science fiction and fantasy writer

Remembering Zheng He

The video narrative skips ahead to the raising of the red P.R.C. flag over Manila, American headquarters in the Western Pacific. A brief clip of General MacArthur and his staff being fitted for their nooses is closely followed by the image that has so defined my country since, of the mushroom cloud over San Diego.

The atomic cloud fades into the tranquil harbour outside, blue sky and blue water, with the upward sweep of the memorial in between. People are already rising from their seats before the video ends.

I help Dad to stand. His lips bulge, chin working down and forward as he pushes his dentures around with his tongue, the way he does when lost in thought. He pats my hand, then gives us both away to any of our fellow tourists who didn’t notice our American passports when the guards checked them on the bus, addressing me in English and by my English name for good measure. “You’re a good boy, Henry.”

Some of the tour group throw glances our way, their faces studiedly neutral. If we were white or black, they wouldn’t give us a second look – or even a first, for that matter – but Chinese don’t expect other Chinese to be laowai, foreigners.

Emerging onto the jetty outside, we’re doubly blinded by the sun and its reflection on the water. The air carries a harbour cocktail of diesel fumes, brine and rotting kelp over the petrochemical tang of the new tarmac in the carpark. The faint ‘meep-meep’ of a reversing forklift rides with the smells. The harbour bristles with the masts and superstructures of warships. For me, the effect is weirdly dislocating, a homecoming, but not, everything exactly as it should be until I give my attention to the details – the ships’ flags, the language on the signs.

Our tour guide, a bird-boned, heavily made-up manhua doll of a girl, ushers us aboard a waiting ferry, crewed by white-uniformed P.L.A. sailors, and we begin our journey across the water to the memorial. The sailors refuse to look at their passengers, disdainful of the task. Baby-sitting tourists is not what they signed up for.

They have none of the agonised stiffness that U.S. Self Defence Forces personnel adopt when caught in uniform in front of civilians. I feel a pang of envy. Just remembering that turmoil of embarrassment and resentful pride is enough to make my face heat. It was the same meeting sailors from Europe and India and other allied nations, with my country the most feeble and reluctant member of the democratic coalition, hamstrung by the Pacifist Amendment of our constitution.

The bow of a guided-missile destroyer shades the first part of our course. “New ship,” I say, pointing. “Sovremenny. The Russians started building those in the Seventies. The P.L.A.’s internalized most of the weapons systems and sensor arrays on their latest versions to reduce the radar cross-section.”

Dad looks, briefly, but doesn’t comment, disinterested in the technicalities of war machines. Zhenzhugang Naval Base is the one part of our Hawaiian itinerary that is for me, not him. Dad wanted to go shopping again in Tanxiangshan’s tourist markets.

There are two older Sovremennys tied up behind the first – the kind I knew during my service days as “the Opposition”, bristling with masts and armaments.

Across the harbour, the boxy silhouette of an aircraft carrier dominates the view, its armoured flight deck as high as the superstructures of the ships around it. I try again: “That carrier over there’s got armour on its flight deck three inches thick, same as the Chinese used during the war. Our carriers had wooden flight decks, the armour started underneath the hangars.”

Dad’s listening, so I go on, “If one of theirs took a bomb on the deck, they basically just swept the wreckage off the side and kept going. Same thing happened to one of ours and it was out of action for weeks. Meant they didn’t have to worry so much about fires on the flight deck, either. Deck hits warped the hell out of their ships, in the end, but the armour’s what won them the carrier war.”

Dad ruminates on this for a while, then decides to humour me, “Do we armour our carriers now?”

Yeah, both of them, I think, but say, “Have to. The ships are so big now, they need the strength.”

He grunts and we lapse into silence again, another conversational gambit exhausted, as the ferry putters along.

The warships around us are lined up in the same neat rows as they were so conveniently for the American dive-bombers and torpedo-bombers all those years ago. Order, they declare, the nation’s bulwark against the chaos of the world “out there”. Symbolism beats common sense, hands down.

It occurs to me, belatedly, that most of those American bombers were manufactured by the Douglas Aircraft Company in Tulsa, Oklahoma, not twenty miles from where Dad was interned during the war.

