Forbidden Fruit – 1980 Beijing, a Memoir
Writer - Gail Pellett
Production Company: Van Dam Publishing

Radio Beijing, 1981

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Forbidden Fruit – 1980 Beijing, a Memoir is now available on Amazon, although the official pub. date is February, 2016.  See author’s website for details: www.gailpellett.com

For thirty years, chapters, fragments, scenes, observations, diary entries, letters and flirtatious meanderings have been residing in a box under my desk.  Much of this writing took place in Beijing in 1980 and ’81, while I was living and working at Central Broadcasting – Radio Beijing.  In a frenzy of trying to make sense of this sensually, intellectually and emotionally destablizing year, I wrote manically when I returned.  First at my friend Deirdre English’ home in San Francisco, then at the home of another dear and generous friend, Karen Brown, in New York.

View of Radio Beijing Coal shed out my window, 1980; by Gail Pellett

What was I thinking?

I had returned to the U.S., to New York, penniless and confused, depressed from leaving a budding relationship behind in China and distraught at trying to make sense of a year living and working at a news media institution that had no concept of journalism and in a police state without sharing the language. Although I had started hammering my brain with Mandarin the moment I arrived and although I was already dreaming in Mandarin when I left a year later, I was hopelessly illiterate.  There is nothing so disorienting.  What was I thinking?  I’m a journalist.  I envisioned a book immediatley, but soon disassembled from this plan as I realized how damaging my writing — however innocent — could be to co-workers and friends in Beijing.  Their jobs, housing and children’s schooling could be at stake.  So I quietly put all those papers — yes, we generated an awful lot of paper while writing drafts in those days — in a box.  Without computers then, no disks.  Just tons of paper, filling a large box.  Beneath my desk.

Tainted by working for the People’s Republic

I moved on.  At first unable to get work because I was somehow tainted by Red China.  I had, afterall, arranged on my own terms to work for the Chinese government.  I hadn’t been sent by Fullbright, or US AID or the American networks.  No, I wasn’t even a U.S. citizen then.  I was still a Canadian with a Green card.  No matter.  I really wanted to go back, but with an American radio or television network behind me. (The Canadians already had people there).   I had worked inside a sensitive Chinese institution.  I had dozens of great ideas for stories.  None of the American networks even had a bureau in Beijing.    I went to see folks at ABC, at NBC and my old colleagues at NPR.  No interest.  Raised eyebrows.  NPR had vague interest if I raised the money to do it.   I was out of money, I had to get to work.  I had to hit the ground running in New York and produce pieces for NPR about local and domestic issues.  I had to pack away that extraordinary experience and get back to work, find a cheap apartment — a sublet from another generous girlfriend — and figure out how to re-enter.   China got put in a Box.

Cabbages drying on the grounds of Central Broadcasting, Fall, 1980; photo by Gail Pellett

Who’s Out There?

Deirdre English was editor of Mother Jones in those days and urged me to write a piece about the experience for MJ, but I couldn’t somehow massage that year into something that could be contained within it’s covers.  Then my China buddy, Ron Dorfman, editor of The Quill, in Chicago, talked me through a way to focus in on one part of the experience.  Radio Beijing.  Keep it focused.  What it was like doing that kind of radio after my background and experience.  Who’s Out There? was published in 1982.

China Stories – Love and Marriage in the PRC

As I returned to producing features and documentaries for NPR I produced two on Chinese themes — one created from interviews I had recorded in Beijing called Love and Marriage in the People’s Republic and another based on interviews with Chinese students – from Radio Beijing’s English Department where I had worked —  at the University of Missouri Journalism School.  And in 1985 — after leaving MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour and all those utterly American stories I wrote a long, long feature piece for The Village Voice about Chinese dissident artists who were piling into New York for their first encounter with Western art and life –  Is There Art After Liberation?  China’s Scorched Flowers Go West.

Beijing, 1980; by Gail Pellett

 

Big China stays in the box

But China, the big, scattered, complicated, confusing, mysterious story, stayed in the Box.  Other Americans who went off to teach for a year in China returned and published books within a year.  What was wrong with me?   I convinced myself that teaching university students was a very different situation than working inside a propaganda organization close to the Central Committee in the nation’s capitol.   The students were looser, more open, the university offered more stretch and time off.  My situation at Radio Beijing was totally different.  Incomparable really.  China in a Box.

