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Shattered as a lover and a spy

Times Staff Writer

THE happiest time of his life lasted four days.

It was the winter of 1958. He had just run away with his lover to Shanghai. They went sightseeing every day and didn’t mind the dark streets or meagerly stocked stores where coupons were used to ration food. Life was just beginning.

Until two plainclothes policemen walked up behind them one day and called out his name.

“Are you Kan Zhonggan?”

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Blinded by happiness and love, he said yes.

“Take a walk with us.”

Around the corner, a car was waiting. The couple got in. One officer sat between them. They drove for half an hour and then his lover was told to get out. As she was dragged away, their eyes met.

They didn’t see each other again for 27 years.

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This is the story of one man’s broken dream to serve his country and love his woman.

Kan Zhonggan was a spy. His master was the government of Taiwan, an island that broke with mainland China in 1949 after a protracted civil war. Ever since, mutual espionage has been a way of life, but it was especially robust in the early years of the split.

Little was known about the lives of the secret agents who risked everything for the cause until a group of elderly former spies decided to speak out recently in hopes of seeking redress and compensation from Taipei. They say that instead of being treated as war heroes, they were abandoned by the island that recruited them.

“The Taiwan authorities don’t want to unveil old wounds,” said Andrew Yang, head of a Taipei think tank. “To them, these spies are considered redundant, disposable.”

During the height of the Cold War, an estimated 30,000 Taiwanese spies were dispatched to the mainland, said Jiang Jianguo, 73, a former spy now living in Hong Kong who spent 13 years in prison. Of those, an estimated 20,000 were executed by the communists, he said. The rest probably died of old age or are living in exile, mostly in mainland China and Hong Kong, said Jiang, whose Cross Strait Relations Victims Assn. has contacted about 70 former spies.

An untold number were caught and thrown into Chinese prisons and labor camps. Kan spent 20 brokenhearted years in prison, turning into a perpetual loner fearful of more retribution.

He is the only known former Taiwanese agent willing to reveal his secret past who still lives in mainland China.

“Every man’s life is a reflection of the times he lived in,” the 72-year-old said, sitting in his dark and empty apartment in a distant suburb of Shanghai, where he lives alone. “I sacrificed my life and love for politics. Now no one wants me.”

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Born in Shanghai to working-class parents who wanted to give their eldest son a better life, Kan was sent to live with his uncle in Taiwan when he was 11 during the mass exodus that preceded the communist takeover in 1949. But the hostilities between the mainland and Taiwan continued into the ‘50s and ‘60s. The propaganda machines on both sides shifted into overdrive.

“They told us the communists were the embodiment of evil, that they shared wives and tossed landlords into the sea,” Kan recalled. “It seems like a joke now, but I was a kid. I believed everything. I hated the communists so much I could eat their flesh and drink their blood.”

AT 18, Kan began training for the island’s version of the KGB. He saw it as a sacred act of patriotism, a chance to liberate his own people, including his parents and five siblings, who still lived in the mainland.

After two years, he graduated near the top of his class and volunteered to undergo additional training for the mission of slipping back to the mainland. He learned how to use explosives, radio secret messages, write coded letters. His assignment, he said, was to assassinate key Communist Party leaders, military officers, scientists and diplomats. Bomb key city targets, create domestic disturbances and stir international conflict. He was urged to take his own life if caught.

“When I got my assignment, I knew this was a one-way ticket,” Kan said.

Then he met the woman who would change his life.

It was in Hong Kong, 1957. The decadent British colony was a major way station for espionage activities between Taiwan and China. Kan was only 22 when he was dropped off by boat in the cover of darkness to blend into the vast network of undercover agents there.

Come daylight, the lean and fit young spy would step into his disguise as a salesclerk at a local photo shop. At least once a month he would meet at a nearby cafe with his contact, who was to tell him when it was time to enter China.

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He knew nothing about his contact, but the man indirectly introduced Kan to the woman he calls Xiao Zhen.

She was a teacher -- pretty, smart, honest and, most important, politically reliable. By that he meant that she understood his mission and he didn’t have to lie. Her brother was a fellow agent, and her father was a Nationalist Party official.

There was only one problem. She was married, and even if she wasn’t, his job forbade him to marry before he was 28.

“I was still on assignment. I was not allowed to fall in love,” Kan said.

They decided to run off together -- to communist China. That, he now realizes, was like “fish swimming into a net.”

“Before we left, I wrote a letter to my superiors telling them I was going into China early to redeem myself for the mistake I made by getting involved with a woman,” said Kan, who remains in China today in part because he fears being arrested and possibly charged with treason if he returns to Taiwan.

Without waiting to hear back, Kan entered China with Xiao at what the Taiwanese dubbed “the devil’s crossing” and boarded a train for Shanghai.

