A Catholic Love Story in Communist China
by Theresa Marie Moreau
First published in The Remnant Newspaper,
March and April 2007
March and April 2007
Deep waters cannot quench love, nor floods drown it. – Song of Songs 8:7
Joseph Ho stooped over his anesthetized patient lying on the operating table, belly up, a crimson-colored abdomen crimped open with hemostats dangling from pinched flesh.
On staff at Regional Administrative Hospital in southwest China, Joseph, a top surgeon at the age of 25, had been on call the night of July 4, 1960, when he had to perform the emergency surgery. That was to be his final night at the hospital, but he didn’t know it, yet.
Just as he located the intestinal blockage in his patient and was preparing to slice away the life-threatening section, Joseph heard the doors of the second-floor operating room slam open behind him.
“Stop the operation,” ordered the hospital superintendent as he entered, followed by two plainclothes officers, cadres from the Public Security Bureau.
Joseph, with scalpel in hand and a bit stunned from the sudden intrusion, looked up and stood back from his patient.
“Take off your gown, and follow these two men to the Public Security Bureau,” the hospital superintendent ordered.
Joseph had no choice. He had to surrender his patient, mid-surgery, to his first and second assistants, who scrambled to take care of the emergency and telephone for a backup surgeon to finish the operation. He put down his surgical instruments, and as soon as he had untied his face mask and removed his bloody gloves and gown, the two cadres pulled his arms behind his back, handcuffed him and led him away.
Minutes later, after a brief jeep ride, Joseph stood before two interrogators.
“Where are we?” one of them asked.
“The Public Security Bureau,” Joseph said.
“What do we do here?” they asked.
“Arrest people,” Joseph said.
“No. We arrest counterrevolutionaries. You are a counterrevolutionary,” they said.
Joseph was a Roman Catholic faithful to the Pope, which was (and still is) a major crime in Communist China, where Party members must be avowed atheists. Any Roman Catholic devoted to the Pope was (and still is) considered counterrevolutionary – counter to the People’s revolution, therefore an enemy of the People, an enemy of the Party, an enemy of Chairman Tse-Tung Mao, an enemy of China.
Before Joseph, they placed a detention paper. Repeatedly, they ordered him to sign. Repeatedly, he refused. Disgusted and done with him for the time being, they transferred him to Province Jail No. 3, where he underwent a thorough search. Authorities confiscated his eyeglasses, shoes, belt, almost everything, then led him to his cell, a 9-foot-by-9-foot room, which he shared with a dozen other men – not the best sort of men, either – for about a month.
No toilet, just a bucket in the corner for waste elimination. No water, so inmates could never wash and were infested with lice. One small peephole in the door, for the guard to watch the inmates. No bed, only the cement floor. No bedding, only a single sheet to cover the entire floor, which it did not. No heat, just occasional drafts of air. Two meals a day of rationed rotten rice covered with mold.
That was 1960, when everyone was gripped tightly in the death hold of the Great Chinese Famine (1959-61), and when no one in China – except top officials in the Communist Party – had enough to eat. An estimated 20 to 43 million Chinese died from starvation.
Like everyone else in China, Joseph constantly thought about food, especially as he was ordered to sit, all day every day, on the cement floor and think about his Catholic “crimes” against the People’s Government. At night, it was hard to fall asleep hungry, and he was unable to move, crammed between the other inmates. It seemed as soon as he shut his eyes, he was wakened by the clanging of keys in the cell door.
“Number 18! Come out! Follow me,” ordered the cadre.
Joseph struggled to his feet and stumbled to the interrogation room, where he was forced to stand, for hours and hours. Behind the bright light pointed directly toward his eyes, the voice of the interrogator hidden in the shadows repeated the same litany of questions. A secretary somewhere in the dark wrote down, by hand, everything that was said. During the periods of silence, the only sound was the scratching of pen on paper.
Joseph refused to answer the questions.
Thinking a little “encouragement” might help, cadres wrapped heavy chains – more than ten pounds – around Joseph’s legs. Around his wrists, they clamped French handcuffs and screwed them so tightly he could feel the blood circulation to his hands stop. Not sufficiently satisfied, one of the sadistic cadres looped a rope around the cuffs, then yanked up, pulling Joseph’s arms into the excruciating “jet-plane” position. Mosquitoes buzzed around, stinging him, as he was unable to move.
“We don’t give you torture,” one cadre said, laughing, slapping Joseph’s face.
“Yeah. We don’t give prisoners torture,” the other taunted, hitting Joseph.
For his lack of cooperation, his “bad attitude,” Joseph was marched to a different cell. It was solitary confinement for the next eight months. With his hands cuffed behind his back for six of those months, he had to bend over, to eat his meals off the floor. When he had to urinate, a fellow inmate had to help him. The treatment – inhuman.
Finally, on June 8, 1961, his cell door opened.
“Number 18, come out! Follow him,” said a man Joseph had never seen before.
“Stand over there,” said a second stranger, opening a briefcase and pulling out a paper, reading: “I announce the punishment for Joseph Ho, Cantonese, student, hospital doctor, age 26. You are an active counterrevolutionary, but you have no activity, so according to the Reeducation-Through-Labor Department, we punish you with three years reeducation through labor. If you want to appeal, you have three days.”
“Give me that paper. What evidence do you have against me?” Joseph said.
With that, the man stuffed the document back in the briefcase and left the room.
Joseph had only three days left to file an appeal, but he had no pencil, no paper. He had had no trial, no judge, no jury, no lawyer. His particular crime of being a counterrevolutionary was a civil matter, which – unlike a criminal matter – wasn’t required to go to court. Instead, his case and punishment had been discussed and decided upon by the Communists Party members in the Regional Administrative Hospital, the Public Security Bureau and the Reeducation-Through-Labor Department.
Two days later, on June 10, 1961, Joseph and two other prisoners left Province Jail No. 3, escorted by two gun-toting Public Security Bureau cadres who threatened to shoot the unshaven, dirt-encrusted, half-starved, half-naked men during the bus ride – on public transportation alongside regular commuters – and the subsequent forced march of several miles to a slave labor farm hidden in the beauty of the countryside.
