29 Years in Laogai
By Theresa Marie Moreau
First published in the Remnant as a series of stories, from March to December 2014
I am all yours, my Queen, my Mother, and all that I have is yours.
– Frank Duff –
“Legio Mariae: The Official Handbook of the Legion of Mary”
hu lai! Chu lai!” commanded unfamiliar voices on the other side of the closed door, hollering, “Come out! Come out!”
Startled, Matthew Koo sat up in his bed, wakened in the pre-midnight hours, caught somewhere between the black of night and first of light, somewhere between dreams and reality, somewhere bathed in the sweat of a balmy September slumber in Shanghai, China.
Following orders, the 22-year-old, third-year seminarian, reached for the mosquito net cascading over his mattress and found an opening in the mesh. He rose from his bed. Already wearing shorts and a shirt, he slipped into a pair of shoes.
With sleep still in his body, he stumbled through the doorway of his dormitory room on the second floor, never looking back. He would never see his room again.
“Downstairs!” a stranger ordered.
Matthew rushed down the steps, heading toward one of the classrooms on the first floor of Zikawei (Shanghainese for Xujiahui) Diocesan Seminary, normally bustling during the day with the sweet chime of bells, syllables of Chinese-tinged Latin and the swoosh of long, Chinese scholar robes.
“Sit! Head down! No looking up!” ordered one of the plainclothes officers from the Zikawei District Police Station.
Matthew slid into a seat, surrounded by dozens of fellow seminarians and a few Jesuit instructors.
Several officers, dressed in non-uniform street clothes, stood with their backs against the walls and pointed their weapons at the passive group of religious believers, as one officer brusquely read down a list of names, intermittently raising his hand and shaking the papers filled with lines of Chinese characters.
When Matthew heard his name, he stood, and stepped forward. A stranger pushed him into the next room and stuck a pistol in his chest.
“You’re arrested!” he said, sliding his handgun into its holster.
Matthew offered no resistance, as he felt his arms pulled behind his back and the handcuffs wrap around his wrists. Led outside, he was shoved up into one of several trucks, waiting with engines idling. Normally used to transport coal, a layer of black powder dusted the interior of the truck’s dumping bed, where he squatted down amongst his confreres.
With the moon waning in its last quarter, the night was hidden in a darkness as black as the coal dust. He could see very little. Other than the revving of engines, the yelling of the officers, the banging of doors, he heard only the nervous breathing of others squatting nearby. No one dared to whisper a word.
Eventually, the driver slid the transmission into first gear, then stepped on the accelerator. With a start, the engine roared, as the truck rolled ahead, gears grinding, tires crunching the gravel, and its human load swaying with the motion and centrifugal force.
It was September 8, 1955, Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
That night, as part of the regime’s Campaign to Eliminate Counterrevolutionaries, launched in 1955, the authorities had not only rounded up the 170-plus seminarians and half a dozen instructors from Zikawei. Hundreds were arrested that night, including Bishop Pin-Mei “Ignatius” Kung (1901-2000, old form of Pinmei Gong).
Throughout Shanghai, a counterrevolutionary apprehension task force had been dispatched to seize those labeled political enemies of the State, those counter to the People’s Revolution.
They were political enemies, the worst of the worst criminals: faithful Roman Catholics, derided as religious zealots.
Only the previous Saturday, September 3, when the seminary opened its doors to those preparing for the priesthood, Matthew arrived early in the day. He watched as several men surveyed the premises, for sanitation purposes, they had claimed. That was a common excuse authorities frequently replied upon to gain access to privately owned homes and facilities. Upstairs and downstairs the men walked, through one room then the next in the three-story seminary, all the while whispering to one another and taking notes.
The men must have been mapping out the rooms for their planned attack, Matthew thought.
Abruptly, the 10-minute ride in the truck ended. A foot slammed down the brake pedal, and the engine’s roar decelerated to a murmur. It was the end of the road and the end of freedom for Matthew and the others. They had arrived at Zikawei District Police Station.
“Come down!” officers yelled as they popped open the tailgate.
Herded to a cell, Matthew wasn’t informed of the charges against him, but he felt certain that he knew what his “crime” was. Years earlier he had joined a religious organization, the Legion of Mary, which consisted of faithful Catholics united by good works – a crime in the Communist dictatorship of the People’s Republic of China, where the Party was the savior, not the foreigners’ Man on the Cross.
he formation of Legion of Mary chapters began in China, in 1948, when Archbishop Antonio Riberi (1897-1967), apostolic nuncio to China, ordered Father W. Aedan McGrath (1906-2000, Missionary Society of Saint Columban) to establish the Catholic grass-roots organization, as far and as fast as possible.
With the determination and the dedication of the Irish missionary, the effort readied the native Chinese Catholics for what the clergy believed would be the oppression and inevitable annihilation of the Roman Catholic Church by the Red tidal wave of destruction that would undoubtedly follow the rise in power of the Communists.
Religious persecution seemed imminent.
War had ravaged the Middle Kingdom for decades.
The death of Empress Dowager Tzu-Hsi (old form of Cixi), in November 1908, and the subsequent coronation of her named successor, 2-year-old Pu-Yi, had opened the door for change. The following uprising on Double-10 Day (October 10, 1911) led to the collapse of the Ching (old form of Qing) Dynasty, finally ending the centuries-long dynastic rule of Imperial China.
After the Republican Revolution of 1911, the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuo Min Tang, old form of Guomindang) quickly rose to power, and was soon infiltrated by Communists after their Party opened its first Chinese chapter, in 1921, in Shanghai.
When the Reds were purged from the ranks of the Nationalists, in 1927, the ouster sparked the Chinese Civil War between the two factions, which lasted, on-again and off-again, until December 1949, when one-time President Kai-Shek Chiang (1887-1975, old form of Jieshi Jiang) retreated from the mainland for Formosa (Portuguese name for Taiwan), where, in Taipei, he reestablished the capital of the diminishing Republic of China.
Chiang had already lost face. He suffered public humiliation when Tse-Tung Mao (1893-1976, old form of Zedong Mao), the chairman of the Communist Party, stood behind an array of microphones, atop Tiananmen, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, and announced the Communist takeover of the nation’s political seat of power, on October 1, 1949.
“The Central People’s Government Council of the People’s Republic of China took office today on this capital,” he proclaimed.
Gradually, methodically, patiently, the Communists, for whom nothing is sacred except the Party, began the destruction of the nation and its people, who attempted to live their lives as normally as possible under the ever-changing policies.
By 1951, Matthew was a student in the top of his class at Saint Francis Xavier College, a secondary school, founded by the Marian Brothers, renowned for its exemplary English-language immersion program.
A normal teenager, he didn’t have a natural inclination toward the holy, but during Lent of that year, Matthew, a fourth-generation Catholic, readily became a member of the Legion of Mary when asked by a schoolmate. After all, he didn’t have much else to do with all his free time after the regime banned Western entertainment and replaced it with backward Communist propaganda reels filled with oversimplified slogans used for the ideological indoctrination of the masses.
From that first day as a Legionary, his life changed forever.
“I am all yours, my Queen, my Mother, and all that I have is yours,” he publicly proclaimed that day, when he stepped before the Legion’s standard, a vexillum topped with a dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit of Truth, hovering over a representation of the miraculous medal’s Immaculate Conception.
In addition to the weekly meetings, much of the time he tended to a small mobile library, lending out religious books and American tales of adventure about the Wild West, all translated to Chinese. But most importantly, as a Legionary he was to regularly perform corporal and spiritual works of mercy, for which he visited the sick, the bedridden and the invalids.
Even though in Shanghai, where beggars and bankers walked the same streets, Matthew had never been exposed to poverty and misery, until he joined the Legion.
His father, Francis Xavier Koo, whom his children lovingly called Tia-Tia, was a highly successful self-made, rags-to-riches, import-export businessman who owned his own company, Zhong Xing Lace, located in the British section of Shanghai’s International Settlement.
Rejecting China’s cultural tradition of concubinage, he was a devoted husband to Teresa, of the Kung clan from Putung (old form of Pudong). They were the very proud parents of seven children: Francesca, Mary, Dominic, Joseph, Matthew, Agnes and Gertrude.
Tia-Tia lavished his large family with anything and everything his wealth could buy. They lived in a beautiful three-story home – consisting of two conjoined buildings – filled with antiques from the West and luxuries that few in China had ever heard of. To keep the family comfortable, the home was staffed with several live-in servants, which included cooks, cleaners, wet nurses, nannies, rickshaw runners and even a chauffeur when he bought an automobile. The Koo children attended the best Catholic schools, and each had their clothing personally tailored and their leather shoes custom made.
In his life of privilege, Matthew had only experienced joy and happiness. Until he joined the Legion of Mary. Then he witnessed the great suffering and sorrow of others less fortunate than himself.
