My first research journey to China was six years ago. Travelling from Beijing to Guangzhou by train took 22 hours in an overcrowded carriage with a hundred migrant workers and one overflowing hole-in-the-floor toilet. Today that journey takes just eight hours with all the comfort one expects from luxurious travel on high-speed trains. The economic miracle.
I base most of my stories on people I meet on my journeys and every character you see in my three-part BBC2 drama One Child is either based on someone in particular or inspired by someone I’ve met. You’ll see the rich who have profited from China’s extraordinary trading renaissance, the post-Tiananmen Square activists trying to create alternative political structures and the African traders (20,000 in Guangzhou City) buying T-shirts and flip-flops for the African market.
One Child is about an adopted girl happily living in London who turns 21 and receives a message out of the blue from her birth mother wanting to meet her. How does she feel? How will her adoptive parents react? And what is her birth mother’s reason for wanting to meet? Is it simply because the child who replaced her —a boy—is in prison for a crime he didn’t commit? What happens when her birth mother begs the daughter she abandoned to come back and rescue the child who replaced her?
Above all, this story is about four brave and good women: Mei, the one child who is prepared to risk everything to save her brother; Katherine (her mother in England); Liu Ying (her mother in China); and Qianyi, the journalist who persuades Mei to come to Guangzhou.
I based the character of Liu Ying on a mother I met in Guangzhou. Her home was a windowless, claustrophobic, concrete space in an old part of the city. She shared a bed with her daughter and elderly mother. Her brother had been given a life sentence for a crime he didn’t commit and was serving his sentence 2,000 miles away, in the north of the country. A journalist on a local newspaper was campaigning for her.
I took them all to an ice-cream parlour they passed every day but couldn’t enter because it was too expensive; the mother had lost her cleaning job and was waiting to hear if her application to run a street kiosk was successful. Her daughter ordered — and ate — three ice creams in a row as her mother and I talked. Then we went back to her home and she tearfully showed me the court documents that had cheated her brother of his freedom.
The ice-cream parlour didn’t make it into the script, but the other scenes have.
I talked to many people in all strata of society — policemen, customs officers, lawyers, journalists, professors, private detectives, Nigerian traders, city officials, even an executioner — and I found a willingness everywhere to help me understand the society they live in and to help me tell this story. I remember one long evening in a restaurant with a policeman working out my plot about a corrupt policeman — he couldn’t have been more helpful!
I looked into every corner: I spent time with the leader of a persecuted democracy movement in a secret location, drinking a delicious “monkey-picked” oolong tea he recommended. (I’ll pass that recommendation on; you can buy it in the UK.) I ran after 20 policemen who were chasing an African trader along a railway track, probably because his visa had expired.
But perhaps the most memorable moment was when I spent two hours with a woman who lived in a rubbish dump in an alley close to where she petitioned for justice every day for her long-dead mother, killed, she told me, by a negligent hospital. She’d been living in this alley for 17 years, only leaving it once when she was removed during the Beijing Olympics. My interpreter asked her if she would speak to me. This woman searched in the rubbish dump for a box. She brushed the dust off the top of the box so meticulously that it looked polished. She presented it to me to sit on. She was the personification of dignity and courtesy. I hope she eventually receives justice for her mother.
One Child is also about a woman in search for justice for her mother — but Mei’s journey is also a journey back to her beginning as she’s torn between her adoptive mother and birth mother. One Child is a uniquely Chinese story.
One Child premieres Wednesday at 9:00 p.m. on BBC2
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