Letter For Wai Tsz
By Leila L Chudori
The weather in Jakarta seems to be reflecting the state of the nation, hot and sticky, not a tree anywhere to shade under. As for myself, I don’t know why I suddenly thought of writing you a letter. I know all too well that in our graduate newsletter Keep In Touch they’re always mentioning that you’re one of the graduates who hasn’t been seen since Tiananmen. But I live in hope because I will always believe that God will stretch out his hand and protect you. Your last letter, the one smelling of rotten vegetables and dried fish, the one you seemed to have sent from somewhere in the outskirts of Beijing, just before your escape – so heroic, so inspiring – more and more makes me feel so small, so insignificant.
Dear Wai Tsz,
It’s been exactly fourteen years since the four of us were gazing up at the stars, since you, Finn, Maria, and I made that promise. We promised that we would not get married until we had reached those stars.
Our roommate Finn, with her long Snow White blonde hair and blue eyes, told us that her life’s mission was located in the constellation of Andromeda.
“What I want is for men and women to have the same rights. And I think that’s an ideal we all share,” she said in her romantic way.
Our Danish roommate’s idealism was really extremely annoying, and because of that I couldn’t be bothered talking about the problem of the completely rampant poverty and corruption in my own country. It would have been very hard to make her understand. Could you just see it, with her own country so rich and peaceful, how could she have begun to imagine?
Then I remember that Maria from the Philippines said with her firm, self-confident voice, “I long for change in my country, and I hope that I can be a part of that change.” And straight away you and I yelled out trying to be first, “I wanted to say that too!”
“Come on! How could Indonesia have any problems? Your economy is wonderful compared to ours,” Maria replied. “And you, Wai Tsz, China is a sleeping giant that’s just beginning to wake up. When she’s standing up on her own feet, Western countries will be lapped up in one gulp. The Philippines is the only one with such an uncertain future under a president like Marcos…”
But as it transpired the first country to see the smoldering embers of democracy burst into flame was her own country, the Philippines. And just as she had wanted, Maria was a part of the process of bringing democracy to her country. I remember when she sent a newspaper clipping showing her and a group of friends from the University of the Philippines in the middle of that historic demonstration in Edsa Road. It was like a movie. I imagined our roommate, Maria, the one who couldn’t even get up in the morning, now part of such momentous change in her country. Image. She became part of the Philippines’ peaceful revolution in February 1986 when Marcos was finally forced to flee to Hawaii, and a widow finally moved into the presidential office. As all this was going on, for me her neighbor, nothing had changed. I was working for the largest news magazine in my country naively thinking that here everything was nice and peaceful and prosperous. I thought, well, at least it wasn’t as bad as some of the countries that some of our campus friends had come from where there were several coups every year.
Wai Tsz, after we graduated, I came home again to breathe our pollution-filled air and I became a journalist. You went home to breathe your own pollution-filled air in Beijing and you transformed into a human rights activist.
The interesting thing about your country was that as soon as your country opened up and allowed in a handful of American companies, everyone began to say that this was Deng’s great breakthrough. When Chinese students were allowed to read translations of Milan Kundera and watch James Bond movies, it was as if democracy had started to arrive in China. One of your spirited letters related how interesting Fang Lizhi’s lectures were, how he had no hesitation at all using words like “democracy” and “freedom”. But it was only after Tiananmen happened that we realized that the so-called breakthrough talked about by Western experts was just an immensely simplified view of the problem.
Meanwhile, Wai Tsz, in my own country, new economic policies were being implemented which produced hundreds of new banks, new buildings, new companies, new television stations, new rich people, new cars, still more new policies, even more new buildings, more highways, ever more even richer people, and other, oh, absolutely astonishing, truly astounding…
All of this, Wai Tsz, in fact turned us into journalists. Supposedly professional, agile, flexible, competitive, head in the clouds. It made us forget a lot about humanity. For example, yeah, for example, in planning meetings to talk about a war in some country somewhere, we would sit around like a bunch of know-all football commentators abusing one of the “stupid” players as we ate fried chicken and laughed. And, really what we were talking about was the fate of thousands of women and children being slaughtered in the country. This profession made me, just as Professor Humphrey had predicted – he didn’t agree with my choice of becoming a journalist – turned us into “know-alls who don’t know much about anything”.
Professor Humphrey wasn’t completely right, but I have to agree that in a couple of cases he wasn’t too far wrong either. This profession set me up in an ivory tower, made me look at the people as a news item, part of a “deadline”, a conversation on a mobile phone, as no more than a series of meaningless statistics. Tiananmen, an event that was so important for you, was a moral movement. But for us, it was nothing more than a bit of excitement, a fresh infusion of adrenaline, a new pump keeping our journalistic blood circulating. I almost forgot that for years I had a roommate who was probably still on the run, still hiding in garbage bins on the edge of the city. Wai Tsz, where are you?