One day, he and another Legionary, Jui-Chang “Rose” Chen, visited a bedridden woman. The two knocked then opened the door and walked into a shabby room with a single bed, a decrepit table and a few rickety chairs. Standing at the dying woman’s bedside, Matthew looked in horror at her visibly caved-in abdomen.
But the woman, so poor and so sick and enduring all with such a dignity and such a grace, genuinely touched his heart. He felt a great compassion toward the woman, and perhaps even a twinge of guilt, because she had nothing, and his family had everything.
But his family did not remain wealthy for long after the Communist takeover. In an effort to gain control over privately owned real estate and finances, the People’s Government targeted foreign businesses and prosperous native-owned enterprises, charging excessive taxes and forcing unreasonable regulations.
The stress caused countless suicides and untimely deaths of businessmen in Shanghai.
One morning, Matthew woke to learn that his Tia-Tia, only 61, had suffered a stroke in the middle of the night, after he had risen to use the toilet. Unable to move, he remained in bed, around which his family stood watch. By chance, Matthew glanced over to a side table. On top, lay a book that he had just loaned from his small mobile library a few days earlier to his father.
The book was “The Meaning of Death.”
The family chanted aloud, in classical Chinese, the long traditional prayers for the dying. After several days, on August 28, 1951, Matthew watched his father suddenly gasp a raspy breath, as if he were snoring with phlegm catching in his throat.
And then he was gone.
round the same time when Matthew had joined the Legion of Mary, his father had gently warned him not to involve himself too much in the Catholic Church.
“Communists don’t like Catholicism,” he counseled.
Karl Marx, the father of Communism, had, indeed, declared war on religion, in his 23-page pamphlet “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” published in 1848.
“Communism abolishes eternal truths, it abolishes all religion, and all morality,” Marx wrote.
Chinese Communists, like other followers of Marx, not only brag that their thinking is progressive, but they also call for the destruction of the old world for the new world, the death of the old man for the new man.
Devout atheists, Communists mock religion as a useless superstition and scoff at Catholics, calling them the old-fashioned man stuck in the old-fashioned world. Intolerant, envious and covetous xenophobes, the regime of the single-Party power would never share their supreme authority with the Vicar of Christ, the Teacher of Truth, the Servant of the Servants of God.
To rid from Red China the one, holy, apostolic Catholic Church, the dictatorship of death and destruction established, as early as 1949, the Three-Self Reform Movement, so-called for its aim to be self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating. It was an attempt to break with the Holy See and the Pope, the defender of life and liberty.
When the regime learned that Legionaries refused to join the government-sanctioned church, authorities launched their attack.
n October 8, 1951, headlines splashed across Party newspapers officially declared the Legion of Mary a subversive, counterrevolutionary organization, an illegal society using the cloak of religion. And Legionaries were labeled the running dogs, spies, of the American imperialists.
The push was part of the Campaign to Suppress Counter-revolutionaries, a movement, launched in 1950, that targeted political enemies.
The People’s Government had decreed, on February 20, 1951, the “Regulations on the Punishment of Counterrevolutionaries of the People’s Republic of China” that listed various counterrevolutionary crimes and punishments, including “collaborating with imperialist countries to betray the motherland will be subject to the death penalty.”
Ordered to denounce the Legion, members were to go to special centers overseen by the much-feared Military Control Committee. Outside the doors stood 6-foot-tall signs, posted: secret subversive organization, legion of mary, member registration center.
Inside, Legionaries were to sign the following:
“I, the undersigned, joined the reactionary Legion of Mary on (date) and conducted secret counterrevolutionary and evil activities against the government, the People, and Soviet Russia. I hereby resign from the Legion of Mary, and promise never to participate in such activities in the future.”
Unaware of the headlines in the morning papers, which Matthew had not yet seen, he walked to Saint Joseph Church to attend daily Mass, and headed for the left-side door, the men’s entrance. He started to pass by two middle-aged men speaking softly.
“Today’s newspaper said that the Legion of Mary is counterrevolutionary and that members must report to their district areas,” one said.
The comment caught Matthew’s attention, so he paused and listened.
“We Catholics cannot sign this, because the Legion of Mary is not a counterrevolutionary organization. If the members sign in the residents’ area office, it means they recognize it as a counter-revolutionary organization,” the other man said.
I cannot register as a counterrevolutionary in the Legion of Mary. I cannot resign, because it would recognize the organization is counterrevolutionary. I cannot do anything against my conscience. This is correct. I cannot say it is wrong, Matthew thought.
The deadline to register was set for December 15, 1951. Clemency was promised to those who complied; otherwise, prison and possible execution were the punishments for those who refused. And since the Communist takeover, newspapers had been filled with gruesome accounts and regularly tabulated statistics of those executed simply for being enemies of the State.
So there was great reason to have great fear.
But Matthew and the other Legionaries refused to comply. They drew their strength from a great man of the Church: Bishop Kung. Since the inception of the Three-Self Reform Movement, the bishop refused to be any part of it, and, as a result, he was repeatedly attacked by the Communists. Authorities intended to sever the head of the Shanghai Church from the body of the faithful, for without a shepherd, the sheep would be vulnerable.
But that plan failed, fabulously.
Despite the pressure from the Communists, the greatly respected bishop continued to inspire his flock in Shanghai to hold fast to their faith, to never separate from the Pope, the Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church.
Be strong, Kung encouraged the Legionaries.
We will never surrender, they assured him.
I will never surrender, Matthew vowed.
However, the regime plotted endlessly and tirelessly against the Church. In Peking the previous January 17, 1951, authorities ordered dozens of local Chinese priests, three prelates and several members of the laity to attend a conference given by En-Lai Chou (1898-1976, old form of Enlai Zhou), premier of the People’s Republic of China.
During the conference, an announce-ment was made about the creation of the Religious Affairs Bureau, a tentacle of the People’s Government that would regulate, oversee and control all religious activities, all religious persons and all religious houses – all required to be registered with and approved by the Bureau.
With unrestrained authority, the Religious Affairs Bureau closely monitored the Legionaries throughout China and selected those whom they wanted interrogated or arrested. Names were dispatched to local district police stations, then officers delivered summonses to those ordered to speak with the authorities.
After supper one night, Matthew and his mother were relaxing in the top-floor sitting room of their home, when a lone Whangpoo (old form of Huangpu) District police officer dressed in his uniform walked upstairs uninvited and unannounced, handed a summons to Matthew, then turned and left.
Several days later, Matthew walked to the police station, where authorities surrounded him.
“I want you to resign from the Legion of Mary,” one ordered, as he placed papers on a desk before Matthew.
Matthew stared straight ahead and said nothing.
“You must know the policy. The Legion of Mary is a counter-revolutionary organization. You must resign. Sign the paper!” the officer ordered.
Matthew still did not answer.
“Sign the paper!”
Silent, Matthew continued to stare ahead.
Frustrated, the officer ordered that Matthew be locked up. But the next morning, after spending the night in a temporary holding cell, he still refused to cooperate. When they attempted to fingerprint him, he put his arms straight down his sides and stiffened his entire body.
One of the officers, Comrade Chen, grabbed Matthew’s thumb, forcibly rolled it in ink, pressed the ink-stained thumb upon a piece of paper and rolled the print.
Only then Matthew was released. Set free, directly from the police station, he walked to Saint Joseph Church.
“Koo!” called out worried parishioners, who rushed to him, making sure he was unhurt.
Greeting everyone, he entered the church and slid into a pew. After offering prayers of thanksgiving for having survived the ordeal, he returned to his home, undaunted.
But it wasn’t long before he was summoned a second time. He was ordered to speak with authorities at the Public Security Bureau’s Registry Office.
On the day of the meeting, he sat stone-faced before the official.
“You have to resign!” ordered the official behind a desk.
“It’s a religious, not a political, organization,” Matthew replied.
“If you don’t listen to us, you’ll get in trouble. Our government is very lenient, but if you do not resign, you will reap what you sow.”
Without resigning, Matthew was permitted to leave, and he walked home.
For several seasons, he forgot about the threats issued by the Communists, and he fell into the rhythm of life.
By 1953, all foreign missionaries had either been imprisoned or expelled from China. The Communists had also begun their campaign against the native Catholic priests: threatening, terrorizing, imprisoning and torturing – some to their death – those who refused to join the regime’s Three-Self Reform Movement.
Because of the ever-decreasing number of priests, Matthew and other Legionaries began teaching catechism to the children.
Giving to others the seeds of the faith, Matthew, himself, received a great gift: a vocation. Following his heart, in 1953, he entered Zikawei Diocesan Seminary, located in southwest section of Shanghai, just outside the French Concession.
For the first two years, every waking moment he immersed himself in his studies and dedicated his life to imitate the life of Christ.
But just days into his third year, he was arrested, along with hundreds of others in Shanghai, during the night of September 8, 1955, when Communists fanned out to apprehend Catholics still faithful to the Bishop of Rome, the Father of all Faithful, the Fisher of Men.