For several months, Joseph worked in the fields planting and harvesting. Then he was assigned to cut down and haul trees through the forest. Barefoot. Everything he did barefoot – in the heat, in the rain, in the snow. His shoes had been confiscated the night of his arrest, and he hadn’t worn any since then.
Assigned to work in the coal mine, it was Joseph’s first day, with only minutes before he was to enter the tunnel, when a sudden explosion sent a plume of dirt and smoke out the entrance. More than forty prisoners died inside, where there were no safety precautions. After all, they were only prisoners, as far as the Communists were concerned. A light bulb, dangling from a wire, hit the ground and shattered, igniting a gas explosion.
On June 10, 1964, a cadre nonchalantly mentioned to Joseph, “You’re finished with your punishment, but you’re to stay on the farm. Go to the other camp, where you’ll become a detained employee. Forget about going back to the Regional Administrative Hospital, where you worked before.”
Joseph had been in custody since July 4, 1960. Why? Because he was a Roman Catholic.
One of the few benefits of being a detained employee was the opportunity to apply for a home visit. In 1965, Joseph received permission to visit his family in Shanghai. In November, he boarded a train for the three-day ride from southwest China back home to the international port city, where the Yangtze River flows into the East China Sea. But once there, he still faced pressure, for he had to immediately report to the Public Security Bureau’s local precinct, where he needed to present his visitation permission paper. It read: “Joseph Ho, Counterrevolutionary, to Shanghai, to visit for two weeks. Must report to Public Security Precinct. Under mass supervision.”
It was only a matter of hours before the local busybodies, who made up the neighborhood committee’s “mass supervision,” arrived at the Ho home to lecture Joseph and to instruct him on how to behave during his stay.
“While here, don’t do any activity against the government or the Communists. You must obey all the rules and report to us every day everything that you do. And return to the labor camp on time,” they warned him.
Throughout China, under the Communist cell system, all men, women and children were forced into cell units, small organized groups compelled to study and discuss Communist ideology. But their raison d’être was a raison d’état. Control. Communists are the ultimate control freaks. The rule of the cell unit – a snitch system extraordinaire – was to inform on anybody – regardless of relationship – who thought, spoke or acted against the People’s Government. Father, mother, brother, sister, husband, wife. They all meant nothing. The only important “being” was the People’s Government.
For Joseph, the cell system not only made life difficult, it made finding a wife nearly impossible. Plenty of women had showed an interest in him. He was handsome and intelligent. But he always thought having a girlfriend was too risky. He knew that he had to find a woman he could trust not to inform on him for practicing his religion. He knew he had to find a true Roman Catholic woman, one whom he could trust with his faith and his life.
During his home visit, Joseph visited one of his favorite places in Shanghai: the Classic Chinese Literature Bookstore. He nosed around the dusty bookshelves and poked through the stacks laid out in rows on the tables scattered throughout.
At one point, his youngest brother, Vincent, whispered, “That’s Magdalen, Michael’s fiancée,” and pointed in the direction of two young women standing across the room, about 15, 20 feet away.
Joseph looked up briefly. One of the women saw Vincent and waved. Vincent waved back. The other woman, Vincent didn’t know her.
Disinterested, nonetheless Joseph nodded out of politeness to the women, not paying much attention, then returned to browsing. He didn’t even notice when the women left. He bought two books – one of Chinese poetry and the other of calligraphy, then the two brothers left the bookstore and returned home.
Two days later, Michael talked to Joseph.
“That day you saw my fiancée, Magdalen, the other girl is Catherine. She’s a very good girl, with a very strong faith, and because of her faith, she was in the Legion of Mary. That’s why she was arrested seven years ago, and now she’s back in Shanghai ten days for a home visit. If you want to keep your faith, and if you like her, you can send a letter to her. She’s a very nice girl.”
“I need a girlfriend. Yes, I would like to send a letter to her.”
By that time, 32-year-old Catherine had already returned to her labor camp, hidden in the suburbs of Jing-Hua, in Zhejiang province. She was first arrested on September 8, 1955, the infamous night when hundreds of Catholic priests and laity were rounded up in Shanghai. She was released on October 10, 1956, then rearrested exactly two years later, on October 10, 1958, and charged with counterrevolutionary activity because of her involvement with the Legion of Mary, a Catholic laity organization. When she had completed her seven-year sentence on October 10, 1965, she became a detained employee. And like Joseph, she had been in Shanghai for her first home visit that November 1965.
By the time Catherine had received her first letter from Joseph, she had already mailed one to him, at his labor camp. But he was still in Shanghai, trying to figure out a way to stay there. Some how, some way, there had to be way. And there was. The bad luck of his father’s cousin turned out to be Joseph’s good luck. His relative had a severe of lung tuberculosis, for which he had received a medical certificate from a hospital declaring his condition.
Joseph visited him and begged, “Help me. I want to stay in Shanghai.”
When his relative handed him the health certificate, Joseph was overjoyed. All he had to do was make it look like his by bleaching out his relative’s name and replace it with his, which wasn’t so simple in Communist China, where everything – even the simplest chemical – was hard to get in those days. But with his knowledge of chemistry, he did it, and with his ingenuous use of semi-transparent paper, needle and ink, he was able to reproduce the official stamp over the newly inserted photo of his face.
He hoped it would work.
Please, Blessed Mother, help me get through this dangerous situation, he prayed before he left his home and headed to the police precinct. He needed permission to stay in Shanghai.
“Why have you come here?” the official asked.
“I have lung tuberculosis, and I need treatment,” Joseph said.
“Do you have a medical certificate from the hospital stating so?”
“Yes. I have a certificate. I’ve already had one treatment.”
“Give it to me.”
Joseph handed the doctored document to the official, who looked at. When he stood up, walked over to a cabinet, opened a drawer and pulled out a magnifying glass, Joseph prayed, God, help me. Blessed Mother, help me.
The official sat down and leaned forward with the magnifying glass in front of his eyes. He inched closer, inspecting the paper.
“Oh, my stomach!” Joseph faked, moaning and bending over to distract the official.
“I don’t know. Something painful.”
