Book Review: When the Red Gates Opened – Dori Jones Yang

When the Red Gates Opened – Dori Jones Yang (She Writes Press, 2020)

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own. This title will be on sale September 2020.

In 1982 Dori Jones Yang was an ambitious and hopeful young reporter when she arrived in Hong Kong. Working for BusinessWeek, she was an American sent to cover business in Asia. This was her dream, to delve deep into the heart of China and learn about a country that was just beginning to open up to the West. Dori Jones had studied Mandarin for two years in Singapore, betting that Asia might be the future of both journalism and business. After a crash course in Cantonese, she headed to Hong Kong.

When the Red Gates Opened follows the next eight years of Dori’s life, culminating in what is widely known now as the Tiananmen Massacre. Alongside her growing career in journalism and her successes on the ground with BusinessWeek, we also follow Dori’s romance with Paul Yang. It’s clear from her author name of Dori Jones Yang that Dori and Paul not only fall in love but do get married, yet the story of their relationship is not at all straightforward.

Paul is an American-Chinese man, working in Hong Kong. His family fled China in 1949. Paul is fifteen years older than Dori, married with two children. For two years, Paul and Dori face various obstacles that keep them apart. While Dori seems clear almost from the beginning of their relationship that this is the man she wants to marry, it is not always clear that this is a wise choice. To be honest, if I had a friend in Dori’s position, in love with a married man who said he was committed but put off his divorce for two years, I’d be shouting at her to Get out! Get out! That said, their relationship and Paul’s previous marriage is clearly complicated and we do get to witness them work things out. On top of the complications of previous relationships, they deal with cross-cultural dynamics in a time when multi-racial relationships were a lot less common. Dori openly speaks of her family’s disapproval and of her small-town Ohio parents who encouraged her to marry someone of her own “type”.

As Paul and Dori settle into married life, they continue to face ups and downs in their careers. While Dori grows in confidence, she struggles with balancing her life as a driven and dedicated journalist, truly loving her job, with her new role as wife and then as a mother. This is the mid-80s when she had few role models to look to and it was largely believed that women had to choose between a career or “the mommy track”.

Most of all though, Jones Yang writes passionately about China. Before she ever arrives she is drawn to and fascinated by the country. Over the years that she spends in Hong Kong and frequently travelling into mainland China, she learns to love it in a different way as she begins to better understand its history and people Then, meeting Paul and travelling into China to meet his extended family, she is privileged to see the country from an insider perspective, something few foreigners experienced in the 1980s. Her linguistic fluency allows her to talk with people on the street and get a feel for the average Chinese citizen, even in a time when foreign journalists were heavily monitored.

In a particularly illuminating section, Jones Yang reflects on how her love of China itself enabled her to love Paul and so surmount the obstacles that might have caused their marriage to suffer.

From 1982 to 1989, Jones Yang has a front seat perspective on the economic and social growth of China, watching and reporting as it goes from a poor, largely rural nation to a growing economic superpower. The economy and the people themselves change at an unbelievable rate and it seems like China is on a constant forward trajectory.

June 4th in Beijing changes all that, or so it seems at the time. Jones Yang is sent into Beijing as a reporter and sees firsthand the aftermath of what began as a non-violent protest. Disheartened and disillusioned, Dori and Paul finally decide to leave Hong Kong and return to the US.

This is a book that would appeal to any reader interested in learning more about this time in Hong Kong/Chinese history. While I didn’t personally find the business side of Jones Yang’s reporting that interesting, it does provide a clear picture of what China’s huge and speedy economic growth was like and just how unusual that was. She writes well and honestly of her own experiences and comes across as likeable and down-to-earth.

That said, I happen to have a very personal interest in China and Hong Kong in particular that definitely added to my enjoyment of this book. Some readers may know (Hi Mom and Dad!) that I was born in Hong Kong in the mid-1980s. In fact, I was born just ten days after Dori and Paul were finally married. So I loved this peek into the city of my birth in those unique years before Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule. Hong Kong was where I spent the first years of my life before my family returned to Canada, not long before Dori and Paul moved to Seattle. My memories of Hong Kong are obviously more centred around our apartment complex and the playground nearby but I have visited since and so many of the places and names that Jones Yang talks about are familiar to me. I’ve been shopping at Stanley, I’ve climbed the Peak, I’ve ridden the Star Ferry. I’ve crossed the border from Shenzhen into Hong Kong. When I was older and learned the word “tycoon” I confused it with “typhoon” because that was a word I’d heard a lot as a small child.

When the Red Gates Opened is a snapshot in time. It details both a Hong Kong and a China that no longer exist. China is a growing superpower in the world. Hong Kong is in a state of flux and stress, facing an uncertain future. While Jones Yang touches on growing tensions between China and the US in her epilogue, she had no way of knowing when she wrote the book in the summer of 2019, just how complicated those tensions would become in a few short months.

While my advance copy of When the Red Gates Opened didn’t have the photos that will be included in the published edition, I hope you’ll indulge me sharing a few of my own pictures from that era.

“Better class shopping down from Kowloon Hong Kong 1986,” reads my grandpa’s caption on this photo, taken when my grandparents came to visit after my birth. The little boy I note forefront is my older brother.
“View of Hong Kong Island” (photo by my grandpa)
These photos, taken on a day trip across the border, he simply titled “China”

12 thoughts on “Book Review: When the Red Gates Opened – Dori Jones Yang”

  1. I love stories that tell us the ending but take us a while to get there, such as knowing the author’s last name is Yang, but it seems like everything in her life is keeping her from getting together with Paul.

    When I was a freshman in college, I took a class called economic development of the Pacific Rim, and all I could think was, “Why do they have so much growth and we’re stuck with George Bush?!” I think that’s all I learned in that class, though. Oops.

    1. I like that when it’s well done like it here but sometimes it can be frustrating. I’m not always very patient!

      Economic growth has been so complicated in China but it’s crazy to think how much the country has changed (and its position globally) just within our lifetimes. (Bet you didn’t think it could get worse than Bush, eh?)

  2. very cool photos!!! I like this sound of this book, I always want to know more about China. I don’t know if I’ll ever get there (especially now!!!) LOL but what a fascinating culture. I think I read some crazy statistic that 20% of the world’s population live in China?

    1. Oh, I know. Peter has never been to Asia and we often dream of taking a family trip and it’s always been a future goal but now it seems even further in the future. It’s such an interesting country and, in my experience, very welcoming to tourists. And there’s huge diversity within the country itself too. That statistic sounds crazy but also, I believe it!

  3. China really is a fascinating country and I vividly remember all the haggling that went on before Britain handed Hong Kong back to them – we still tend to think of Hong Kong as part of our “family”. I didn’t know you were a Hong Konger, by birth at least! Does your family still have links to people back there?

    1. That was an interesting part of the book – the discussions between Britain and China about the future of HK. By the time I was old enough to be aware of it all, it was pretty settled but I do remember the lead up to 1997 and the anxiety of people there, as well as watching the turnover on TV.

      I’m always surprised when people ask me if I have British citizenship (I do not!) but I get asked about as much as I get asked if I’m a Chinese citizen (I’m not). I guess lots of people still think of it as part of the British family. I do consider myself at least an honorary Hong Konger! My parents still have friends there and try and visit every few years. Most of their expat friends who were there in the 80s have moved on though.

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