Little Red Book by May Ngo
May Ngo is a researcher in the social sciences, focusing on development in Cambodia. Her other interests include theology, migration, diaspora and literature. She is also developing her father’s memoirs of his time with the Vietnamese communist army as a novel. She has a blog at The Violent Bear it Away (https://theviolentbearitaway1.wordpress.com/) and tweets at @mayngo2
Little Red Book
In the Chinese school Chen attended, in a medium-sized port town in South- Eastern Cambodia, their reading books had bright red covers, yellow stars and a picture of Mao’s shiny, round amiable face smiling up at them. In order to reach his school Chen had to take a ferry everyday across the murky brown Mekong, and in class he learnt lines from Mao’s wisdom, crystallised into songs he and his classmates would sing, their voices harmonising and occasionally breaking out of harmony. The songs they sang hailed being on the side of the poor, called to make the world equal:
The east is red, the sun is rising.
From China comes Mao Zedong.
He strives for the people’s happiness,
Hurrah, he is the people’s great saviour!
Chairman Mao loves the people,
He is our guide
to building a new China
Hurrah, lead us forward!
Chen would sing in a loud, pure voice, memorising whole passages from songs printed in their little red books. In class, they would listen to the crackly radio broadcasting all the way from Beijing’s central radio station, calling for the uprising of proletariats all over the world, calling for workers to unite to create a happy paradise where there was no difference between the rich and the poor.
His teacher, Mr Xi, wore a badge with Mao’s face in silver profile, and as a daily classroom ritual read a passage from one of Mao’s works. He would stride with his long legs up and down the length of the room and in a raised voice read a selected excerpt for that day, only pausing at particular moments when he wished to highlight a passage to his students, peering at them intensely through his glasses. Chen idolised Mr Xi. And on the wall at the front of the classroom, prominently hung the obligatory portrait of the King of Cambodia, Sihanouk; his broad, round face, serious eyes and the hint of a smile looking down at them.
Once, they had a visit from someone Mr Xi introduced as Mr Bao Li. Chen did not understand who this man was or what he did exactly, except that Mr Xi said that he was important. The man looked like he was in his twenties, dressed in neat, ironed clothes and a straight cut fringe that ended just above his eyes. He gave a presentation to the class, a rather long and winding talk that included communist revolutionary theory and patriotism and ideals. Although some students started to fidget and move their legs, pushing their pens and paper around on their desk, Chen listened attentively. In that small classroom, dusty and filled with the standard wooden desks and chairs, his world widened to include all the poor of the world, the down-trodden and spat upon. He could imagine, more than imagine, feel what it must be like to be one of them. And also what it would be like when liberation finally came.
“Not to have a correct political point of view is like having no soul”. Chen took to heart this line in Mao’s little red book, and in his final year of school when Chen was chosen as leader of his class he organised a political study group that focused on the book Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung. He selected the chapter on ‘Political Work’ to start with as he found it particularly inspiring with its call for everyone, intellectuals, students and soldiers alike, to be involved in political work. His best friend, Kiet, was also in the study group. Kiet was a gangly young man, who, although tall for his age—as he had always been, since childhood—had a desperately youthful looking face with stringy black hair that always fell into his eyes no matter how many times he swiped it away. Kiet’s father owned a successful catering business for weddings and special events, and their families had known each other since both were little. One of their favourite past times together was playing table tennis. Both were agile and quick on their feet and the ball zipped between them like lightening.
Chen and Kiet debated with their classmates on a number of political events and current affairs, they particularly argued against those in the study group who were ambivalent about Western imperialism and its effects. Chen could not understand how one could be a communist and not be against it unequivocally, particularly against what he saw as the biggest beast of all, the United States. He and Kiet wrote articles in this vein and hoped to get them published in the local newspaper, to this end they asked Mr Xi to help them order books that the school did not have, hungry for more writings by the Chairman. Chen ignored subjects in his class that did not relate to politics, ignored those subjects that did not talk about a future that was yet to be created, that he would help to create. The small concrete building by the edge of the river, his school, became like the blinking beacon of a lighthouse in the night, shining upon hazardous rocks and marking dangerous coastlines to avoid; illuminating the way forward. In the classroom, in the study group, writing political tracts with Kiet, he soaked in the luminescent promise-filled atmosphere at school, but at home it was a different matter.
