Andrew Kwong’s memoir, One Bright Moon, recounts his family’s experiences under the first decades of Mao’s New China and their eventual escape, highlighting the everyday moments that underlie historical events. Public executions and famine are rendered shocking against a backdrop of childhood games. As a young boy, Kwong proudly chants slogans, crushes rocks and hunts for scrap metal with his friends to further the revolutionary cause. He is confused, however, by his university-educated parents’ hushed conversations, his innocence prematurely clouded with foreboding.
Kwong transports readers to his ancestral village of Shiqi in the 1950s, through the muddy smell of Wonder River and the sound of street loudspeakers blasting patriotic songs. His dream that Baba is a special agent is shattered when his beloved father is sentenced to 15 years in a re-education camp. Meanwhile, neighbours display quiet dissent by slipping the boy an extra spoonful of rice and protesting for his and his friends’ release when they “steal” prawns from the commune ponds. All throughout, Kwong emphasises his parents’ protective love. Reflecting their lessons and his life experiences, he writes from a place of compassion, rather than anger. Those who condemned his family are depicted with nuance. The district head who refused to give his parents paid work, for example, accepts condensed milk, smuggled across the border by Kwong’s sister, to feed his family. Resisting caricature, the author allows readers to form their own judgements of Mao’s supporters.
“We must share in these bad times,” Mama counsels. “A bright moon will shine again one day, after the clouds disperse.” As the narrative moves to Macau, Hong Kong and finally Sydney, Kwong’s concerns shift from survival to further education and reuniting his family. He highlights the risky flow of money and people across borders, while sensitively portraying a large cast of family and village members. The author’s life in Australia and return trip to Shiqi form a necessarily compressed afternote.
One Bright Moon situates one family’s story in a broad political context, astutely balancing memory with historical detail. In doing so, it reminds readers of our interconnected lives and the importance of hope, courage and taking one’s destiny in hand.
HarperCollins, 352pp, $34.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 4, 2020 as "Andrew Kwong, One Bright Moon".
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