“You know,” he says, “when the Chinese first arrived here, the shores of this harbour would have been all rows and rows of fishponds. The native Hawaiians used to build them.”

“How long ago was that?”

“The Chinese reached Hawai’i in 1421,” he says. “When Cook arrived 350 years later, the fishponds were still here. The Qing Emperors started militarising the harbour in 1893, after the United States claimed Midway.”

Dad never refers to the U.S.A. as “we” or “us”. It’s a not-uncommon habit when referring to our military past.

“A bit over a century, then,” I say. A person would be hard pressed, now, to find any sign of the original geography of the place.

“Did you know P.L.A. bases cover over a tenth of the land area of these islands?” he says.

“Yeah,” I answer, reluctantly.

“And so this is Chinese soil,” he says. “Never mind if the locals were perfectly happy with their home-grown monarchy.”

A woman across the other side of the ferry half turns around, looks away again before she quite meets my eye. At least one of our fellow tourists speaks English, then.

I hold my peace, I don’t want to get into this. “It’s the way it works, Dad.”

He harrumphs but drops the topic.

The shrine rises ahead of us, hull-shaped in white concrete. Its pointed ends soar triumphantly into the sky. Its middle dips low, the memorial standing astride the sunken battleship. A red flag snaps lazily from a tilted mast.

We’re deposited at one end. The previous tour group waits to board the ferry for the return journey. Jundui Ai Renmin, the words engraved on the wall above their heads remind new visitors: The Army Loves the People. The departing tourists are sombre, introspective, reddened eyes among them.

And the people love the Army. Only victors build war memorials. I’ve been to the Civil War cemeteries at home, and their Great War counterparts in Europe. There are cenotaphs and monuments to the victors of both but, for Americans anyway, these are now places of mourning, for the collective suicides of two continents, that claimed so many of our boys. There’s no celebration of the military ideals of service, courage and sacrifice. Our only memorial to the Pacific War is San Diego’s ruined heart.

White ropes funnel us into a dark corridor, lit only by the sunshine at either end. A second time, we emerge blinking and squinting from darkness. The middle part of the memorial is open to the sky. Encircling walkways bridge the distance between the shark-fin towers at the ends. Between the walkways, a rusted gun turret sits half-clear of the water. The red P.R.C. flag flies from the stump of the battleship’s main mast. Beneath the surface and its scatter of wilting flowers, I can just discern the coral-coated outlines of the Admiral Zheng He‘s burst superstructure.

I put my hands in my pockets, conscious of their emptiness, when all our fellow tourists clutch brightly coloured leis.

“This wasn’t the only ship sunk here, was it?” asks Dad.

I shake my head. “Four battleships, all in a row.” I leave unsaid the standard refrain of America’s wishful revisionists: If our boys had nailed the Chinese carriers as well, the Pacific War would’ve been over before it began.

“But this is the one they kept.”

Dad seems amused, which annoys me – more so, because I know that at least some of the people around us are listening. “Yeah?”

“Zheng He was the one who brought China to Hawai’i.”

“So?” I haven’t been a teenager for nearly forty years, but still he can drive me to an adolescent’s sullen obtuseness.

He shrugs. “Interesting, don’t you think, how seamlessly the Revolution adopts the conquests of the imperialist past? Co-opting a past that belonged to someone else to bolster–“

“Oh, c’mon Dad.” The lecture hall sound-bite exhausts what is left of my patience. “I’m not one of your goddamn freshmen. And quit being so damn rude.”     

Our fellow tourists ignore our bickering as best they can, subtly disowning us with their body language, as they throw their leis onto the water. Their voices are muted. There is an oppressiveness about the place, knowing there are a thousand or so bodies entombed in the sunken hull below. It’s like the feeling you get walking through an old churchyard in Europe, where the graves are so old the weather’s worn the headstones all-but bare.

If this were a Christian memorial, a visitor might find refuge in the thought that the sailors were in a better place. In a godless shrine, what are the dead but a link in the food chain?

The manhua doll tour guide moves among us, herding us onward with practised efficiency of a sheepdog. We only have about twenty minutes in the memorial, before the ferry returns. She dips her head to my father, doll perfect, gestures after those already walking past. He clasps his hands behind his back and walks silently beside me, face puckered.

