Helen Zia is an activist, author, and former journalist. [photo credit: An Rong Xu]
After twelve years in the making, Last Boat out of Shanghai: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Fled Mao’s Revolution is out! Helen’s latest book traces the lives of migrants and refugees from another cataclysmic time in history that has striking parallels to the difficulties facing migrants today. She interviewed more than 100 survivors of that exodus and countless others. Helen’s essay in the New York Times reveals her mother’s secret that inspired her to write this book.
In 2000, her first book was published: Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People, a finalist for the prestigious Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize. She also authored the story of Wen Ho Lee in My Country Versus Me, about the Los Alamos scientist who was falsely accused of being a spy for China in the “worst case since the Rosenbergs.” She was Executive Editor of Ms. Magazine and a founding board co-chair of the Women’s Media Center. She has been active in many non-profit organizations, including Equality Now, AAJA, and KQED. Her ground-breaking articles, essays, and reviews have appeared in many publications, books, and anthologies, receiving numerous awards.
The daughter of immigrants from China, Helen has been outspoken on issues ranging from human rights and peace to women’s rights and countering hate violence and homophobia. She is featured in the Academy Award-nominated documentary, Who Killed Vincent Chin? and was profiled in Bill Moyers’ PBS series, Becoming American: The Chinese Experience. In 2008 Helen was a Torchbearer in San Francisco for the Beijing Olympics amid great controversy; in 2010, she was a witness in the federal marriage equality case decided by the US Supreme Court.
Helen received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from the University of San Francisco and an honorary Doctor of Laws from the City University of New York Law School for bringing important matters of law and civil rights into public view. She is a Fulbright Scholar and a graduate of Princeton University’s first coeducational class. She attended medical school but quit after completing two years, then went to work as a construction laborer, an autoworker, and a community organizer, after which she discovered her life’s work as a writer.
This photo was taken in 2007 at the Urban Planning museum by People’s Square. It’s a great metaphor for me, stepping back in time to the early 20th Century when trams and streetcars were prevalent, so that I might glimpse into the lives of the Shanghainese who would be driven by crisis and panic to escape on the Last Boat out of Shanghai. 2007 was the year that I received a Fulbright award to do research in Shanghai and Hong Kong on the unstudied exodus out of Shanghai in the Liberation period. Being a Fulbright Scholar was a tremendous asset as I attempted to set up interviews with scholars and experts in China, as well as in seeking access to use libraries and archives. And living in Shanghai for five months in a studio sublet apartment in the former French Concession and experiencing the rhythms of life at the local level was amazing! I learned several bus routes (only 2 RMB per trip!) and even to bargain in Chinese. I met so many kind and generous people who invited me into their homes, who introduced me to other helpful people, who took me around to the Shanghai that they knew and made me feel welcome in their city. More Shanghai photos to come!
When my Fulbright ended, I returned to the States just as the Beijing Olympics were gearing up in 2008 and worldwide organizing was underway against China because of its repression of Tibet. At the same time, marriage equality efforts (and the anti-gay Prop 8) were going full steam. During my Fulbright time, I had met a number of human rights activists in China, including for LGBT rights. I was disappointed by how many in the U.S., including in media and government, seemed to have no idea that Chinese people have as many diverse points of view as Americans—perhaps even more, because China has five times more people. In spite of China’s totalitarian government, which suppresses grass roots organizing, activists find ways to organize and resist. Back home in the U.S., I was invited to carry the Olympic torch in San Francisco, the only place in North America where the torch relay was taking place. Because of China’s poor human rights record, I questioned whether to carry the torch. But as I watched the news of the Olympic flame making its way around the world, I was appalled to see angry demonstrators knock down a woman torchbearer in a wheelchair. I couldn’t support that kind of angry mob hysteria on any issue, especially when constructive engagement is possible. So, I decided to carry the Olympic torch and I wrote an op-ed essay that went viral. I also recorded a segment with CNN International. Click on this link to view.
Be the change!
Before I wrote My Country Versus Me with Wen Ho Lee, I had taken a public stand that Wen Ho Lee deserved to be treated fairly and innocent until proven otherwise—not to be skewered alive and assumed guilty by top government officials, by those who were desperate to find a Chinese spy against America to advance their own agendas, and by news organizations eager to scoop the news (and profit) by exposing the “worst spy since the Rosenbergs,” which is how the New York Times framed it on their March 6, 1999 front page story. As it turned out, there wasn’t a shred of proof that Wen Ho Lee had been a spy, but a lot of evidence of how the government, FBI and certain news organizations had framed him—so much so that the federal judge apologized to and freed Wen Ho Lee after imprisoning him in solitary confinement for nine months. The NYT later printed two separate “mea culpas” for poor journalism (but no actual apologies for how they maligned Dr. Lee). Here’s a link to the book I wrote with Wen Ho Lee about his ordeal, with many lessons for anyone in a suspected group in America—and there are way more in this post 9/11, post-2016 world. KNOW YOUR RIGHTS!