Irritated, the official banged the desk and signed the certificate, saying, “Take it. Get out! Three months, then you must get out of Shanghai.”
Joseph could stay for three more months, but that day, when he returned to his home, the neighborhood committee – who checked in on him every few days – was at his house wondering why he hadn’t left yet. They worried that such a counterrevolutionary was not a “safe” person to have around.
Joseph waved his permission paper before the snoops.
Miffed, they warned him, “You are not to go any place. But if you do go any place, you must report to us.”
So Joseph stayed in Shanghai and had time to write several letters to Catherine. And she wrote to him. But since all mail that went in and out of labor camps was read by the cadres, the two kept the topics superficial. They exchanged photos.
Joseph was still in Shanghai in August 1966, when the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-76) erupted, prompted by the life-and-death struggle for power at the top in the Communist Party. That was when Mao tried to get rid of Shao-Qi Liu, Chairman of the People’s Republic of China (1959-68), the man who publicly blamed Mao for the Great Chinese Famine. Enraged, Mao secretly plotted against Liu and eventually rallied the revolutionary Red Guards, the youth of China. Their mission: Destroy anyone and anything that didn’t support Mao or his revolution. Mao was held up as the god of China, the savior of the People. Anything that he said was a commandment.
In September 1966, about a month after Mao had unleashed his Red Guards, Joseph and his family heard a loud banging at their front door, which they dared not open. Red Guards, all young men and women with red bands on their upper arms, proceeded to break down the door. Once inside, more than sixty of the enraged youths searched for treasure such as jewelry and money then destroyed everything in the house that represented the “Four Olds” of morality: old tradition, old thought, old culture, old custom. That included the letters from Catherine, and her photo.
All six Ho brothers – Paul, 33, Joseph, 31, Tony, 29, Michael, 27, Lawrence, 25, and Vincent, 22, – were arrested, as was their 56-year-old mother, Mary. Joseph’s 58-year-old father, Joseph Sr., had been arrested in 1954, because of his Catholic faith, and was sent away to a labor camp, where he remained until 1978.
Within a month, his mother and brothers were released. Joseph was returned to his labor camp in southwest China, where he began writing to Catherine again.
“I hope we can still continue our dating,” he wrote.
He didn’t receive a letter, but he sent another. And another and another.
After one year, when he hadn’t heard from Catherine, he thought the possibility of a relationship with her was finished. He speculated. Maybe she had been transferred to another labor camp. Maybe she had changed her mind. He never knew her fate. He never knew his own fate. The fate of everyone relied on the ever-changing whims of the People’s Government. Everyone in China lived under the fear of the unknown unforeseeable future – the Red Terror.
He had no idea why she did not write back.
He tried writing again. Still nothing.
Again, he tried.
One year. Two years. Three years. In all that time, he never received a single word from her. He felt it was hopeless. After sending her more than twenty letters in three years, he never once received an answer. Yet, he still thought of her. Same faith, same problems. Both wanted a Catholic family. Both labeled counterrevolutionaries.
If God wills for me to marry Catherine, then he will give us the grace to be a Catholic family. I hope we can become a family, he prayed every night, before he went to sleep. He prayed in his heart, because he could not openly pray in the dormitory room he shared with the other detained employees.
One day, in 1969, a cadre arrived at the labor camp hospital for treatment.
“Do you have a friend in Zhejaing province?” the cadre unexpectedly asked Joseph.
Joseph thought for a moment.
“No. I don’t have any friends there.”
When the cadre left, Joseph thought about the cadre’s question. He had asked for a reason. Joseph was very suspicious. The question worried him.
Why did he suddenly ask me that question? Maybe they have a case that may be connected to me, which they are investigating now. There might be something wrong.
So he mulled it over and over.
Finally. Oooh, Catherine is in that province. Catherine is in Jing-Hua city. That’s why he asked me that question. Maybe she sent letters to me, but they opened and read the letters and didn’t give the letters to me from 1966 to 1969.
Joseph needed to find a way around the authorities. He needed to get a letter to Catherine without the cadres in his labor camp intervening. In a labor camp, all letters sent to the outside were collected by cadres who opened and read each one then decided whether or not to send it. The same was true of all letters received by a labor camp. Each was opened and read, then it would be decided whether or not to forward them to the intended recipient.
So Joseph knew that he needed to find someone outside the labor camp, someone who would send his letters for him. Lucky for him, he worked at the hospital, where he not only treated prisoners, detainees, cadres and the families of cadres, but he also treated farmers and other workers from the surrounding areas that had no hospital.
It was the spring of 1969, when he dared to approach a farmer he treated.
“Can you help me send a letter outside the labor camp, to my fiancée, then let her letter come to you, and each time you come to me, you can bring the letter?” Joseph asked.
“Yes. I’ll take the risk,” the farmer said.
And a risk it was. If it were discovered that the farmer was acting as an intermediary between Catherine and Joseph, he could have been arrested.
Finally, Catherine received a letter. She immediately sent a reply, which Joseph received.
The relationship picked up.
They decided to marry.
In the summer of 1969, Joseph began submitting requests, in writing, for permission to go back to Shanghai to get married.
“No. You can’t go. You can’t marry,” they told him.
“Why can’t I marry?”
“Because in 1965, we gave you two weeks for a home visit, and you didn’t come back. The Red Guards arrested you in 1966 and sent you back, so we can’t trust you. We can’t allow you to go back to Shanghai to get married.”
Joseph asked a second time, third, fourth, fifth. Always, the answer, no.
He had an idea. He decided to play hardball.
“If you don’t let me go to Shanghai to get married, I refuse to work in the hospital. I’d rather work on the farm as a laborer,” he told them. It was a well thought out tactical move. He knew he was too valuable to them in the hospital.
The pressure worked. They needed a good doctor. Unlike Joseph, who had graduated from medical school, most of the medical personnel in labor camp were cadres who only had in-the-field training and had never received any formal education. There were also the “barefoot doctors,” countryside youth trained in basic medical procedures, such as taking a pulse or a temperature. They were more like a nurse’s aid, not even at the level of a fully trained nurse.
