An actual letter from San Mao to Rick.
San Mao's books are still popular at many Chinese book stores. Photo:CFP
Rick O'Shea has a double claim to fame. He was the first foreigner to come to China's mainland and host a nightly bilingual program for 11 years. On top of that, he was the last love of the popular Chinese writer San Mao.
O'Shea's memoir about his experiences as a radio personality and his relationship with San Mao was published in Chinese by China Radio and Television University Press in 2011. He is now working on the English edition of the book: Echoes of San Mao.
The book details his shared experiences with San Mao (a.k.a. Chen Mao Ping, 1943-1991), whose works are still read by Chinese around the world. Most Chinese are familiar with her work The Stories of the Sahara (1976), and many know she was married to a Spaniard named Jose Maria Quero Y Ruiz, whose life came to a tragic end when he drowned in a diving accident. Even then, San Mao was no stranger to heartbreak. Before Ruiz, she was engaged to a German man who died of a heart attack.
Indeed, San Mao was a cosmopolitan woman, fluent in English, Spanish, and German. She had studied in Spain and Germany and worked in the US. Her books focus on her travel experiences in Africa, the Canary Islands, and Central and South America. Altogether, she wrote more than 20 books. These are the parts of her life that many fans know.
But most do not know of San Mao's later romance with Rick O'Shea, whom she met through a mutual friend in Taipei in 1981. "I didn't know who she was or that she was that famous," O'Shea said. "I only knew her as a person, not a writer. In some ways, I envy those who knew 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."
For example, O'Shea remembered that San Mao had an eclectic style of dressing "that looked earthy and classical, not fashionable" and that she loved long dresses.
"In fact, it never felt like being on a date with her. Much more like being with someone I was naturally close with. We never had to pretend to be anyone else." She also liked to smoke "Long Life" cigarettes from Taiwan.
As friends, O'Shea and San Mao often went on outings together, usually to tea houses or parks in Taiwan or Hong Kong. They chose places that were less crowded because San Mao spoke with a "very soft voice" and he would have trouble understanding her if it was too noisy. "When we spent time together, it was always cherished quality time. It's rewarding to be with a good friend who 'gets us.' We seemed to have a free flow of ideas and speech," he said, adding that San Mao's being about 10 years older didn't bother him because their personalities were so compatible.
Moreover, San Mao liked to collect small objects. Hollywood Road antique shops in Hong Kong were a favorite haunt. "Walking with her was kind of slow sometimes because she'd just drop into a shop we'd pass, attracted to something in the window.
It could be an old pen, sculpture, box or just about anything. And she'd ask the shop people about any history that may be attached to the objects. I think she enjoyed information that sparked her imagination," O'Shea remembered.
The turning point in their friendship came in Hong Kong in November 1990 during a buffet dinner in the Furama Hotel's revolving restaurant overlooking Victoria Harbor. O'Shea had just broken up with his long-time girlfriend and confided in San Mao. "She was there for me and we reached a deeper connection to each other," he said. "She was ready for a deeper relationship since it had been so long since she experienced that."
After dinner, they strolled around the harbor area and boarded a ferry. "On the ferry, we held each other and realized that what we were looking for might be in our hands," O'Shea recalled.
Sadly, a future together was not in the cards for the couple. About a month later, San Mao committed suicide. She was 47. There has been much speculation regarding the reason for her suicide - a cancer scare, disappointment over losing the Hong Kong movie award for her script to the film Red Dust, or depression over her husband Jose's tragic death, which had occurred 12 years earlier.
O'Shea said he didn't know why she killed herself. "People who are suicidal do not make plans to get together and travel," he said, revealing that the two were even considering getting married. Although there was no formal proposal and no set date, both he and San Mao had imagined "how great a marriage would be between two people who have been friends for years."
San Mao would have turned 70 years old on March 26, 2013. O'Shea believed she left a legacy. "Echo [as San Mao was popularly known in English] inspired millions of Chinese and some foreigners in her life, including me," he said, comparing her influence to an "echo."