Over the past few years I have re-conceived the China book several times.  First, I wanted to fictionalize it all.  A series of short stories.  Then, I wanted to make it into a huge examination of westerners confronting China — the historical story.  Explorers, missionaries, journalists primarily.  That story is  so rich, and is relevant to our current era for Westerners trying to make sense of this rising global power.  Once I cleared my desk of so many other distractions, my China finally emerged from the Box.  Now, Forbidden Fruit – 1980 Beijing, a Memoir.   Here’s how to buy it: 

More cabbages drying, 1980; They will be the staple food for the winter, giving new meaning to slow and local! by Gail Pellett

 

Winter view out my apartment window at Central Broadcasting, 1980, yes, more cabbages drying; photo by Gail Pellett

 

 

More cabbages drying Beijing, fall 1980; photo by Gail Pellett

 

At China Radio International – 2007 – Historic Exhibit in Lobby

 

 

Breaking News

I wouldn't have the opportunity to return to China until 2007. Of course, I had friends who ventured there regularly and I read all the books, but nothing really prepared me for the transformation. The highlight of my visit was a tour of the new China Radio International (formerly Radio Beijing). A brand new building, all computers and digitally produced radio, all young people, drive-time shows in the English language section with a male and female host making small talk. My skull cracked. Of course, there was evidence that some things hadn't changed. But that will somehow make it into China in a Box.

Books
Reviews
All good journalists travel in multiple time zones: the present, the past, and the future, enabling readers to share a textured experience as history, politics and culture create a vortex of change. My giftd colleague, Gail Pellett, who arrive din Beijing iin 1980, becomes witness to history's turning. And she fortunately possessed the sensous antennae to capture the emotional truth within the discernible reality. She has written a riveting tale of a woman's adventure in pursuit of forbidden fruit.
Both as history as well as deeply intimate and crisply reported memoir, Forbidden Fruit is a fascinating read, rich with romance and charged with suspense.
A compelling story about identity, citzenship, nation and a personal path of love, heartbreak and loss. We are reminded with every turn of the page about the lives of people trying to negotiate the public and private versions of their hearts and minds.
This gripping story is much more than a memoir of a uniquely brave, adventurous, feminist woman journalist and filmmaker. It also brings to life much of the culture of post-Cultural Revolution China…on the level of Pellett's films, a high standard.
Following Mao’s dictum, “If you want to taste a pear, you must change the pear by eating it,” Pellett renounced a tenure track job at Rutgers to work at Radio Beijing. She could be sighted criss-crossing Beijing on her “Shanghai Phoenix” bike, with red boots, purple pants and her mop of red hair. The Gang of Four were docked for trial. The truth about the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution were starting to trickle out…Pellett has crafted a uniquely brave memoir proving that the personal is political.

40 Responses to “Forbidden Fruit – 1980 Beijing, a Memoir”

  1. alix says:

    Gail–I’m knocked out by this fabulous website. I’ve spent an hour and a half here and have barely begun to explore it. You’ve done soooo much! Now to get China out of that box.

  2. marvin surkin says:

    I get the feel and appreciate your guts to do it both then and now…keep on , great story
    worth telling. and you were there.

  3. Dannielle says:

    Brava. China in a box. Keep it up Gail

  4. Marnie says:

    This is incredibly compelling material and writing. I’m very curious to see where you go with it.

  5. Tom Areton says:

    It would be weeks – months – before I understood why security was so rigorous in my apartment building — the foreign experts building — at Radio Beijing…and…

    … and what? Please don’t leave me hanging… What a fascinating article!

  6. Alex says:

    I lived at the friendship hotel from ’83-’84 while my mother (canadian) taught at the university. I love reading your history and would be grateful for more details of your experience. Please write more, and more photos of cabbages?

  7. Gail Pellett says:

    Thanks so much for your encouraging words. My mash-up memoir/journalism/history/rumination book about my year in Beijing more than 3 decades ago is about to pop. I will let you know when it’s launching. Would love to hear your reactions! Gail

  8. bob knight says:

    I lived at the friendship hotel for almost a year in 1981 and 82 while building the great wall hotel in beijing. Would love to hear more about beijing during this time. Did you attend any of the happy hours held at the various embassies on fridays? If so we must have run into each other. Do you know where else I can find articles on expats in beijing during this time?

  9. Gail Pellett says:

    Hi Bob, thanks for your comment on my site. I have just finished writing my memoir about my time in 1980-81. It will be published soon and I will be in touch when it’s available. Over the years there have been a few memoirs, mostly by language teachers and often from other parts of China. Best, Gail

  10. Cesar Chelala says:

    Hi, amiga, you make some asptects of life in China come alive in a wonderful way. Greeat photos too. Cheers, cesar

  11. Stephan says:

    How exciting to see this opus take shape now. I’ve dipped in and out and read several chapters. The book will be a tour de force..!!

  12. Sanda Weigl says:

    phantastic!!! Great!!! Can’t wait to read the book!!

  13. Gail Levin says:

    Look forward to this book. Fascinating topic and you were there!
    Best wishes,
    Gail Levin

  14. Dannielle says:

    Hi Gail.I was wondering how you were doing on the book. Looks like it’s just coming nicely over the horizon from China. It will be a great relief to finally get your book published. I know many publishers equate it to giving birth, because on the average, it takes 9 months to produce.
    My book, TRAVELING LIGHT is doing well too. Hugs, Dannielle

  15. judy p says:

    cannot wait to read the book!

