the well-known play was Yang Guifei, a concubine of Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty. She was regarded as one of the top four beauties in Chinese history. The play was a scene of her being sad because that evening the emperor was with another concubine Meifei. She sang very beautifully and performed very beautiful dance of a beautiful woman half intoxicated. Quite a few people believe that Guifei is very attractive and sexy in the play.

I asked Walter, “Do you think that you gave a good performance then?”

“Certainly,” said Walter, “that was my favorite play.”

“Do you think that at that time you really gave people the impression that the well-known beauty Yang Guifei really appeared before the audience and made everybody crazy in seeing such a half intoxicated beauty. They say that a beautiful woman is even more attractive when she is half intoxicated. The play was aimed at displaying the beauty of a jealous and half intoxicated Chinese lady. Do you think that you have achieved that aim?”

“Certainly, I did,” said Walter.

“Then no wonder General Chang was so crazy about you and lost his mind. It was your successful performance that made him do that; therefore, it was not the general’s fault. Don’t you agree?”

“I don’t know, but perhaps, you are right,” said Walter.

I said, “This was the same as the incident of Chiang Ching-kuo giving you a dinner. You could not be blamed if you told your interrogators the truth. However, if there was any other such incident, you should tell your interrogators before it is found by your interrogators themselves.”

Walter said that there was no more such incident at all. Since then he had never attended any private dinner without removing makeup and changing into man’s clothes. He said that his teacher told him that in the past, people looked down on Peking opera actors, but his teacher’s pupil Mei Lanfang has raised actors’ status by gaining recognition across the globe. His teacher urged him never to forget his dignity as an artist and always maintain good reputation.

In Custody along with American Peking Opera Actor Playing Female Roles (Part 2)

Chiang Ching-kuo and his father KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek

Chiang Ching-kuo and his father KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek

chiang Ching-kuo and his Russian wife who is also fond of Peking opera

chiang Ching-kuo and his Russian wife who is also a Peking opera fan

Walter Was Lucky in Not Having Been Persecuted by Red Guards
As he and I lived in the same lane and his house was only two houses further than mine, we walked home together at noon and in the evening and became friends.

I told him that he was very lucky that his Peking opera troupe dissolved. He was amazed to hear that and said, “Are you crazy? I am unemployed now!”

I said, “Yes, I know. But it is better than being denounced, imprisoned and beaten. You know that everywhere Peking opera actors, especially well-known ones, have been denounced, struggled at, detained and beaten by Red Guards. The Red Guards said that they were punished for having the stages dominated by reactionary plays about feudal emperors, kings, generals and prime ministers. You are lucky that they have not punished you because you had stopped giving performance since long ago when your troupe dissolved.”

“No,” he said, “I did not stop giving performance. I gave performance in private for rich people at their wedding and birthday parties. Otherwise, how can I earn a living. I cannot find another job. Even if I can, it would be a job of manual labor that I am not able to do. Now, I am really hard up as there are no rich people now. My interrogators told me to apply for poverty relief. The maximum amount of that is 10 yuan (US$4.40 according to the official rate at that time) a month per head. It is not enough for me to use as my pocket money.”

“You will get only 2 yuan less than other well-known Peking opera actors. Red guards have raided all their houses, taken away all valuables and left them in dire poverty. Their troupes now only pay them 12 yuan a month per head. Money-wise, they are not better off, you see.”

Walter’s Sister
I knew that he was financially desperate then. His sister’s former husband was in prison for a counterrevolutionary crime, leaving her, a housewife, and their five children not provided for. It was very difficult for his sister to find a job at that time because China’s economy was recovering from the economic depression called by the Party as the three years of natural disaster; therefore, without the husband’s salary, they were starving. She could apply for poverty relief, but usually the government would move them out of Shanghai to remote areas, then her children might lose the opportunity of good education and jobs in Shanghai. Her husband’s younger brother was then single and earning a salary a little less than 100 yuan. The brother was willing to use much of his salary to support his sister-in-law’s family, but 100 yuan was indeed not much. It was hard to maintain two separate families with such an income. He had better move into his sister-in-law’s home so as to greatly reduce their living expense. However, he might be in trouble if there was merely a rumor that he had an affair with his sister-in-law, a counterrevolutionary’s wife.

When the younger brother visited his elder brother in the prison, the two brothers discussed the matter and decided that the brother in prison should divorce his wife and then the younger brother should marry the elder brother’s wife. This was what I learnt from our maid before the Cultural Revolution. I do not know what actually happened between the two brothers. Our maid was of the opinion that it was a pity that when a man became a counterrevolutionary, he lost not only his freedom but also his wife and children. According to our maid, some of my neighbors thought that a man should not take advantage of his brother’s misfortune to rob his brother of his wife.

I knew Walter’s sister. She was indeed beautiful. The brother must be happy to have such a beautiful wife. However, at that time she had had already five children and could by no means be regarded as young. Moreover, 100 yuan a month was quite a high salary at that time. On average a university graduate earned only 58 yuan and the average young worker’s wage was about 40 yuan. With such a high salary, it is easy for the brother to find a young and pretty girl to marry. I believe that either the brother was really a good brother willing to sacrifice himself for his elder brother or he was deeply in love with his former sister-in-law. By the divorce and remarriage, Walter’s sister was no longer a counterrevolutionary’s wife and her children no longer a counterrevolutionary’s children. They, especially the children, would not be discriminated in their pursuit for higher education and good jobs. Except in 1961, in the period from 1958 to 1966, as a rule, counterrevolutionaries’ children were not admitted into any tertiary education institution. At that time I believed that should be the major purpose of the divorce and remarriage. However, though divorce and remarriage were lawful in China at that time, Walter’s sister was looked down upon by some of her neighbors because of the Chinese tradition against women’s remarriage.

