It was 1979 and Jian Guo was stationed at a military camp in Yunnan, a province in south-western China bordering Vietnam, when he listened to Radio Australia for the first time.
The then-17-year-old was patrolling the base one night when he saw a group of fellow People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers tuning radio equipment on the back of a truck.
He initially thought they were intercepting enemy signals, but, as he got closer, he realised they were listening to a radio broadcast.
It was the ABC’s international broadcasting service, which was considered an “enemy channel” at the time.
“The biggest ones were the VOA [Voice of America] from the US, Voice of Free China from Taiwan, and Radio Australia.”
Guo had joined the PLA in 1979 during the peak of the Sino-Vietnamese War but, thanks to his talent in the arts, he was chosen to be a secretary of his company, so he could avoid fighting on the battlefield.
Apart from painting propaganda materials, he also looked after weapons and communication equipment like the radios, which was an extraordinary privilege.
He was not supposed to use the equipment he maintained, and was fearful of breaking the rules, but after seeing his comrades listening to the Australian broadcast the curiosity grew inside him.
One night, alone in his room, he turned on a radio.
It took a while for him to find the right frequency, because of the interference put out by China, but then suddenly he was listening to Radio Australia and the song that would change his life.
“It was broadcasting The Moon Represents My Heart by Teresa Teng,” Guo said.
‘If we get in trouble, it’s my fault not yours’
Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng was hugely popular in Taiwan, Japan and South-East Asia in the 1970s, but the Chinese government had officially banned her songs because they were “bourgeois” and “explicit”.
Many mainland Chinese would still secretly listen to her songs but Guo went even further.
Entranced by the music, he dubbed almost every one of Teresa Teng’s songs from the radio with a tape recorder.
It was a night during Moon Festival when his secretly recorded tapes were played publicly for the first time.
“Our company slaughtered a pig and prepared wine for us, but everyone looked very stressed and upset.
“Our company commander asked me to cheer them up. He asked if I could get the soldiers to sing some revolutionary songs together, but I didn’t think it would work.”
Guo suggested playing Teresa Teng’s music instead, but his commander refused.
“I was almost yelling at him, ‘If we get in trouble, it’s my fault not yours!’, so he agreed,” Guo said.
When the music started, the crowd immediately quieted down, and when The Moon Represents My Heart came on, all the soldiers began to sing along.
“Many years later, whenever I talk about this with my friends, we all feel like the humanity of Chinese people was so suppressed back then, but once you get a vent, the emotion will burst out.”
Hopes dashed at Tiananmen Square
After being discharged from the army, Guo enrolled at a university in Beijing in 1985 to study art.
China had changed a lot by then.
People could buy books by Western philosophers from stalls in the street.
“You could buy books and magazines [brought over] from Hong Kong, even some works by [activist writer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate] Xiaobo Liu,” he said.
“Many foreign bands and singers held concerts, and Teresa Teng’s songs were playing everywhere.”
However, this freedom did not last long.
When the Tiananmen demonstrations broke out in 1989, Guo was among those protesting.
“At the beginning of the march, we sang different songs, like The Internationale, the national anthem of China and so on,” he said.
“No-one thought of singing Teresa Teng’s songs.
“But when it came to the sit-in and hunger strike, it was a completely different story. We sat arm-in-arm and it was cold in the night. We were nervous, scared and hungry.”
Later, Guo and other students camped out on a bus, and in the evening, one of the students on the bus began softly humming The Moon Represents My Heart.
“I heard it right away and immediately sang along. And then more and more people chimed in, then the whole bus was singing,” he said.
Guo said he became convinced such romantic melodies must have a special healing power under such stressful circumstances, and was so touched by the scene.
The Tiananmen protest then turned into a massacre. The army entered, then came the tanks.
For the former PLA soldier, nothing could have been more devastating.
“It was just a crushing feeling in my heart,” he said.
“Before the shooting, I had a glimmer of expectation and hope that it was impossible for the army to really shoot at ordinary people.
“I was there when the shooting started. I was almost killed. After witnessing all this, I felt unusual despair. I sat on the roadside, too sad to even cry.
“I had nightmares almost every day.
“It is sad to look back, because for a while we thought China was becoming democratic. We didn’t expect it would go backwards like it did.”
A new beginning in Sydney
A year after the Tiananmen massacre, then-Australian prime minister Bob Hawke made a speech, and offered 42,000 permanent visas for the Chinese students.
As soon as he was able to get a passport, three years later, Guo took up the offer.
“It was my first time travelling by air, and I was both nervous and excited.”
After taking off from Beijing, he sat quietly on the plane during a stopover in Shanghai, and then for five hours in the airport in Hong Kong, worrying that he would be grabbed at the last moment.
“I sat in a corner and waited silently,” he said.
“I thought this is my last chance to leave China.”
When his flight took off from Hong Kong, he felt relieved and asked the flight attendant for a beer, then quickly fell asleep.
The next morning, he arrived in Sydney and his friends already there took him out for lunch at a Chinese restaurant run by a woman from Taiwan.
There was a karaoke machine and a lot of records.
Among them, Guo found Teresa Teng.
Then, fresh off the plane in a new country, in front of a group of strangers, he sang the song that kicked off his journey, The Moon Represents My Heart.
Today, Guo is an established artist whose works feature in galleries and institutions around Australia.
But still whenever he hears The Moon Represents My Heart, his journey begins to play like a film in his mind.
“There have been many nights I dreamt about the scenes when I was a soldier and listened to Teresa Teng’s songs on that radio,” Guo said.
“When I was young, I lived in the age when people were hungry for information, and I was lucky enough to encounter Teresa Teng’s songs along the way of pursuing freedom.