  16. Sondra Stein says:

    I agree with Tom: you better tell us about WHY you had to deal with such heightened security and what you were allowed to do and how you survived [I know…barely]

  17. evelyne kundberg says:

    Gal we do look forward to your book and your memories in a way. Good luck and of course, whater we can do for you here we will evelyne

  18. Linda Gordon says:

    eager to read this.

  19. Tami Gold says:

    This is so exciting – I look forward to reading your book and may a “thousand blossoms bloom” as we work towards building a justice world for all.
    hugs tami

  20. Nancy Cadet says:

    Love the pix & text excerpts on this website and can’t wait to read the whole book. It’s very timely as we listen to news about Hong Kong’s pro democracy protests, the symptoms of “affluenza” in certain strata of the People’s Republic, & the drastic measures taken to reduce air pollution in Beijing when world leaders visited (think of the coal shed seen outside the window of radio Beijing).
    Gail is such an engaging writer . I’ve no doubt the book talks or readings she gives on future book tours will be also.

  21. Rosalyn Baxandall says:

    I was in China with a cultural workers group in 1976. So I’m real interested.

  22. Mirra Bank says:

    This is a treasure, Gail! Invaluable.
    More, more…

    xM

  23. Lisa Kahane says:

    What an incredible emotional journey. Reminds me, ever so slightly, of my move to the Bronx. I hope to read more about how your year in China fit into your life.

  24. Miriam Clifford says:

    This is going to be a fascinating read – can’t wait. I remember Chang’an Street full of cabbages in 1979. Those days long over…

  25. Kenny Mann says:

    I have never had much interest in China, but after reading your stories, I felt a mighty tug in that direction! Everyone should be reading your work, not just as educational material, but in order to follow the vast shift that China has made during our lifetimes, and also, to prepare ourselves for what will inevitably become the world seat of power in the near future. I feel so privileged to have been allowed to share this work and will certainly ensure that everyone I know is aware of it. Ho Ching Ming…had a fling. That’s all I know about China!!!

  26. marvin surkin says:

    waiting to read all of what is in the BOX. Should be a winner.

  27. sarra says:

    Dear Gail,
    Your introduction gave me enough to get me hooked on your story. I’m very interested to read more about your life in this mysterious country called China. I’m ready to travel to “China in a Box”!

  28. Graeme says:

    Hi Gail, Cannot wait to read your Opus! I am sure knowing you it will be full of insights which will help in understanding China 30 years later!

  29. Bob Machover says:

    Oh my Gail! You’ve done so much wonderful work over the many years. I’ve been especially struck by the clarity and elegant flow of your writing, whether in articles or emails. I’ve also been aware of how important China and the time you spent there has been for you. That’s bound to produce something special. I can’t wait to read this book-out-of-the-box.

  30. Margaret Cerullo says:

    Read this, gripped, from beginning to end. Glad you left us hanging on the security question, another spur to read the book. All my friends with any connection to China in those days (and there are so many as the comments also indicate) can’t wait to read the book–to relive and rethink those times, hopes, all of it. Great that the book is out of the box.

  31. Bonnie Bellow says:

    Some stories just hibernate until they are ready to be told. Now is obviously the time for this one. I can’t wait to read your unique perspective on this amazing personal and professional experience.

  32. Christine Fiedler says:

    How brave of you to have comitted yourself to this venture – a rare example. Cannot wait to read the book. Christine

  33. Helen Harrison says:

    Thank you for giving us a peek inside the box. This just leaves me hungry for more. Your story deserves a mini-series! But I’ll settle for the book. Roy and I look forward to reading it.

  34. Wendy Allen says:

    I loved your stories when you were at Radio Beijing and doing calligraphy and rowing around in urban lakes. And also loved our conversations as we tried to figure out what everything meant. Can’t wait to re-visit that time in “China in a Box”.

  35. Colleen Leung says:

    Hi Gail, You have a unique take on China’s early efforts to modernize and to join the world, right after the fall of the notorious Gang of Four. I crossed paths with you briefly; you at Radio Beijing, me at China Central Television. I have never forgotten you. I look forward to diving into your examination of a closed political culture that desperately needed to open up yet scorned the very “foreign experts” and foreign ideas that could bring China into the 20th century. And now that you and I are in contact again, I can’t wait to continue our conversation. How soon can I buy the book?

  36. Nathan Neumer says:

    So exciting Gail! A compelling story….waiting (im)patiently to read more.

  37. Susan Finley says:

    So looking forward to hearing more of the story!

  38. Shelley McKeachie says:

    We’re looking forward to reading your book, Gail!

  39. Jerry Kupfer says:

    I remember this period well- was studying Chinese in college and an avid reader of that little red book. Great that you are telling this story.

  40. Janet Yang says:

    Thank you for articulating that nearly indescribable, unique, grim but hopeful, fascinating period in Chinese history which we experienced together. There was anguish, there was absurdity, there was laughter. I cannot imagine trying to understand China today without the experience of the 80’s.

    Let me know if you want more memories/pictures for your book, which i can’t wait to read!

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