Anyway, at that time Walter lived in his sister’s home where the eight people there had to live on a monthly income of about 100 yuan, 12 yuan per head. They were well below poverty line.

Chiang Ching-kuo’s Dinner
One day on our way home, Walter told me that he was in trouble. I asked him why. He said his interrogators told him that they knew that Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek’s son Chiang Ching-kuo (who was later Taiwan’s president) gave him a dinner and a Longines watch as a gift when he was giving performances in Nanjing before the communists came to power.

I told him he had nothing to worry about that. As a well-known actor playing female roles, he certainly would have some contacts with Kuomintang high officials. I asked whether there was anything political in his contacts with them. He said no. They gave him dinners after they saw his performances because they liked his performances. I said that if so, he had nothing to worry. However, as there were surely reports about his contacts with the officials in the newspapers then, he had better tell his interrogators all such contacts before they found such contacts themselves in old newspapers.

In Custody along with Famous American Peking Opera Actor Playing Female Roles (Part 1)

Walter Ho playing the role of a Chinese beauty

Walter Ho playing the role of a Chinese beauty

Walter Ho still able to play female roles at the age of 90

Walter Ho still able to play female roles at the age of 90

Walter Ho Joining Our Study Class
A few days after I was in the study class*, the two interrogators of another team ushered in a handsome man and told him to sit at a desk next but one to my left. They told him to study Mao’s works and write self-criticism and then left. The man drew the attention of everyone of us including the four guards watching us, because he looked like a Westerner. He had a prominent nose and coiled hair of light color. I think, he must be a Westerner or a mixed-blood. Otherwise, he would have been in trouble. Coiled hair was regarded as a “bourgeois” hairstyle that imitated the coiled hair of Westerners. It was denounced as a blind preference of things foreign to natural hair. Rebels or Red Guards would have denounced him and have had half of his head shaved. However, they could do nothing to a foreigner’s or mix-blood’s coiled hair because it was precisely natural.

Another problem with the man was the way he moved his hands and fingers, especially the way he held up his little fingers. It was the way like a woman’s but it was not a modern woman’s way but that of a young lady in traditional Peking or Yueju opera. The shape of his hands especially the long and thin fingers look precisely like those of the beauties in traditional Chinese paintings and operas. One of the four women guards watching us said in a whisper, “What a shame! How can a man act like a woman!” Even today when Chinese are much more open-minded, most Chinese people look down on a man acting like a woman. The bias was much more strong at that time.

However, another guard said, “Don’t blame him. It is his professional habit.” She then said to the man, “Walter, I heard that your teacher was Wang Yao-ching, the Peking opera master who taught Mei Lanfang, the greatest Peking opera actor playing female roles well-known across the world. It was said that at that time your teacher was old and had decided not to have any more pupil.” The woman seemed to be very much interested in Peking opera.

Mei Lanfang’s Teacher Took Walter as His Last Pupil
At that time I realized that this man was Walter, the well-known Peking opera actor playing female roles. I learnt long ago that he came back to live with his sister when his Peking opera troupe in another city dissolved due to lack of fund during the “Three Years of Natural Disaster (euphemism for the economic depression caused by Mao’s rash pursuit of fast economic growth)”. He and his sister were both mixed-blood of an American mother and an ethnic Chinese father. However, I had never met him. People living in our residential area seldom socialized with their neighbors in order to avoid involving one another because most of us were targets of Mao’s revolution.

Walter said, “I was interested in Peking opera since I came to Shanghai from the United States at the age of 7. When Master Wang saw me for the first time, I was fourteen and was already learning Peking opera from another master not so well-known. Master Wang said that I would be a Chinese beauty if I made up for a traditional Chinese girl. He immediately asked someone to make me wear the makeup and dress of a young Chinese lady. When the making up finished, I went to him. He exclaimed, ‘Wonderful! Wonderful! I finally find the right girl!’ Then he said that this was an opportunity he should not lose and immediately asked me whether I was willing to be his pupil to learn the art of actor playing female roles. I asked whether it would be fun. He said, ‘Certainly, you will have lots of fun.’ As I was willing and my father did not object, I soon became his pupil.”

“What about your mother?” the guard asked.

“She was in the United States at that time,” said Walter.

Another guard said, “It is so disgusting that a man plays the role of a woman. Why isn’t the role played by a female?”

Walter said, “In the past, men and women were not allowed to mix up in one troupe; therefore, either men’s roles are played by women like that in Yueju opera or women’s roles are played by men like that in Peking opera. That is our theatrical tradition.”

*During the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards and Rebels could arrest and imprison people at will with the excuse of keeping them in study classes to learn Mao Zedong’s teachings. As too many people were put into study classes, those whose problem were regarded as less serious were allowed to go back home to have meals and sleep along designated routes but were not allowed to go anywhere else to contact any other people. They were closely watched by their neighbors.

To be continued

This is also a chapter I wrote for my book Tiananmen’s Tremendous Achievements but not included in the book. It is now divided into six parts to be posted by installments.