“OK. We’ll give you two weeks to go back to Shanghai, but you need to write down your guarantee that you’ll be back on time.”
“OK. I’ll write down my guarantee. I’ll be back on time.”
Catherine asked officials at her labor camp for permission to go to Shanghai to get married. Permission granted.
So the newly betrothed couple set a date: Monday, December 8, 1969, Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Again, Joseph hopped on a train headed east. After another three-day ride, he arrived in Shanghai on December 6 and anxiously awaited his bride to be.
But on December 8, Catherine’s older sister received a telegram. Suddenly the cadres had changed their minds.
“I cannot come back to Shanghai,” Catherine wrote. “We must marry at the labor camp, under their supervision.”
Joseph had no choice.
So on December 9, 1969, around midnight, he took a bus to Shanghai’s North Station and boarded a steam-powered train. Six hours later, in the pre-dawn hours of December 10, he arrived at a small depot built especially for the labor camp. He was nearly alone. Only a few others disembarked. He approached them.
“Where is the women’s labor camp?” he asked.
“Just go that way, about ten miles,” they said, pointing.
It was nearly 6 in the morning. With the long nights and short days of winter, the sky was still dark. The air, bitter cold, with a biting wind that cut through his shabby and stained, drab-colored Communist cotton coat and trousers. His shoes, a pair of simple, rubber-soled Chinese sneakers did little to keep his feet warm as he walked along the frozen tufts of mud to Catherine’s labor camp.
He toted along a few belongings – toothbrush, comb, razor, a pair of socks – wrapped up in a cloth bag. Joseph was so poor, he would be Catherine’s only wedding present. Even though he was a third-generation medical doctor, he had no money. His family had no money. Everything taken by the regime for the “People.” During the Cultural Revolution, the Communists had “swept out” the family and confiscated their home.
About thirty minutes after he had begun his walk, he saw a shadow, someone walking toward him. He walked forward to ask for directions.
“Excuse me. Where is the women’s labor camp?” he asked.
“Are you Joseph?”
“I’m Catherine,” she said excitedly.
That was the first time they actually heard each other’s voice.
They rushed toward one another. Joseph reached for Catherine’s hand. So happy. So excited.
Even in the dark, they could see each other.
She’s beautiful, he thought. Soft and gentle.
He’s dressed so poorly, Catherine thought. Everyone at the labor camp will see him and see how poorly he’s dressed.
“My cadre gave me permission to go to the train station to pick you up,” she said.
They walked. They held hands. Catherine soon forgot about Joseph’s clothes. They talked and talked and talked. About their faith. About their future. About the Church. About the Communists. About how even though the Communists were strong, the Church – which had survived 2,000 years – was even stronger and would outlast and outlive Mao. After all, it had seen the death of Adolf Hitler, of Josef Stalin, of Vladimir Lenin.
The two arrived at the headquarters of her labor camp. Joseph had to register his visit immediately with the authorities.
“Do you have an approval document to come here?” the cadre asked.
Joseph showed them his permission paper.
“Joseph Ho. Counterrevolutionary. Permitted two weeks to go to Shanghai for marriage. After arrival in Shanghai, he must report to the Public Security Bureau’s local precinct. Under mass supervision. He must return to labor camp on time.”
When the cadre saw Joseph’s political status, counterrevolutionary, he started to hesitate, with a look on his face of, Marriage? No marriage? He slipped into an inner office and picked up the phone to call his senior officer.
“There must be trouble,” Catherine whispered. “Pray. Ask Our Lady, Help of Christians to help us to get through.”
If Joseph couldn’t register for a visit, they couldn’t marry.
As soon as he had silently prayed, Mother, helper of Christians, help us to become a family, the cadre returned.
“Since we asked you to come to the labor camp to marry, we’ll allow you to stay here one week, and we’ll give you a room to stay together,” he told them.
“Can we go to the village to register our marriage?” they asked.
“You can go,” he said.
Walking to their room, Joseph whispered to Catherine, “First thing, as soon as it’s light, we must go to the marriage department to register our marriage before they change their minds.”
They arrived at their honeymoon suite: a small room, empty, except for a poster of Mao, and beside him was another poster with three Chinese characters of Three Loyalties: Loyalty to Mao, Loyalty to Mao Thought, Loyalty to Mao’s Proletarian Revolution.
As soon as the first daylight appeared, they walked the several miles to the nearby village. For their civil wedding ceremony, each wore their Mao uniform: pants and jacket. There was no exchange of rings, no formal pronouncement of husband and wife, no kiss, no flowers, no first dance. As proof, each received a marriage certificate, complete with a photo of Mao smiling at them.
God had been their witness.
They searched for a photo shop to have a picture taken to commemorate the day, but they found none in the village.
For their wedding feast, they found one restaurant where they could celebrate their nuptials – an open-air noodle stall that had no door and no windows, just a few rickety tables and chairs inside. The cook stood over the stove tucked into a corner in the back of the room. They could have anything they wanted, just as long as it was noodles. Plain noodles, with a splash of soy sauce and a few drops of oil. Everything was rationed and in short supply. They paid with the coupons everyone needed to make all purchases. Joseph and Catherine sat down and enjoyed their banquet of noodles.
Returning to their love nest, they needed to make their marriage bed. They went outside and searched for scattered bricks, for which they needed permission to use. They found a board to put on top of the bricks, and Catherine walked the five minutes to her dormitory to retrieve her mattress.
It was cold. No heat. No water. Just Mao’s portrait, which could not be removed, under any circumstances. Everyone had heard stories of those who had shown disrespect to the mere portrait of Mao and were executed on the spot. So Catherine borrowed a mosquito net and hung it in on the wall, obscuring Mao’s face. They laughed.
Settled back in their room, Joseph kissed Catherine for the first time. That night, they stayed together in the same bed.
I’m so lucky. God gave me this present, this angel, he thought.
The following day after the marriage, Joseph’s brother Michael arrived at the labor camp, bringing with him new clothes for Joseph, some food for the newlyweds and a very simple camera that he had illegally purchased from a Cambodian visiting China who needed money.
First thing, Michael had to check in with labor camp officials and show them the obligatory paperwork.
