Patriot Number One

A Chinese Rebel Comes to America

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New York Times Critics • Wall Street Journal • Kirkus Reviews
Christian Science Monitor • San Francisco Chronicle

Finalist for the PEN Jacqueline Bograd Weld Biography Award
Shortlisted for the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize

The deeply reported story of one indelible family transplanted from rural China to New York City, forging a life between two worlds

In 2014, in a snow-covered house in Flushing, Queens, a village revolutionary from Southern China considered his options. Zhuang Liehong was the son of a fisherman, the former owner of a small tea shop, and the spark that had sent his village into an uproar—pitting residents against a corrupt local government. Under the alias Patriot Number One, he had stoked a series of pro-democracy protests, hoping to change his home for the better. Instead, sensing an impending crackdown, Zhuang and his wife, Little Yan, left their infant son with relatives and traveled to America. With few contacts and only a shaky grasp of English, they had to start from scratch.

In Patriot Number One, Hilgers follows this dauntless family through a world hidden in plain sight: a byzantine network of employment agencies and language schools, of underground asylum brokers and illegal dormitories that Flushing’s Chinese community relies on for survival. As the irrepressibly opinionated Zhuang and the more pragmatic Little Yan pursue legal status and struggle to reunite with their son, we also meet others piecing together a new life in Flushing. Tang, a democracy activist who was caught up in the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, is still dedicated to his cause after more than a decade in exile. Karen, a college graduate whose mother imagined a bold American life for her, works part-time in a nail salon as she attends vocational school, and refuses to look backward.

With a novelist’s eye for character and detail, Hilgers captures the joys and indignities of building a life in a new country—and the stubborn allure of the American dream.

Under the Cover

An excerpt from Patriot Number One

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***

Copyright © 2018 Lauren Hilgers


逃逸 / Táoyì

MARCH 2013 – FEBRUARY 2014


Zhuang Liehong had made three plans to get from his village in China to New York. In the first, the American embassy would simply send someone to pick him up. He envisioned a midnight escape—cars waiting in the shadows along the uneven, trash-filled fields on the outskirts of his village. He felt sure, when he considered the plan, that the Americans would be sympathetic to his situation. He was a lover of democracy trapped in a corrupt corner of Guangdong Province. If the plan were to work, it would have to be secret. His friends would wake the next morning to find him vanished. By the time the news spread, he would be on a plane, heading toward a new life.


In a second plan, Zhuang would flee by sea. He had learned that Guam, a mere two thousand miles from the Guangdong coastline, was U.S. territory. This plan made it closer to execution: he went to work on a friend’s fishing boat in Wukan Bay in preparation—ten grueling hours on a wooden plank boat, fully exposed to the sun—and purchased slightly too much fuel each time, stockpiling it slowly, so no one would notice. He planned to buy two motors. “Just in case one died,” he said. “I would use one some of the time and then switch them. Sometimes I would use them both, and vrrrmm!” He would wait until the two months of the year when the intervening stretch of ocean was at its calmest, the swells low and rolling, the water undisturbed by typhoons. Then he would take a tiny boat out into the expanse of the South China Sea. He estimated the trip would take about ten days. He could make it, if he had to.


Zhuang was a man of Wukan Village, a proud former village leader on the ragged outskirts of Guangdong Province’s manufacturing boom. He was on the verge of thirty, stocky and compact, meticulous about his appearance but always slightly out of style. His crooked teeth gave away a childhood spent in poverty, but he was not self-conscious about them. He grinned while greeting people on the street, pouring tea in his tea shop, or singing at the local KTV. He smiled relentlessly in the face of danger or embarrassment. He suffered from the occasional lapse in reading social cues and fought it with volume, warmth, and a strong handshake.


During the summer of 2013, paranoia overtook Zhuang’s home village, and he recognized the feeling of trouble on the horizon. The shadowy forces of the county-level government—people he had rebelled against a few years before—were returning to Wukan. His friends were sure that their phones had been tapped by local security forces, the lackeys of corrupt officials. A propaganda official had taken up residence in a local school. Zhuang took the extra precaution of hiding his cell phone in the back of his tea shop whenever he discussed politics. He had heard rumors that government spies could turn them on remotely and listen in.