Communist China was in the thick of revolutionary fervor in 1958, and the disastrous Great Leap Forward that year would eventually lead to mass starvation. But the couple was full of hope. In Shanghai, Kan reunited with his parents, whom he had not seen in 20 years. He never told them his hidden agenda or that he and Xiao were not married. To the outside world, they were a pair of overseas compatriots returning to the motherland looking for a chance to contribute to the building of a new China.

Their four days together was bliss. Life was so carefree that they nearly forgot why they came. Then reality crept up on them.

THE communists knew everything about him, including a nickname he used in Hong Kong that only his cafe contact knew. A simple choice lay before him: Confess to live, resist to die.

“I was only 23. I wanted to live,” Kan said. “So I told them everything.”

He did it mostly for her, thinking he could trade his confession for leniency and they could go on with their lives after a few years. Instead, the communists slapped him with a 20-year prison term. Xiao got five years.

During his prison years, he saw her once, from the tiny window of his detention center. He remembers the moment as if it just happened, getting up from his chair to demonstrate: She was out walking in a circle with other female inmates. He recognized her red patchwork cotton top -- it had gotten dusty and he could hear her patting it down with her hands. Her long hair fell to her shoulders. Her face was pale from a lack of sun.

The next day, somebody reported to the guards that he’d been staring at women out the window. They came and covered it up with black tape.

Visions of her kept him going, from his cell in Shanghai to the “Siberia” of China, Qinghai province in the west, to which he was shipped later to do hard labor. By the time he was released, he was 43 and so unaccustomed to freedom that he was afraid to even cross the street. Between odd jobs as a construction worker, vegetable vendor and, later, a toilet cleaner, Kan had one thing on his mind. Finding Xiao Zhen.

ON a winter day in 1984, Kan bundled up in a padded coat and boarded a long-distance bus. He went from labor camp to labor camp. In his pocket were packages of cigarettes to bribe the guards.

“I told them the same story,” he recalled. “I brought a woman into China from Hong Kong. I ruined her life. I still want to live with her, if she is still alive.”

Someone took pity and gave him the address of yet another labor camp -- it turned out that after serving her sentence, Xiao had stayed on as an employee.

By then, dusk had fallen. Snow had turned into blizzard. There were no more buses, and drivers would not stop on a road they knew was frequented by ex-cons or their relatives. Finally a tractor pulled over and gave him a ride to the camp.

Kan’s heart pounded at the thought of seeing her. But when he got there, she was gone.

Married, moved back to Shanghai, was all he heard.

“I was hoping she would still be single,” Kan said. “It’s been a faint hope in my heart for so long. Hearing that was like cold water over my head. It made me shiver.”

Still, Kan could not get her out of his mind. So he kept looking. “I had no idea if she hated me or even wanted to see me,” Kan said. “I still wanted to see her, just once, so my heart could die.”

Finally, he found her in the spring of 1985, at work in an office in Shanghai. He spotted her instantly.

“She sat there, hunched over a desk, writing. There were other people around. I called out her name. She didn’t hear me the first time. I called her name again. She stood up and asked, ‘Who are you looking for?’ I said, ‘You,’ ” Kan recalled, his bespectacled eyes electrified as he jabbed the air in front of him as if pointing at a ghost.

“It was like a dream,” he continued, as if in a trance. “After 27 years, I still recognized her. She was tall and lean. Her waist had thickened some, but she had few wrinkles. Her skin was still fair, her hair wavy.”

Afraid that when this moment came he might be speechless, Kan had brought a journal that recounted their years apart. He handed it to her.

He sat across from her as she read. He watched her blush. He saw her hold back tears.

Xiao did not want to open the emotional floodgates in front of her colleagues, so she asked Kan to go home with her during her lunch break. They talked cordially, almost as strangers. She showed him pictures of her husband and young son. He kissed her gently on the cheek; she didn’t resist. He kept telling her how sorry he was. She kept saying, don’t blame yourself.

Before the hour was up, he stepped out into the pouring rain.

Eventually, she would send him a letter telling him that the day he finally came to her, she had wanted to break down in his arms. She would tell him that she had waited for him for 17 years. When her minders told her to find another man, she replied, “If I can’t be with Kan, let me stay in prison.”

She gave up the year she turned 43; her husband was a fellow counterrevolutionary, a kind man who cared for her when she fell ill in the camp.

Reading that letter, dated May 16, 1985, gives him the chills. It’s the only thing he has of hers, and it hurts him to even look at it -- he burned most of the other letters she wrote after that because they were so painful to keep around.

The past fills him with remorse and sorrow, but he hasn’t given up the hope that she might still be his.

“She suffered so much because of me,” said Kan, wiping his forehead and glasses with a cotton handkerchief and picking up the frayed, slightly yellowed pages of the letters he kept. “I should have found her sooner.”

*

chingching.ni@latimes.com


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