Behind bars, he was ordered to think about his “crimes” against the People’s Government, while sitting on the floor in his cell all day, with his legs crossed in front of him and his back against the wall. One afternoon, he sat, with eyes closed, and his mind drifted to prayers, as usual.
One of the guards called, “You! Come out!”
Matthew opened his eyes and realized the guard called him.
What did I do? he thought, trembling with a great fear, as he stood up and stepped out of his cell and into the corridor.
Beside the guard stood an official, who wrenched Matthew’s arms behind his back, handcuffed his wrists, then led him to a padded cell called the rubber room, where suicidal and psychotic inmates were normally locked up for their own protection.
The official slammed the door shut.
“Will you pray again?!” he demanded, yanking on Matthew’s cuffed hands, pulling them up to torture him.
Matthew then understood why he had been singled out. He had been caught praying. Returned to his cell, his hands remained cuffed behind his back for the next week. At mealtimes, a cellmate placed a tin of food on the floor, where Matthew kneeled, leaned forward and lapped up his boiled rice with a few vegetables.
A few months after his arrest, one winter’s night, he lay on the cold floor, cocooned in his quilt. Just on the cusp of sleep, when a sound in the distance caught his attention: the ringing of church bells. The tolling continued for two, three minutes.
Then he remembered. It was Christmas Eve. The church bells signaled Midnight Mass. Memories of previous Christmas Eves flooded his mind and overwhelmed his heart. Midnight Mass with his family. The Christmas Eve dance party he attended with Sou-Wen Ling, the girl who had lived next door to him.
Loneliness crept inside, crowding his thoughts. Silently, he cried, as tears rolled down his cheeks. Then he fell asleep.
A few months later, sometime before Lent, in 1956, a guard stood before his cell.
“Gather your belongings!”
Possessing few items, which he wrapped up in his quilt, packing only took a couple seconds. He left his cell and was escorted into the prison yard, then into the back of a windowless police wagon. Once inside, he saw others, including another Legionary, Catherine Wang. Her hair had been cut very short, and she wasn’t wearing her eyeglasses.
The last time he had seen her was during a pilgrimage for graduating seniors to the Basilica of Mary, Help of Christians, in 1953. Everyone had been so happy that day, sailing in boats on Yue Hu (Moon Lake) at the foot of She Shan Hill, marveling at the crystal clear water. That pilgrimage had been instrumental in Matthew’s decision to enter the seminary in the fall. And eighteen months later, Catherine joined the Carmelite nuns as a postulant, in Zikawei’s Holy Cross Convent.
But in the police wagon, no one dared say anything. With his arms wrapped around his small bundle, Matthew stared at the afternoon sun seeping through the air vents, as the driver accelerated, with the siren wailing overhead.
“Robbers! Robbers!” a boy on the street yelled.
The wagon slowed down. A rumbling of what sounded like a huge iron door sliding open. The wagon rolled forward, then stopped again. More rumbling. Again, the wagon inched forward, then slowed into a final stop.
The back doors popped opened.
Matthew hopped out and looked around at the unfamiliar surroundings, the many multi-story cement structures surrounded by a high wall topped with curly barbed wire. He had never been to that section in Shanghai, across and beyond the Soochow (old form of Suzhou) River.
“Where is here?” he whispered to the man next to him. “What place is this?”
“Tilanqiao,” someone whispered.
Shanghai City Prison, the sprawling British-built prison first opened in 1903, when it was known as Ward Road Gaol, for its location at 117 Ward Road. Shanghainese called it Tilanqiao (pronounced tee-lan-CHOW), for the district where the massive institution stood.
Inmates had a special name for it: The Palace.
nce inside the massive five-story cellblock, Matthew stepped into his small cell, constructed to hold only one inmate. He sat, squeezed between his four cellmates.
During the night, with so little room on the floor, where the five slept – only about 5 feet by 7 feet – when one man turned, the others were forced to do the same. When one man sweat, his sweat mingled with the sweat of the others.
During the day, Matthew sat, cramped, on the floor and stared through the eight bars. For hours, he gazed out the barred windows across the corridor and watched big, puffy, white clouds float by, slowly, one after another.
Time is unseeable. Time is passing by like the wind, he thought. Time does not stop.
Loneliness seeped into his soul. Desolation crept into his mind.
Day after day, he waited for his turn to appear in court, to hear his sentence, to learn his fate. After he had been in Tilanqiao for a few months, he heard a guard call his name.
“Yes!” answered Matthew, standing.
“This is your sentence. Wu ni,” the guard told him, holding out a piece of paper to him.
Wu ji? Life? he thought, panicked, with a sinking feeling.
Between the bars, he stretched his hand toward the official-looking paper. Grasping the government’s sentencing document, his eyes scanned the Chinese characters, until he found what he looked for.
Wu ni! Only five years! he cheered to himself, relieved that he had received only a five-year sentence.
Reading down the document, he learned for the first time the four charges he had been accused of:
That he had never recognized himself as a counter-revolutionary; that he had joined the counterrevolutionary organization, the Legion of Mary, and resisted to resign; that he had never recognized Bishop Pin-Mei Kung as a counterrevolutionary; and that he had never recognized the Legion of Mary as a counterrevolutionary organization.
Crimes of a political prisoner of conscience.
Another guard stood outside the cell and handed stationery to those who had received their sentences.
“You will be sent out. Write a letter to your family. Ask your family to give you everything you need in the labor camp. Write nothing about your cases,” the guard announced.
Labor camp? Matthew thought, learning of his fate.
Before him, he looked down at the sheet of paper with 100 boxes to limit the letter to only 100 Chinese characters. He thought of what best to write to his mother.
“Dear Mm-Ma,” Matthew opened his letter with the Shanghainese term of endearment for Mommy. “I want toilet paper. Two bars of soap. Toothbrush. Some food. I would like some spiced meat. Eggs.”
One week later, a guard unlocked the cell door.
“You have visitors,” he announced, escorting Matthew to a waiting room.
Who has come to visit me? What have they brought? he wondered, sitting in the prisoner holding cell.
Then the door opened. It was his turn. He walked toward the visitor’s area, so excited, his heart pounded. He saw his mother and his eldest sister, Francesca, standing, waiting. Excitement turned to heartbreak. His mother and sister both appeared so frail, with sad expressions on their faces. Francesca handed to the guard a tall canvas duffle bag that she had made for Matthew and filled with gifts for him.
“Do not cry, and do not talk about the case, or the visit will terminate immediately,” the guard warned them.
They chatted about the weather, about uncle, about auntie, about this, about that, about nothing.
Then Matthew slipped in, “I am peaceful.”
His mother understood. Peaceful meant that he had not surrendered, for if a Catholic surrendered, they had no peace.
After five minutes, the guard blew his metal pea whistle, signaling the end of the visit.
Final goodbyes, then Matthew grabbed his new duffle bag and returned to his cell. Excitement returned as he looked at the bag. When he opened the top, his heart started pounding again.
From within, he pulled out a highly prized, store-bought, wool pullover sweater so rare in China, several pairs of socks, two top-quality button-down shirts, underwear that Francesca had sewn just for him, a pair of his sister Mary’s pants altered by sewing up the side and creating an open flap in the front, a towel and a stack of Chinese-style, square, yellow-colored toilet paper sheets.
A few nights later, Matthew was jolted awake when guards blasted through the nighttime silence of the prison with shrill whistles. Still dark, hours before sunrise, Matthew and dozens of inmates scrambled out of their quilts to gather their few belongings, including the thick cotton clothing the government had issued a few days before. They were to go to a faraway province, somewhere cold.
“Go! Go! Go!” yelled the guards, unlocking the cell doors.
Herded outside and into several waiting buses, the prisoners were transported with a police escort and sirens wailing to the Shanghai Railway Station, the old train station in the Zahpoh (Shanghainese for Zhabei) District.
Pulling up to the rail cars, the bus drivers aimed the headlights toward the waiting train, a line of cattle cars with open doors.
“Go! Go! Go!” yelled the guards.
From the buses to the rail cars, the men rushed. Before boarding, each received a bag with a few sticks of rod bread, like French baguettes. Without ramps, Matthew pulled himself up, then grabbed the hands of an old man, who could not manage by himself, and hoisted him up.
As the noise of the boarding prisoners quieted, the doors slid shut with a bang, one by one. Inside the darkened cattle car, no one dared speak. The only noise was the soft sound of a few of the hungry and impatient men biting into and chewing their bits of rod bread.
With a jolt, the train began its journey. A wooden bucket just like a beer barrel, about knee high, had been placed in the middle, for the men to share for waste elimination. With so many men, as the hours passed, the mess soon overflowed and splashed onto the floor. Before too long, the bucket stood abandoned, as a few decided to urinate out small holes that dotted the car’s wooden planks. The rest soon followed.
Many days later the steel wheels below finally stopped. Matthew heard voices outside. Then a pounding against the car startled him. Unable to open the door, guards used a sledgehammer to chip away the frozen urine that had sealed closed the great sliding door.
