Freedom Swimmer

Written by WAI CHIM
Review by Elizabeth Hawksley

1968. Guangdong Province, China. Somehow, the 17-year-old Ming has survived a three-year famine, though he lost his family. He now lives in the village’s orphans’ hut and his daily life is a gruelling workload of farming under the watchful eye of the Communist Party Cadre. Discipline is harsh.

It is the year of the Great Leap Forward, and the villagers learn that a group of city youths are coming to be ‘re-educated and re-enlightened’. They will work alongside the villagers. When they arrive, Ming sees immediately that none of them has ever done a stroke of physical work. They all quote from Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book, and, though Ming knows that it’s dangerous even to think of criticizing Mao’s work, he’s aware that the ‘thoughts’ it contains can’t help with the harsh realities of farming.

Gradually, he makes friends with the educated and charming Li. They discover a mutual love of swimming and begin, tentatively, to share their dreams of a different life. The British-owned island of Hong Kong is within their reach—if they are strong swimmers and can avoid the sharks and naval patrols; but the penalties for being caught are harsh.

I was very impressed by Freedom Swimmer. The author doesn’t pull her punches about the appalling suffering during the Three-Year-Famine, both on a physical and psychological level. The injustice of a system which damns someone on obviously manufactured evidence and where there is no appeal, is all the more shocking for the restraint with which it’s spelt out. And the Great Leap Forward is no such thing.

She illuminates the difficulties of discussing anything, and the terrors of life under a regime where snoopers are encouraged and where a few malicious words can destroy a life. I look forward to her next book. Highly recommended.