Cultural Revolution


It was during my final year at university that we first met Ying and Tong. Those were certainly not their real names, which are now long-forgotten, at least by me. I’m sure my other friends from those days in the University of London hall of residence, Commonwealth Hall, have also forgotten them, for the two young men from Mao Tse-tung’s China seemed perfectly happy with their nicknames.

The names suited them pretty well. Ying was quite tall and rather thin. Tong was smaller and somewhat plump. In the time they spent in hall they were always smiling and friendly, though there was an uncompromising side of their character that set them apart.

They were physically apart, too. I never knew how they came to take places in hall, but there had obviously been some degree of negotiation, for their accommodation was like no other in the building. This was my final undergraduate year in university and my second year in hall. Perhaps it was for those reasons that the Warden, Dr Duckworth, asked me if I thought the students along my corridor would be willing to give up our small common room for a good cause. We did agree when we learned that the good cause in question was to house two students from China.

The armchairs and coffee tables were removed from the common room and replaced with beds, desks, bookcases and chairs. Ying and Tong were to spend all their time together, and were never seen singly. Even when one of them agreed to a game of table tennis, the other came along to watch. They shared accommodation and, I believe, attended the same course at the university’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).

They were pleasant company and regularly joined me and other friends in my room for coffee. I should add that everyone seemed to like coming to my room, no doubt because I always bought Gold Blend coffee rather than the cheaper brands of Nescafé and Maxwell House. Ying and Tong and I got on so well that Ying – who was about my size – offered to give me his authentic Maoist sugar-bag blue jacket when he left at the end of the year. I was delighted and offered to give him something in return.

For all our good relations, there were times when we realised how great was the gulf between us. Sometimes when we asked quite innocent questions about their lives in China, they would glance at each other and say they would like to give the question some thought. It appeared that every Saturday morning they made their way to the Chinese People’s Mission in Highgate for ‘discussions’. When they returned they would refer back to our earlier questions and give anodyne replies. Both of them used identical wording. We deduced that they had been briefed on what to say.

I remember one occasion when we were sitting in my room before supper when a friend looked in and said he was going for a beer. We all said yes, apart from Ying and Tong.

“You don’t like beer?” we said.

Their reply was wording that they used in many situations.

“We are not interested in that aspect of British life.”

I know I was not the only one who wondered if they were not allowed to drink alcohol in case they said something indiscreet or unauthorised while under the influence.

Another time, when they were drinking coffee in my room, a friend looked in to say he had bought the new Jimi Hendrix album and invited us to hear it. We all jumped up, but when I turned left to go to my friend’s room, Ying and Tong turned right to go to their shared room.

“Don’t you want to hear the new Hendrix album?”

“No. We are not interested in that aspect of British life.”

To be fair to them, Ying and Tong never tried to influence or persuade us of the correctness of their views. I never once remember them trying to use propaganda or seek to convert us to a communist ideology. They were genuinely nice young men who were popular with the rest of us, and they really did seem to enjoy our company. Once I referred to something I had seen on the television news, a report on the cultural revolution then taking place in their homeland. On that occasion their replies were instantaneous and clear.

“We think our Red Guards are wonderful.”

It was in the early weeks of the summer term, with my final examinations looming, that I arrived back at Commonwealth Hall after a day spent in college to find a note from the Warden in my pigeon-hole. Would I please look in on Dr Duckworth. I rang his flat from reception and went up to his floor.

As soon as I saw him I realised that something was amiss. He asked if I had heard anything in the night or if anyone had said anything about a disturbance. I assured him that I had heard nothing at all.

He explained that the previous night at about one in the morning he had been wakened by the night porter. A car had arrived from the Chinese People’s Mission. Two men wanted to see Ying and Tong. They were to leave and return at once to China to take part in the cultural revolution. Dr Duckworth had asked the men to wait in reception while he spoke to Ying and Tong.

He told them they were free to choose what they did. They at once packed their belongings and went down to reception. They got in the car and it drove off. We never heard from them again.

We were all sorry that they had left and that we had never had the chance to say goodbye and wish them well. I have often wondered about them in the years that have passed. I hope they found what they hoped for in the cultural revolution and that they enjoyed a good life back home. They were certainly interesting times, as they say in China. I would like to have kept in touch to follow their progress and learn more about life in their country. But I knew it could never happen.

I still think of them from time to time and I wonder how cool I would have looked in that sugar-bag blue jacket.

© Leo McNeir 2018