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Remembering a free spirit

IF you are Chinese or living in China, chances are you may have heard of San Mao (also known as Chen Maoping, 1943-1991). The writer has become somewhat of a legend in the country.

There are facts about her of course, but in many respects she remains an elusive figure to this day in part because of her untimely death. San Mao would have turned 70 years old tomorrow (March 26, 2013).

Many know that San Mao is famous for her books that are based on her travel experiences in Africa, the Canary Islands, and Central and South America. Many have also heard of her most famous work, "The Stories of the Sahara" (1976), and that she was married to a Spaniard called Jose Maria Quero Y Ruiz, whose life came to a tragic end when he drowned in a diving accident.

But how many know that the last love of San Mao's life was a popular American radio host in China called Rick O'Shea? And that she was even considering marrying him? And that he still lives in Beijing?

San Mao met O'Shea through a mutual friend in Taipei in 1981, one year after he arrived in Taiwan. They were friends for 10 years before the relationship turned romantic.

All the while they kept their relationship low key because they did not want any unwelcome attention from the press.

When O'Shea first met San Mao, he wasn't aware that she was a writer who had a strong following in Taiwan and on the Chinese mainland.

"I didn't know who she was or that she was that famous," he says. "I only knew her as a person, not a writer. In some ways, I envy those who know her from her books. I think she appreciated that I only knew the real her, and not what she chose to put in her books."

Earthy and classical

O'Shea remembers that San Mao liked to smoke Long Life cigarettes from Taiwan and that she had a unique way of dressing, which included a preference for long dresses and cotton fabrics.

"She had her own style that looked earthy and classical, not fashionable," he recalls. Also, he says that she spoke with a "very soft voice" and liked to collect small objects she would buy in antique shops or on her travels.

"To her, they carried a life force. People had used them and left a part of themselves with the objects," O'Shea says, adding that the objects sparked her imagination.

Indeed, it was imagination that connected both O'Shea and San Mao and made them so compatible as they were both creators.

"I was on the radio in Hong Kong, and for years my job was to create and reach an audience. San Mao's work was also based on creating and reaching an audience.

"With different media, we were driven to become a part of people's lives. We seemed to have a lot to talk about," O'Shea says.

In November 1990, San Mao came to Hong Kong to attend an awards ceremony because she had been nominated for her script for the film "Red Dust." She did not win, and her disappointment over losing the award was often cited as a reason for her suicide several months later in January 1991.

"I asked her if she was disappointed. She said at first she was, but then gave it a second thought. She said that she never wrote for awards. They can seem important for a brief period of time, but she said that she always wrote for the readers," O'Shea recalls. "She could see the same thing in me. I seemed to talk often about how I could reach them with music and stories. My goal was to touch the audience, as hers was to touch her readers."

Despite having left his career in radio, O'Shea is still touching Chinese audiences with a book he has written about his relationship with San Mao and his experiences as a radio personality.

His memoir has been published in Chinese "三毛的回声:一个美国DJ在中国" (translated as "Echoes of San Mao by an American DJ in China," China Radio and Television University Press, 2011). He is

In his book, O'Shea remembers how he left his hometown of Detroit, Michigan, in 1975 to become a watercolor street painter on Prince Edward Island, Canada.

This was followed by stints as a radio host in Florida and Hawaii, which served as a stepping stone to his radio career in Asia. There, he worked as a radio host in Taipei, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing.

O'Shea looks back on an exciting career: "I was one of the first American radio hosts to live in Taiwan and do a program for International Community Radio Taipei (ICRT). I then went to Hong Kong in 1981, where I was one of the first Americans to host a popular full-time radio program, and many of those years were with a Chinese co-host ... I was also on TV as a music video presenter for four years, every night. Then I came to the Chinese mainland and co-hosted Joy FM (in Shanghai) which became one of China Radio International's most popular programs for 11 years."

It was in Shanghai that O'Shea worked for the radio program Joy FM.

He reveals that he was captivated, or "shanghaied," by the beauty of the city and its seafood delicacies such as drunken shrimp and hairy crabs.

To him, working with his local Chinese co-host Ying Feng was pure joy. "Working with Ying Feng (from Shanghai) on Joy FM was exceptional. Her mastery of English and her poetic delivery made working a pleasure even in a dingy, dimly lit old studio. We brought a modern bilingual radio program to the Shanghai nights and people loved it! And thinking of the program going out of the old Radio Shanghai building on the Bund gave me sense of joining historical broadcasts from out of the past," he says.

The bilingual program was pioneering in those days in Shanghai.

Joy FM was on every night, seven days a week. "It was natural to feel close to the audience. And I guess my American accent and style appealed to many of our 'Joy Family'," O'Shea says.

While most of O'Shea's book deals with his radio career in China and the US, he does devote an entire chapter to San Mao. However, it's not about San Mao the writer, but San Mao the person - as he knew her.

"On radio, you may know a part of me. But no one is cheerful 11 years, every day, as I appeared on my program! But after writing my book, I found I could tell things about myself that I never told many of my friends. A book is a great place to reveal. San Mao did it in her books. I did it in mine," he adds.

In fact, there was something very real, but also surreal, about his time with San Mao. That is one reason why O'Shea has an even more ambitious project: to have a movie made about his relationship with the Chinese writer "because being with San Mao was, in a way, kind of like being in a movie."

O'Shea says that he has expanded the San Mao chapter into a full movie script. "I am currently looking for a producer who will make a great movie. It's not easy," he admits.

"But so many people have told me that they enthusiastically want to see this movie that it keeps me motivated to find a producer who can make a great movie from it. I think Ang Lee or someone like him would be a perfect director! It's a story that Chinese and international audiences will love. They want to see San Mao 'come to life' in the movie. I feel she gave me this story and I would want her to be proud of it," he says.

By Tamara Treichel, a US-based freelancer and PhD in English

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