We enter another corridor, this time lit by high skylights. It widens where it turns back on itself. Here stands a statue, perhaps half-again life size: a chiselled P.L.A. sailor, feet firmly planted, The Quotations of Mao clenched in his upraised fist. Two stout workers stand at his shoulders. It is the bluntest kind of symbolism. Experiencing it as a foreigner, coming from such an anti-military culture, I have a strange double view of it, as though each eye is seeing something different. One part of me wants to sneer at its lack of subtlety. At the same time, in this place, I want to feel its power to reassure, its affirmation of the life I have chosen, that is not available at home.

Dad opens his mouth. I shoot him a “shut up!” glare and he subsides.

The tour guide herds us out the other side. Our Mainland companions seem to stand a little taller, walk a little more surely. One greying bullfrog with a Party badge on the collar of his Zhongshan suit has tears in his eyes. He stops, chin outthrust, for one last look at the wreck. I half expect him to salute. I think I know how he feels. The burden of death is not lifted so much as domesticated, made sense of by the ideal of service to the nation. There is something to be proud of here.

This is what I have come to find.

We enter the last section of the memorial, that fills the greater part of the end that we entered.

Once again, the space is lit from above. It is here that the names of the Zheng He‘s dead crew are inscribed. But they are not carved in orderly, dignified, alphabetical rows on the wall. Instead, the names are cut into the tops of oddly angled, hip-height pillars.

It is only once one is among them that one realises that the pillars make a fragmented, stylised ship’s silhouette.

The effect is like a physical blow.

People stop, stare about themselves in disbelief, backtrack, stop again. The shroud of myth and symbol, woven so carefully, shreds apart. Some reach out to brush the tops of the pillars, run their fingers over the names. There are real tears, of a sudden. Not the brimming eyes of national pride, but of grief. Bullfrog seems to age ten years in front of my eyes. The arrangement pins each name undeniably to a corpse, to a young man murdered and left to rot where he fell. And there are so many.

I feel sick.

I touch the top of a pillar, trace the logograms with my fingertip.

How could something so subversive ever get past the memorial’s approving committee? I wonder who the artist was, and whether they intended the pillars to have such an effect, or if it is a phenomenal, ironic, accident. I have a sudden vision of a delegation of Party bigwigs, impervious to the bloody price they demand of their people, commending the artist for a job well done.

Dad hooks his hand through my arm. “I’m not sure how I feel about this, Henry.”

They are the exact same words he used the day I announced I was joining the Self Defence Forces. I knew at the time that I had hurt him, but being young, I had assumed that it was him that had the problem – him that was the dinosaur, the inconvenient holdover, and that the rest of the nation had moved on.

To a certain extent, I was right, but the injury I had done him was twofold – like most Americans of his generation, he still supported the Pacifist Amendment and, rubbing salt in his wound, I had chosen to join the very same military that had imprisoned him at gunpoint for four-and-a-half years.

It was true that Chinese ancestry was not the stigma it had been a generation before, but my service was restricted to the Atlantic Command, where the opposition was Russian. And, once I reached a rank where I might conceivably command a ship, I was shuffled sideways, into the bureaucracy. Even so, the nation that so disdained my service would have expected me to die for its cause, had the need arisen.

I pause on that thought, my finger following the etched lines of a dead man’s name. Might have been me. Different place, different time, had my nation taken a different course, had a cold war ever grown hot.

Dad presses something into my palm. A Chinese coin. Penny for your thoughts. It is a game he used to play with my sisters and I when he was handing out our allowances as kids.

It is a moment or two before I can articulate anything.

“I wanted to know what it’d be like,” I say, “for my country to be proud of the service I’ve given it.”

Dad nods. He is not so hypocritical as to say that he is proud of my choice of career. “The last time your country went to war, it was the aggressor. And it lost.”

“Soldiers don’t choose their own fights.”

He squeezes my arm. “You’re a good boy, Henry. A good son.”

I don’t know whether to smile or cry. I do a little of both. “Thanks, Dad.”

Our time is up, the tour guide ushers us out with her impervious manhua smile, to wait for the returning ferry.


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