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S3, Ep 9 Life on the Edge: Return to Big Chen Island 1

Taiwan China America USA crisis

Episode 9 of Life on the Edge: Taiwan, China, America, and the Moment I Realised Mrs. Wang Was Mostly Guessing What Her Husband Said, Series 3 of our ‘The Truth Lies in Bedtimes Stories from See Through News‘ podcast

Return to Big Chen Island 1

In Episode 9, we learn whether the Three Brothers Wang ever saw each other again.

For best results, start at the beginning: Episode 1: A Hot Day in Alabama

If you’d like to listen to the 10 episodes one by one, like chapters in a bedtime story, click the link to Episode 9 below.

If you’d prefer to hear the whole story in one go, here’s the omnibus edition

Next, Episode 10: Return to Big Chen Island 2

Written, Produced & Narrated by SternWriter

Audio Production by Rupert Kirkham

The Truth Lies in Bedtime Stories is a See Through News production.

See Through News is a non-profit social media network with the goal of Speeding Up Carbon Drawdown by Helping the Inactive Become Active.


Episode 9: Return to Big Chen Island 1

Now we’re caught up with the lives of the Three Brothers Wang after their paths diverged around 1955, let me tell you what Mrs Wang told me Mr Wang told her, happened next.

This is the crucial climax of this story.  I wanted to double-check all the details, so I’ve just checked the videotape of that interview I made in Alabama in 2001 . 

I’d forgotten there’s an annoying gap at this point. What with the Alabama heat, me getting so absorbed by Mr. Wang’s story, and Mr. Wang started to get tearful as he approached the story of his return to Big Chen Island, I failed to spot the tape had run out.

I can’t say for sure how much of the story I missed recording.  At the time, as I fumbled a second tape into the little digital camera, I took a guess and asked Mr Wang to repeat the last couple of answers. 

But it’s never the same second time round. Repeating the same thing you just said is no fun, people tend to skip over a lot of detail, and the translation I got on the tape from Mrs. Wang was a pretty sketchy summary, 

This means some of what follows is from memory, and the notes I took afterwards, once we’d all had a chance to recover. It was quite an emotional morning.

By now, Mr. Wang, Mrs. Wang and myself, each for our own reasons, were eager to get to the final part of the story.  

Mr. Wang, because he’d visited Big Chen Island a couple of months before, and seemed keen to return there, in his mind, as quickly as possible.

Mrs. Wang, because she was tiring, and I think was also worried about the toll this story was taking on the emotional and excitable Mr. Wang. He died in his sleep of a heart attack a year later, so maybe Mr Wang was already on medication for a heart condition, and Mrs. Wang hadn’t told me.

As for me, I, like, I hope you, was itching to hear the end of the story. From what I’d already heard, it promised to be the most extraordinary part of the entire narrative.

The tape picks up the detailed narrative as Mr. Wang describes climbing the same steep, narrow path he pushed Little Wang down almost 50 years to the day previously.

But before we follow him up the steps, I should briefly explain how he’d got there.

As you’ll know from the news, the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China, more commonly known as Taiwan, are still very much around.  

Their dispute, stretching back to 1949, has evolved from who should be in charge of China to whether Taiwan is now an independent state, but still remains very much unresolved. In  many ways, it’s a bigger geopolitical tinderbox than ever.

But ironically, this remarkable final chapter of the story of the Three Brothers Wang was made possible by the gradual warming of relations between the PRC and Taiwan over recent decades.

After the Cold War ended, both sides of the Taiwan Straits started to focus more on economic development than ideological differences. Not exactly Make Love Not War, but definitely Make Money, Not War.

Direct postal services were restored, allowing families to contact each other for the first time in decades. That’s what made Middle Wang think of addressing his first letter to his old address on Big Chen Island.  

A few years later, once other Big Chen Island friends had alerted him to the new house numbering system the Communists had introduced, Middle Wang received his first reply.

It was from Big Wang. Despite his own disability, his missing eye, Big Wang was now living with, and caring for, their younger brother.  

On the interview tape, Mr. Wang disappears from the screen for a minute or so at this point.  He returns with a biscuit tin full of the letters he’d received from his brothers on Big Chen Island.  

He holds that first letter from Big Wang up to the camera, his eyes welling up again.

Middle Wang had learned to read in later life, but still only spoke his dialect, so on the tape it’s Mrs. Wang who reads it out loud.

In the letter, Big Wang describes his return to Big Chen Island in 1995.

Forty years after he’d left Big Chen Island for the mainland, Big Wang returned to the same little wooden jetty. 

Instead of the cash earned from his dried squid, Big Wang carried a battered canvas army backpack containing a change of clothes, his demobilisation documents, his army pension, and hope in his heart.

Everything was modernised, but recognizable. Electric power lines now formed a spider’s web over the roads and paths. Mopeds and motorised rickshaws now outnumbered donkey carts and bicycles, but Big Wang knew where he was.

He had no problem following the same road along the beach. He found the steep, narrow path leading up to their old cottage.

When he reached the garden gate, he recognised the wooden wheelbarrow, now full of nine-story-pagoda basil. A few moments later, he recognised the wizened figure of his brother, Small Wang, slumped in the wheelchair beside it.

The rest of the biscuit tin contained the dozens of hand-written letters that arrived in Alabama over the following years, as the brothers caught up on the previous decades since they’d been separated.

They peter out around 2001, when Big Chen Island got international dial telephones. 

In every letter, and every call, Big Wang urged Middle Wang to visit as soon as possible. Each communication included an update on Small Wang’s health, and it was never good news.  

Many obstacles stood between Middle Wang, now an American citizen, and his brothers on Big Chen Island, located in a militarily sensitive zone.

Cross-Straits relationships steadily improved over the 90s and early 2000s, but progress was anything but smooth. From time to time, some diplomatic incident would set things in reverse, ratcheting up tensions beyond sabre-rattling to launching mainland missiles that dropped just short of Taiwan. 

But the tensions receded, and one by one, Middle Wang’s fellow evacuees-in-exile in Alabama and elsewhere made it to China, where they’d meet relatives on the mainland. 

Families were being reunited. After decades, family bonds were being renewed, new ones forged between generations born after 1955.

The Brothers Wang looked into meeting in Shanghai, but by the time Middle Wang could make the trip, Small Wang was too frail to travel. 

Finally, in 2001, two months before I recorded the interview, Middle Wang joined a small group of Big Chen Island evacuees returning to their home, half a century after their frenzied, panicked, last-minute evacuation.

You now know the stories they shared with each other. 

You’ve heard how these three brothers, after growing up on the edge of a China in chaos, were separated, and then spent decades not knowing each other’s fates.

Big Wang, patrolling the borders of China as it isolated itself, then reconnected with the world.

Middle Wang, cooking up international solidarity in the galleys of boats docking at the edges of the oceans.

Small Wang, connecting Big Chen Island’s new residents to their new home at the margins of the East China Sea.

So let’s leave them, toasting each other with home-distilled sorghum liquor, snacking on Big Chen Island dried squid, eating duck-egg omelette with nine-story-pagoda basil harvested from Small Wang’s wooden wheelbarrow.

First they, then I, and now you too, can wonder at their bad luck at being parted, and their even more extraordinary good fortune at being reunited.

In Episode 10, Return to Big Chen Island 2, we find out what really happened.