Chen and his seven brothers and sisters lived in a large two-storey brick house with maids and helpers who occupied themselves with the household chores and cooking. He felt a loathing for the fact that they had a TV, servants and, by far, the biggest house in the neighbourhood, while groups of beggars on the street congregated around their household bins salvaging for food scraps. Even worse than these obvious signs of wealth, Chen was ashamed that his father was a “boss”. Chen’s father owned a fish sauce factory employing ten workers, half of whom were an assortment of uncles, cousins and in-laws, was also the owner of a fruit farm filled with luscious mango, pineapple, longan and jackfruit trees, as well as a whole apartment building in Phnom Penh that he rented out to tenants.
“In class society, everyone lives as a member of a particular class, and every kind of thinking, without exception, is stamped with the brand of a class”. This line from Mao’s little red book burned him. He did not want to be stamped by the class of his family and at the same time he could not shake off the feeling that he was a hypocrite, so Chen retaliated in the only way he knew how. He gave up watching TV. He did not ask for new shoes even when they were starting to wear thin. He refused to eat anything more than what he assumed a farm labourer in his town would eat, ignoring his mother’s pleadings to eat more, pushing yet another plate of food toward him. He wanted to take off his bourgeois milieu like old clothes that scratched at him, that were too tight in places because they no longer fit him.
During Chinese New Year all of his brothers and sisters wore new clothes, the girls with ribbons in their hair and the boys with faces scrubbed clean. Chen refused to wear the bright, shining new clothes his mother had bought for him; the new shirt and pair of pants lay forlornly on his bed. Instead, Chen wore an old shirt that had frayed, hanging threads and some blue pants that he often wore to the factory; one of his brothers told him he looked even worse than the rubbish sweeper who had at least made an effort with a new shirt bought from the central market. When relatives came to the house to visit for the celebrations, he greeted them all in his old clothes, hair uncombed. His grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins politely ignored his appearance, even as he accepted their red envelopes looking like a vagrant. All except Uncle Kong, his father’s younger brother, who was known for not mincing words and who could be counted on to make awkward moments even more awkward. On entering the house and seeing Chen, he exclaimed “Hey, why are you looking so scruffy today?” He grabbed Chen by the elbow. “It’s Chinese New Year for goodness sake!”
Everyone looked at Chen and there was a silence before his mother, who was passing around sesame cookies on a plate, gave a nervous laugh, saying “Oh it’s nothing. Just something he’s going through. He doesn’t want to wear new clothes”.
His father’s face clouded, a dark grey mist passing over his visage, but he did not say a word. His father was a tall, well-built man who carried himself in a way that denoted power and strength, a firmness to his hands. Most of the time he spent at the factory, but when at home he spoke few words. For this reason, most of his children were more than a little afraid of him.
Chen also did not reply and instead moved his arm away from his uncle. He did not expect him to understand; his fat, corpulent uncle working as a manager at his father’s fish sauce factory, ordering the workers about while he sat looking on. In private, after everyone had gone, Chen heard his mother crying in the kitchen, telling their cook Piseth that she did not understand where this came from or why. Chen hurriedly retreated back to his room.
“It is the duty of the cadres and the Party to serve the people. Without the people’s interests constantly at heart, their work is useless.” One day, on his way home from school, Chen bought some fried bananas and roasted peanuts from a street vendor. Once he got home he provocatively notified his mother, who was in the kitchen with Piseth, that he was going to give them away to the poor children who lived in their neighbourhood. Upon hearing this, his mother exploded as if a spring had been released inside her, her hands upsetting the plate of mangoes that was to be an offering to their ancestors in the household shrine.
