“36, 36. run for your life!”

Grade school for me was in Taipo Market, a small town outside of Hong Kong. Whenever a bully would approach us on the playground, the smallest of my classmates would yell, “36, 36, run for your life!” and our tiny legs would carry us away like yelping greyhounds. At the time, I had no idea where that phrase came from—nor could I have known how it would determine my family’s fate.

Recently I did some research and found out that “36, 36 run for your life” refers to a book by Sun Tzu on the art of war, called The Thirty-Six Strategems. Written between 722 B.C. and 481 B.C., the book influenced wars throughout the world and became popular in modern times as a guidebook for business. It contains 36 tactics for outwitting the enemy, and this is Number 36: If all else fails, retreat (走為上/走为上).

How could a passage from a war book change my family’s future?

Let me tell you a story. When I was in high school, I asked my father why he left China and brought our family to Hong Kong, where we did not hLet me teave one single relative. Most of my classmates had families close by, and even those who came to Hong Kong from elsewhere, like us, had relatives there. We Chinese are very family oriented. I was curious what would make a man decide to leave his extended family and bring his wife and six children, from one year to nine years of age, to a place where they would be so isolated.

When the Communists took over China in 1948, pushing Kuomintang party leader Chiang Kai-Shek into Taiwan, my family suffered because my grandfather had prospered. He was a physician, trained by Anglican missionary Dr. Watson. He owned shipyards and rice mills and many lands and houses. The Communists confiscated all of our family’s properties, and my grandfather was put in prison. His eldest son, my uncle Man Kong, had graduated from University of Hong Kong and was the first Chinese graduated in England as a certified royal surgeon. He became head of the household so it was his duty to negotiate with the Communists for my grandfather’s release. When my grand father had a stroke and he was released My uncle Man Kong went to prison in his place.

My father was superintendent of St. Luke’s Hospital in Fujien. As the next son in line, he became the head of the household and began negotiating with the Communists for my uncle’s release. The government demanded 100,000 yuan worth of gold even though they had taken our income-producing properties. So we started selling our jewelry, and borrowing from family and friends. We finally were able to pay for the request and we expected that our uncle would come home. But the Communists told my father if we could come up with that kind of money, we must have another 100,000 yuan of gold stashed away. They told us to get the same amount again before they would release my uncle and leave us alone.

Meanwhile, the government took over St. Luke’s Hospital, which had belonged to the Church of England, and suddenly my father was reporting to a Communist official who knew nothing about running a hospital. He was very frustrated; he could not trust their words. Then my father learned that a former hospital patient whose life our grandfather saved had become a Communist Party official. My father eagerly arranged to meet with him and plead my uncle’s case. The official agreed to meet in secret, at a park with few people around….

Again, the number 36.

My father arrived in an excited state, asking over and over what the Communists would do with our family, and what the official might do to help. The former patient would not look at my father’s face and did not say a word except to draw “36” in the sand with the toe of his shoe. No matter how fervently my father pressed for an answer, the man only drew “36” and then he left without speaking. My father went home puzzled and discouraged.

The first thing he did was to take a nap. My mother was upset that instead of talking to her about the meeting, my father went to sleep in the middle of the day! When my father woke up, he said, ”Our friend wrote ‘36’ on the ground. They are going to kill us. We have to run for our lives. Let’s go someplace where we will not be under the rule of this regime. Let’s go to Hong Kong because it is under British rule and the Communists will have to fight to get it back. Over there we can buy time.”

At first my mother was afraid to leave our homeland. She told my father, “We do not know anyone in Hong Kong. Besides, you do not have a license to practice medicine there. How are we going to make a living and feed six children?” My father said, “I would rather beg for food for our kids than to live under this repressed regime” So my family left Fujien and started life anew in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, my uncle Man Kong was finally let go because he was a famous surgeon and the Communists needed his skill.

My father’s story so impressed my teenage mind that I found myself respecting him so much and feeling fortunate to be his daughter. Would I have been as brave as my parents, who left their lives in China behind? I hope so. My parents followed their gut feelings and their principles. They chose freedom even though it meant poverty.

We all encounter tough calls in our lives. How can we know what to do? My parents offer an example: When faced with adversity, stay calm and have a clear mind. That’s why my father took a nap! To clear his head. That’s how the meaning of the number 36 became apparent to him. He knew that if he let anxiety take over, he might miss the clue. Step two is using logic to make choices, and testing the logic against intuition.

The translation of the 36th Stratagem says: “If it becomes obvious that your current course of action will lead to defeat, then retreat and regroup. When your side is losing, there are only three choices remaining: surrender, compromise, or escape. Surrender is complete defeat, compromise is half defeat, but escape is not defeat. As long as you are not defeated, you still have a chance.”

My parents’ number-one priority was freedom—so in the end, it didn’t matter that they were not familiar with Hong Kong. It didn’t even matter that they lost their material things. They retreated, but they were not defeated. They still had a chance, and they took it. That’s why I’m here. That’s how I’m able to tell you this story.

I wish you a wonderful life, and remember: when in doubt, follow your principles and your gut feelings. You’ll be right!



  1. Sharon O'Day says:

    What a marvelous story, May! So many of us who have lived outside the U.S. have lost things for political or other reasons. My father had his iron ore mine in Brazil confiscated through “creeping expropriation” because he was a foreigner, right before an attempted Communist takeover. The national railroad simply stopped allowing trains in to move the ore until he “cried Uncle,” as we say. He had discovered this body of rich ore, then built roads and railroads in for access. And lost everything. If nothing else, it certainly builds resiliency! At least for a generation or two. And makes us appreciative of the Rule of Law when it truly exists.

    • may says:

      It is so good to hear from someone who had the same experience like mine. It is important to keep the spirit of the family and appreciate what you have in life.

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