Phil Young's Talking Cat
in the Cultural Revolution

For a school project, my daughter interviewed Phil Young, a musician and composer currently residing in the San Francisco Bay Area, about his talking cat and how he lost it in the chaos of the Cultural Revolution in China. Phil was 15 years old at the time. This is a true story. You can view the video on YouTube.


One of my friends gave me a kitty. It was so cute and looked different from other cats. He had half a black face, and the other half white, and a little mustache, a colored mustache. I named him Hua-Hua, which literally means “flower-flower.”

One thing I soon found that was unique was his meow. He always made a kind of very sustained sound, instead of a short “meow,” he said “eeeeeoowww,” something like that. Also, the pitch went up and down, too, almost like a like a baby crying. Also, he used to meow and walk at the same time, so that would make the pitch bend, like “oooeeeoooeeee.”

I just got this idea, wow, let me try to make him talk. So I held him like this.

He was such a good sport. He would just lie there very peacefully. It looked like I was just petting him, and I would just give him a little, tiny bit of pressure. I would hear the pitch getting higher: “ooooeeee,” like an instrument. Then I used my right hand to control the pronunciation, or rhythm. But for other people, nobody could tell. It just looked like I’m petting him, but actually I’m doing pitch, bending, and pronunciation.

At the beginning, he could only say “hao ma” (“are you OK?”) and “wo e le,” (“I am hungry”). It was half training and half musical performance. But later, I didn’t have to push too much. It was almost like a signal. With just a little touch, the pitch would go up, and the cat would sustain the sound longer. He could sing one full octave of notes, and he could say some very complex sentences.

As long as the sound is from the lips and the shape of the mouth, I could do it. If  it’s from the tip of the tongue, it’s impossible. Like “ni” (“you”), it’s impossible. So everything I trained him to say took advantage of what he could do. Like “wo,” “oh,” “ah.” Sometimes the consonants were missing, “Mao oo ee,” something like that. But the pitch, the tone was so accurate, the good intonation sounded like real Chinese.

A friend of my father’s heard about it. He graduated from a French university, a guy who believed only science. This didn’t sound like something scientific. It sounded like the supernatural. He came over and said “Show me!” But after hearing just one sentence, he ran out!

The next day, he came back. He said, “I will pay you 10,000 yuan for the cat.” I said “No, even if I sell it to you, you would have to buy me too. Without me, he is only a cat!”

One thing he could say was “Long Live Chairman Mao.” That made big trouble. A relative of my neighbor, a government official, visited from far away, Dongbei, the northeast part of the country. He had heard about this from my neighbor. This was terrible. It was not funny for an official. It was like I was making fun of Chairman Mao!

One night, at 12 o’clock midnight, I heard knocking, bam, bam, bam! A group of Red Guards ran in. “Who’s Yang Zhihua?!” That’s my name! My father got really scared because he was considered a “bad element.” He used to own a factory. That was considered a crime! I said, “I’m Yang Zhihua.”

“Where’s your cat?!” The cat got really scared, with all the noise and people. He was hiding somewhere. I had a hard time to get him. Finally I found him. He was shaking and trembling, poor cat!

One of the Red Guards said, “Make him say ‘Long Live Chairman Mao!’” It was almost like the end of the world. I thought we might get killed that night! I got really scared. The cat was so scared, too, almost too scared to talk! But still, I got him to say it.

The Red Guards got a kick out of it!  Suddenly, the atmosphere, from so tense, changed completely.  Everybody started to laugh, and then they said, “Let’s go, let’s go.” It was past, I thought, we are OK now.

But this one guy came back. He wanted to show off. He said, “You know, I want that cat DEAD. Otherwise your father is going to be DEAD!” And then he left. My father got really scared. Even though the cat was almost like a child in the family, we treated him like a human really, my father said, “If you don’t do something, they might come back and kill the cat.” My brother, my sister, they were so little, they really shouldn’t go through that kind of horrible thing.

So we carried the cat, and we walked many, many blocks away to an old building with a dark, empty basement, and let it go. The cat was really smart. That’s why I think he was really different from other cats. He really sensed something. Otherwise, he wouldn’t go, because he was a member of the family. He very hesitantly walked away. He stopped a couple of times and kept looking at us. We were all in tears.

We sent food and water every day, until a couple of months later, he disappeared and never came back. We never saw him again.

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©2007 Gray Chang