“What! You care so much about the children out there but what about your own family? Why are you ignoring your own family?” She banged her hand on the kitchen counter twice. “You don’t even care about your own brothers and sisters!” Thin black strands of hair fell in front of her face, thin blue veins showed on her hand that laid on the counter.
“Why should I care about them?” Chen retorted. “They’re selfish. You’re all selfish!”
Chen’s mother’s face seemed to stretch outwards, distorting her features. “You ungrateful little bastard, how dare you speak to me like that!” she screamed at him.
Chen felt the rage rising in him, becoming a heavy fog in his mind. His lower lip quivered. He said slowly and carefully, trying to keep his voice even “I dare because you know nothing and only care about yourself.”
Chen’s mother slapped him. She reached and pulled out a butcher’s knife from the sideboard, its edge gleaming, and waved the knife towards him. “How dare you! How dare you!” she yelled in a high, unrecognisable voice, her hands shaking. Her hair had partially come out of its bun, her arm angled to hold the knife up high. Chen felt in that moment as if she were a demonic spirit, capable of anything.
Chen turned around and ran out of the kitchen, a blur going past Piseth the cook, Serey the maid and his siblings who had come to see what all the shouting was about. He ran out of the house and all the way to the fish sauce factory, breathlessly going straight to the section where the big vats of salted, aging fish were stored, waiting to be strained for its liquid. Huynh, the manager of the section was there, stirring some of the vats with a wooden paddle. “Hello, Chen” he said, wiping sweat from his forehead. Chen smiled at him, grateful for a refuge from what had just occurred, and helped Huynh put out a stack of baskets for straining the fish sauce.
To annoy his parents, Chen often went to the factory just to talk to the workers and eat his lunch with them, oblivious to their awkward and embarrassed looks. Sometimes he would offer to share his lunch with them, but they always declined, politely. They would in turn offer a taste of their lunch to him, but he dreaded it because of the inevitable prahok that would be littered through it. The salty, fermented fish paste was abhorrent to him, it smelt of old encrusted socks, but the workers like most Khmers seemed to put it in all of their food. Nevertheless, when they offered it to him he would always eat it, swallowing with a mouthful of white rice to dilute the taste. He refused his fathers’ insistence to, like his uncle, communicate with clients, or look after the accounting, or negotiate with the fish suppliers, preferring instead to handle the fish stock with the labourers, knowing that it infuriated his father.
Chen’s parents had expectations of him as the eldest son to eventually take over the business. But he had no intention of doing so and took his father’s red-faced silence as a badge of pride, as a sign that he was doing the right thing. Chen’s father’s face became perpetually lined in a grimace, as if the milk he drank everyday had soured. And after the argument they had, Chen’s mother was mute and withdrawn, no longer pushing plates of food towards him at the dinner table.
The Mekong river ran through Chen’s town, making it a busy port city with ships flitting in and out like migrating birds, transporting passengers and goods onwards to the capital Phnom Penh. It was a hub for many Chinese businesses, many of whom Chen’s father knew, and many, like Chen’s family on his father’s side, had been there for several generations. They opened up shops that lined the main street, selling everything from groceries to clothing to electrical goods. They also opened up factories like Chen’s father; abattoirs, piggeries, packaging of imported goods. The town was lively with activity during the day but also, especially, at night. The covered central market would turn its lights on, and delectable smells would waft from it as stall owners grilled skewers of meat and deftly fried noodles. They also arranged their sweets for display, sweets like agar jelly and sticky rice and fried banana that would attract both customers and flies. Fat babies would be carted out alongside family members, their faces syrupy with coconut cream. Young men would come out smartly dressed in jeans and pressed coloured shirts, while the young women clutched at handbags and carefully done hair. Chen’s father however did not let his children out during the evening. The people crowding the markets at night, laughing, eating, bargaining over prices, did not hide for Chen’s father the town’s inherent dangers. He often said to his children, “If I catch you going out at night…” leaving the rest of the sentence a silent menace. He would often look at Chen while saying this.
