China’s one child policy subject of play



A busybody, a nosey parker, a petty dictator, that’s Secretary Pei, the wicked witch of the East — actually the head nurse of the south China village that’s the setting of Joanna Chan’s “One Family One Child One Door,” a black comedy now, by popular demand, back at the Bank Street Theater the third year in a row.

The time is 1987, when, in China, the one-child population-control policy is at its stone-hearted, anti-humane height.

It is Secretary Pei’s job to prevent women like Soo from giving birth to a second child — which can be legally ripped from her as long as it is still connected by umbilical cord — but Soo and her husband Lam have beat the system by paying a midwife in another village to hide Soo for the entire gestation period.

First, however, Soo has had to get to the midwife — and that entails evading the team of riflemen who had come with Secretary Pei to bring the pregnant woman in for forcible abortion.

Soo’s narrative:

“I jumped off the back window and hid in the pigsty . . . After a while I knew they were not going to leave, and would probably catch me in the pigsty. I went down to the rice paddies and squatted in the muddy water. Oh God, the mosquitoes were all over me. Then the leeches started sucking at my legs. I kept telling myself: ‘I must not give up; that would mean the death of our son.’ “

The riflemen camped in Soo and Lam’s house for two days.

“Then I saw them leave. I waited till dark, when I went home . . . I hid in the house for two days, then started on the journey. By foot and bus and cart I made it to the midwife’s house . . . “

And here, some months later, she is — she and her newborn baby, now beyond the legal reach of Secretary Pei.

All things considered, Soo had it easy.

Farmer Chang’s wife, who has no name because her parents never bothered to name her — indeed, they’d twice tried to terminally dispose of her as an unwanted infant daughter — is now pregnant with her second child, and is resolutely determined not to have to go and dig a hole out in the fields and hide in it for month after month until full term, as other farmwives in the region have done.

“All these stories are true,” says Joanna Chan. “I did very careful research on this, beginning with some documentation a Maryknoll sister [Ms. Chan is herself a Maryknoll sister] told me about and let me read. I really, literally, jumped at it. I’d been wanting for four or five years to write a play about the human cost of China’s one-child policy, and here was the evidence.”

It was the statement at some length of a village official in south China on whom playwright Chan would base the character Secretary Pei.

“She was the head nurse there, and for years she had implemented the one-child policy. Most people thought for years that it was for the common good. She herself had had to abort her own second child, like everybody else. Every woman in China in those times went through something like this.

“Under Mao, population growth was cherished. The population of China doubled in his lifetime. Until the late 1950s, women were still encouraged to have children. Until 1957. Then a national census revealed there were too many children, and in 1978 the one-child policy was installed by official proclamation.”

Joanna Chan, the daughter of a man who worked for the U.S. Defense Department, was born in Hong Kong and grew up in Guangzhou (Canton). She went to college in Hong Kong and was artistic director of several theaters there off and on for 20 years.

“Nobody in all my time at Hong Kong, or working with the church here [at Maryknoll], would ever talk about this [the inhumanity of the one-child policy]. It was in the closet. A taboo topic. So I was not able to write a play about it, did not have enough information, until this material came into my hands.

“I was in Hong Kong right after the play [first] opened here [at Bank Street in September 2001, just days after 9/11]. Two Chinese [Maryknoll] sisters heard me talking at dinner. They turned around and started telling me stories about pregnant women who, when they’d begun to show, had hid in holes they’d dug in the fields.

“In China in those years people only wanted boys. So if after months in that hole the woman came home empty-handed, heaven only knows what happened to the little girl she’d given birth to.

“In the early days of the policy, families who had money — and farmers generally had money, you have to remember that Mao was a farmer — could get away with it, have more than one child, by paying huge amounts. But then that no longer worked, and whole villages were punished for any violation, setting one person, one family, against another.

“What happens is you set decent people against each other, with nobody telling the truth.”

Telling the truth can get a playwright into trouble, be it Joanna Chan or Gao Xingjian, who in his 30’s spent five years having to sweat away at peasant labor “like all other intellectuals” in Mao’s China; in his 50s had his “Between Life and Death” produced here by Ms. Chan at Theater for the New City in a translation by her; at the age of 60 won the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first ever by a Chinese.

“I have had productions in Hong Kong,” says Dr. Chan — “not really a doctor that counts, just a doctor in Theater” — and in 1992 her “The Soongs: By Dreams Betrayed,” an epic about the Soong sisters, two of whom were Mrs. Chiang Kai-shek and Madame Sun-yat Sen, caused “such a huge uproar” at Pace University Downtown that it had to be scratched and not staged in New York until just three months ago at Bank Street.

Usually her plays are written bilingually, so that there’s Chinese and English on stage at the same time. But she wrote “One Family One Child One Door” all in English “because it’s such a taboo topic and I didn’t want to jeopardize any Chinese actors, who had to be willing to do it.”

The actress who has the unenviable task of portraying Secretary Pei in the current Yangtze Repertory production of “One Family One Child One Door” (the family, all their property confiscated, ends up sleeping on the door) is Jill Sanders. Other performers in key roles are Brian Yang, Penelope Hsu, Karen Tan, Hana Kitasei, and Dinh Q Doan. Playwright Chan directs.

Her fulltime job at Maryknoll is director of the Maryknoll Sisters’ Heritage Exhibit, which (created by her a dozen years ago, and open to the public) traces 90 years of Maryknoll history around the world.

She’s also a painter. One of her pictures with the lovely title “An Outburst in Late Spring” has just been selected by the National Oil and Acrylic Painters Society to hang in the “Best of America 2003” exhibit at Osage Beach, Missouri, next month.

And oh yes, one other place of work. A couple of evenings a week Sister Joanna travels “only 10 minutes away” to Sing Sing, where she teaches playwriting and directing and nourishes productions. “My theater career of 32 years prepares me for this,” says Joanna Chan.

And she didn’t have to dig a hole in the ground and hide in it to bring that baby to life.

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