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Cheng's Calling 

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Since the day in 1942 when he was expelled from high school in Yumping, China, Chen Chan Cheng, proprietor of the Peking Book House in Evanston, has been following a calling: to educate himself and the rest of the world.

It is through his store on Sherman Avenue--where he sells everything from abacuses to acupuncture kits to Zen comic books--and through two other bookstores in China that Cheng does his teaching. And along the way he has also acquired a few other roles: host and mentor to patrons of his bookstores, philanthropist to the people and schools of Yumping.

It's midday on a clear spring day, and Cheng is alone in a rickety wooden chair positioned to catch the sun's rays, wearing glasses and a blue cardigan sweater. On the counter next to him is a heap of papers: letters from friends in China, book order forms, and bills. He looks serene and contented in this, his meditative mode.

Then the store door opens, a customer appears, and the 65-year-old Cheng shifts gears.

"Where have you been?" Cheng asks buoyantly, trotting toward the customer and cradling her hand before the door can shut behind her. Cheng treats all his customers --most of them regulars--with the same affection.

Once, for a woman who was looking for something for her husband's birthday, Cheng recommended a mah-jongg game set. Then he insisted on writing a personal birthday card to the husband.

He's also been known to hunt down special requests. "Anything you need, he'll get you," says Beverly Friend, a repeat customer and a professor of journalism and science fiction at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines. "He's a wonderful resource. And he's not in Chinatown; he's here."

Every customer carries a different tale of Cheng. They come from Wisconsin and Indiana as well as Chicago, and often they venture into the store because they've met the owner in some other setting--Cheng the Baha'i (he was one of the first three Taiwanese Baha'is back in 1952), Cheng the traveler (he has been around the world twice), or Cheng the crooner (he's been known to sing Chinese opera).

It wasn't always this way. When the first store opened, in 1971, the only regulars were FBI agents who came to take pictures of the books. "They thought there was something dangerous here," said Cheng, conveying both the notion's absurdity and his lingering discomfort in a soft chuckle. The few real customers who found their way to the store were afraid to leave a name and address with Cheng.

Part of the problem was the merchandise. Initially, Cheng could get nothing but propaganda from his China-backed, San Francisco-based supplier: red flags with yellow stars, books of Mao's poetry, posters of smiling Chinese bounding triumphantly forward under the headline "Socialism Advances in Victory Everywhere."

By the time the dust settled, though, Cheng's erstwhile center for Maoist propaganda had become "the world's best bookstore on Chinese culture," according to Skokie resident Ken Lubowich, a longtime shopper at the Peking Book House.

And Cheng seems to know it. "Now is the best time of my life," he says, nodding and grinning. "There is no pressure, no competition, no conflict."

Cheng was born in 1926 in a small village in Jiangxi, a province in China's mountainous south. In the middle of Cheng's second year in high school, the Japanese invaded.

"Everybody was afraid," recalled Cheng, his cheery face tightening slightly. "Ultimately, you either stood up and fought or went up into the mountains."

Cheng's high school was the scene of a different battle, one that pitted Cheng and 250 of his classmates against the school's principal, who was embezzling government grants to the school. The principal was living like a prince, "unconcerned about the well-being of the teachers and students," Cheng said. Finally the students surrounded the principal's house one day, in a three-hour-long peaceful protest. Cheng, as student body chairman, and the abetting classmates were labeled subversive and tossed out of the school. He was 16 years old.

The next nearest school was 300 miles away, and full anyway. So Cheng joined the Youth Army. Trained by Chinese and American soldiers, Cheng spent 1945 working on bridges. Some he was told to build; others he was to blow up. Less than a year later, the Japanese surrendered. Cheng's comrades returned to their respective high schools; Cheng had none to return to. So he went on to college in Nanchang, about 200 miles from his home.

During Cheng's third year in college, the Chinese Communists crossed over into southern China. Cheng and about 40 other former Youth Army cadets, now considered the enemy, fled to Taiwan. Cheng's parents, a brother, and two sisters remained. "People were scared. The Communists took land. They closed businesses," Cheng elaborated.