The town had been used to seeing for a few good years now the erratic presence of bodies floating in the river like bits of log wood. Bodies of men that bobbed face up in the downstream would appear like ghostly apparitions, their hair and clothes plastered to their bodies like life-sized painted dolls. This always happened after every bombing near Chen’s town. The grey sleek body of the planes, like a mutation of a giant bird with its sliver belly visible from the ground, terrified everyone when they came flying in, which if low enough, could be seen the words ‘U.S. ARMY’ painted on their tails. They stooped low to release their eggs of a hundred iron bombs, flattening out the land and the people who lived on it for hundreds of metres. The sound of these occasional bombings could be heard from the town even though the targets were the thick jungles bordering Vietnam and Cambodia.
Parts of the jungle became burnt out shells, on both sides. Chen’s father knew that Vietnamese guerilla communists would often run across the border over into the Cambodian side and into Chen’s town after their encampments were attacked, hiding amongst the bustle of the markets and the everyday life that was lived there. Chen’s father also knew that goods arrived at the port not only to be transported onwards to Phnom Penh, but also the other way around. Back towards the jungle and destined for the base camps of the Viet Cong, food and military supplies got transported by the Chinese government. Chen’s father, his friends and business associates did not talk about it, even though Chen’s father knew that some of them were involved in helping the goods to pass through, bribing the local authorities, or lending the use of their trucks.
Chen’s father turned away from it, did not want to be involved but did not want to denounce it either. His mind was occupied with how to make his business grow and make more of a profit then it currently was. He had taken on two new workers with the expectation that more orders were coming from one of his main clients. But the order had not come through, with the usual excuses made by the client, “You know how these things work”. Chen’s father now did not return from the factory until late at night. He would come home to eat his dinner and then go to bed, before leaving again early at dawn the next morning.
One day, Chen’s father unexpectedly came home earlier than usual. He had heard about some unrest in the streets and had let the workers go home early.
The King had been deposed.
This was what Chen’s father found out when he turned on the news on their TV, one of only a handful of TVs in town. The government-sanctioned news kept repeating the same thing on a loop; that a vote had taken place in the National Assembly which had removed King Sihanouk from power. In his place, the General Lon Nol had assumed the role of Head of State on an emergency basis. The news reports did not elaborate on why this had happened, nor how long it was going to continue.
Chen’s mother went next door to ask their neighbour what was going on. “Haven’t you heard?” said Bong, an old woman with hair that had gone completely silvery-white and deep bronzed skin that looked like polished mahogany. She sat cross-legged on her wooden bed. Everyone called her aunty, even though she lived alone and didn’t seem to be anyone’s aunty. “Lon Nol has gone and declared himself President while the King was in Russia”. She clucked a noise of disapproval, her lined eyes squinting, “Ooh, he’s dismantled the Kingdom like a broken-down clock!”.
She continued to chew on some betel nut leaf, fanning herself with a piece of cardboard. “It’s effectively a coup, that’s what everyone is saying.” Bong leaned in closer, showing her stained red teeth, “People are saying the CIA are behind this”, she whispered, “You know who they are, right?”
Although the TV did not give much further news, the radio proved to be more accommodating. Chen’s father found a radio station that was transmitting from Beijing, where King Sihanouk had found exile. He denounced the coup, blasting his message angrily in a broadcast intended for the Cambodians who were able to tune in and hear him. This is only a temporary situation, he said, voice muffled by the inevitably bad connection on the radio. I am setting up a government-in-exile here in China to fight against Lon Nol.” He continued, “I know I have denounced the Cambodian communists before, but this time they will help us.” The radio crackled. “We must all get behind Pol Pot and his party! We must support the Viet Cong and fight the American imperialists!”