In your last letter, after the events of June 1989, that smelly smudged letter, I read your handwriting through the ink which had run, “Nadira, help us through your writing.”
Oh, Wai Tsz, I am so ashamed. For sure we wrote about, we covered, we photographed the events in your country proudly. But I am not convinced that the hundreds of journalists who swarmed to cover those events were moved by concern. Maybe there were some who were, but the others were driven by competition, the desire to get an exclusive, and maybe even out of a desire to win the coveted Pulitzer Prize.
Then, this year arrived, 1997, and suddenly I received a shock…
Only now in the midst of so many corporate collapses, bankruptcies, millions of people losing their jobs, bank liquidations, hoarding of food that sends prices soaring, newspaper companies complaining about never-ending increases in the price of paper, student demonstrations, mothers protesting the increases in the price of milk, only now have I again become “human”. Only now have I thought of you. Only now have I thought about our walks along the banks of the Otonabee River, recalled our arguments about equality and about the differences between the East and the West, and, oh, how I remember the Galaxy Theory you explained to me that time you tried to cheer me up after you found me crying. You made me lie down on the grass and look up at the stars.
“At times of sadness and pain, Nadira, fly up to one of those galaxies and leave the Earth. Then from way up there, look back and the Earth will seem so small that you will wonder what on earth you are crying about. After that, fly back to Earth, take a deep breath and the problem will be solved.”
Wai Tsz, your Galaxy Theory was so simple, and so good for so many reasons. But it won’t be any use for the problems of my country, or for the problems of your country. I have never before been as hopeless as I am now. I have never felt as powerless as I do now. Every day I open the window and I hear the complaints of ordinary mothers about the rising price of food, of people who have just lost their jobs, hear news about the speculators dancing for joy with every fall in the value of the currency. Hundreds and hundreds of people have suddenly become actors, smiling sweetly in front of the television cameras saying how much they love the nation.
William Shakespeare was truly a genius when he wrote: All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players, They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts.
Do you remember when Professor Johnson read this verse from As You Like It? Am I becoming a useless melancholic character like Jacques?
I can see Shakespeare doubled up in stitches laughing because the world, the stage for this drama, is full of nothing but a rabble of idiots. According to me the stage for this drama is full of people whose acting skills are terrifyingly good. Every morning the papers are full of stories about our economic problems but even the people complaining are still running around scratching for rupiah to exchange for foreign currency, still feeding on the corpse of other people’s suffering.
Wai Tsz, why was I born in a community which created such a meaningful word for community duty as our own word gotong royong but which is in reality just a collection of completely selfish individuals? My heart is broken. If I had been as selfish maybe I would already have flown off to join our friends chasing ever higher qualifications in the United States. But when all’s said and done, my heart is here, Wai Tsz, planted firmly here, rooted firmly in this soil. No matter how strong, there isn’t a crowbar or a hoe that could dislodge my heart from this land.
For months, Wai Tsz, I have been afflicted by horrible nightmares, more like Salvador Dali visions than dreams. One night I dreamed I had fallen from a skyscraper and even though all my limbs came off, I was still alive. Another night I dreamed my hands were chained together and the ends of my legs were being eaten by a pack of black dogs. And another night I was suddenly transported to an empty field where hundreds of crows were attempting to suck my baby from my stomach. To try to stop these dreams I bought a pile of comics. I thought it would make me laugh. In fact, all that happened was I laughed so hard I cried.
Wai Tsz, I remember the time you said, “Something started with a good intention and a good conscience is always harder to believe in than something started with a bad intention.”
Maybe that is the reason people find it hard to believe that a protest movement could be driven by conscience. Maybe the word conscience is not used very much these days, or maybe it’s time to archive it forever in some dusty old museum.
Wai Tsz, where are you? Pretending to be a shop assistant? Or teaching in a tiny primary school in some far away village? Or maybe you’re actually still hiding somewhere in Beijing? I have no idea whether you will ever read this letter. I will send it to your old address in Beijing. Wai Tsz, wherever you are, if you do not get to read this letter, I am sure you have read what is in my heart.
Your friend, Nadira. (Jakarta, November 1997)
The short story “Letter for Wai Tsz” (Surat Untuk Wai Tsz) was published in the Jakarta daily newspaper Kompas in March 1999. The story was written about six months prior to, and published some ten months after, the resignation of President Suharto in May 1998. For background on Tiananmen Square see the Washington Post’s 2019 commemorative anniversary piece A massacre, erased. For background on the controversy surrounding the use of the term “people power” in Indonesia after the April 2019 elections see People power is dead, long live people power.