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A Watery Escape from China

A young man swims to freedom—and a new life as a physician in the United States

9 min read

or several decades, my American friends have encouraged me to write a book recounting my story of growing up in China and my multiple attempts to flee the Maoist regime. I hesitated. I am not trained as a writer. I’m a scientist, trained in medicine. So, I waited, believing that some other freedom swimmers would tell a story that mirrored mine. More than forty years have passed, and I am still waiting.…

Many freedom swimmers who dreamed of a decent life—the same dream as mine—died on their journey. One of them [Curly]was a dear friend. He was with me in our first, failed attempt at escape. During his second attempt, he died in the sea…Should he be forgotten? My heart keeps telling me no.…

In 2010, thirty-seven years after my friend’s death, I flew to Hong Kong. After a long ferry ride, I set foot, for the first time, on the “Beach of Bean Curd Rocks,” a unique feature of the island of Tung Ping Chau, in Mirs Bay. Freedom swimmers used to write on a large boulder there to mark their successful flight to freedom, but I found that the Hong Kong UNESCO Geopark now resided where the boulder once stood. Across the bay was a dark, jagged mountain range. I couldn’t discern which peak we traversed before descending to the coast where the People’s Liberation Army soldiers caught us during that first attempt, but I felt a chill run down my spine at the memory.…

Canton City was more than one hundred miles north of Hong Kong. To escape to Hong Kong, one needed to start somewhere closer to the coast. Starting midway between these two places would reduce the time spent crossing mountains and fields to about a week. Thanks to the send-down movement, many students had relocated to villages closer to Hong Kong than Canton, which were ideal for “lying under a pile of dirt.” Police heavily guarded the bus, ferry, and train stations in Canton City. All county roads leading to the Chinese coast north of Kowloon Peninsula were punctuated by roadblocks and checkpoints guarded by militiamen. Back then, Chinese had to have permission to travel, and passing through all checkpoints required a valid travel document. Police and militiamen were good at checking documents, asking questions, and judging one’s appearance and expression. Fake travel documents were almost always used documents that had been bleached to erase the previous writing. But the bleaching left easily detectable marks on the paper.…

 

“Take out your travel documents!” a policeman on board announced. He started inspecting the documents of each passenger. He and his partner worked from the center of the aisle to the end and quickly got their first catch. The young man looked anxious as the younger policeman examined his paperwork. The younger policeman raised the travel document against the light and showed it to the older one, “Bleached?” The older policeman took a quick look and nodded.…

It was my turn. “What’s the name of your village leader?” the   older policeman asked as he inspected my document.

“Comrade Lee, but we called him ‘One-Eye Dragon,’ ” I said. His eyes veered away from the paper and landed on my face. I looked him in the eye. He handed me the paper back and moved on.

The younger policeman stared at [my sister] Ning, then quickly turned his head away and demanded, “Your document!” Ning obeyed. He looked it over and returned it to her, then moved to the next passenger. Once again, Ning had gotten a pass. She tended to have this kind of luck. As Mommy said, “Good looks and a nice dress go a long way.” I was sure that this time Ning’s looks, and not her clothes, had had something to do with it.…

cover of Swimming to Freedom book

Previous escapees had pushed the seemingly impenetrable bushes outward, so we were able to fit our bodies inside the spaces created there. The stagnant air in these voids trapped the sun’s heat,  steaming us. We kept motionless and speechless, and prayed for the sun to go away soon, but the sun didn’t bother listening. Finally, darkness came, and we slowly crawled out.

The road was dead, and we swiftly climbed the hill. The farther up we were, the more careless we became. We started to talk to make the climb easier and more pleasant. As we got deeper into the mountains, the vegetation became denser. The moon came out to illuminate the sky, but it was concealed from us by the mountains on both sides. I realized we were traversing the valley. Little creatures that crawled or jumped or flew were eager to irritate our skin; they ignored our scolding slaps.

Our plan had been to reach the top of the mountain that first night. Like all other escapees, we planned to hide and rest during the day and cross the mountains during the night. But the darkness and the dense growth made this impossible.…

We started to climb the hill in daylight. The cool temperature and the better visibility made all the difference, and soon we reached the top. The ridge was a strip of relatively flat ground with sparse vegetation. What a pleasant change! The strong mountain winds and full exposure to the punishing sun had driven away most of the moisture, and the insects that came with it. That was just fine with us.…

We found a spot to rest and eat some of our food under a large tree surrounded by bushes. Unfortunately, black ants had beaten us to our meal. They had eaten through the plastic bags and buried themselves in the sea of sweet foods.