As soon as the panel slammed open, the men blinked back the whiteness that nearly blinded them. With snow everywhere, they saw white, only white. The prisoners hopped out of the rail cars and sank up to their thighs in the drifts. It was morning when they began plowing through the snow with their bodies. Miles and miles later, they arrived late in the afternoon, exhausted, starved, filthy, frozen.
Ice-cold February winds greeted the prisoners when they arrived at Fularji Brick Factory, a working prison in China’s most northeastern province of Heilungchiang (old form of Heilongjiang), just one frozen breath away from Siberia.
Under the watchful eyes of the People’s Liberation Army, Matthew worked at the backbreaking process of brick making, which began with the digging and removal of the frozen earth, the mixing of the thawed mud, the firing of the clay, then the loading of the bricks upon the trucks, which transported their loads outside the prison.
Those who refused to work, were forced. While carrying earth in his two-basket shoulder pole, Matthew heard a man screaming in the distance. Across the field, he saw a figure collapse to the ground, refusing or unable to continue his work.
“You! And you!” a guard pointed and called out two inmates, who carried their own shoulder poles.
With his head down while he continued to labor, Matthew peeked up to watch as the two men laid down their loads and walked over to the inmate sprawled on the earth and stood over him. One grabbed the prisoner under his left arm; the other grabbed under his right arm. They lifted him up. His knees buckled. He screamed. He fought. He flailed his arms.
Matthew continued to watch inconspicuously, as he carried his own load.
“Up!” the men yelled.
The struggle continued. He screamed, yelled, twisted his body as they forced him to stand and placed the pole back on his shoulder. One man walked on one side, and the other walked on the other side of the man, forcing him along.
“Go!” they yelled at him. “Go!”
After several steps, the man went along, on his own, and the other two men returned to their own baskets of earth and resumed their own labor.
It was a warning to all: Everyone must work.
When assigned to carry the kiln-fired bricks, Matthew stood with his arms straight down his sides. He angled his hands behind his back, as another inmate loaded him down with a stack of freshly baked bricks. His back scorched, as he stumbled forward. Swaying under the 150-pound load, which weighed more than he did, he felt he could continue no longer. He looked up, toward the sky. Not a single cloud.
God, I cannot do this anymore, he prayed in his heart, and before he could take a breath, the group leader walked over to him.
“The guard wants to talk to you,” he said.
Helping Matthew place the bricks on the ground, the group leader then led him over to the guard, sitting on a chair in the corner, supervising hundreds of men.
“What’s your name?” asked the guard.
“How old are you?”
“What did you do before you came here?”
“I was a student.”
“Did you labor before?”
“You, go back.”
The guard said nothing more. Matthew had never seen him before. And after that, he never saw him again.
The next day, Matthew was transferred to work in a small vegetable garden, where the weak and old were sent to labor. For several months he tended to the plant beds, squatting down, pulling weeds and thinning out the Chinese cabbage and spinach.
Then on August 15, 1956, the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, his group leader ordered him to report to the guard’s office.
Worried, Matthew hurried, and when he arrived, he saw dozens of other inmates, and also a line of government officials, dressed in crisp-and-clean white uniforms with shiny buttons, which shone brilliantly in the gray-and-grim prison factory.
“I give you good news,” announced one of the guards. “You will be taken back to Shanghai. All will be safe on the journey. It’s good for you all.”
Matthew’s five-year sentence was cancelled, declared ping fan, all charges dropped. He would have a trial. But first, he would wait, again, in The Palace.
ack at Tilanqiao, Matthew received a visitor.
“I am your lawyer,” explained the stranger sitting across the table from Matthew in the visiting room. “Your family paid me $8, and I will help you get out of prison.”
“I didn’t ask for a lawyer,” Matthew told the stranger. “I don’t want a lawyer.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. I’m sure. I don’t want a lawyer,” he said, thinking, All I need to do to get out of prison is to surrender. I cannot lie. I cannot say anything against my conscience.
Without any notice, sometime in October 1956, he was ordered out of his cell and transported to the Number 2 Intermediate People’s Court, in Shanghai’s Zikawei District, where he would finally have a court hearing.
Handcuffed and wearing worn-out, soiled clothing, Matthew was escorted into the courtroom, where he faced the judge, seated higher than everybody else, and dressed in a crisp, spotless Mao suit buttoned to the neck.
In the spectators’ gallery sat many Catholics, including Matthew’s family. He wanted to communicate to them that he had kept his faith, that he was still faithful to the Church, but he had no permission to talk. So, as soon as one of the guards unlocked and removed his handcuffs, he raised his right hand and with his fingertips, he tapped his forehead, chest, left shoulder then right shoulder, making the sign of the cross.
With the atmosphere tense, no one dared make a sound.
The judge asked Matthew a few questions, shuffled some papers around and after about 20 minutes, he cleared his throat.
“Case closed,” the judge announced then stood up and walked out of the courtroom, without pronouncing the sentence.
One of the guards handcuffed Matthew’s wrists together once again and ushered him from the courtroom toward the waiting police van. On the way out, he met his mother in the stairwell. Her face appeared calm.
“I will see you later. I will be back home,” he hurriedly said to encourage her.
He remained only a few days in Tilanqiao before being transferred to New Life Factory, an urban prison factory in Shanghai. Part of the assembly line, during the day, he prepared freshly dyed socks to dry.
During free time after supper one day, Matthew walked in the exercise yard with Paul, a fellow seminarian. As they circled the enclosure, they secretly prayed the mysteries of the rosary together, barely audible, without moving their lips. Communication always proved difficult between imprisoned Catholics, so before they parted ways, the seminarian innocently slipped a piece of paper into Matthew’s hand.
Back in the dorm, Matthew cautiously opened his fingers, looked at the paper and read, “We must be faithful to the Pope. We must be faithful to God.”
This is very special, he thought of the note, with words to encourage him to remain strong in his faith.
Wanting to keep the inspirational memento, he tucked the piece of paper between folds of material in a bundle of his clothing, which he used as his pillow.
When ordered to the guard’s office, a few days later, he was surprised to be handcuffed without explanation, forced into a police car and transported to the Number 1 Detention Center. He had no idea why he had been moved there or what he had done. After a couple of weeks, he was taken to a room, nearly bare except for a small stool, a desk, a chair and a poster of Mao. He was ordered to sit on the short stool placed in front of a desk, behind which sat an interrogator.
“Who wrote this?” the interrogator demanded, shaking a piece of paper in front of Matthew, who recognized it immediately.
That is supposed to be in my belongings. How did that get in his hand? he wondered.
It was the note from Paul, the seminarian, probably found when guards at the New Life Factory secretly searched through prisoners’ belongings.
For the next several months, he was periodically interrogated, but never surrendered Paul’s name. He never betrayed his friend, not even when authorities confronted him about the seminarian’s identity.
“We know it’s Paul!” the interrogator said.
“If you know, then I don’t have to tell you,” Matthew responded.
A second time he was transported to court, but when he entered the courtroom, there were only three people other than himself: the judge and two clerks on either side of the jurist. It was February 1958.
For several seconds, without saying anything, the judge looked at Matthew, handcuffed, unwashed and wearing filthy clothing.
Finally, the judge broke the silence.
“Who do you think Kung, Pin-Mei is?” the judge asked, giving Matthew the opportunity to reduce his punishment by calling the bishop a counterrevolutionary.
Oh, Holy Ghost, Spirit of Truth, tell me what to say, Matthew prayed silently.
And then he just simply spoke, without thinking of the words.
“According to nature, he is human being,” he answered. “According to nationality, he is Chinese. According to religion, he is bishop.”
Happy with his inspired response, he no longer feared what would happen to him.
The judge never mentioned the note from Paul, but because it had been found in his belongings, Matthew was charged with the intention of establishing a counterrevolutionary organization in the New Life Factory prison. For that, he received a sentence of seven years, added on to the previous sentence, which he finally learned was three years. He would have to serve a total of 10 years in prison, for laogai, short for laodong gaizo, reform through labor.
Again, he would be transferred to a labor camp, to serve out his sentence, but first, he was permitted the opportunity to have one more visit with his family. On that special day, when the door opened to the visitor’s room, Matthew saw only his mother and Gertrude, his baby sister, the youngest of the seven children.
Since the Communist takeover, much of the Koo family had been nearly destroyed.
Matthew’s eldest brother, Dominic, had been a brilliant student. In August 1948, he had left Shanghai for America, after accepting a scholarship to Saint John’s University, in Collegeville, Minnesota. After the Communist takeover, in 1949, he was not permitted to return to his homeland, not even to attend the funeral of their father, who had died in 1951.
Mary, Matthew’s elder sister, had fled to Taiwan, in 1950, and, like Dominic, was not permitted to return to the mainland.
Joseph, his elder brother, had just been arrested, because he refused to register with the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which had been established on July 15, 1957, officially replacing the Three-Self Reform Movement.
