When the Baxters shipped up to Hong Kong in 1967 we arrived at a turbulent time in the little colony’s history. The Cultural Revolution in China was in full swing and by May had spilled noisily and often dangerously on to the streets of Hong Kong. Government House was swathed in big character posters and besieged by demonstrators, shouting and brandishing their Little Red Books.
Communist slogans and rhetoric were broadcast by giant loudspeakers from the roof of the Bank of China building in Central, overlooking that symbol of British imperialism the Hong Kong Cricket Ground.
There were also bombs, real bombs and decoys, planted all around the city.
The real ones killed 51 people and injured more than 800 between May and October of that year. One of them, wrapped like a gift, killed two young children.
While the politics of 1967 were beyond me, the propaganda was not.
Chairman Mao’s image was everywhere, all over town and all over our flat. My journalist parents were fascinated by the material pouring out of the Chinese Emporia and avidly collected each new example of Cultural Revolution kitsch.
What was propaganda to them of course was gospel truth to me. At four years old I knew all about Chairman Mao’s valiant Red Army which had overthrown the evil landlords and liberated the noble peasants.
One of my favourite picture books, which I thumbed through regularly for many years of my childhood, featured life-size clay models which showed in graphic detail how the peasants of one village had suffered at the hands of the landlord and his goons.
An old man slumped beside his basket of rice, a picture of hopelessness. He knew it was not enough to pay the rent, and yet it was all he had.
A young boy pleaded to be allowed to take the sweepings of rice from the floor. His family had nothing, but the goons kicked him away. It was heart-breaking, terrible stuff and far more captivating than the travails of Cinderella and Co. A baby was torn from its young mother as she was dragged away to satisfy the landlord’s decadent taste for breastmilk.
And then, of course, came the happy ending with the arrival of the Red Army to bring the peasants’ oppressors to justice.
Suddenly, the tableaux took on a new character. Instead of being bowed over with hunger and fear, the statues of the peasants stood tall and muscular and it seemed that their clay eyes blazed as the landlord and his cronies cowered in the face of their righteous fury.
By the time I had got to the last page, I too wanted to shout, ‘Long Live Chairman Mao!’
One of my favourite films was The White-Haired Girl, one of Madame Mao’s revolutionary ballets, as I now know.
I found the heroine so beautiful, her sufferings so heart-wrenching (once again at the hands of the wicked landlord). I can’t quite recall the details of her torments but they were enough to turn her hair white overnight as she fled to the mountains.
There she would have died, had it not been for the handsome Red Army soldier who found her wandering, half-mad with grief. Naturally she signed up immediately and did some really thrilling dancing with a big rifle before they all headed back to her village to kick some bourgeois ass.
Swan Lake had nothing on it.
Their purpose, I suppose, was to illustrate how the People’s Republic was forging ahead in medicine, agriculture, manufacturing and the sciences – not to mention the emancipation of women, as many of the dolls, though not all, were female.
And so there was among them, for example, a doctor, a mineworker, a farmer, all smiling, all healthy, all in service to the glorious revolution.
I still have a reading primer from the time called Little Pals which begins with China’s version of Dick and Jane washing their clothes, packing a clean handkerchief every day, getting their hair cut and learning their arithmetic on an abacus.
It’s all fairly innocuous, with only the occasional “We learn the words: Long Live Chairman Mao!” and “We love revolutionary stories” interspersed among the childhood activities most of us would recognise.
With all this propaganda washing unfiltered through my childhood I was devastated when the Great Helmsman finally died in 1976. It was as if I’d lost a beloved uncle.
It was difficult to comprehend the full horrors of what he had unleashed as they emerged from behind the Bamboo Curtain.
I wasn’t alone, of course, in falling for the propaganda. Millions did. Its allure lies precisely in its reduction of complexities to images and slogans even a child can understand.
My upbringing has not blessed me with a foolproof system for spotting propaganda. But I do know that it doesn’t always blare at you from loudspeakers and wave flags in your face.
It’s the innocent, friendly voices of the Little Pals which chill me now, far more than the White-Haired Girl and her kick-ass rifle work.
© Sally Baxter 2013
Want more Baxter? Some memories of a colonial childhood in Hong Kong here