As a child, Stella Wong couldn't go outside and play. It was the 1950s, and the communist government of China had assumed control in her village of Tai San in Guangdong Province.
"In the middle of the night, they would make you kneel and tell you what to do," recalls Wong, who lived with her grandmother after her parents and brother fled the country.
When Wong was 10, her grandmother managed to sneak her into Hong Kong, then still a British territory. Years later, in 1969, she moved to Madison with her husband and raised four children here. She has never gone back.
Wong is one of hundreds of Madison residents with ties to China. While the city does not have a clearly delineated Chinatown, there is a sense of community between Chinese nationals and people of Chinese nationality, one that transcends politics.
As the Olympic Games are about to begin in Beijing, many local Chinese residents are feeling a mixture of pride and anxiety. The eyes of the world are on China, and they want it to look good.
"I like to see the country get better and stronger," says Jiang Fan, the principal of Madison Chinese Language School, a weekend education facility. She feels the Western media always focus on China's negatives. "I see the positives. Half a glass of water - half full."
Jiang grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution. "Life was hard," she says. "My parents were sent to the country and worked. They were actually separated. I went with my mom." She came to Madison from Beijing in the 1980s to attend graduate school. After graduation she found a job and stayed.
Ken Yan owns the Garden Asian Market in Middleton, part of the corner complex that includes Imperial Garden Restaurant. He came to Madison almost 20 years ago and refers to today's China and that of his childhood as "two different countries." He is proud of China's Olympic role, and views the added attention as a force for change.
"The Olympics will push the Chinese government to the next level," he says. "They can't go back anymore to the old way."
Yan describes the Madison area's Chinese community as "pretty loose," but adds, "when something comes up, [we] come together." In the wake of the recent Sichuan earthquake, the Madison Area Chinese Community Organization raised more than $32,000. This year, the group also organized its second Chinese Culture Day, borrowing the Beijing Olympics' theme, "One World One Dream."
Dr. Xiping Zhou probably wouldn't trade his life in Madison for all the tea in China. For one thing, he pretty much has that already. His west-side office is stocked with four dozen types of teas.
Zhou, who practices traditional Chinese medicine, came to Madison in 1993 to teach at a now-defunct acupuncture school before founding his current practice. He grew up in a "mid-size" city of nine million and remembers using government-issued coupons to get food. Each family member received one pound of pork per month. Dumplings were eaten once or twice a year on special occasions.
"Our number-one worry was food," he says. "My children have an easy life here." Zhou, who was born in 1960 and grew up during the Cultural Revolution, can remember three families sharing one toilet. His parents and siblings slept together in one bedroom. There was no hot water, and public bathhouses were open to men and women on alternating days.
"Now we feel we can stand up," he says. "China has become more respected in the world economy. We feel proud."
Zhou is optimistic about China's progress on human rights: "Things are much better than 20 years ago. The difference today is like day and night with the '60s."
Zhongdang Pan, a professor of communication arts at the UW-Madison, was born in Beijing; he came to the U.S. in 1983 for graduate studies and received his Ph.D. in Madison in 1990. For five years, he was in Hong Kong teaching and researching media and social change in China. In fact, he's back in China now, answering questions via email.
The local Chinese community, says Pan, is "generally supportive" of the government, which has "maintained rapid economic growth, dramatically improved living standards, [stabilized] society in China and improved China's international standing." But there are various degrees of criticism over "corruption, failed social policies on healthcare, education, environment and so on."
Pan believes heightened media attention from the West, especially due to the Olympics and the tragic earthquake, "could make it harder for the Chinese government to be blatantly dictatorial in its handling of domestic affairs."
He notes that, despite widespread Internet censorship, the Chinese - "especially young, well-educated and affluent urban dwellers" - can get information from a broad range of sources, from The New York Times to the BBC. "This certainly helps to foster a diverse information environment in China."
Some of that news is decidedly negative. On subjects such as Tibetan independence or the persecution of practitioners of Falun Gong, China is getting worldwide pressure. A local Chinese immigrant and Falun Gong practitioner, speaking on condition of anonymity, believes the pressure of the Olympics has actually increased persecution of her fellow believers, who are perceived as a threat by the Communist Party. She fears media outlets will shy away from critical commentary to preserve the access currently granted them by the Chinese government.
Another local Falun Gong practitioner, Grace Wu, says it's important to draw a distinction between the Communist Party and China.
"The Chinese people deserve the Olympics," says Wu. "When I first immigrated here, I thought, 'Why are they always bashing my country?'" She took part in the Human Rights Torch Relay and concurrent protests here in Madison in April. "It was a call not to end the Olympics, but to end the abuses," she explains.
Many of Madison's Chinese residents are here for education. Last semester at the UW-Madison, there were 751 Chinese students enrolled. And recently, a large group of Chinese middle school students arrived here to spend a month at Wisconsin English as a Second Language Institute (WESLI), on the Capitol Square.
Jessie Teng, an accompanying teacher, describes Madison as "beautiful and quiet." When asked if she has ever considered living in the United States, she replies, "It's a place to travel. I love my hometown. The place where I live is a very good place."
Teng's co-worker, Jane Tang, agrees that much about the China of her youth has changed. "When we were children," she says, "we lived a very simple life, and now I think it's current."
As the school's entire Chinese entourage heads toward State Street for lunch, 11-year-old Carrie Chen, one of Tang's students, says she's excited that her home country is hosting the Olympics: "Yes! Of course! I will go to watch the games." She has only just arrived, and likes Madison so far. But she admits she feels a little homesick.