Eldest sister, Francesca, who had, perhaps, the best living situation, had married and moved in with her husband’s family, which was the Chinese tradition.
Younger sister, Agnes, as soon as she graduated from secondary school, she was forced out of cosmopolitan Shanghai, to work in the bleak and backward countryside of Anhui province.
And as for Mm-Ma and Matthew’s youngest sister, Gertrude, life had become very difficult. Finding themselves locked into desperate circumstances, they had been forced to sell the few remaining valuables in the home to street merchants, for pennies.
The family visit lasted only minutes. When they would see each other again, no one knew.
n the cramped and stench-filled cattle car, Matthew leaned against his only worldly possessions in a rope-bound bundle. Countless hours crept by. Days, indistinguishable from nights. Finally, the train rolled to a stop before entering He Kou Station, the last depot on the rail line, in the faraway province of Chinghai (old form of Qinghai), the province of prisoners.
From the train, prisoners boarded waiting transportation trucks that hauled Matthew and the others to Wangshike Prison Farm. Circumstances, brutal and barbaric. His cell, a roughly hewn cave. His bed, the bare earth. His toilet, a hole in the field.
As the muddy spring of 1958 washed away into the summer fields, Mao launched the Great Leap Forward, his fantasy campaign to transform China from the impoverished agricultural land of peasants into an industrialized nation of workers. Forced to take part in the movement’s steel production, peasants and prisoners were pulled from the fields and forced into the steelmaking process.
Transferred from Wangshike to the Machine Tool Works, in Hsi-Ning (old form of Xining), the capital city of Chinghai, Matthew joined the masses in the Great Leap Forward.
Four days after his arrival to the slave-labor factory, he was sent by his group leader to the tool department to retrieve a piece of equipment needed for the job. On the way back to the team, the lights dimmed then blacked out, plunging the factory into darkness. Because of the nation’s primitive utilities, power failures were not uncommon.
Unfamiliar with the layout of the prison, he remained standing in place. Minutes passed, and the lights flickered back on, shining upon the prison again, Matthew rushed back to his labor group, happy to have accomplished his task by retrieving the necessary tool.
But when he had failed to return immediately, the group leader reported him missing. One of the cadres approached him.
“Why do you want to flee from the prison?” the cadre demanded.
Matthew was stunned at the accusation.
Not waiting for an answer, the cadre led him to a remote and isolated area, dotted with several small, cement structures that looked like traditional Chinese single-person tombs, giving the appearance of a small graveyard. Stopping abruptly at one of the tomblike structures no larger than a doghouse, he ordered Matthew inside.
With the door no higher than his knees, he bent down to the ground and crawled inside the blackened box. His hands brushed atop a bed of straw that covered the floor, and when he sat up, his head bumped against the top. The walls were so close together that could only stretch out one arm at a time.
For eight days, he remained in the dark cement tomb. Twice a day, the small wooden door suddenly popped open, when food was shoved through the hole. Then just as quickly, the small door slammed shut.
On the ninth day, the cadre opened the door and ordered Matthew out. On his knees, he crawled out, through the door, and with difficulty, he stood, nearly falling down. In the dark for so long, he was unable to open his eyes.
To return to the rock piles, was almost a relief. With a ball-peen hammer, he labored 16-hour days, breaking fist-sized rocks into thumb-sized rocks, all to be used for smelting.
An older man hammering away at another pile of rocks caught his attention. Keeping his head down, he looked at the old man and recognized the former rector of his seminary, Father Chung-Liang (old form of Zhongliang) “Joseph” Fan (b. 1918, Society of Jesus).
The two had been arrested the same night, September 8, 1955.
Because the regime relied on interrogation tactics that pitted friend against friend, it was not safe to acknowledge friendships. So the two Catholics never fully communicated to one another. But, occasionally and silently, Matthew helped the old priest wash his threadbare clothing at the prison’s water pipe, on their one day off every two weeks.
Then one morning, in the cold winter of March 1959, a guard ordered, “Gather your belongings.”
With his few possessions in his arms, Matthew climbed into the back of one of the trucks in a long caravan that groaned up and around the mountain roads. Gazing from his seat, he noticed the gentle slope of the mountains on the one side of the road. But on the other side of the road, only inches from the truck’s tires, was the immediate drop of the steep cliffs into chasms below. Terrified, he clung to his seat.
When the line of trucks reached Xinzhe Prison Farm, atop the Tibetan Plateau, in each direction of the compass he looked, he saw nothing but waves of grass bending in the breeze. Not a tree in the horizon.
For the prisoners, tents were temporarily erected for barracks. Labor began immediately. From morning to night, Matthew pierced the earth with his shovel, turning the dirt of the virgin fields.
Dig one, step one. Dig the earth, make it soft, then step forward. Dig one, step one.
After tilling the soil, the prisoners planted seeds, one by one, row by row, field by field, impregnating the virgin earth with seeds of chingker, a highland barley suited for the short growing season on the plateau.
With paltry servings spooned out each meal, prisoners never received enough food to calm the emptiness that gnawed at their stomachs. Then after the dismal autumnal harvest of 1959, only one year into the Mao’s Second Five-Year Plan, mealtime portions shrank even more. Limited to starvation rations, Matthew began losing weight and strength.
Mao’s great fiasco, the Great Leap Forward, had disintegrated into the Great Chinese Famine.
With too many mouths and too little food, Xinzhe Prison Farm had to shed some its prisoners. In May 1960, one of those ordered to pack up, Matthew rolled up his few rags and his mug into his quilt, which he placed into a wooden wagon pulled by a horse. He fell into formation, and the straggly line of starving, filthy prisoners trudged up the long slope from Xinzhe to Wayuxiangka Prison Farm. Without trees on the plateau, everything in the prison had been made from mud. Rough bricks from dried clay formed their dormitories, their small rooms and even their beds, which were covered with straw.
During that chingker sowing and growing seasons, Matthew continued the backbreaking fieldwork, with minimal rations. By mid-summer, his body began to collapse. At 5-feet-9-inches tall, his usual adult weight hovered at 140 pounds, but with less and less food, and the same amount of work, his weight quickly dropped to 81 pounds.
One afternoon back from the field, he sat down but couldn’t stand back up. Unable to lift his legs and without any help from others, he dragged himself on the ground all the way to the prison doctor’s clinic. With needle in hand, the doctor prepared to give Matthew an injection, but stopped, unable to, for he was only a living skeleton of flesh loosely stretched over bones.
Unable to stand, he was removed from fieldwork and relocated to the Convalescence Team. In the morning, he crawled to the enclosure wall, against which he leaned and watched the sun rise. In the evening, he watched the sun set then crawled back to his dormitory.
Between the risings and the settings, he watched a morbid procession. A steady stream of prisoners carried the corpses of other prisoners, famine victims, wrapped only in their bed quilts, which became their burial shrouds for their eternal rest.
In his dormitory, Matthew wakened during the night, listening to the starving wolves, howling to one another atop the vast plateau, as they unearthed the corpses interred in the shallow mass graves.
I am so thin, the wolves would never eat my body, he thought.
After a year of recovery, Matthew was finally able to perform light labor, and he reported to Cadre Chang.
“You are a waste,” Cadre Chang said, disgusted with Matthew for failing to perform hard labor in the fields.
Assigned to the grindstone, Matthew gripped and pushed the wooden bar in front of him as he walked in circles, for 12 hours a day. Four other prisoners pushed their own sticks of wood stuck into the top stone that moved over the stationary bottom stone. A fifth prisoner stood on top and poured through a hole a steady stream of whole chingker that flowed between the stones to be ground into the barley flour for their main food: momo, the Tibetan dietary staple.
Over the next year, Matthew worked at the grinding stone, until his strength returned, then he resumed the long days of heavy labor in the fields, turning sod, planting seeds, watering plants, cutting stalks, clearing fields, fertilizing earth.
But at Wayuxiangka, the famine continued to claim lives until after the harvest of some vegetable crops in the summer of 1963.
Nationwide, an incalculable number of Chinese had died because of the Party’s failed campaign to industrialize China. Death estimates have ranged from a minimum of 15 million to more than 45 million. Directly blamed on Mao’s Great Leap Forward, which focused on the increased mass production of steel, food-producing peasants were removed from the fields and placed in steel-making capacities.
But Matthew, somehow, survived and continued to labor in the fields until one afternoon, in August 1965.
“Pack your belongings,” his group leader told him.
Back in the dormitory, Matthew stood at the kang bed he shared with the other prisoners. He gathered up his patched clothing, his mug, his few other small items and wrapped everything in his quilt, which he tied up with his closely guarded and highly valued piece of rope.
“Koo will get out of prison!” his teammates cheered.
Into a cart he placed his bundle, happy that his 10-year sentence was about to end, on September 7, and that he would have a future outside prison. Without looking back at Wayuxiangka Prison Farm, he rode off, headed for the New Life Team, temporary quarters for those transitioning from the life of a prisoner to that of a post-prisoner.
