By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Of all the methods used by dissidents to escape mainland China and enter Hong Kong, swimming the distance is quite possibly the most dangerous. But Kent Wong, a retired anesthesiologist living near Seattle, attempted that swim twice, sharing his life, and his hope, with a group of such brave folk, known as the “Freedom Swimmers.”
Wong, author of the just-published book, “Swimming To Freedom: An Untold Story of Escaping China and the Cultural Revolution,” grew up in Canton City (today known as Guangzhou).
“I was always a leader and at the top of my class in elementary school to junior high,” he remembers. “I believed that I would be a scientist or an engineer when I grew up… Then came the Cultural Revolution. My hopes were dashed, and I eventually became a rebel in order to escape from China.”
He caught a taste of Hong Kong as a child when his parents moved there for a short time. Later, with the devastating and violent purges of China’s Cultural Revolution, he began to understand that he would not get to attend college, and began to plot an escape. He admits he was lucky, as Canton City sits close enough to Hong Kong to make such an escape theoretically possible.
Asked about the defining factors behind his decision to reject China, he mentioned “class discrimination towards my family during the Cultural Revolution, because my father was purged by Mao during the Great Leap Forward.
Then, [me] being sent down to the countryside, followed by being forced to relocate to another, much poorer village because of my father’s downfall further, pushed me to the edge.
“The final straw was witnessing the public execution of the counterrevolutionaries from the Cultural Revolution because that reminded me that I could easily be one of them.”
He fell in with a group who opposed Chairman Mao, listened to forbidden Voice of America broadcasts on shortwave, and brooded on escape plans. They called themselves the “Rooftop Underground.” Rooftop, because they gathered at a building built on the rooftop of another building. Underground, because they could not speak freely of their feelings to anyone outside the group, for fear of imprisonment or execution.
Swimming to Hong Kong required, at minimum, crossing five or six miles of open water. The swimmers could be set upon by sharks. They could get swept out to the open sea by strong currents. They could be picked up by Chinese patrol boats, in which case they would be sent to detention camps. But the Rooftop Underground members supported each other, and helped each other plan.
Wong tried to escape three times, the first two times through swimming. He made his first attempt alongside one of his sisters and a close friend. They were caught on the coast, by the People’s Liberation Army. After release from detention, he tried again alongside two friends from school. One of those fellows was not, alas, a strong swimmer, but Wong promised to stay with him in the water. Those two were caught by armed Chinese fishermen near the Hong Kong border—although the third swimmer made it to freedom.
“My third escape was by way of Taishan. A local fisherman stole a village’s fishing sampan, and I brought along two city couples. Their relatives in Hong Kong would pay for the Hong Kong smuggler, who would meet our sampan at night in the international waters…
“I knew 16 escapees and three died in the water. The Chinese government will never disclose how many escaped to Hong Kong during the Cultural Revolution… The number of deaths [also] remains unknown.”
He found a Chinese expat community in Hong Kong, but his father, who stayed behind on the mainland, always urged him to head to America. Wong applied for immigration, secured a sponsor in the United States, and landed at Sea-Tac Airport in 1975 with his sister, Ning, another escapee who’d been approved at the same time.
Now his dream of becoming a doctor seemed within reach. After two years at Shoreline Community College, he transferred to the University of Washington (UW) and graduated with a chemistry degree. He got into Harvard Medical School, took much of his residency at the UW Medical Center, and practiced at Highline Hospital as an independent board-certified anesthesiologist. He also operated an art gallery with his wife, Tuoya, the Twin Cranes Gallery in Pioneer Square, to showcase avant-garde mainland China artists.
Now retired, he makes his home in Pierce County. He’s hoping to turn his book into a screenplay and eventually a film, musing that Chinese Americans do well in medicine, law, and engineering, but need more representation in film and books.
“I have to say that I was not born to take risks,” he concludes. “I was pushed to the edge before I made up my mind to escape.
But once I decide to do something, I am all out and will not quit. I used to tell my sons that success or failure is not important so long you have given all you have.”
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.