Frances Cowhig, author of the play “The King of Hell’s Palace” inspired by the life of a Chinese public health hero Salt Lake City’s Sunshine Christensen aka Shuping Wang, and Wang Shuping (王淑平), wrote this tribute to her friend.
Frances Cowhig spoke at the celebration of Sunshine Christensen’s life held September 28, 2019 in Salt Lake City, Utah.
THREE DAYS OF SUN
The last three days I spent with Shuping occurred two weeks ago, in London, a day after Shuping received a standing ovation from an audience that had gathered to see a play inspired by her life. It was an audience full of admirers, people who wanted to shake Shuping’s hand, take selfies with her, and tell her, over and over, what a remarkable person she was. To which Shuping always replied: “Thank you.”
The three days after the world premiere of that play were days spent almost entirely outside. Days of epic, yet leisurely walks of many hours and miles, from early in the morning until late in the afternoon.
There were five of us – Shuping, her husband Gary, me and my parents, and we spent a whole day at Kew Gardens, home to fifty thousand living plants, the world’s most diverse collection, as well as to the world’s largest Victorian glasshouses. We spent a day walking a nine-mile loop around central London, through Regent’s Park and Green Park and St. James Park, past Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament. And we spent a day in the English countryside, traipsing through the fields and forests of Great Missenden, the rural village where author Roald Dahl lived and wrote.
These were glorious, brilliantly blue early autumn days drenched in golden sunlight and cool, crisp fall air. It was as if Shuping “Sunshine” Wang had brought the sunshine with her in her suitcase when she landed at Heathrow—and then packed it up again and took it back to Salt Lake when she jetted away from England on a Monday that turned cloudy and drizzly almost as soon as she left.
I admit, there were times during those three epic days of wandering and walking under the British sky that I felt like a kindergarten teacher trying to get her four wildest, most rambunctuous students to walk in the same direction at the same time. There were even times I wished I had them on four leashes, or at least clipped to tracking devices. At one point, after I retrieved Gary from a train station and brought him to the subway station where Shuping and my mother were waiting, Shuping giggled and said to my mom, “I think Frances is very good at taking care of old people. Very patient.”
To be fair, among my four fully grown adult charges, Gary was the best behaved. Besides the train station incident, I only lost him one other time, to a Beatles souvenir shop. I had missed a pilgrimage the four had made the day before to Abbey Road, where my mom photographed Shuping, Gary and my dad at the famous pedestrian crosswalk, recreating the iconic Beatles pose.
I kept losing my mother as well, to every single photoworthy statue or building or plant or bird, and my father to every sign marking something of historical significance.
And Shuping! Every dog we passed was a long lost friend, one that needed its ears scratched and belly rubbed.
Every lush green meadow had to be lain in and relished.
Every rose, duck and goose needed to be photographed. I even caught Shuping holding her hand in a training position a foot above the head of a swan—-a SWAN—which, by the way, all belong to the Queen of England.
What exactly did Shuping want the Queen’s swan to do? I admit, I have still never seen a swan do a trick. But what I did see, over and over again, two weeks ago on those sun-soaked days in early September, and throughout the two decades I have known her, is a woman full of joy, humor and curiosity, who loved to share her joy, her humor and her sense of wonder with everyone around her. It was hard, almost impossible, not to be infected by her cheerfulness.
I have seen a woman who laughed frequently, with her whole body, simultaneously tilting her chest and face open to the sun and sky while thrusting her knees and hips forward as she cackled, chortled and guffawed.
I saw a pratical joker who once snuck up behind my father as he got off an Amtrak bus and wrenched his backpack away from him. As my dad whirled around to confront the thief, he found only a short Chinese woman, hugging his bag and laughing hysterically.
I saw the talented cook who made the best hot sauce my mouth has ever tasted, the kind of hot sauce that can only be made in the summer, after you’ve left watermelon to ferment on your porch for a week, hot sauce that made me its slave, compelling me to raid its maker’s fridge repeatedly, slathering it on every meal.
I saw a proud, devoted mother, who brought a large framed photograph of herself, Gary, dog Bagel and her three children with her to England in a suitcase, even though she was only spending six days away from home.
And I saw Shuping and Gary lying in meadows together, sprawled out beside each other under oak trees, walking hand-in-hand through forests and fields, dropping to their knees in near unison as dogs came to greet them.
These are just a few things I have seen, known and loved about my friend Shuping.
Shuping’s favorite song “You Are My Sunshine”