To prepare the prisoners for their new life, the cadres in charge of the New Life Team arranged for Matthew and the other men to undergo brainwashing in small group sessions. Primarily, the men studied the government’s current policy, the Socialist Education Movement (1963-65), also known as the Four Cleanups Movement, to clean reactionary elements from politics, economy, organization and ideology.
After a few days, Matthew was ordered to attend intense, one-on-one meetings with Cadre Chan, from the Big Team, headquarters for Wayuxiangka’s top cadres. Authorities needed to know Matthew’s political ideological thinking.
For 18 days straight, Cadre Chan probed into Matthew’s thoughts.
“Are you Chinese?” Cadre Chan asked.
“Yes, of course,” Matthew answered.
“Chinese must obey Chinese law.”
“Yes, of course.”
“Chinese law says that the Legion of Mary is a counter-revolutionary organization.”
“The Legion of Mary is a religious organization.”
“Why do you reject the government? Because you were fooled by the bishop and the priests? You are a fool. You follow them. You never listen to the People’s Government. If you love China, you must love Communism. The bishops and priests caused you to suffer. The government wants to save you. Come to the government, and you will be a free man. The government came to save you.”
They came to save me, but they punish me, Matthew thought.
As September 7 neared, Cadre Chan ordered Matthew to write his “confession,” a transcript in which he would admit his counter-revolutionary “crimes” against the State.
Alone, Matthew prayed. He sobbed. He prayed some more. Conflict tore at his heart. If did not write his confession, he would not pass through the gate, he would not pass from prison to freedom.
The following morning, with sorrow and trepidation, he sat at a desk and looked at the paper. He picked up the pen. He began to write.
With the focus on semantics, he phrased everything very carefully, making certain that he never renounced his faith or his allegiance to the Pope. His narration described simply how he had been educated by foreign missionaries and how the People’s Government viewed the Legion of Mary as counterrevolutionary.
Matthew passed the gate.
oo!” a cadre called to Matthew. “Your sentence is over. You’re not prisoner anymore. You’ve become detained employee, so you have to obey all the rules as a detained employee. Now you’re set free.”
It was September 7, 1965.
Matthew packed up his belongings. Completely overwhelmed by a feeling of numbness, he left behind the New Life Team as he walked out the big door and through the big gate. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that a People’s Liberation Army soldier watched him as he walked away, headed to the next labor farm.
Matthew was to join the Number 5 Team. He was not free, after all.
When arrested in 1955, Matthew lost his Shanghai hukou, his residential registration in Shanghai, which had been transferred to his labor camp when he arrived in Chinghai.
However, just because he was no longer a prisoner, he was not entitled to change, on his own, his hukou from the labor camp back to Shanghai.
Policy mandated that Chinese were to live where their residence was registered. To move his hukou anywhere, he would need permission, not only from the labor camp’s top cadre and ideology cadre, but also from the authorities in Shanghai, including the police headquarters, the neighborhood police station, the neighborhood association and his work unit.
Hukou was a way for the authorities to control the masses. Since 1955, food and other necessities had been rationed, supplied and allocated according to a person’s hukou.
Unable to move his hukou back to Shanghai, Matthew, was forced to remain in Chinghai, at a labor camp, as a post-prisoner, a detained employee. And because the People’s Government was in charge of labor and employment, he had to accept whatever work he was assigned, which was fieldwork.
So, Matthew accepted his life. He had no choice.
Over the years in Chinghai, he had watched as most fieldworkers wore out their bent, sinewy, sunburned bodies by the time they reached their 50s. Then they became part of the field, where they would spend their eternity under the same earth they had plowed, sowed and harvested.
Afraid of dying young, Matthew, still in his 30s, contemplated how best to stay alive.
All the men in his team needed a monthly haircut. They didn’t care how they looked; they just wanted to get a quick trim without having to waste an entire day walking many miles to and from the next labor camp with a resident barber.
And since his team didn’t have a barber, he thought that could be his occupation, but first he needed experience. On his next day off, he cut the hair of a post-prisoner for free. His next day off, he trimmed the hair of two men for free. After that, each week, his number of customers grew, and he continued to gain experience.
After a year of cutting hair for free, in 1969, he received permission to open up a barbershop in an abandoned guardhouse at the front gate. Round, just like a castle’s turret, the shop had just enough room for a few people, a chair, a small table to hold the wash basin, and on the wall was a chipped mirror just large enough to reflect a face.
But still, during the busy seasons of planting and harvesting, he would be required to work in the fields.
One beautiful autumn day, the bright sun warmed his back as he labored alongside the other post-prisoners in the fields, post-harvest. After the chingker had been gathered and the stems cut, the men had to turn the earth with their long-handled spades.
Dig one, step one.
A perfect day on the plateau, not a cloud in the sky, as one of the cadres rushed toward the men.
It was September 9, 1976, a perfect day, indeed.
The cadre had an announcement to make.
“Chairman Mao died,” he told the men.
A whistle blew in the distance, signaling everyone to stand very still. Matthew felt the need to pretend to be sad. He worried about not having the correct facial expression, of not being sad enough, but being too sad could be interpreted as a sign of insincerity. Filled with tension, the minutes crawled by, as he stood in the sunshine, holding his spade, completely still.
A second whistle blew at the appropriate moment, and the post-prisoners resumed their work.
After the dried stems had been cleared and the earth turned, a few weeks later Matthew returned to work in the barbershop.
One afternoon, around 3 o’clock, just a few men were sitting around chatting, listening to the radio, when a voice on the government-controlled radio program announced, “The Gang of Four has been crushed.”
“The winner has the final word,” said the Butcher, a common thief whose fingers had all been chopped off at the knuckles for what everyone believed was because of his thievery.
Seemingly innocuous words, but they could have been perceived as very dangerous. For if the Butcher didn’t believe what the government announced on the radio, that cast doubt on his allegiance to the People’s Government, which could be interpreted that he was against the government, which meant that he was counterrevolutionary, which was the worst of the worst criminals: a political enemy.
Such Bad Words, Bad Persons against the government were to be reported. Matthew worried that his failure to report the incident could result in serious repercussions, because he was responsible for everything in the barbershop, his workplace. If one of the other men in the barbershop filed a report, Matthew would find himself in deep trouble. So, he felt he had no option. He reported it.
Cadres confronted the Butcher, who admitted that he had said what he had said. However, he falsely accused Matthew of first saying, “It’s just like a fight.”
So all blame fell on Matthew.
Later in the day, when he was busy tidying up the barbershop, Cadre Liu, the much-feared and much-hated cadre because of his vicious reputation, opened the door and stepped in.
“From now on, you have to think about what you say in the barbershop,” Cadre Liu cautioned, then left, slamming the door shut behind him and locking it from the outside.
Matthew stood inside, panicked.
What did I do wrong? Why am I locked up? What happened? his mind raced.
An intense fear ran through him that he would be re-arrested and would lose his post-prisoner status. He had only recently received a letter from his youngest sister, Gertrude, informing him that their elder brother, Joseph, had been arrested for listening to the Voice of America on the radio. Matthew worried about their mother, about what would happen to her if he were arrested again.
For the first few hours, his thoughts, his mind and his heart were gripped with terror. But as the days passed, he calmed and reflected on his life. He realized and admitted to himself that he had a grave fault.
I regret that I was afraid to offend the government, but I was not afraid to offend God, he thought.
Then he made a decision.
Please, dear holy Mother, please, save me, he prayed. Not for myself, but for my mother, please, don’t let them arrest me again. If you help me out of this difficulty, I will say the rosary every day, and I will keep my celibacy for the rest of my life.
After several days, a cadre unlocked the door, and escorted Matthew to the auditorium. For three consecutive nights, forced to stand on a stage in front of the cadres and several hundred post-prisoners, Matthew was stripped, threatened, screamed at and accused.
But he survived.
Another week passed, as he remained in solitary confinement, while the accusations against him were investigated. Then just as soon as it had begun, it ended. Unable to determine guilt, the authorities unlocked the door, and he was permitted to resume his post-prisoner duties as barber.
But he wasn’t the same as before. Through the ordeal, through the suffering, his faith had been reignited.
And as a consolation for wrongly accusing him, the cadres permitted him a home visit. Previously allowed every two years to all post-prisoners, the visits had been suspended during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Since becoming a post-prisoner in 1965, Matthew had not had the opportunity to return home to Shanghai.
ne very cold winter day, in 1977, Matthew boarded the long-distance bus that drove the 300 miles from the labor camp to the city of Hsi-Ning. While waiting for the train to Shanghai, another 1,400 miles away, he slept the night under a rug in a corner of the station.
After three days and three nights of buses and trains and stopovers, Matthew arrived in Shanghai very late at night. It had been 22 years since he had last been home.
Shanghai looked so different.
