Wai Chim’s first young adult novel, ‘Freedom Swimmer’, published by Allen & Unwin, offers a glimpse into revolutionary China —the China before its pre-pseudo-capitalism of today, punctured by cities of glass and steel. Chim’s story begins in 1962 with Ming, a character inspired by the author’s father, who completed the ‘freedom swim’ from Dapeng to Tung Ping Chau in the early seventies.
China’s freedom swimmers were often orphaned young men—boys left with nothing in the period following the Three Years of Natural Disasters. The freedom swim was dangerous and desperate: those caught were either shot at sea, or sent to China’s notorious labour camps. The few who made it to Hong Kong began with nothing and no one.
The opening image of the book is striking and immediate: eleven-year-old Ming with a wheelbarrow, pushing his mother’s body bloated body to the river—the alive too weak and starved and the soil too hard for proper burials.
Pitched to younger readers, ‘Freedom Swimmer’ offers a version of the Great Leap Forward that sometimes mutes the visceral images associated with these decades of China’s history.
Ming narrates, “I was taking her to the river to join the other villagers who had passed”—‘passed’, a soft blow to the alternative, ‘dead’. Despite these adaptations for younger readers, Chim does not shy away from the realities of the famine, or of what happened to those accused of being anti-Nationalist.
The story alternates chapter to chapter from Ming’s perspective to Li’s. Li being from the group of boys recruited from the city to be ‘re-educated’—to learn to farm, to replace those who will soon die of hunger.
When the group arrives is the first time that Ming becomes aware of the treachery in loyalty to Mao’s indoctrination.
This tension emerges most strongly in Feng who, raised with a suspicious mindset, later turns on Li, who he once called a comrade and friend. Feng eventually incites the brutal, nightly violence against Li, accusing him of being counter-revolutionary, a traitor.
In this violence we see the divide that China’s communism created—Li and Feng in these moments reflective of the fear and mistrust felt by society as a whole. It is here that the reader fully comprehends Mao’s total power over the people of China.
The authenticity of the novel is found in Chim’s tender retelling of her father’s coming-of-age, set against China’s arguably most devastating years. Over the book’s five-year span, we see Ming shed his timidity for a determination and self-confidence that allows him to complete the freedom swim. Through Ming, readers come to understand the impact that Mao’s China has on its people—particularly its children—forcing adolescents to quickly become adults.
The novel also opens up important political dialogue: Ming’s freedom swim provides a prime example of the reasons that people may flee their country to seek asylum, and the great risks they must in turn face. In this, ‘Freedom Swimmer’ may be helpful in inciting discussion for younger readers regarding Australia’s current anti-refugee policies.
However, the strengths of the book such as this can sometimes be limited by grammatical and typographical errors.
Given Allen & Unwin’s track record—publishers of the likes of Margaret Atwood, Hanif Kureishi, and Kazuo Ishiguro—it was disappointing to see these errors had slid past copyediting.
Like Madeleine Thien’s Booker-shortlisted ‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’, and Ji Xianlin’s ‘The Cowshed’, which was published in English for the first time this year, Wai Chim’s ‘Freedom Swimmer’ brings to centre stage the China that China tried to forget.
‘Freedom Swimmer’ voices the silenced voices, and creates for young readers a digestible exhumation of the pain and grief of China’s communist history.