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Vancouver lawyer offers remarkable take on bleak China, then and now

Opinion: George Lee’s fictional memoir offers heart-breaking revelations about how everyday people have tried to navigate a bleak regime. The Vancouver author is trying to help.

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I didn’t realize George Lee had a remarkable life the first few times I interviewed him.

But now the Metro Vancouver lawyer is starting to share his saga of growing up under the relentless conformity of Chinese dictator Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution. His is a harrowing, but often sweet, tale of resilience.

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I first knew Lee professionally, since he is an immigration lawyer based in Burnaby who is willing to share frank insights into Canada’s ever-changing immigration industry. Through Lee, Postmedia readers have learned about migration consultants selling false dreams to foreign students, about employers creating fake jobs for would-be immigrants and about how some of the nine million people who sign up for Canada’s 10-year visas, which are generally beneficial, abuse them.

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Only recently, however, I learned just 20 per cent of Lee’s busy law practice is devoted to immigration. A larger chunk focuses on divorce law, through which he offers family mediation.

Most surprisingly, it turns out Lee is an impressive author. He recently received Canada’s Guernica Prize for his amazing book, Dancing in the River: A Novel.

It is a fictional memoir, beautiful and lyrical. Quietly devastating. It is based on his experience of surviving the brutal world Mao imposed on his people from 1966 to his death in 1976. In that horror show of chaos and repression, up to two million Chinese people were killed. During it all, from ages four to 14, Lee was living in Wuhan.

With its poetic, allegorical tone, Dancing in the River offers poignant revelations about how everyday people tried to navigate China’s bleak regime. They often failed. Lee barely knew his parents since they were detained in camps as political prisoners, forever damaged. The novel describes the young main character, named Little Bright, being publicly humiliated in front of his peers by Communist authorities.

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Over lunch at a restaurant in Burnaby’s Metrotown highrise office district, Lee, 61, looked youthful and slight, conveying seriousness and dignity.

He described when Mao’s regime “controlled everything you could read.” People were trained to have the same thoughts. Brainwashing and distortion were the norm. Books were banned.

Like Little Bright in the novel, young Lee found a kind of liberation in going to the local recycling centre and grabbing some forbidden books before they were thrown out or burned. Two works of fiction that captured his attention were Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe’s novel about a castaway, and The Arabian Nights, a collection of Arab folk tales.

George Lee
As a youth living under Mao Zedong’s repression, George Lee found some liberation in going to the local recycling centre and grabbing forbidden foreign books before they were destroyed. sun

The second section of Lee’s three-part novel, which he says is 50 per cent fact and 50 per cent poetic license, describes how the emergence of President Deng Xiaoping in 1978 “changed everything.”

Deng opened up the country, then of 800 million people, to the outside world. After being dismantled for more than a decade, colleges and universities were re-established. Lee managed to get into one.

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He studied English literature and the English language, both of which he reveres. While learning about the West, Lee said he fully realized Deng’s aim was for China’s citizens to do so in the name of turning their knowledge into a weapon against the West, particularly in regard to politics, science and technology.

Especially animated by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels about detective Sherlock Holmes, however, Lee set out to rationally unravel the puzzle of which cultures were better: Chinese or Western.

Taking advantage of Deng’s relative openness, Lee ended up applying to the University of Calgary to study English literature. He got a full scholarship. It was 1992. He was 30.

“My mind was crowded with questions.” Although soon transformed by the likes of Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, he transferred to law school in Canada, focusing on surviving. His ambitions as an author began a decade ago.

Lee has gradually came to the conclusion that China’s society, then and today, has three major shortcomings.

One is a lack of imagination. Another shortcoming is a dearth of enlightened inquiry. “There is a black hole in the culture in terms of free thought and rationality.”

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A third failing, he said, is a lack of diversity. “All minds are trained to be one mind.”

Lee’s parents are dead. And so is the grandmother who continues to be his hero, including in his novel, despite being permanently disabled as a child by having her feet bound, ostensibly to make her more attractive to men.

Still, Lee has family members who live in China. And so does his wife. He knows what can happen if one is too outspoken. “I’m not interested in politics,” he says, “but I’m very keen on advancing human freedom and the best of human nature.”

He hopes his novel, which has been warmly reviewed in the West, will be translated into Chinese.

China is “a totally different world” from Canada, he says.

“Many believe Chinese culture is very superior to every other culture in the world. Many people in China think they’re living in heaven, but they’re living in prison. And the best way to keep you in prison is to not let you know you’re in prison.”

Lee knows many well-off members of the Chinese Communist Party in Metro Vancouver. And he finds they are often critical of the party, but also enjoy the privileges of membership.

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It has been healing to write a novel based on the first half of his life, Lee says. While working on it, he often cried and had trouble sleeping.

“But my heart feels light, like a heavy stone has been lifted. I can move forward.”

To that end, in addition to voracious reading, particularly philosophy and metaphysics, Lee is preparing a self-help book for Chinese parents. He believes some Chinese traditions, like education through memorization, are not helpful. He hopes Chinese people branch out.

He’s also gathering thoughts for a new historical novel. It will be set in B.C.’s gold rush era, based on the experience of the dozen or so ailing Chinese men who were marooned on tiny D’Arcy Island, a leper colony.

It’s unsurprising it will revolve around their resilience.

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Dancing in the River

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