Reviewer biography

Current Reviews

Review Articles

Book Reviews Archive

They Chose China

by Shuibo Wang
First Run/Icarus Films, New York, 2005
Video-DVD, 52 minutes, color
Sales: $390
Distributor’s website: http://www.frif.com.

Jonathan Zilberg, Ph.D.
Director, Museum Gedungdua8, Jakarta


They Chose China is a documentary film that has to be seen to be believed. Why?

Because never before in history have prisoners of war been treated in such an excessively humane way. It should add considerable depth and levity to classes on war and politics, especially in the current context of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and the War on Terror. Above all, it provides a fascinating window into the strange conjunction of modern African American and Chinese history.

It is the story of 23 American GI’s captured by the Red Army during the Korean War who refused repatriation. After the armistice was signed that divided North and South Korea, prisoners of war were allowed to choose where they wanted to live. Branded as criminals, turn coats, and traitors, these men took refuge behind "the bamboo curtain" and became known as Peace Warriors. They lived extraordinary lives, largely tragic. For example, Edward Dickenson and Claude Batchelor quickly recanted their decisions, were court-martialed, and respectively sentenced to 10 and 20 years in military prison. The remaining men proved resolute. Amongst them Lowell Skinner, Arlie Patte, Harold Webb, Aaron Wilson, Lewis Griggs, Richard Tennyson, William White and Clarence Adams proved to be eloquent spokesmen against fascism. Moreover, in deeply moving documentary film, the African Americans amongst them explained how for the first time in their lives they were experiencing equality. To a man they declared that they would not return to America until it was free of McCarthyism. When one reflects upon the chimera and rhetoric of the American dream for so many, that they should have experienced this only after being captured by the Chinese, is ironic to say the least.

Many of these men were highly articulate, perhaps partly because of the education they had received on the history of imperialism, colonialism and capitalism. Richard Tenneson was the most articulate of all. Subsequently, conversing with Mike Wallace in a powerful period interview marked by the coiling smoke from their cigarettes and their non-combative suaveness, he revisited his opposition to the Korean War in a manner that reverberates through all subsequent opposition to foreign wars. Tenneson explained there how they had all been united by the desire for peace, social democracy, and equality. As young men, they had all experienced a sense of collective social consciousness in China that they had found highly compelling. Though his mother was convinced that he must have been brain washed, and though Tennyson admitted that they had, indeed, been indoctrinated, he emphasized that it all came across to them as common sense.

Clarence Adams, the first African American to marry a Chinese woman, and who eventually returned to Memphis is a case in point of just how tragic the failure of both the Chinese and the American dream ultimately was for the majority of these men. Adams had been a troubled high school student who had joined the army in order to escape a brush with Southern Justice. He is one of the more interesting and lesser known figures in modern African American history having had persuaded the camp authorities to allow the POWs to cook their food in their own way and subsequently to build a recreation hall and a place to worship as well as sports playgrounds and a club house. All this led to the only POW Olympic games in history. It would be hard to believe such claims if there was not archival footage documenting these events. Moreover, Adams is a significant figure in the Civil Rights Movement as later, during the Vietnam War, he broadcast messages over the Voice of Hanoi to the African American GI’s to return home and fight for social justice.

During the first year of captivity, the men were subjected to long lectures on theories of socialism, communism, and history and were addressed as "Dear Students." Proving ineffective, the lectures refocused on why war was no longer necessary. After the armistice, the men who chose to stay in China were given the choice to study, to work on farms or in factories, or even to do nothing. Adams, Howard, and Sullivan went to The People’s University of China (the University of Beijing) where they were given the honorific title of Peace Fighters and where they studied Chinese history and language. Some of the men adapted well though those who chose to live on isolated rural farms did not. By 1966, most of them had returned to the States and as Adams recounts they all found themselves gradually downgraded from Peace Fighters to Comrades and finally to the lowly epithet of mister. Back in America, they were uniformly unwelcome and largely unsuccessful at reintegrating into society. For instance, Adam’s, an exceptionally intelligent, articulate and educated man, could only find work as a cook in a Chinese restaurant in Memphis. Two of the former GI’s were committed to mental institutions.

But then there was the case of the irrepressible James Veneris. Late in his life, Veneris was interviewed on Chinese national television. He explained there how he had served in the Pacific Campaign in World War Two and then, unable to find employment after being demobilized, re-enlisted in the army in 1950. He was sent to Korea and shortly thereafter taken prisoner. According to him, this was the best thing that had ever happened to him.

Speaking in highly animated and fluent Chinese, Veneris described how he had surrendered to the Chinese after watching from his hiding place, how they were humanely treating their prisoners, even giving them cigarettes. Amazed and amused, the interviewer reiterated: "So let me get this straight. You surrendered for a cigarette?" After the war, Veneris worked in a lathe factory where he was much loved for his sense of humor and work ethic. He married a Chinese woman, had children, and lived out his years in China though his family subsequently moved to America. In the most uplifting moment in an otherwise often tragic film in which the stoic behavior of the fathers contrasts to the pronounced sense of sadness that seems to darkly mark their children’s lives, Veneris declared: "I chose China and I never regretted it!"



Updated 1st April 2007

Contact LDR: ldr@leonardo.org

Contact Leonardo: isast@sfsu.edu

copyright © 2007 ISAST