There was a time when Zhuang had run headlong into political turmoil. He had led protests, helped spark at least one riot, and argued with police interrogators over cigarettes. He had seen his friends kidnapped by thugs and his village invaded, and he had mourned a friend who died in police custody. But now Zhuang had a wife and a son. Now he understood the consequences of protest and revolution. He did not want to end up in jail, fearing for his life, worrying about his family. So he made plans and counterplans.

He schemed while sitting in his tea shop, a storefront business he had opened along the smaller of the two main arteries that ran through his village. He pulled up the storefront barrier and sat behind sliding glass doors, watching the rain hit the metal awnings that shaded the shops, and the sun return to bake the scoured concrete of the lane. Zhuang first opened the shop in late 2012, when it was nice out and the political pressure more remote. He left the glass doors open to the street and blasted Michael Jackson. He brewed pot after pot of tea, serving it to his friends, who threw around cigarettes before they sat down on the pleather-encased stools Zhuang had placed around a monstrous wooden desk.


Later, the more worried Zhuang grew, the more likely it was you’d find the store shuttered. Eventually, as the pressure increased, he gave up the business entirely and planned in his tiny apartment, still serving tea to passing friends, watching his son struggle to maintain a wobbly sit, and doing his best to put his schemes into action.


Zhuang would subsequently tell people that, as he thought it over in his shop, he considered many possible destinations. An increasing number of Chinese emigrants were choosing Australia as a new home. Germany, he had heard, was welcoming. But the interest was passing. The moment he decided to leave Wukan Village, he thought of the United States. It had an allure no other country could match. It was a country of justice and freedom, a place with values that paralleled his own. He had to whisper when he said it: America. He had heard its asylum policies there were favorable, and he understood it to be a wealthy country that took care of its citizens. Work would be easy to find there. People would be friendly. Some might even know his name. He imagined a warm welcome from Western democracy advocates. He thought of returning to Wukan years later, a success. He envisioned himself on a boat passing Liberty Island, a little windblown and visibly, palpably free.


At the tail end of his plan, the point at which it trailed off into a haze of hard work, success, and prosperity, was Flushing, Queens. Zhuang had carried out his scheming largely online, and had been wise enough to realize that New York City was too large a place to approach uninformed. He had skimmed through online discussion boards and squinted his one nearsighted eye at photographs. Manhattan’s Chinatown, he decided, would be too dense and urban for his village sensibilities, and in the center of the city, real estate would most likely be expensive. Flushing, on the other hand, had become the destination of choice for most working-class immigrants from Mainland China. He looked up photos and saw a clutter of signs in Mandarin. He saw restaurants, driving schools, supermarkets, and even a sign for the Democratic Party of China. He made up his mind that this, at least temporarily, would be his destination in the United States.


Flushing, as far as Zhuang understood it, was a new, more modern kind of Chinatown. It was dominated by the working class, the result of an influx of new immigrants from new parts of China—inland and northern provinces that had little history of exploration or emigration overseas. Flushing wasn’t controlled by the family-based patronage systems that had once ruled Manhattan’s Chinatown or by the human smugglers who had brought in tens of thousands of Fujianese in the 1990s. It was a neighborhood where people would speak Zhuang’s language and the food would suit his palate. There would be opportunities for work and a community of activists who would respect him. He would make friends, explore the neighborhood, and plan his next steps from there.


Zhuang had no family in the United States. He spoke no English and had never graduated from middle school. But he did not worry that he might get lost in a crowd of new arrivals or have to struggle to find work. After all, he had the advantage of being at least a little famous. Journalists had been coming to his village since 2011, when he had helped catalyze a particularly explosive protest. He had given interviews and appeared on Chinese-language television. He would wait until he got to the United States to contact the journalists he knew and make a statement, but he imagined it would create quite an impression—a man of Wukan in New York City.


• • •


Zhuang’s third plan, the one that would finally bring him to New York, was the simplest and least flamboyant: he would acquire two tourist visas to the United States, one for himself and the other for his wife, Little Yan. This plan had none of the daring of a maritime or midnight escape. Its difficulties were largely bureaucratic. Zhuang had to hope that the local office would ignore his history of troublemaking and issue him a passport, and that the nearest U.S. consulate would grant them the visas. Then he and Little Yan would have to find a place to keep their infant son, Kaizhi, safe. And then the pair would join a tour group. Their exit from China would be led by a distracted young woman hoisting a tiny stuffed bear on a pole, bobbing through the crowds in the Shenzhen ferry port.


