While it is very very common for people from countries all around the world to come to China to make a living these days, it certainly was not the case, back in the day, when the People’s Republic of China was literally unheard of.
That time, to be specific, was in the late 1940s when Joan Hinton and Erwin Engst left the United States for China to help the war-torn nation’s agricultural sector. Despite the establishment of then Communist China, the American couple stayed, raising their three children as Chinese nationals.
One of their children in particular, was Fred Engst who was born in Beijing and raised in Xian in western China. Like his parents, he also made great contributions to the country he was born and raised.
When interviewed by the Chinese media, Fred Engst, also known by his Chinese name Yang Heping, spoke about his extraordinary life.
Notably, it was Edgar Snow’s famous book ‘Red Star over China’ which inspired Fred Engst’s father Erwin to visit China in 1946. With a longing to meet his former roommate and future brother-in-law, Bill Hinton who was already in China at that time, Fred’s father made the trip he never thought he would.
Fred’s mother, Joan Hinton, had arrived in China in 1948 but it took her almost a year to reach Erwin given the war between the communists and nationalists at the time.
Once they met each other, Fred’s parents lived in the north of Shaanxi province and when the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed on October 1st, 1949, they traveled to Beijing to prepare for Joan’s birth and to catch up with her brother Bill, who was training farmers at the time on how to drive tractors.
Before having Fred, a very pregnant Joan Hinton was invited to attend a peace conference in Beijing in 1952 where Soong Ching Ling, the wife of modern China’s founding father Sun Yet Sen, suggested ‘Peace’ be her child’s Chinese name.
During the interview with Chinese media, Fred said “Then, madam Sun asked my mother what she is planning on naming her child, and my mother told her she hasn’t thought about it yet. She then suggested that Joan name the baby peace? And that’s how Fred’s Chinese name came about.”
Peace had in fact been the sole reason Joan came to China to leave behind a career in America as a nuclear physicist and a member of the highly classified Manhattan project. She had become disillusioned after the dropping of atomic bombs in Japan, something she strongly believed should only be created as a deterrent.
“My mother was really distraught about the dropping of bombs in Japan, and she never thought that they would use the bombs on humans. She thought that they were just going to develop the bomb as a preventative method before Germany beat them to the punch and so they were racing against time to develop the bomb. And when the US dropped the bomb, she was really upset.”
When Fred Engst was born in the Peking Union Medical College in 1952, Joan took her first born son back to Xi’an.
“So I was raised in Xi’an. Two years later, my brother was born, and four years later my sister was born. They were all born in Xi’an. I grew up on the farm, north of Xi’an, a farm on the southern bank of the wei river, which is a contributor to the Yellow River. So I stayed on the farm at the river, alongside the bank of the river. For one year, I visited Beijing, in 1959-60 which was my first year there. My mother sent me to Beijing because my aunt, my uncle’s former wife, and their child Carma Hinton were in Beijing. My mother sent me to Beijing also to learn English, but I ended up learning Peking dialect instead.”
Learning English, the first language of his parents, was an extremely difficult task for the young man from Xi’an. There just wasn’t enough of an incentive for Fred and his siblings to learn it, said Fred.
“I wasn’t interested in learning English but after what happened in 1968 when the civil rights movement became huge in the US, things changed. My parents were very excited about the Martin Luther King’s speech and I wanted to know it and so I said “Translate for me!”. And they said ‘Oh you better learn English’.
In 1971 when the PRC/USA relationship improved, Fred’s uncle came along with a lot of Americans.
“During those years, white Americans would always say I’m an American. I had no idea what America was like but I gradually became interested in learning English and when I turned twenty one, I visited the United States for the first time.”
“But the hard point was the language, the language barrier. I couldn’t speak much English. For the first three months, I felt like I was under house arrest. I stayed at my uncle’s family home, and my uncle could barely speak Mandarin Chinese. His wife and his children too spoke no Mandarin Chinese. The newspapers were in English, and the radio broadcast was in English. I didn’t see any Chinese and I had nobody to communicate with.”
Fred always felt at home in China. It wasn’t always that way though, growing up looking like an outsider yet wanting desperately to fit in.
“When I was really young, people on the farm and my classmates just treated me as one of them. That said, I know that as soon as I left the farm, people treated me as an outsider, a stranger. But hey, I have experienced zero double-takes while on the farm. As a fellow farm boy, when kids were fighting and playing, there were no discrimination, no differences. As I got older, in the mid 1960’s, there was a new directive on foreigners and foreigners without permission cannot get outside the city. As a foreign looking person at the time, I had to have a visa but when asked at the checkpoint, I told them I was born in China, which is true and I got a pass.”
Since the Chinese Civil War, Fred’s parents lived in China permanently until their death a few years ago.
Fred Engst lived abroad for many years but returned to the People’s Republic of China in 2007 where he now works as a professor at the Beijing University of International Business and Economics.