“Do you have documents?” the cadre asked.
“Yes, I’m a worker. I have a worker’s document,” Michael said.
“Oh, you’re a worker. Good,” said the cadre, glad to have an official proletariat around for a visit. “You can stay overnight. But let me tell you that your sister-in-law is no good. She’s not close with the People’s Government. She’s no good.”
“In the labor camp, she never reports other people. She never turns other people in.”
That’s good, Michael thought as he told the cadre, “I will educate them how to be close with the People’s Government.”
Michael started to leave, but turned and asked, “Can I take a picture of them in the labor camp?”
“No. You can never take a picture inside the labor camp. It’s not allowed.”
“OK. I won’t take any pictures.”
Michael spent the night. The next morning, Joseph and Catherine walked with him part of the way to the train station, and on the way, they found a hillside. With no one else around, Michael secretly took three pictures.
On December 17, 1969, Joseph had to return to his labor camp on the other side of China. Camp authorities permitted Catherine to walk with him to the train station to see him off, then she had to return to work. She had no choice.
Before he even left, Joseph felt lost, like he had lost Catherine. He didn’t know when he would see her again, when they would be together again, when they would have a family. He thought it would be six months at the most, maybe. He hoped.
They walked together to the depot. He cried. She cried. They held hands. They wiped each other’s tears.
Then Joseph boarded the train. They watched each other until they could no longer see each other.
They didn’t know if they would ever see each other again.
Six months passed. Joseph hadn’t seen his bride, Catherine, since December 17, 1969, the day he had been forced to board a train and leave her labor camp in eastern China and return to his in the southwest They had only been married for one week.
Joseph filed a petition with the authorities at his labor camp, asking for permission to visit her.
No, was the answer.
After another six months passed, Joseph filed a second petition. It had been one year since he had seen Catherine.
More petitions. Two years passed.
For three years Joseph and Catherine didn’t see each other. He was not allowed to go to her labor camp, and she was not allowed to visit his. Their only communication was through letters, always read by labor camp cadres before mailed out or handed out, which makes it a little hard to be romantic.
Finally, Joseph spoke with authorities at his labor camp.
“My marriage, for what? We’ve been married for three years, and we can’t see each other. This isn’t a marriage. We have to live together, like a couple.”
Joseph requested that he move to her labor camp.
“We need you here. You can’t move,” they told him.
He approached Cadre Zhan-Xing Li, the labor camp’s second in command. Li was a decent guy, as far as cadres went, for cadres were the professional revolutionaries, the foot soldiers, the brass-knuckled goon squad of the Communist Party, whether wielding power on the battlefield, in the countryside villages, cities or labor camps.
“If I can’t transfer, why can’t you move my wife here, to this labor camp?” Joseph asked.
“It’s impossible, because there has never been a transfer before,” Li said. “However, I’ll try to help you get permission to get her transferred from there to here. I’ll send a request asking them to transfer her here.”
Li made good on his word and sent a request letter to Catherine’s labor camp, directly to her officer.
Li sent a second request.
Still no answer. By that time, it had been nearly four years since Catherine and Joseph had last seen one another.
“There’s no response. Maybe it’s hopeless,” Li told Joseph.
“Please. Will you try again?”
“OK. I’ll try again. We’ll do our best.”
The third time, Catherine’s supervisors responded.
They said yes.
On December 21, 1973, Joseph was told to report to the office. When he walked in, he saw Catherine, smiling and very happy, with a few pieces of luggage at her feet. The last time they had seen each other was December 17, 1969.
For their first home, they were given a single room. No heat. No water. Just a clay floor and four clay walls. Not even a ceiling. On Christmas Eve, they snuggled in bed and looked dreamily up into the darkened sky and watched the stars slowly float from east to west.
“Oh. It’s really Christmas, and we are in the manger,” Catherine said.
Catherine was first assigned to work in the fields. The following spring, she was transferred to the labor camp’s tea workshop, where she sat before a wok over an open flame and dry roasted tealeaves.
When Xiao-Ping Deng, best known as the Leader of China (1978-79), announced his Open Door Policy in December 1978, thus opening China to the world for trade, English teachers became hot properties. Even though English was the lingua franca in the world of global commerce, very few Chinese knew English, preferring to learn Russian to communicate with their Communist comrades. With her Catholic school education, Catherine was one of those few Chinese who did. Officials in the labor camp transferred her from the tea workshop to the labor camp classroom, where she taught English to the officers’ children.
Joseph continued working in the labor camp hospital during the day. In the evenings, he avoided the two-hour, nightly ideology brainwashing sessions with its confessions and accusations. The brigade chief was Cantonese like Joseph and felt a kinship to him; therefore, he let Joseph skip the sessions and use that time to open his medical office. Laborers, who couldn’t see him during the day when they worked, could see him at night. And, of course, a doctor needed an assistant, so he enlisted Catherine to help distribute medicine after she finished teaching.
After work, they went to their room and closed the door to the rest of the world. They prayed and lived their secret religious life. As devout Catholics, they had to keep their faith a secret. A cradle Catholic, Joseph had been forced to learn by rote many prayers in ancient Chinese as a first- and second-grade student at Sacred Heart Catholic School in Shanghai. It was those prayers that he taught to Catherine, who had converted to Catholicism on May 13, 1950, when the Rev. Fr. Shi-Xian “Joseph” Shen baptized her. Shen was a much-loved priest later arrested for his faith, along with the Rev. Fr. W. Aedan McGrath, on September 7, 1951. Shen died in Ward Road Prison (former name of Tilanqiao Prison) in January 1953.
After their nightly prayers, Joseph and Catherine lay in bed and discussed their cases.
Catherine had been arrested because she had joined the Legion of Mary, a laity-based religious organization (spearheaded in China by McGrath) that consisted of thousands of lay Catholics throughout China who refused to give in to the Communists when ordered to break with the Pope. They were to join China’s independent, official catholic church established in 1949, the Three-Self Reform Movement, so-called for its aim to be self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating.
