Wednesday, May 20, 2009

China: 20 Years Earlier

My first visit to China was in April - May 1989. I was a bird flying over an ocean who could see its vastness but not comprehend what took place beneath the waves. I walked past 10,000 people with 10,000 stories and I missed them all on that first trip. But during the next decade I shed my wings for fins and swam among the fish of the Middle Kingdom sea, keeping my distance from killer whales.

What were your first impressions visiting China and how have they changed?

I was working in Japan for Mitsubishi Corporation in 1989. It was the "Golden Week" holiday and I was itching to visit the world's most populous country. Knowing precious little of China's history, spoken language and what I was getting myself into, I traded my 3-piece suit for a backpack and landed in Shanghai. Students were marching in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Two of my colleagues based in China had recently perished in a China plane crash so I was leery of flying on a domestic flight to Beijing. (The acronym of China's airline in those days stood for "China Airlines Always Crashes"). I decided to stay in Shanghai two days, then travel by train to Hangzhou, Guangzhou and Hong Kong. Little did I imagine that during the next decade I would rack up a million miles flying to China and become a witness to economic history. Here's what I remember about that first trip.

The road from Shanghai's Hong Qiao airport to the downtown Bund was dark (I arrived at night; there were few lights). My host, the local Japanese manager for Mitsubishi, warned me not to change money on the black market. At that time, visitors were issued a special currency for foreigners (FEC) in exchange for hard currency and were not supposed to use RMB (renminbi) the people's money. My hotel was the Seamen's , just off the Bund where you could smell the river. The cost was $125 night and the quality was similar to that of a standard Holiday Inn. At that time, Pudong -- just across the river-- was a dream (now, one of the great metropolises of the world.) The first day I walked, walked, walked. Along the French styled buildings of the Bund, along Nanjing Street up to the No. 1 Department Store, and then the People's Park near the old convention center (a Soviet style building). Purchasing a sweater at the store required picking up chits from the department, then paying a central cashier, then going back to the clothes department to get the sweater. (It seemed to be a complicated process -- perhaps a way to employee more people at a state run store?) Mao suits were common. The trams were jammed-pack with people and seemed to move at a snail's pace. I ventured into a restaurant and, not speaking Chinese at the time, pointed at the menu and was served a mystery dish (tripe in a yellowish sauce?). I soon learned about Shanghai's steamed dumplings (xiaolongbaozi) which could be ordered on many street corners. I took in the architecture of the old French quarter and the bustling of outdoor markets, walking to the Jin Jiang Hotel where President Nixon stayed during a state visit. Much of the morning was spent trying to secure a train ticket to my next destination. (Not a simple process.) I remember finding a travel agent at the Peace Hotel, a historic hotel which would have been a better place to stay for the money. (In later years I visited the hotel several times for the jazz and banquets, including one held by the organizers of PC Expo.)

The next day it was raining and I took off by foot trying to get that train ticket, then visiting more markets. I made it to the Yuyuan Garden, but what I missed was enjoying tea and Shanghai dim sum in the surrounding tea houses. And, I missed Shanghai's historic restaurants, such as Mei Long Zhen (which I was taken to several times on subsequent visits). This is the price you pay for being "spontaneous" and going to a country without research and plans. Of course, today's China is a moveable feast of culinary delights (and business opportunities) and my appetite was whetted for more.

It was May Day, a traditional holiday for "communist states" and I made inquires, unsuccessfully, about official parades and marches, and unofficial demonstrations such as those at Tiananmen. (I didn't know about Fudan University, but ended up visiting that institution several times on later business trips.)

Hangzhou was a 3-hour express train raid from Shanghai in those days and five hours or more by local train (now there is a super expressway for buses and cars which has cut the time significantly and the trains are improved). I was determined to stay in a backpacker's style hotel to save money. I remember walking from the train station and somehow getting to the famous West Lake for my first glimpse, then, needing a place to stay, boarded a jam packed bus that took me into a countryside of tea plantations and a hostel and a room which I shared with 3 others costing a few dollars per night. Making an international phone call involved calling an operator and requesting a call. It took 15 minutes to get an international line.

Instead of walking, I rented a bike and biked everywhere, starting with the magical West Lake just a couple of miles away. I was captivated by it and fortunate enough to return several times in later years . I found a tea house next to ancient ruins and enjoyed green Dragon Well Tea, a local speciality. I met a Canadian student who was requested by his host institution in Beijing to go on vacation (i.e. "get out of town") because of the storm brewing at Tiananmen. I invited him to dinner and we found a hole-in-the-wall seafood restaurant. The eels in the fish tank piqued my interest and I ordered one for us steamed to perfection in a soy-based, ginger sauce. Delicious! And, I relearned my lesson about asking how much things are before ordering them. (The dinner was over $20, which seemed very expensive for the time and place, but for us it was priceless.)

