It all started over a bowl of dumplings, but theirs is not the typical Chinese love story.
When Gervais Lavoie and Bao Huhe get married this week, the ceremony will end one of the zaniest, most complicated courtships between a foreigner and Chinese citizen ever heard of in the People's Republic. Theirs is a tale of romance tangled by almost every imaginable trouble: nervous breakdown, kidnaping, ethnic chauvinism, parental interference, bureaucratic sluggishness and months of separation.
Only through their own perseverance and finally the intervention of the highest officials in two governments was a happy ending assured for their story.
"We knew all along that if we fought for our love there isn't anyone who could stop us," Lavoie said after Bao's father finally consented to their marriage and released his daughter from two weeks of virtual house arrest.
Their relationship began like many others between foreigners and Chinese. Lavoie, 28, a French-Canadian anthropologist who specializes in China, arrived in the Inner Mongolian capital of Hohhot in May 1980 to begin a seven-month research project.
In June, he was invited by Chinese friends to a dinner party, where he met Bao, 25, a tall, lithe woman who danced in the Inner Mongolian dance ensemble. She is Mongolian, the daughter of a high-ranking government official in Hohhot.
Lavoie, who speaks Chinese fluently, and Bao were attracted to each other, and they began meeting every Sunday for their favorite meal of Chinese dumplings. But they kept their budding romance a secret, recognizing the immense barriers discouraging intimacy between foreigners and Chinese.
Finally, in November, they agreed to marry. The decision began causing problems as soon as Lavoie called on Bao's father.
"He said, 'No, no, I can't agree with that at all,' " recalled the Canadian. "He said, 'You're a foreigner. You could be a good man or a bad man. It doesn't matter. I don't want my daughter to marry a foreigner.' "
When Lavoie suggested that the father get to know him better before passing final judgment, he was told to leave the house. To make matters worse, Bao's father ordered her to stop seeing Lavoie and tried to have her confined to her dormitory room at the dance company where she lived.
After several weeks of frustration, Lavoie's research project came to an end and he left for his home in Montreal, planning to return.
Five days later, according to Lavoie, Bao had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized, paralyzed on the left side. She recovered quickly, however, and the couple kept in touch by mail and telephone until Lavoie was hired as an agricultural consultant and returned to Hohhot last May to resume his marriage campaign. He brought with him a letter from the Canadian Embassy approving his marriage plans, thus complying with a Chinese law that requires a sponsoring unit's permission to wed.
Bao applied to her work unit for permission but was flatly turned down. Despite a new marriage law that allows adults to wed without parental consent, the unit leaders told Bao they would not sanction her marriage because of her father's objections.
Frustrated again, Lavoie returned to Peking to lobby officials to enforce their own marriage law. He also began fighting for an extension of his visa, which was to expire in late August.
Bao joined him Aug. 15, and five days later they received their first good news in months. The government had decided to extend his visa for 30 days.
Setting off for the visa office, Lavoie left Bao behind to nap in his hotel room. When he returned two hours later, she was gone, although her clothing was still there as well as her toothbrush, money and bag.
After a few hours, Lavoie began worrying. He called friends, the Canadian Embassy and the Chinese Foreign Ministry. The ministry said Bao had been taken home to Hohhot by a relative who had come to tell her that her mother was ill.
"It didn't make sense," Lavoie said later. "There was no note. There were all her personal possessions left behind. She wouldn't just leave like that."
The next several days seemed "like several years," said Lavoie, who frantically called friends and officials in search of Bao. He had applied earlier for a travel permit to Hohhot, but had been rejected. Officials kept putting him off. None of his friends in Hohhot had seen her. He worried about "what she might do if she thinks there's no hope," he recalled.
Finally he decided to get his own government involved. Canadian External Affairs Minister Mark MacGuigan had arrived in Peking Aug. 27 to meet with Chinese leaders, including Communist Party Vice Chairman Deng Xiaoping. MacGuigan agreed to discuss Lavoie's problems with Deng.
At their meeting, MacGuigan reported afterward, Deng said the marriage would be legal, but difficult for Bao's family because of their strong ethnic identity. He counseled patience and promised to extend Lavoie's visa as long as he wanted.
Deng's extraordinary intercession began producing results almost immediately. Lavoie now received sympathetic replies from government officials, who seemed eager to solve the problem.
On Sept. 1, Lavoie called Bao's home in Hohhot, hoping she would answer the phone. Instead he reached her father, whose tone was changed and promising. Whereas he had rebuffed Lavoie in recent calls and told him to go home to Canada and forget his daughter, the father suggested this time that Lavoie call back at night.
He called at 8 and Bao answered. She told him she had been taken from the Peking hotel room and driven several hundred miles north to Hohhot, where she had been held at her brother-in-law's home. Several days later, she said, her father gave in.
"She told me to begin making plans for the marriage," he said. "I couldn't believe she was there at the other end of the line."
Bao returned to Peking by rail. She stepped off the train without luggage and grasped the hand of her husband-to-be.
She had always been her father's pet, she explained, and he was afraid of losing her. After days of debate, however, he began to realize that he was losing her another way.
"He knew he couldn't stop me from doing what I wanted to do," she said.
Lavoie and Bao plan to marry in Inner Mongolia this week. Then they will go to Montreal, where she will begin French lessons and he will return to his research work.
"Everything will seem easy after this," said a triumphant Lavoie.