If Zhuang had taken a boat, he would have traveled alone—it would have been too dangerous for Little Yan to come with him. Once he decided to go by air, however, he felt they should travel as a couple. He presented the plan to his wife one night, sitting on the long wooden bench that passed for a sofa in most Wukan homes. Baby Kaizhi was asleep on their metal-framed bed. He

had just started to crawl, military style, around their one-room apartment during the day, bent on exploring the small concrete courtyard. Kaizhi regarded the outside world with great seriousness.

He grabbed leaves and looked at Little Yan before shoving them into his mouth. He rarely cried. He slept well. Little Yan could watch him all day long and not feel bored. She did not want to leave China.


Little Yan had known Zhuang for three years, and for three years she had stood in flattering relief to her husband. She was quiet and petite; pretty, but with a slight underbite that made her shy about smiling. She had grown up in a village in Guangxi Province, one even smaller and less prosperous than Wukan. She allowed Zhuang an air of worldliness. He could drive the conversation while she happily cooked for his friends and took care of their son. She didn’t make too many demands or spend too much money. And she appreciated his dogged sense of right and wrong. He was honest, which was more than Little Yan could say for a lot of the men she had met in Guangdong Province.


When Zhuang described his plan, Little Yan had concerns that came in quick succession, neatly pricking holes in his confidence. He had been prepared for some questions—he had thought carefully about what to do with their son—but she was persistent. She asked why she and Kaizhi couldn’t follow him to the United States after he got settled. She wondered how hard it would be to get by in an English-speaking country with an English vocabulary that was almost nonexistent. She had studied the language in high school but could barely remember a word. She wanted him to delay so she could take classes.


Little Yan had come to understand that the more stung Zhuang felt, the quicker and louder he was with his defenses. “You don’t understand at all!” he told her. He did not want the local government to suspect the couple were planning to run, he said. He worried that any delay could put him in further danger. And she was dense if she didn’t think he was in danger. He felt sure that, the moment he gave them an excuse, local officials would send goons to arrest him. And his fiery nature would eventually give them an excuse.


Zhuang was more careful when he talked about Kaizhi. It was natural, he thought, that Little Yan would worry about their son—she would always be connected to him. But the affection between two grown people might not survive across an ocean. Kaizhi could stay with Little Yan’s parents, who would take good care of their grandson, he told her, but no one could help the two of them keep up their relationship when they were separated. It could take him years to get a green card. They would find a Chinese neighborhood, he would look for work on a fishing boat, and she could study English. Kaizhi would come as soon as they could bring him over.


“Suan le ba,” she said, mid-discussion. It doesn’t matter.


It was a terrible choice—between her husband and her son—but she did not blame Zhuang for forcing it. He made his points, and she accepted them. If he could make the escape happen, Little Yan would go with him.


Escape to America had to be undertaken in steps, each with the potential to derail the entire undertaking. Zhuang was so nervous about applying for a passport that he tested the waters by first applying for a permit to visit Hong Kong. It came in a little blue booklet that said Travel Permit on the front. He then took a ferry from Shenzhen into Kowloon and wandered the streets for a few nervous days. He met with a handful of journalists he knew from his days as a protest leader and told them about his plan. He asked them to help him keep a low profile—Zhuang

had gotten the travel documents, he guessed, because local officials were too busy to monitor him, and he didn’t want to give them a reason to start paying attention. He talked loudly on the phone about his vacation plans, in case someone was listening in.


When he went back to his village, he applied for two passports. He stood in line for over an hour, and when he was face to face with the agent, the man barely looked at his name. He purchased two suitcases in his-and-hers pink and black and hid them, just in case. He researched the weather in New York, and Little Yan invested in leggings that were nearly an inch thick with padding. They bought impossibly puffy coats, the volume-to-warmth ratio as high as might be expected in a region where winter bottoms out around fifty degrees Fahrenheit. In with his clothes, Zhuang stuck a little clay teapot, some small cups, and a plastic bag full of tea leaves. Other necessities would be easy to come by in New York. There would be time for everything once they arrived.

- About the author -

LAUREN HILGERS lived in Shanghai, China for six years. Her articles have appeared in Harper'sWiredBusinessweekThe New Yorker, and The New York Times Magazine. She lives in New York with her husband and their daughter.

More from Lauren Hilgers

Patriot Number One

A Chinese Rebel Comes to America


Patriot Number One

— Published by Crown —