When I was nine years old in the summer of 1960, I spent all day playing—perhaps riding my bike, roller skating, playing school with my baby dolls, maybe trying to weasel my way into a wiffle ball game with the boys. If I heard the tinkling of the Goody Bar Man’s truck, I’d sprint inside to beg money from my parents for an ice cream sandwich or a Nutty Buddy cone.
Ying Xiong, my daughter-in-law’s mother, was also a child of the 1950’s/ 1960’s. As a matter of fact, she is just 17 days younger than I.
She grew up half the world away in Chonqing, China . . . but it may as well have been a different galaxy.
I recently interviewed Ying about her childhood. Her English is limited, so my daughter-in-law Tingting interpreted for me as best she could, adding her own commentary from time to time.
In Part 1 of my post “A Toyless Chinese Childhood: Interview With Ying Xiong,” we discussed how Ying’s family had been blacklisted after the communist government persecuted and jailed her father as a dissident and alleged thief. Consequently, her family of eight had no income and no help from the government or community. They were starving. The last things on their minds were bikes, wiffle balls, and baby dolls—though a Nutty Buddy would surely have been welcome to quell their aching stomachs for a brief time.
The Great Chinese Famine left the family even more impoverished. By 1961, three of Ying’s siblings had died, and her younger sister was given away to another family. There were only three of seven children left—Ying and two brothers—struggling to survive with little money or food.
The topics of my blog are toys and childhood. I have written about such toys as electric trains, wooden sleds, skooters, and baby dolls. As I spoke with Tingting and her mother, it became obvious that Ying and her siblings had none of those—nor did they have such simple toys as paper dolls, board games, or toy trucks. They had no toys. I commented that even though you didn’t have any toys, all kids want to play. I asked her if they made toys or games to play. “No play. Never!” countered Ying emphatically in English. There was no fun; their only concern was hunger and how they were going to feed themselves.
Ying interjected that everyone in China was required to wear a uniform in the 1960’s, and they had to make their own. “They gave you a sample but no material. If you wore a red armband, [it signified that] you were a good family.”
I asked that if someone were arrested or considered part of the “Black Five” would his or her family members have to wear a black armband. Tingting answered, “You didn’t have to. Everyone knows. Kids chase you around. Nobody plays with you; you cannot make friends with them.” In other words, even children were taught to torment or shun other children whose parents were labeled as Black Five.
Nonetheless, Ying’s family did whatever they could to survive. They had no heat, so they bundled up in multiple layers during the winter months when daily averages were around 46ºF.
Ying’s mother was seldom home because she was out trying to earn money. Whenever food was available, Ying did the cooking. They couldn’t afford to buy charcoal for cooking, so they procured it from discarded piles and reused it. They would also go into the woods and pick up whatever they could find for cooking fires, such as sticks or a small tree. They lit those under a pot in an outside kitchen.
Ying had no choice but to start working when she was younger than ten years old. She and her brothers cut pigweed, which was used as feed for pigs. Additionally, they cooked dried beans into tea and sold that and pigs’ feet at the bus station.
When Ying was eleven, she began sewing buttons on uniforms, which brought in more money than her other tasks. She was paid 7¢ per uniform. She sometimes completed ten uniforms in one night, netting 70¢. She earned $7 a month (actually 7 yuan renminbi or RMB or ¥), which is presently the equivalent of $1.10 US.
In 1966, with the start of the “Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution,” drastic changes took place in China. Mao Zedong’s goal was to preserve “pure” Communist ideology by purging capitalist influences from Chinese society as well as by ending the “Four Olds”—old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas.
Previously, Ying had been able to attend school, but when she was in 7th grade, Mao shut down the nation’s schools. This enabled him to enlist students into paramilitary groups called Red Guards, whose mission was to enforce communist dogma. Millions of people—intellectuals, bourgeois, elderly, and counter-revolutionaries—suffered extensive abuses, including seizure of property, public humiliation, torture, imprisonment . . . even death. Historical artifacts and relics were destroyed as well as churches, mosques, and Buddhist temples. Traditional artwork, sacred texts, even Confucian writings, were burned.