The Cultural Revolution had been a movement of great destruction. With the intention of purging his political enemies, Communist Party Chairman Mao had urged the Red Guards, in 1966, to rid the country of anything that conflicted with him and his socialism. Targets included the Four Olds standard of morality (old tradition, old thought, old culture, old custom), which included temples, churches, ancient art and texts. Gone were the church steeples.
As Matthew walked down the once-familiar streets, he saw Big Character Posters pasted all over walls and fences and buildings everywhere, with the smiling face of Mao staring down at him.
The new Shanghai of the Communist was so vastly different from the old Shanghai of the Capitalist.
Matthew made his way to 15 Museum Road, across the road from the Shanghai Museum. He opened the door, walked up to the third floor, rang the doorbell then walked in.
His baby sister, Gertrude, was sitting on the couch and stood up when Matthew entered. Just a child when he had last seen her, she was a grown woman, 33 years old, holding in her arms a child of her own.
His mother, barely awake, entered from her bedroom.
Both were surprised to see a strange man walk into their home.
“Mm-Ma, I am back home,” he said.
Neither recognized Matthew. Their facial expressions revealed that they thought that he was a crazy homeless man.
“I’m Matthew,” he said.
His mother stared at him for several seconds, stunned.
“I don’t recognize you. Only the forehead looks like the forehead of my son’s,” she said.
Crushed, Matthew turned his head.
But the unexpected visit turned into a long-deserved homecoming, which last for three weeks.
After that, Matthew returned home every two years. He began reconnecting with Roman Catholics, the priests and faithful who refused to break off from the Pope and join the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.
For refusing to join the State-sanctioned church, many of the priests and faithful had been arrested. Unable to practice their religion in the open, the Church had been driven underground.
These are sheep without a shepherd, parishioners without a priest, but they still have faith, he thought.
His vocation never left him. There would be a way.
Following the death of Mao, in 1976, one of Communist China’s leaders, Hsiao-Ping Teng (1904-97, old form of Xiaoping Deng), announced the Open Door Policy, in December 1978. For the financial benefit of China, the policy lifted the mainland’s bamboo curtain high enough to permit foreign businesses to establish companies and factories in China, with strict oversight by the Party.
Russian had always been the preferred foreign language of the Chinese Communists, because of their close relationship with Russia, considered China’s Big Brother. But with English the lingua franca of the global economy, people everywhere in China wanted to learn English, for business purposes with the West. Even in Matthew’s labor camp, officials began an English class for families of guards and families of detained employees who lived in the camp with their post-prisoner relatives.
There was only one problem. No one in the labor camp spoke English, except Matthew, who had attended Catholic schools and had learned Latin, as well.
While taking a shortcut through the labor camp school, sometime in June 1980, Matthew met Cadre Ding, the local secretary of the Communist Party and headmaster at the school.
Cadre Ding stopped Matthew and asked, “We want you to teach English at the labor camp school. Would you accept a teaching position?”
Matthew declined. He explained that he wanted to return home to Shanghai, as soon as he was permitted, and if he were a teacher, he would not be able to return to the city of his birth.
Not long after that serendipitous meeting, Matthew was walking in the labor camp, past the primary school, when he heard a record in the headmaster’s office playing very loudly over a loudspeaker, a song, in English.
“Happy New Year! Happy New Year! Happy New Year to you all! We are singing! We are dancing! Happy New Year to you all!”
A very popular Chinese song, the lyrics, sung to the music of the 19th century American folk ballad “Oh, My Darling, Clementine,” was broadcast to the playground, where all the students did their morning exercises and saluted the flag.
For 25 years, Matthew had heard no Western music, which was permitted to return to China after the Open Door Policy. The simple song sounded so beautiful. It touched his heart. Flooded with memories, he remembered being a child, running around the playground, singing the song with other little boys during recess at Saint Aloysius Primary School.
In an instant, he made a decision.
I will become a teacher, he thought.
By chance, Matthew met Cadre Ding at the school gate.
“I promise to you that if Shanghai authorities accept you to go back, the school will let you go,” Cadre Ding said.
“OK. I accept,” Matthew said.
And, thus, he began teaching in the fall, September 1980.
During one of his home visits, for Chinese New Year in 1981, he went to the home of Father Hongsheng “Vincent” Zhu (1916-93, Society of Jesus, pinyin form of Hung-Sheng Chu). During the visit, the doorbell rang.
An Italian missionary entered the room.
“Did anybody see you ring?” Father Zhu asked his newly arrived visitor, Father Sergio Ticozzi (b. 1943, Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missionaries).
“No,” answered Father Ticozzi.
Father Zhu feared that Father Ticozzi had been seen by the local spies – busybodies in the neighborhood association who kept records on the priest and his visitors and reported all goings on to the local police.
“This is my student,” Father Zhu said of Matthew, introducing him to Father Ticozzi. “He still keeps his vocation.”
“Come to Hong Kong,” Father Ticozzi invited Matthew. “We have a seminary there.”
“I am still in labor camp. I cannot go to Hong Kong.”Father Ticozzi then jotted down his address and handed the information to Matthew, who glanced at the writing before putting it away in his pocket. Before he left, they all posed for a photograph.
Later, while by himself, Matthew removed his jacket, turned one of the sleeves wrong-side out, picked at the stitching, pulled at the thread and undid a seam. He then tucked the piece of paper with Father Ticozzi’s address into place and sewed up the seam again. He did not want to take the chance that officials in the labor camp would find that address, as they had found the note from Paul the seminarian years earlier.
Matthew wanted to study at the seminary, he wanted to be a priest, and he shared his thoughts with a friend, Guo-Liang “Vincent” Chin, who had entered his first year of seminary at Zikawei one week before the big arrests, on September 8, 1955.
“You want to be ordained?” Chin asked. “You go to Father Fan. He will help you, if you want to be ordained.”
Yes, he wanted to visit Father Fan, the former rector of his seminary, whom he hadn’t seen since they were both in the Machine Tool Works prison factory, in Chinghai, in 1958.
More than two decades had passed since then.
Matthew’s vocation had never left him, but, first, he had to be free, he had to get out of the labor-camp system. He didn’t know how. He didn’t know when. But he knew he had to be free.
One day his colleague, Yu, the physics teacher with a great reputation as a master teacher, had a question for Matthew.
“Would you like to teach at a Gong He County school?” Yu asked.
“Yes, I would like to leave the labor camp and teach at the county school, but I don’t know how to get there,” Matthew said.
Yu had a connection. Not only did he instruct his good friend Matthew exactly where the school was, but he also told him how to find the headmaster.
“The left side is the headmaster’s room. Knock, and he’ll let you in,” Yu said.
So, one afternoon in the spring of 1984, even though he was a post-prisoner, Matthew asked camp authorities for a leave of absence. His excuse was that he needed something that he could only acquire outside the camp, which was true. With permission, he traveled to Gung He Number 2 Secondary School.
During the interview, his demonstration of his English-teaching abilities so impressed the headmaster, that he immediately promised Matthew that he could have everything he wanted if only he would agree to teach there.
After securing the job, Matthew patiently waited for the opportunity to escape from the labor camp.
With Teng’s ascension to power, he began lifting the chains from the backs of the Chinese, including granting permission to any post-prisoner who left a labor camp to remain free as long as they committed no crime.
One summer day, in 1984, a few months after Matthew’s interview in Gong He County, he was returning to his dormitory after shopping at a labor-camp street market. As he walked toward his room, he saw a commercial truck parked at the school’s front gate. He knew that the truck was not from the camp.
The time had arrived.
Matthew felt confident. Wearing his teaching clothes, he checked to make sure the package of the best quality of Chinese cigarettes, Big Front Gate, was sticking out of his shirt pocket. Never a smoker, he had purchased the cigarettes for others, as they always came in handy as little bribes for the cadres.
Matthew approached the driver.
“Can you take me to the long-distance bus station, just outside the labor camp?” Matthew asked.
It was not an unusual question. Post-prisoner detained employees heading outside the labor camp for home visits or errands often asked for rides from the truck drivers.
“Yeah,” the driver replied.
Matthew walked back to his room and packed his two pieces of luggage: a battered leather suitcase in one hand and a rolled-up quilt in the other. After 29 years in prison labor camps, those were all the possessions in the world that he owned. He walked out the door a final time and rushed toward his future, to the truck and climbed in.
It was Matthew’s last day in labor camp, and his first day in freedom.
rom his mother’s home on Museum Road, Matthew turned his bicycle west, through Zikawei and rode about 20 minutes to Father Fan’s home, on his niece’s property in a Shanghai suburb. The old priest lived in one-half of a hayloft that had been converted into a room for him.
Over the decades, in and out of prisons and labor camps for his faith, Matthew’s vocation had never left him. During his home visit for Chinese New Year 1985, he decided to visit the former rector of his seminary, Father Fan.
