God’s sunshine on stage

“Who is this 22-year-old opera star looking so self-assured and glamorous?” I gazed at my publicity photograph on the placard outside the Fuchou Theater. Suddenly remembering where I was, I glanced about nervously to be certain no one was close enough to see my prideful moment. In Communist China it would not do for one, star or otherwise, to appear conceited or self-congratulatory.

To remind myself that the government had granted me the privilege of fame, I eyed the hoard of drab little women bustling about the busy street. Dressed in non-descript uniform trousers and tops, they scurried home to their families after a long, boring day working in factory production lines. While the fashions of Paris, London, and New York were but a distant dream for most women of China, I did wear the finest and newest dress styles available. I paused to finger my carefully manicured nails and scolded myself for my prideful thoughts. “That could be me!”

It was a good time to be one of the reigning operatic divas in Southern China. During Madam Mao's reign of power, Chinese opera had been limited to a handful of restrictive operas that spouted the revolution's propaganda. With the shift in the government's political power, audiences were, once again, allowed to hear the traditional Chinese operas, which had earlier been considered decadent, dangerous, and bourgeois. Along with singing the arias of ancient fairy tales set to music, I tried not to think about the opening ceremonies that worshipped and honored the ancient gods.

I straddled two very different worlds. Haunting memories flashed through my brain: my peace-loving Grandpa Sui, a Christian pastor, beaten and humiliated by the Red Guard; our home being pillaged until there was little left to take; my gentle physician father betrayed by a colleague and exiled to the mountain region of southern China. Tears welled up in my eyes as I remembered watching my mother take my three older sisters to live with her family in Shaobian while I stayed behind with my father. I recalled chasing rats in the rice paddies; peering through a crack in the wall as my father operated by lantern. The jumble of memories left me exhausted and missing my family.

I'd been alone since my early teens when I went to live in the barracks at the school for performing arts on Fosham. With Papa still in exile, Grandpa Sui gathered us together the day I left to live in the city. He offered a prayer for me: that I would be safe, that I would never forget my family and would always remember my spiritual heritage. Over the years, I'd been kept safe. And whenever allowed, I returned home to visit my family. As for my grandfather's third request, I'd quickly abandoned my family's faith and assimilated into my celebrated lifestyle. During my visits home, I regaled my family with stories about the glamorous parties, the famous people I met, and the lavish banquets I attended. I didn't dwell on the barbequed dog and fricasseed cat I enjoyed or the story content of the operas in which I starred. And while my sisters acted impressed with my success, my grandfather didn't try to hide his sadness. “You know how you were raised, my child. You know.”

My mother's admonitions focused on my love life. “Remember Zhao Yang, the entire Shao family will one day emigrate from China. Please don't fall in love with a man who will prevent you from going with us.”

There had been boys I'd admired in my teenage years, and once I'd become famous, men who admired me, but always I remembered my mother's warning. This decision, along with the backstage politics that accompanied the outsized egos of artistic talent, left me no one in whom to confide, no one to trust. On stage I shone; off stage I wilted from loneliness.

On one visit home, I found a Chinese translation of the book, The Desire of Ages, and began reading it. I appreciated the way the author personalized Jesus. At the end of my holiday, my mother insisted I take the book with me, along with a Chinese Bible. “They're light. They'll be easy to carry with you.” I had known that the family listened to Christian short wave broadcasts out of Hong Kong. Feeling a mixture of loneliness, adventure, and rebellion, I purchased a combination cassette tape deck–many members of the opera troupe listened to the tapes of more famous operatic stars on cassette–and portable radio, and began secretly listening to the broadcasts as well. In my mind, the truths I heard wrestled with my desire to continue my fast and glamorous lifestyle. My three sisters had been baptized, and I knew that nothing would please my family more than for me to give my heart to God as well. Unfortunately, knowing their wishes and fulfilling them were far apart.

One day I was pleased and surprised to receive a letter from one of my grandfather's friends, Pastor Liang. The letter invited me to be baptized. I ignored it. I wasn't ready to give the control of my life over to a Being no one in my circle of friends believed existed. Upon returning from our next tour, I found another letter from Pastor Liang. He told me of a baptism he was holding on a special day and invited me to join. When I checked my schedule, I was relieved that the troupe would be far away from Guangzhou on the weekend he mentioned.

In the summer of 1983, more to please my parents than myself, I decided to become a Christian and was baptized by Pastor Liang. At home, my family rejoiced. In a letter Mama wrote, “Finally our baby girl was baptized. We are all Christians now. Now we just needed to wait patiently for the day we can move to Hong Kong and all be together again.”

While my baptism pleased my parents, I still had no personal relationship with God. My lifestyle remained the same, and my discontent intensified. Early one morning while in Guangzhou I wandered about the city with nothing to do. I found myself inside the church where I'd been baptized. Quietly I slipped into the back row, buried my face in my arms and wept. “Oh God, if You are truly who my parents say You are, please do something in my life.”

Suddenly a pair of hands cupped my head and a female voice spoke in English. I couldn't understand her words but I knew she was praying for me. Having grown up in a society where one seldom smiles or talks to strangers, I froze. The Holy Spirit penetrated my defenses, and my heart broke.

“O.K. Lord, take me. I'm Yours.” The heavy burden of guilt and shame slid from my shoulders. I felt free for the first time in my life.

At home my mother faithfully worked the political system until she got visas for each of our family members to immigrate to Hong Kong, except mine. At first my troupe leader refused to allow me to leave. Mama persisted. When it happened, it happened fast. One night I was singing on stage and the next I was on my way to a strange new life. I hadn't been in Hong Kong long before I realized I needed to learn English. So I enrolled in evening classes, and during the day searched for employment. My older sister Li Xin found work at Uncle Tang's school while I landed a job selling books at the Adventist Book Center. This allowed our family to move from our relatives' small apartment into a nearby apartment.

But I missed my music. I would ride one of the double-decker buses past the neon-lit nightclubs and hear women singing to the patrons. Singing in a bar or nightclub would be a cushy job and I could make lots of money–fast, I reasoned. When I broached the subject with my parents they didn't mince words. Stirrings of rebellion rumbled in my heart. I was an adult! I'd been on my own since I was barely fourteen-years old. I prayed God would change their minds. But God didn't change their minds; He changed mine.

A few days later I was invited to work with the Seventh-day Adventist radio broadcasting team. I would have my own program, Melody in My Heart. I jumped at the chance. This was when I acquired my Anglicized nickname Sunshine, and where I would meet the person who forever changed my life.

Following the student protest at Tiananmen Square, the U.S. consulate extracted all American citizens from Mainland China, including a young American teacher named Roger Stahl. Soon after we met he volunteered to tutor me in English. A romance blossomed, and in time we chose to marry and move to the United States where his parents lived.

From a performing artist behind the Bamboo Curtain to a Christian wife and the mother of a darling daughter, I am still singing for my Lord. It's been a miraculous journey. At each turn in the road, I could hear my grandfather's voice quoting the Bible. “In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct thy paths.” And now, while Roger teaches English in a university in Mainland China, God uses my voice and my story to praise His name in many countries of the world.

Currently Sunshine has three compact discs available, one in English and two in Mandarin Chinese. If you wish to contact the Stahls, their e-mail address is usastahl@hotmail.com.

Kay D. Rizzo is the author of Red Star Rising (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2006), from which this story has been adapted. She has written fifty-five books and keeps a busy international speaking ministry. For more information on Kay's writing and speaking ministry, contact her at kay@kayrizzo.com.