When Mao discovered the Communist version of Catholicism wasn’t catching on and that the Roman Catholic Church was not only still alive, but flourishing, he was furious. He dispatched spies to find the culprit, which was none other than the Legion of Mary, which he labeled Public Enemy No. 1. Members were ordered to resign. Very few did.
Catherine did not, and was arrested for being a counterrevolutionary – which means counter or opposed to the Marxist revolution. She became a political prisoner, so her case would be very difficult to correct.
Joseph’s case was different. Although accused of having joined the Legion of Mary, he never had and there was absolutely no proof. And during his interrogations, they had never asked any questions that linked him to any actual counterrevolutionary activity. So he and Catherine believed there was no paper trail, leaving him a chance of correcting his case. All he needed to do was send an appeal, which couldn’t be done from the labor camp. He had to wait for a home visit.
But first, he needed to know what evidence, if any, they had against him. He had to find out what was in his secret file. In China, all secret files – even those of Communists – are kept under lock and key by the Public Security Bureau and never shown to the accused. Even for Communist members, it’s not easy to get their hands on their own files, so for Joseph, it was even more difficult.
Again, Joseph asked his cadre friend for help.
“Cadre Li, I’ve been in the labor camp for thirteen years. They charged me as an active counterrevolutionary, but I never received any written proof. They gave me three years reeducation through labor, and they never showed me any evidence of what I did wrong,” Joseph said.
In Communist China, there are two types of counterrevolutionaries. An historical counterrevolutionary is one who worked for the former government before the Communists took power. An active counterrevolutionary is one who began activities after the Communist takeover on October 1, 1949.
Joseph had been charged as an active counterrevolutionary.
“I don’t know your case, but I can let you see your secret file. Nobody can see their files, not even Communist members, but you’re special to me, because you helped my daughter,” Li said.
When Li’s only daughter was very young, she was extremely sick with gastritis, an intestinal problem, and Joseph treated and cured her. Li’s wife, who was an accountant, a very powerful position in the labor camp, was able to get access to documents not readily accessible to most. She would be able to retrieve Joseph’s secret file.
“I’ll help you, because I know you’re not a bad person. Tomorrow, come to my house and pretend to give my daughter treatment. I’ll bring your secret file, and you can read it in my house,” Li told Joseph. “But don’t tell anyone. If you do, or if anyone finds out, I’ll get in trouble, and you’ll get in trouble. Both of us will have trouble.”
The next day, Joseph walked to the Li home. As he sat down, he held in his hands for the first time his file, a folder stuffed with paper, almost three inches thick. And he had only one hour to read and digest the whole thing.
What he found out pained him.
A former classmate at St. Francis Xavier High School, who was an organist at Joseph’s parish, Christ the King Church in Shanghai, had reported him.
But no evidence.
He read on.
His roommate and very good friend in medical school had accused him during the 1955 anti-Wu Feng anti-rightist campaign that Mao had ordered to denounce Feng and any other writer or intellectual who did not give in to the Communists and peddle their propaganda.
So far, no evidence, only forced false accusations.
His cousin had reported that Joseph’s family was an extremely reactionary family. Why? Because they were Catholic.
His father, Joseph Sr. was a second-generation doctor, arrested after being accused of being a counterrevolutionary for helping a neighbor, a Belgian priest. When the priest was arrested, on the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25, 1953, so was Joseph’s father, who was soon released. However, he was arrested again on August 19, 1954, when Communists falsely accused him of being a special agent for Kai-Shek Chiang, the Generalissimo of the Nationalist People’s Party (Kuomintang). The charges were all a fabrication, a character assassination.
Still, no solid evidence.
He read on.
Joseph’s grandfather, Paul Hall, was a very famous doctor in the Church in Shanghai. He did a lot of charity work in orphanages and nursing homes, totally free of charge, for which he received, in the 1920s, a knighthood in the Order of St. Sylvester.
When the Communists took over China in 1949 and started the Three-Self Reform Movement, they tried to coerce the best-known and most-loved Catholics to renounce the Pope and to join the independent Chinese catholic church. Most refused. Joseph’s grandfather was one of those.
For three days they confined him in isolation in the Public Security Bureau.
Finally, Joseph’s grandfather said, “OK, I’ll help.”
It was a ruse.
As soon as the Communists released him, he began planning with his three brothers how to escape from mainland China to the nearby island of Macau, a Portuguese colony. He had no choice. He had to leave China. Hong Kong would be the most predictable escape route, so Joseph’s grandfather and his brothers thought that he should hide first in northern China. It worked. The Communists did send special agents to the south border to wait for him. After one month, they suspected that he had already slipped through, and they gave up. Joseph’s grandfather waited in the north one more month then traveled to the south and made a successful escape to Macau.
Still, no evidence against Joseph.
He continued reading.
One day in 1951, Joseph’s mother went to visit her elderly nanny, who had taken care of her when she was young. She took many presents and food treats as gifts.
“Why is it so hard to buy food? We have money, but can’t buy food because of a shortage. We go to the shop, and the shelves were all empty. Nothing,” her nanny said.
It was a common complaint on everyone’s lips those days.
Mother said, “They send the food to Russia in exchange for weapons.”
It was true. The Chinese Communists had sent “volunteer” troops to North Korea to help in the fight they called the War to Resist America and Aid Korea. China needed weapons. Moscow had weapons. China had food. They exchanged, even if it meant that the Chinese people went without, which they did.
Two days after his mother visited her nanny, a woman arrived at their house and ordered Joseph’s mother to go to the Public Security Bureau. She had no idea why or what she had done.
They scolded her. “You’re a counterrevolutionary. You spread rumors that we send food to Russia! Since this is the first time, we’ll only give you a warning. Next time, you will be arrested.”
His mother didn’t know who reported her. Certainly, she couldn’t believe her nanny did. Almost twenty years after the incident, Joseph found who had.
The nanny’s 7-year-old granddaughter had eavesdropped on the conversation between the two women. The girl reported the conversation to her political instructor, who reported it to the Public Security Bureau. On the day of the visit, Joseph’s mother noticed that the girl had worn a red scarf, the uniform of the Young Pioneers of China, a cell unit that brainwashed the youth of China to find and report the “bad guys,” the enemies of the People’s Government, no matter who they were.