By 1969, the Red Guards had wreaked so much havoc on Chinese society and its economy that Mao instituted the “Down to the Countryside Movement,” dispersing urban youth, including the university educated, to the countryside to work on farms and learn from the peasants. Seventeen-year-old Ying and her family were among those who moved to the countryside, where they continued to live on the brink of starvation.
That was the end of the radical stage of the Cultural Revolution. Some consider the revolution to have ended with the death of Lin Biao, the military leader, in 1971; others consider Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 as its culmination.
So, how did Ying Xiong manage to pull herself out of a life of destitution?
In 1971, at the age of 20, Ying moved back to the city and was assigned a job in food administration, where she was in charge of all food in the Beibei district of Chongqing, a job she says should have been assigned to two people. She married a man chosen by the government, Huiming Pan, in 1977. A daughter was born in 1978, but she died of illness. In 1979, her daughter (my daughter-in-law) Tingting was born.
Then, in 1980, Ying became a supplier in a factory, whose owner paid her college tuition. She began college in 1981, majoring in accounting. In 1984, she graduated from working in a factory to opening a new factory for the government, where she supervised 100 employees. After she graduated from college in 1985, the government let her out of her commitment at the factory and gave her a cost accounting position for an insurance company. Living in a communist country meant having your job and housing chosen for you.
As things became more open towards capitalism in China, she and her husband were able to open their own factory—one that manufactured plastic parts used in washing machines. Tingting explained, “At that time, the average income was $30 a month. Back then, if you had $10,000, you were very rich already. My mom’s factory, over the years, made over $1,000,000.”
While running the factory, Ying continued with the insurance company. She eventually became famous in the insurance industry for designing an award-winning management system that is still being used by Chinese insurance companies to this day. Tingting added, “The whole country—everyone came to her place to learn from her. My mom worked hard; she never had any hobbies. She always worked hard.”
Regrettably, Ying and her husband divorced and had to give up the factory. She moved to the U.S. in 1999, where she lives comfortably in retirement as a day trader. I wonder how often she reflects on her rags to riches story and how much it informs her financial and personal decisions.
My blog is about toys and childhood, but although Ying had virtually no toys in childhood, her story is worth telling. How clueless many of us children were about the strife and suffering that kids in other parts of the world endured. We middle class kids of the 1950’s/1960’s never realized how truly rich we were. While I sometimes lamented that I had to share a bedroom with my two sisters, Ying shared one room with eight other family members. While I felt sorry for myself because I didn’t own a Barbie doll or a new 24 inch bike like my best friend, Ying had not one toy. While this nine-year-old griped about hanging clothes on the line or dusting my bedroom because it kept me from jumping rope, nine-year-old Ying was working odd jobs to avoid starvation.
How lucky I was to live in that simple suburban two-story. How lucky I was to own a Betsy Wetsy doll and The Wizard of Oz storybook, among other toys. How lucky I was to have chicken pot pie—my third meal of the day— placed before me! I was incredibly fortunate to be able to enjoy my childhood as all kids deserve.
Little Ying Xiong deserved so much better. There is no way that she can get back her lost years, but now that she can relax a bit in retirement, she can take great pleasure in seeing her granddaughter Katie happy and healthy, living her first four years of childhood to the fullest.
I’m so glad that Ying’s story has a happy ending.
Would anyone like to share their experiences growing up in China in the 1950’s or 1960’s?
KAREN GENNARI is the author of The Crab Hollow Chronicles, a fictitious memoir based on her experiences growing up in a neighborhood full of boys in 1961/62. It also explores the merits and challenges of life in a Catholic family of seven.
Join nine-year-old Karen Schmidt in her attempts to navigate Crab Hollow Road amidst the overwhelming male majority who beleaguer her at every opportunity. Does Karen have the fortitude to weather toadnappings, midnight escapades, false impersonation, and more? Along the way, relive the people, products, music, sports, and headlines of the early 1960’s. Virtually every page references the 1960’s. Lots of your favorite toys are mentioned in these pages.