The next day it was raining (again) and I needed to go the train station (again) to try and get a ticket for my next destination. There I had my formative experience of the Chinese definition of waiting in line (opposite of the well mannered British queue). Ticket in hand, I was back on bike, and I had not been as soaked to the bones since riding to school at the University of Washington in Seattle. Peddling through town I saw a line of people at a noddle shop, stopped and met a couple of university students from Japan studying in Hangzhou. They ordered for me and I had the most inner-warming bowl of Shui Zhao (soup dumplings) I had ever had. (In subsequent years I learned the joke about shui zhao which in Chinese also sounds like "sleep" so when you ask the soup lady how much the dumplings are you could be propositioning her.)

I climbed a mountain and found a temple where couples soldered metal hearts engraved with their names so their hearts were always together. In town, I shopped for little nick-knacks that would fit in my backpack to bring home. In Japan, I was expected to bring back as many souvenirs as I could possibly carry, so I started filling up with items made from Hangzhou silk. What I missed in Hangzhou (having not done my homework) was the Lo Wei Lo restaurant by Westlake (but I was taken there and to many fine restaurants on subsequent visits). I do not intend to over romanticize a location -- there is a flip side to this Shangri-la also to be contemplated -- litter, polluted waters and the hardships of life. (In later visits, I often came across people engaged in violent arguments. So much tension, right beneath the surface.) Hangzhou made an impression, and as I departed I said, "I will come back here someday and stay in the Shangri-la instead of a hostel."

The next memory is a 36-hour train ride from Hangzhou to Guangzhou. The chicken bok-choi over rice tasted delicious the first time I ate it but by the 4th serving I had learned it's important to stock up on snacks before a long train ride. We passed scenic areas of steep mountains, and fields flooded with water for rice cultivation as we moved further south. (I was impressed by the scenery to attempt a painting after getting back home.) I shared the "soft seat" cabin with a gentleman from Taiwan and a gregarious fellow from Guangzhou who had emigrated to Hong Kong. They argued for hours about Taiwan this and Hong Kong that and China this, and at the end of the voyage with me wiped out from the fourth serving of chicken bok-choi he hired a taxi and took me to my lodging, another hostel, and this time I splurged for a private room with bath (cost, about $20/night). I had escaped the rains, and, dried out, found a bike to rent, and biked, biked, biked everywhere. Memorable sites: all of the cottage workshops, people making this, people making that. Busy. Micro industry. And then there were the markets, with the cats in cages, badgers and everything. I remember a visit to the snake restaurant to drink snake bile and to eat snake soup. (Fried snake is a delicacy I learned to love, and we have quite a supply of them on our ranch at the Blue-Merle Vineyard). I made a quick trip to Foshan to see a temple, and it was there that I noticed a younger woman in a white dress for spring. The Mao suits were giving way to modern fashion. Eating at the many tea houses in Guangzhou was easy with dim sum, because you could look at servings before choosing them and the portions were small. (What I missed were the trips to the factories in Dongguan -- there would be time for that later. I also missed evenings of karaoke, which had been forced upon me in Japan, and was also very popular in China. But this is what you get for not planning ahead, not knowing the language and the culture.)

I had lunch with a Japanese manager of the local Guangzhou branch of Mitsubishi and he brought one of his Chinese staff. What I really wanted to know was how he, as a Chinese, felt about working for a Japanese-based company?

Unprepared, I got what I asked for on this first trip to China. There would be many more visits and I would study the language and everyone I met on a train or in a snack shop would become my teacher. I consumed the stories of the people in books, and caught up on the history and read and re-read the Three Kingdoms for political insight and Dreams of Red Mansions for entertainment. In later trips, I would earn a living introducing the Chinese to desktop projectors, then interactive whiteboards, then, American-designed "Made in China" JABRA earphone microphones (the first time I ever saw one of those devices being used was in Shanghai by a suave businessman). Travelling to China over the years I met repeatedly with "mom and pop" dealers which gave me an opportunity to see how their lives were upgraded with each visit in subsequent years: improved plumbing, a toilet that works, dining at good restaurants, heating that works, more furniture, then a bigger office, then a car, then their trips abroad to our trade shows in the U.S. You could see it in peoples' eyes; their hunger to learn more. Their hunger for a better life. Their willingness to work for it, unleashed after the economic reforms that followed Tiananmen. Twenty years from now will we look back upon the events of June 4, 1989 and say the students actions led to "economic freedom" for China?

What did you experience on your first trip to China and how have your perceptions changed with time? (Or, if you are Chinese, what were your first impressions of America?)