Chen’s father temporarily shut down the factory. His mother fervently prayed in front of their small golden statue of the Buddha and offered incense sticks to their ancestors for protection. Chen’s father sat at his desk at home turning the pages of the factory’s accounts book back and forth, the numbers a blur in front of him, lines creasing his forehead.
For Chen, however, it was the call to action he needed. Like a bird who knew instinctively when to migrate, he knew that this was his moment. As Mao wrote, “While no one likes war, we must remain ready to wage just wars against imperialist agitations.” It was not a moment of his own making, any more than finding oneself in the eye of a hurricane is a moment of one’s own making, but nevertheless, he recognised it as a precipitate time where he could decide to act.
Like young birds who wanted to fly too early from their nest, their soft, fledgling wings flapping awkwardly but resolutely, Chen and his friends from the political study group resolved to leave for the jungle to join one of the Viet Cong’s base camps. At this time, many Chinese young people in his town had started to go missing, in twos and threes. When it started occurring, not a word was said about it within the Chinese community but everyone knew- these young people had left home to go into the jungle to join the neighbouring Vietnamese Communists. Chen and his friends wanted to follow in their footsteps, and together they made a plan.
On the assigned day, Chen carefully tied a bundle of clothes into a bag and strapped it across his chest. He considered taking a kitchen knife, and even folded one into his bundle of clothes, but then decided against it. The army would give him any necessary weapons, he thought. He waited for his father to leave for the factory at dawn, which he had started opening again, before quietly slipping out of the house to the sound of pigs squealing. The ones to be sold at the market that day had just been slaughtered.
His family would not find out until it was time for breakfast, when Serey or his mother, calling him to the table, would find his bed empty. However, as he was waiting for Kiet at the market at their rendezvous point, an unfortunate incident occurred. His Uncle Kong saw him from across the street through the gaps between the rush of traffic of motorbikes and cycle rickshaws. He saw Chen with his bundle of clothes and knew immediately. Although Chen was now eighteen, he was no match for his uncle who was tall and big, filling out his frame like a younger version of Chen’s father. Kong crossed the street and grabbing him by the arm, dragged Chen all the way back to his house, red-faced but not saying a word. Chen was too frightened to disobey or to argue. On their arrival, Chen’s mother looked at them and did not even have to ask. She cried hysterically for Serey to run to the factory to inform his father, a fear striking at the frame of her body. When Chen’s father came home, Chen did not say anything but stared at him coldly. Chen’s father did not say anything either, instead he grabbed his walking stick from the umbrella stand and struck Chen with broad, powerful strokes all over his body, yelling at the top of his voice, his face darkening, “So you want to go eh?!” thud, thud, thud. “I’ll show you how to go” thud, thud, only pausing when his wife pulled at his hands, cried at him to stop. Then he commenced again.
Afterwards, Chen laid in his bed rubbing the red splotches on his legs and cursing his father; for hitting him but most of all for not letting him go. He smarted at how unfair it was, to be on the cusp of being part of something so important and extraordinary, where he could finally affect the world in some way, only to be stopped by a father who only knew how to do one thing: make money. His images of fighting and of glory were crushed as he lay prone in his bed and this hurt him more than the growing welts that were forming on his body. He ignored his mother when she entered his room with rice porridge, entreating him to eat something.
But even in his anger, Chen felt confident. He rubbed the large bruise on his arm that had darkened into a deep black- blue. He had just thought of another plan to reach the jungle.
“People of the world, unite and defeat the U.S. aggressors and all their running dogs! People of the world, be courageous, and dare to fight, defy difficulties and advance wave upon wave. Then the whole world will belong to the people. Monsters of all kinds shall be destroyed.”*
*Mao Tse-tung, “Statement Supporting the People of the Congo (L.) Against U.S. Aggression” (November 28, 1964), People of the World, Unite and Defeat the U.S. Aggressors and All Their Lackeys, 2nd ed., p. 14