“How can we get rid of them?” I asked. “Any idea?”

“No way. They’re everywhere.” Curly was correct.

“Then we have to eat them,” Ning said matter-of-factly.…

 

“Do you believe in the Goddess of the Moon and her jade rabbit?” I asked Curly.…

I felt love for the moon. She was never intrusive like the sun, which always tried to burn me into charcoal and flood me with my own sweat. Now her appearance calmed me as I traversed the mountains at night. Perhaps our ancestors felt the same way and did not want the shadows on her face deemed an imperfection. What could be more bittersweet than a lovely lady drinking the elixir of immortality to avoid an evil-minded pursuer here on earth, and so becoming the deity of the moon, living alone with a rabbit by her side, shown as shadows on the moon’s face, to remind the mortals on Earth? There she was, to watch over those of us who paid homage to her every year on the seventh day of the seventh month. Does she know she is guiding the freedom swimmers crossing the mountains at night?

The next day, our third, a rainstorm hit. We tried, but failed, to shield ourselves under a large plastic tarp we’d brought along. We were soaked and freezing. We sat close to one another, trying to keep warm. Occasional thunder boomed directly over our heads, seeming much louder than the thunder we were used to at home. There was no need to get out from under our covering to retrieve water; instead, we merely stuck out our tongues to catch the voluminous raindrops rolling down our hair and faces. Far below us, through the curtain of the downpour, I saw peasants planting the paddies. It reminded me of how much I hated planting in the pouring rain—with an aching back, bloodsucking leeches, and bits of human waste floating around my legs!…

 

A sudden crash of lightning illuminated the mountains near us. How vulnerable we were! We must wait it out! Subtropical rain seldom lasts a whole day. Soon it stopped, and the sun came out, throwing two rainbows, one on top of the other, across the land. The raindrops had carried away the tiny dust particles suspended in the hot air to reveal the vivid details of the green leaves and colorful wildflowers around us. I tried to whistle to express my joyous state of mind, but I quickly gave it up, for the sound of my whistling destroyed the perfect harmony of nature.

“Good,” I said. “Tomorrow will be a sunny day!”

“How do you know?” Curly asked.

“Because of the red sky late in the day.”…

We couldn’t ask for a better ending to a dreadful day. We started our passage along the mountain ridges. The lingering twilight finally went away. Ahead of us was a bright light illuminating the mountain tops and radiated upward.

“What’s that?” Ning exclaimed. “Can’t be the moon.”

“It must be the neon lights of Hong Kong.” I was convinced of this. I recalled the photo from the Hong Kong magazine showing the intensely lit buildings jammed and layered up to the middle of the hills.…

We were in a world of darkness and had been yearning for a better world for so long, and now, in front of us, the New World was giving us the first hint of things to come. We were moved. What could be a more dramatic welcome than lighting up half the sky for us?…

Finally, after seven days, we saw the sea! Its blue water stretched to the far edge of a much lighter blue sky. We were speechless. How grand it was!. . .

Kent Wong's family, circa 1950s
A portrait of the Wong when author was a young child, circa 1950s 

When we reached the foothills, it was dark. The foothills descended into a marsh, and we started across it, treading carefully to minimize the splashing sound of our footsteps. At the end of the marshland was the coast. With Curly leading and Ning in the middle, we slowly crawled toward the sea.…

“Raise your hands,” said the soldier whose rifle was pointing at Curly. “Walk slowly. Keep your hands up. How many are you?” “I’m the only one,” Curly said as he walked toward the soldier. Ning and I kept still and held our breaths.

Another flashlight swept across the field, to and fro, its beam approaching Ning and me. We turned our faces to the mud and waited for the inevitable.

“Two more!” a second soldier shouted. “Stand up!”

The game was over. Ning and I stood up and raised our hands. The soldiers tied our wrists using a long, thick rope and linked us together. “Sit down, and no talking!” the soldiers ordered.…

Kent Wong, MD ’83, is a retired anesthesiologist in the Seattle area. This edited excerpt from his 2021 memoir, Swimming to Freedom: My Escape from China and the Cultural Revolution, appears with permission of the author and the publisher, Abrams Press.

Images: Lee Yiu Tung/iStock/Getty Images (top); courtesy of the author and publisher (cover and family photo)