“I do not love my mother, I do not love my father, I only love my country,” was a chant commonly taught to children.
Joseph had looked through his entire file and found no solid evidence. He could start writing his appeal, to correct his case. He just needed to find opportunities to get out of the labor camp to deliver his written pleas.
At times, it was necessary to transfer patients from the labor camp hospital to the Regional Administrative Hospital, where he had once worked and where he had been arrested. And like most hospitals in China, it was corrupt and would often not accept a patient without a bribe. Since Joseph had worked there before his arrest and was well respected by the admissions staff, his patients were usually accepted without a bribe. So the labor camp most often sent Joseph to accompany the patients.
The trips provided him with opportunities, every now and then, to either send or deliver in person his handwritten appeals to the different departments that were needed to sign off on his case.
But nothing happened. No luck.
From 1973 to 1978, he sent out dozens of appeals and never received a single answer.
But God was good. During that time, Catherine and Joseph had a son born in February 1975. He also received the Christian name of Joseph.
Then, finally, Joseph got a break. A former classmate who worked in the regional hospital recommended that he talk to a particular man in the Communist Party’s Inform Department that accepted appeals.
Joseph sought his help.
“Your case,” the man told him, “is very difficult to open, because all the arrests were ordered by the chief of the municipal Public Security Bureau, and your case cannot be opened unless he opens it. Only he has the key to open your case. But we can’t go against him. If we correct your case, it means what he did was wrong. And because he has the power to arrest, if we go against him, he could make trouble and arrest people.”
But Catherine and Joseph never gave up hope. They continued to pray. They believed God would help them. Even if people couldn’t, God could.
One day, Joseph went again with a patient to the Regional Administrative Hospital, and while he was there, again he visited his former classmate.
“I have good news,” he told Joseph. “The chief of the municipal Public Security Bureau has a problem. He asked me to help.”
“What kind of problem?” Joseph asked.
“He has only one son, and after eight years of marriage, no child,” he said.
The son was infertile because of a congenital deformity, for which he needed an operation. Local surgeons had already operated twice, but both attempts failed. The son needed to see a specialist. Only in Shanghai could a urological surgeon be found.
According to Confucius, not having a son is a great shame upon the entire family. People would think the chief and his son were both evil because there was no successor. To save his reputation, the chief desperately wanted a grandson.
The chief had asked Joseph’s classmate, “Could you help find a urologist in Shanghai to correct my son’s problem?”
“I don’t know anyone in Shanghai. I am not originally from Shanghai, but maybe you can find Dr. Ho. His family is originally from Shanghai. His father, his grandfather, his uncle were all doctors. He must know some good urologists in Shanghai. Maybe you can find him, and you can talk to him,” the classmate told the chief.
“I wouldn’t be comfortable talking to Dr. Ho. I had him arrested,” the chief said.
“Let me talk with him. We’re good friends.”
“OK. You can talk to Dr. Ho.”
That was good news. No. That was great news.
“If you can help him, he’ll help you,” Joseph’s classmate told him. “He’ll correct your case. Everything will be fine.”
Joseph arranged everything.
His aunt, who worked in the People’s No. 1 Hospital in Shanghai, was able to find the urologist. And not only did Joseph’s family find the specialist, but they welcomed the chief’s son to stay in their home for almost an entire month before the operation, so he could register for and establish temporary residence to be permitted to be treated by a surgeon in Shanghai, rather than one near his registered home.
The son’s operation, a success. After six months, the wife conceived. And not only were they going to have a baby, they were going to have a son. The family, the chief especially, was overjoyed. His honor would be saved.
Joseph was overjoyed, too. Finally. Finally he would have the chance to have his case corrected.
One day in August 1978, Joseph accompanied a patient to the Regional Administrative Hospital and decided to attempt a visit to the chief. Before he had helped the chief’s son, Joseph could never even get past the guard at the front desk in the Public Security Bureau. That day in August was different.
“Who do you want to see?” the guard asked at the door.
“I want to see the chief,” he said.
“What’s your name?” the guard asked.
The guard made a call.
“Let him in,” the chief said.
So Joseph went to his office.
“Sit down, please. Please, sit down,” said the chief, fawning over Joseph. “Pour the tea for him” he ordered the servant.
Before Joseph had a chance to talk or to sip his tea, the chief spoke, “I know your situation. Don’t worry. Be patient. Go back to your labor camp. I will totally solve your problem. Just be patient, and go back. In several months, I’ll correct your case. Don’t worry.”
Four months later, in December 1978 Joseph finally received the letter of good tidings for which he had waited for so long.
He ripped open the envelope and read: “In the 1960s, the international political situation was very dangerous, and we suspected that Kai-Shek Chiang had contacted mainland China. Under that situation, we suspected that Joseph Ho was a spy, so we arrested him and placed him in the labor camp under our supervision. In the labor camp, he was treated as a counterrevolutionary, which was not correct. We learned that he was not a counterrevolutionary. We permit his release from the labor camp and to return to work at Regional Administrative Hospital, where he worked before.”
The letter had not only excused Joseph, but it had given him back his old job. He moved out of the labor camp and began to think of ways how to get his wife and son out.
Again, the Public Security Bureau chief, who was in charge of the cadres in the labor camp, stepped in. He went to the labor camp, personally, and spoke with the head cadre.
“Release Catherine Ho and permit her to move with her husband out of the labor camp and into the hospital,” he ordered.
“How can I release her? Her case has not been corrected. She is still a labor camp detained employee. We need an English teacher in labor camp school. We cannot release her.”
“Who is in charge?” the chief yelled, pounding the desk. “Whoever is responsible, release her!”
Catherine was released in December 1978.
But she needed a job.
Again, the chief helped. He phoned the education department, “I know a very good English teacher. Can you find a position for her in the No. 2 Regional Administrative School?”
After school administrators learned how powerful the chief was, they immediately found a position for Catherine. Happy to get a good English teacher, they also provided her with a two-bedroom apartment, complete with a dining room, an almost-unheard of luxury.