These days, the governor of Jiangxi does not seem overly concerned about Cheng's dismissal from high school; he meets Cheng at the airport. Cheng runs a bookstore in Yumping, his hometown, and another in a nearby village. Locals, many of whom are retired and some of whom are disabled, staff the bookstores.

"Some people don't have enough money to buy books, so they use the stores as libraries," Cheng explained. Profits are plowed back into local schools. He has also donated textbooks and encyclopedias to Yumping schools. Most recently, in 1986, Cheng taught a group of 30 Jiangxi English teachers how to use typewriters, and gave one to each of their schools.

Cheng stays with family when he returns to China, a trip he's made three times--all in the 80s--since he left in 1949. Both his sisters, now retired schoolteachers, and his brother, a self-trained Buddhist monk, still live in Yumping.

Eric Johnson first walked into the Peking Book House three years ago. Johnson, a senior at Northwestern, thought the store had everything but order, and he said so. Johnson wanted to help Cheng rearrange the books, most of which were in precarious piles and many of which hadn't been moved since they arrived. Cheng accepted, saying, "My store is your store; you may do whatever you like."

Johnson, who occasionally eats dinner with Cheng and his wife, rarely receives money for his work in the store. Instead, he'll set aside a book he likes. When he thinks he's worked the equivalent of the cost of the book, he'll take it. But the computation is visceral, never mathematical.

Johnson has his own key to the store, and he often works at night, alone. Cheng lets his employee do as he pleases; the only thing he's asked him to do in three years is change the light bulbs, Johnson says--"because he doesn't like ladders.

"He is extremely giving and trusting. Money means nothing to him," Johnson says. "I try in many ways to pattern myself off of him."

Most of the propaganda forced on Cheng and the Peking Book House in its formative years has now been relegated to a musty existence in the store's basement. Some customers, though, seek out such treasures. Lubowich, a 16-year friend of Cheng's and an acupuncturist who has lived and trained in China, is one example.

Lubowich, who says Cheng has been "instrumental in my life," knows all the nooks and crannies of the Peking Book House. When he visits the store, he gets a stool from Cheng and lugs it down to the basement. There he peruses Marxist textbooks, propaganda posters layered like a stack of flapjacks, and the gold-colored circular book racks, sparsely filled with little red books. He often stays for hours.

On the ground level, where most of the customers can be found, the scope is more expansive: books on religion, including Zen for Americans and The Tao of Pooh; books on cooking, like The Tao of Balanced Diet: Secrets of a Thin & Healthy Body; books on anthropology, archaeology, sociology, Latin America, and Africa; guidebooks, language books, and meditation books; stuffed panda bears, origami greeting cards, Baoding Iron Balls--weights that supposedly maintain healthy blood circulation when carried--and incense sticks.

The store's rich patchwork of colors could be plucked from a Chinese market--there are elegant calligraphic scrolls of chartreuse and peach, soft aqua and vermilion silk embroidered boxes, graceful black-and-white paper fans, spinning racks of bright postcards.

"So nice to see you," a smiling Cheng bellows to a couple entering the store. "Take your time; enjoy yourself. Beautiful day."

"Do you have Thai cookbooks?" the woman asks.

"Thailand? Oh, sure," Cheng answers excitedly.

"Take off your coat; have a chair," he says to the next browser, who has complained that it is hot outside.

And to a third, when he finds out they have a mutual friend: "See how small the world is."

Cheng can charm his customers, but more often he prefers to blend into the myriad displays and let customers delve into another world in peace. Around Cheng, who for the most part nods profusely and relies on one- and two-word snippets for answers, words take on an insignificance.

In the Chinese religion and philosophy of Taoism, water is an often-used metaphor. Water, which wears down stone and hollows out a path around it, is the essence of Taoism: that which is flowing and flexible and yielding will overcome that which is hard.

Cheng sums it up in a more pithy way: "If you like people, they will like you back."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Al Kawano.

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