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Scott Tong explores China's history through his own genealogy

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Marketplace Correspondent Scott Tong
Scott Tong (right), a correspondent for Marketplace, speaks with Tom Weber, of MPR News, at the University of St. Thomas on April 9, 2018. The event was part of the Broadcast Journalist Series.
Jeff Kamin for MPR news

Scott Tong reported from China for nearly five years as bureau chief for the public radio show Marketplace, but it wasn't until he started researching his ancestral country that he saw its soul. 

As a reporter, he said getting information from bureaucracies and officialdom was hard, at best. 

But when he and his parents starting researching their family history as non-journalists at some of the same government offices, Tong says he was surprised at how many people wanted to help.

"China can have a rough exterior but working on this project, I really saw the soul," he said during a conversation with Tom Weber of MPR News at that Broadcast Journalist Series Monday evening in St. Paul. Weber hosted the event. 

They discussed both his work covering the global economy and his new book "A Village With My Name," which came out in December.

In China, "when you ask for documents, the question you get back is 'why do you want this' or 'what are you going to do with it?' 

"If someone thinks you'll use it to make the office or Communist Party look bad, they'll say 'no,'" he said. "But in my case, most of them tried to help me out."

 Researched book with parents

The book tells the history of China through Tong's own family research. He focuses on ancestors and relatives who would otherwise be forgotten by the official history of China's Communist Party.

"Every country has a story it tells itself," he told the audience at the University of St. Thomas. "We Americans do, as well. In China, there's just the government's version of history — they have a certain framing as to whether you're on the side of the Communist Party or not. A lot of people end up on the right side of history and wrong side of history.

"I wanted to understand something more nuanced."

Tong researched the book with his parents, who emigrated to the U.S. from China and met in the 1960s in the Twin Cities while attending college. His father, Alvin, attended the University of Minnesota. His mother, Anna, went to Augsburg University.

From visiting his father's ancestral village in China where everyone has the surname Tong (thus the title of the book) to visiting with his cousin who grew up in China and whose inability to own land leaves him without a life partner — Tong threads the story of China's history through his own family's history.

One such realization for Tong was that the narrative that China only opened up after President Richad Nixon's historic visit in 1972 doesn't fit the history. The image of a sudden opening ignores the fact that China had a generation interacting with modernity in the early 20th Century, before the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949.

"The dominant story — and journalists tell it too — is this 'instant China' story. If you go to Shanghai, you see shiny objects and think it's a 'right now' story," he said. "A lot of Chinese people, they'll tell you that story, too, because that's when their lives started getting better — in the late 70s and early 80s. So there's not too much reflecting on how this came about."

The research also produced "miracle moments" for Tong's history when he reflects on how different his own life could have been. For example, Tong's father, by virtue of being the eldest son, got out of China to Taiwan when the Communists took over. His uncle (Tong's father's brother) didn't. That cousin who today works at a General Motors plant but isn't rich enough to own land and lives with his parents "could have been me," Tong reflects.

But the story also offered Tong a way to honor his own ancestors.

"My grandfather was sent to a jail in Shanghai and then a labor camp in the middle of nowhere in northwest China. Most prisoners sent to labor camps didn't come back; my grandfather didn't come back.

"But one person who used to work (at a government records office) snuck me in and found a bureaucrat — someone to help me look for records about him," Tong said. "We didn't find anything but she said 'What I tell a lot of Chinese families who are dealing with this or trying to recover the past is to grab a little bit of soil from the mass grave site, and bring it home, and bury it. And remember your ancestor that way.'

"That was the best advice I could have gotten, and that's what we did."