Once out of the labor camp, a small concentration camp, Joseph and Catherine wanted to get out of China, the big concentration camp. They wanted to get to the free world. Their next dreamed-for destination: Hong Kong, then-ruled by the British.
They decided to really work at endearing themselves to the chief and his family.
Almost every week, after work, at least two or three times a week, Joseph, Catherine and little Joseph visited the chief and his family, to see their baby. And they didn’t go empty-handed. They made sure they always took a gift for the baby. Catherine’s parents, in Hong Kong, mailed her a little money and a package every month. One time they sent a calculator, another time a hi-fi record player, both rare items in China at that time and highly prized as gifts.
At first, Joseph and Catherine never mentioned their long-range goal of moving to Hong Kong, until they secretly agreed that Catherine would talk to the chief’s wife, to feel out the situation. It was still dangerous, because they could be charged as traitors if they wanted to go to Hong Kong, a capitalist country. So they had to proceed very cautiously when they tested her.
“I’m the only daughter,” Catherine fibbed. Her older sister was still in Shanghai, and was also trying to get to Hong Kong to be with their parents.
“My father has not seen me for more than twenty-six years,” she continued. That was the truth. “They have property in Hong Kong and no other children there. If they die without any children to inherit the property, the British will take over the property. So we need to go to Hong Kong to receive the property, then we will come back to China.”
Several times she dropped Hong Kong into the conversation.
Finally, the wife said, “Let me talk to my husband,” which she did.
During a subsequent visit, she told Catherine, “My husband will consider your application.”
One night, the chief announced, “I have some good news. I can help you to get out of China and go to Hong Kong to receive the property, but first we need a letter from your parents.”
After a few weeks and with a lawyer’s letter about the property, the chief made sure it was approved up the local, municipal ladder, at each rung of each department.
Then Joseph needed to go to the provincial Public Security Bureau to get approval from the state.
A dead end.
Joseph went back to the chief.
“Your boss didn’t approve us to go to Hong Kong,” Joseph said.
“Let me think about it. Let me talk to him,” the chief said.
After two weeks, the chief had an update, and a request.
“I need a Sony color television, 32-inch screen,” he said.
In those days, there was only one television station in the whole of China, in Beijing, that aired programs in color. Nonetheless, Catherine sought help from her parents, who were very smart. They didn’t buy just one, they bought two: one for the provincial chief and one for the municipal chief.
Everyone was happy.
All Joseph needed to do was travel to visit the provincial chief, to get his applications approved. He had been directed to go to the chief’s home in the middle of the night, which he did. He knocked. Through the door, cracked open only a couple inches, he was told to go the following day, at 10 a.m. to the chief’s office.
The next morning, the chief took Joseph’s two application forms. In order to save himself embarrassment, he made excuses – flimsy ones – when he explained why he had not approved Joseph’s original application.
“See. Here, your application is not good. There, it is not good. And the picture, too big,” he said. “Don’t worry. I’ll give you a new application. Let me show you how to fill out the form.”
He filled out the two forms, one for Catherine and the other for both Joseph and their son.
“Oh, your picture, it’s too big. But that’s no problem. I can just use the scissors. See? Cut it a little smaller. Now, it’s OK,” the boss said, snipping off the slimmest piece from the photo.
Finally, with a boom, he stamped the application.
It was almost unbelievable. Joseph and Catherine arranged to leave in days. They packed only a few belongings, left everything else behind and flew to Canton. The train would have been too slow. The next day they headed for the border.
It was July 27, 1979. Very hot. Very crowded. Thousands and thousands of people waiting in a never-ending line at the checkpoint. Everyone hoped their name would be on the waiting list, the waiting list to get across the border. Only seventy-two people were able to cross the border that day.
Joseph, Catherine and 4-year-old Joseph Jr. finally made their way to the guard.
“No. She can’t go. Her name is not on the waiting list,” the cadre said.
Prepared, Joseph had purchased twenty packs of imported Marlboro cigarettes and put them in a zippered bag, just in case. He had prepared well.
“I can’t take care of the child if my wife can’t go,” Joseph said, as he cautiously moved the bag toward the cadre who saw it was filled with American cigarettes.
The cadre took the bag.
Joseph thought, Oh, I have hope. He took the bag.
“OK. Wait one hour. If somebody on the waiting list can’t go, maybe she’ll have a chance.”
They waited one hour. They asked him again.
“Go! Go immediately.”
It was about noon when Joseph, Catherine and little Joseph – on his father’s back – all held hands as they walked across the famous and lengthy Lo Wu Bridge connecting mainland China to Hong Kong.
Catherine was so scared, she didn’t know if they were still in China.
“Did we already arrive in Hong Kong?” Catherine asked.
Joseph looked overhead, “Oh, the flag is a British flag. We’re out of hell. Thank God, we’re free now.”
Exhausted and thirsty from the heat and humidity, they bought one can of Coca Cola from a peddler on the street at the station and shared their first drink in freedom.
They looked around and saw the beautiful buildings.
“Maybe we don’t have enough money to get to my parents,” Catherine said and walked toward a public pay phone to call them.
Her father answered the phone.
“Who are you?” her father asked.
“What!” her father said.
“I’m in Hong Kong.”
“I don’t believe you,” he said and fainted.
Catherine’s mother picked up the receiver.
“Are you sure you’re in Hong Kong?” her mother asked.
“Yes, I’m sure. We made it across the border.”
Joseph, Catherine and Joseph Jr. lived in Hong Kong for seven years.
A second son, John, was born in Hong Kong in November 1980. Eventually, the family moved to America. Joseph was the first to arrive, on January 1, 1986.
In “The Lark and the Dragon,” Catherine chronicled her own story of the twenty years of persecution she endured in different prisons and labor camps. The book may be purchased in English and Chinese online from different Web sites. Catherine and Joseph presented her work to Pope John Paul II in October 1993.
On August 4, 2006, Catherine died from natural causes, at home, with her family around her, praying.
ENDNOTE: All Chinese names have been written in a manner to avoid confusion and to remain consistent with the English standard or writing proper names: given name first, family name last. In Chinese, names are traditionally written with family name first, given name last.
Theresa Marie Moreau can be reached at TMMoreau@yahoo.com.