Katherine Luo (Yung Kan Loh) was born in Shanghai in 1935 and immigrated to Canada in 1998. Throughout her life music has played a key part, whether as a professional opera singer and actor, music editor or instructor. She is the author of Traces of Time (Chinese Canadian Writers’ Association, 2010) and The Unceasing Storm. She has also contributed to periodicals including Ricepaper and The Malahat Review. She taught Mandarin at Simon Fraser University and taught piano and voice for many years. She lives in Vancouver, BC.
INTERVIEW WITH KATHERINE LUO
Q: Youth, a recent film by Feng Xiaogang, romanticizes the lives of young members of a military arts troupe during the Cultural Revolution. Since you were technically in the performing arts troupe of the People’s Liberation Army during this period, do you have any thoughts about viewing it through rose-tinted lenses?
A: This film has its particular point of view on the situation in the 1970’s, when the Cultural Revolution was coming to an end. My experience was very different. I joined the army in 1964. After that, I went to the countryside to work for eight months during the “Four Clean Ups Movement.” In the spring of 1966, the Cultural Revolution began. In 1968, I was quarantined and interrogated. That winter, I was sent to the Great Northern Wilderness for re-education at a May Seventh Cadre School. After Lin Biao died in 1972, we were allowed to visit Beijing. During the fourteen years when I served in the military arts troupe, my life was miserable. Therefore, my memory from that period of time is distressing, gray and tortured. In 1978, I left the air force and started a brand new chapter by working with a publishing house whose focus was music.
Q: One of the earliest examples of Chinese dissident literature available in the West was The Execution of Mayor Yin, a short story collection by Chen Ruoxi, who was a Taiwanese returnee who eventually left and settled in Canada. Later on, domestic Chinese writers who lived through the events of the period include Gao Xingjian and Dai Sijie, whose works became known internationally. Do you see any parallels in the writings of the overseas Chinese who returned for patriotic/ideological reasons, versus writing that emerged from China?
A: I like Gao Xingjian’s One Man’s Bible. He described the Cultural Revolution very realistically. His short stories are also very good. Recently, I found myself reading several of Ha Jin’s novels. I agree with his political viewpoints. Dai Sijie’s novel, which became a film, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is wonderful, too. But my situation is different from others. I was a student in 1955 and had very patriotic ideals. I returned to mainland China from Hong Kong, yet I ran out in 1988. This is similar to Ms. Jan Wong (Red China Blues). My dreams were completely broken in that country, so I immigrated to Canada in 1997 when I was 62 years old. I am not a professional writer. I only stayed in China for 32 years. However, based on what I have seen and heard, and from my past experiences, I have thought a great deal about my life there. My first essay, Smile, was written in 1998, just after I had immigrated here.
Q: One of your essays, Forgetting, grapples with the issue of erasing the period from memory to move on. Do you worry that the excesses of Mao and Deng’s policies will be entirely forgotten one day?
A: Many people in China have not forgotten the history, especially our generation, but they are afraid to mention it. This is because there is a dictatorship in China, which does not want people to critically assess our history. In consequence, everyday people dare not draw parallels with the past. Nowadays, fewer and fewer people in the younger generation know and understand the truth of history and it will easily being forgotten for the next generation. I think that the writers who know the situation of China’s history should tell the truth, and we can’t let the historical truth be forgotten and distorted. Otherwise it will be very sad and dangerous.