Matthew entered the first floor of the doorless barn, stuffed with straw and stacked with a yoke, a plow, sundry agricultural tools and work clothes. He walked up the narrow wooden stairway, which was more like a ladder. At the top, to the left was the loft. To the right, he turned and knocked on the door, which had no handle.
Matthew adopted a serious expression on his face.
Father Fan pulled the door open, turned around and cast his eyes down toward the floor, for he never looked directly at anyone.
“Hello, Matthew. You’ve come back for home visit,” the old priest said, very slowly, as he walked, with a limp, back to his small room.
“Yes,” Matthew answered, as he entered and sat on a bare, wooden chair, without a cushion.
The small, shabby room was no bigger than 14 feet by 20 feet and had no running water. The bed was very small, made of wood, just rough boards, with a piece of thin material spread over the bare lumber. A mosquito net draped over it. On the opposite wall was a window, and outside was a balcony, where Father Fan prayed his rosary.
The walls were not covered with newspaper, like most homes. Just holy cards, holy pictures and holy statues. On the table, Matthew saw more holy cards: Sacred Heart of Jesus, Immaculate Heart of Mary, Little Flower, and Saint Joseph, Father Fan’s patron saint.
The two men chatted about Shanghai.
They also chatted about Chinghai. They both knew about Chinghai, the province of prisoners. One of the last times they saw one another was in 1958, when they were both imprisoned at Machine Tool Works, in Hsi-Ning, where they had hammered away at rock piles, forced to participate in Mao’s great failure, the Great Leap Forward.
Father Fan confided in Matthew about the happiest time in his life. It had been during the Cultural Revolution, when the Red Guards tortured him, which caused him to limp for the rest of his life.
“I felt that it was the happiest time in my life, because I felt that Jesus did not leave me alone, that Jesus suffered with me,” he said.
During a lull in the conversation, Matthew remembered what his friend, Guo-Liang Chin, had told him: “You want to be ordained? You go to Father Fan. He will help you, if you want to be ordained.”
Matthew took his opportunity. While riding his bicycle that morning, he had practiced what he was going to say.
“I want to be ordained,” he blurted out.
Father Fan said very slowly, “If you want to be ordained, you must study theology first.”
Thoughtful, Father Fan always spoke very slowly, with his eyes cast downward. Whenever asked a question, he would place his hand upon his head, as if consulting with the Holy Spirit, and then he answered very slowly.
After a few seconds, as if something came to his mind, he turned and faced his desk. On top were several holy pictures of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and a statue of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. Against the eastern wall, the desk also served as his altar, where he kept his Missal for Mass.
From a drawer, he pulled out two books, “Moral Theology” and “Dogmatic Theology,” and handed them to Matthew.
“Read these. You must study first, to prepare,” Father Fan said.
“I will read them everyday,” Matthew said, as he flipped through the pages of the two books, noticing that they had been published in the British crown colony of Hong Kong.
And prepare, he did. When he returned to Chinghai, during the night, in his dorm room in Gong He County, Matthew secretly read the two books. For two years, he prepared.
Then, in February 1988, he visited his mother in Shanghai, who was bedridden and suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. When underground nun Chung-Ran “Elizabeth” Wang stopped by and agreed to look after his mother, he took the opportunity to visit Father Fan again.
“I want to be ordained,” Matthew told Father Fan.
“Before you are ordained, you must have a retreat,” Father Fan said.
“It’s impossible. I am taking care of my mother 24 hours a day,” Matthew said.
“If it’s God’s will, everything will be fulfilled,” Father Fan said.
Matthew rushed home to his mother, and for one week, he made his retreat by his sick mother’s bedside.
Then, he returned to Father Fan.
First, on February 20, 1988, Father Fan ordained Matthew a deacon. He was 54 years old.
Only then did Matthew realize that Father Fan was actually Bishop Fan, and that his shabby room in the barn loft was actually Bishop Fan’s chancellery, where he penned official letters to the Vatican.
With Bishop Kung, the bishop of Shanghai, still incarcerated in Tilanqiao, Father Fan, with approval from the Vatican, had been consecrated a coadjutor bishop, on February 27, 1985, while still banished to Chinghai. But Matthew and the old priest never discussed that he had been secretly consecrated a bishop in the underground Church. It was just understood.
Two days later, February 22, was ordination day.
Matthew wore a button-down white shirt. No tie. An overcoat, because it was winter, with a jacket underneath, and under that, a sweater. He wore trousers that closed with a button and were held up with a belt, under which he wore dungarees, with a draw string and a button, the type worn for work. And black shoes.
Bishop Fan prepared for the ordination Mass. He lit the two altar candles, prepared the water, the wine and one large Host, which the two would share. He then spread on the floor pages of the Liberation Daily, a propaganda newspaper published in Shanghai by the Communists.
“Why are you putting newspaper on the floor?” Matthew asked.
“We are performing an ordination. You have to prostrate yourself, and the floor is dirty,” Bishop Fan explained.
During Mass, Matthew did, indeed, prostrate himself on the Liberation Daily newspaper, then after he rose, Bishop Fan placed his hands over Matthew’s head. Silence.
Tears stung Matthew’s eyes, then Bishop Fan anointed Matthew’s hands with oil, making three signs of the cross.
“Come Holy Ghost, Creator blest,” sang the two. “Vouchsafe within our souls to rest; come with Thy grace and heavenly aid and fill the hearts which Thou hast made.”
Tears streamed down the cheeks of both men.
Afterward, as a brand new priest, Matthew felt ecstatic, believing his was a very special ordination. Perhaps, the most special.
I don’t belong to this world! he thought, as he rode his bicycle back to his mother’s home.
And his life was in for more changes. His elder brother, Joseph, had moved to the United States, in 1985, and opened a business that imported swim fins manufactured in China. On February 25, 1987, he sent a letter to Matthew, encouraging him to join him in America.
Unfortunately, there would be no reunion of the three Koo brothers. Their eldest brother, Dominic, who had left China in 1948 and was subsequently not allowed re-entry after the Communist regime closed the borders, eventually became a successful judge in Miami, Florida. But, even though never a smoker, he succumbed to lung cancer and died on February 23, 1981.
With hopes of leaving China and joining Joseph in America, Matthew retrieved his overcoat and ripped open a seam that he had sewn years earlier. The piece of paper with Father Ticozzi’s address was still there. He wrote a letter to Joseph.
“Dear Brother, I am in good condition now. I am teaching. I have a friend in Hong Kong. He would like to help me study abroad,” Matthew wrote, intentionally vague and cautious, for all letters could be read by the government.
Weeks later, Matthew wrote to Joseph a second letter, in which he included Father Ticozzi’s name and address in Hong Kong.
Joseph understood, and he contacted Father Ticozzi.
Communication and the process took many months, but the two men arranged for Matthew to attend the Catholic Theological Union, in Chicago, Illinois, and obtained from the seminary the Form I-20, which was a necessary document for Matthew to obtain his visa. He already had his passport.
Matthew traveled to the American consulate in Shanghai, where he met a man in charge of immigration. But the interview was not going well. Afraid his one opportunity to leave China was slipping away, he took a chance.
“Please,” he begged, “I was in seminary and was arrested, in 1955, with Bishop Kung, then I was in prison for 10 years and labor camp for 19 years.”
The young man looked at Matthew then left the room. He returned a few minutes later.
“I discussed it with the head consulate. We will give you a study visa, not because of your brother’s invitation, not because of the I-20 from the Catholic Theological Union, but because you suffered a lot in prison,” he said.
Matthew cried with happiness.
Days later, he was at his mother’s home, when he received an official looking envelope.
His sister Gertrude looked over his shoulder, as he opened it and looked at his visa.
She let out a gasp.
“What’s the matter?” he asked her.
“Brother, do you see the issue date? The date is September 7. You were arrested on September 8. You should be set free on September 7. The Chinese government did not set you free. The American consulate set you free. Now, you are really free,” Gertrude said.
Fearful that something could happen and that he could lose the opportunity to leave China, he wanted to leave as soon as possible. He quickly prepared for his departure.
The first of October, he said goodbye to his mother, who lay on a couch, as his younger sisters, Agnes and Gertrude, tried to distract her with laughter.
He looked at his frail mother, in failing health.
I will never see her again, he thought, grief-stricken.
Then Matthew, his sisters, and a few other family members all went together to the Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport. No one wanted to cry and dampen the celebratory feeling, so everyone kept the conversation light, as they stood outdoors and posed for a few last photographs.
Only when they stepped inside the airport, did Matthew and his two sisters cry.
“For 33 years, our brother had no freedom. Now, he has his freedom,” Gertrude said, wiping away the tears.
And then it was time to go. Matthew walked toward the departure gate, and with a final wave, he turned and stepped through the doorway.
On October 3, 1988, he arrived at Chicago O’Hare International Airport, with new luggage in his hands, new clothing on his back and a new home in his future.
Leaving the airplane through the jetway, he entered the terminal.
A priest walked up to him.
“Are you Matthew?” asked the priest.
“Yes. Yes, I am.”