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?)


Brian Siu, Managing Director CSA said...

I was there June 4, 1989, obtained my US residence through political asylum in Jan 1990, my first return to China was in 1998 when I became US citizen. As June 4 is approaching, many of us have not forgotten the days and victims of Tiananmen Square massacre even as I frequently travel back to China for business.

Fred Young, Vice President at 中道资本顾问公司 said...

I was there as well, Craig and Brian, as a student in Nanjing. What at first felt like an exhilarating sense of change and openness, at least compared to six years before when I first went to China, instantly came to a crashing, tragic halt. Ironically I'm traveling to Beijing this coming June 4th and what is saddest now is how quickly what remain painful, dark memories for me have become entirely forgotten by so many who lived through it. Younger generations even go as far as agreeing with the authorities that suppressing "counterrevolutionary riots" was probably a good thing. Twenty years later I'll walk over to Muxidi where the streets were stained red and I'll remember that time, my friends, and never, never forget.

Wei LUO [罗伟] said...

Dear Mr. Justice,

There are many incidents in history that we should remember.

Recently I listened an audio book "10 days that unexpectedly changed America" by Steven M. Gillon. I have learned so much about American history in particular American Indians and African Americans... Chinese Americans as well. China like any country has room to improve. Hope we all learn lessons from history.

"10 days that unexpectedly changed America"

"Do you know the story of Vincent Chin ?"

Andrew Wang said...


Your essay made a fine read. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's somewhat reminiscent of my experience in Shanghai 20 years ago... all the memories in the back of my mind like electric shadows and fireflies flickering and glowing in the darkness.

Anonymous said...

China Airlines is an airline operated by the Republic of China (Taiwan). And yes, it used to crash a lot. Air China (operated by P.R. China) has a much better track record with only 1 fatal accident.
Let's not spread propaganda.

Saul Gitlin said...

I spent my first year in China in 1982.......who remembers 五讲四美三热爱,AND the first movement for 精神污染。。?

Wei Luo 罗伟 said...



Andrew Wang said...


How did China Daily translate “反资本主义精神自由化“? "Anti-Bourgeois Liberalism"? I was “大众电影” and “环球银幕“ first Hollywood special correspondent then. Now, I found my old writings were plain silly, a translation lost in history from a bygone era.

The other day as I read Craig's prose things suddenly rushed back as though I were that child watching the silver screen in Cinema Paradiso. All illusions and liquid dreams... alluring only in the darkness of one's own fainted memory.

In 20 years China has changed. But, has China lost more than what has been gained? Where are the siblings? The neighbors? And, 同志?

Fisher Feng said...

Beijing - the political center
Shanghai – the economic and financial center
Chongqing – the typical developing city of West China
Lhasa – the most controversial city of China

I think that it is worth to visit the above 4 cities.

Though the pace of democratization is slow, the government, people, media and experts keep pushing it. And during the past 20 years, China has made great achievements in the fields of economy, industry, commerce, science and technology, infrastructure etc.

Wish you have a good time in China!

Brian Critchfield said...

I actually just made my first trip to China (Beijing) a couple weeks ago. I was amazed at how modern and capitalistic it was. It was a phenomenal experience, but the threat of totalitarianism was always in the background. No YouTube access while I was there and it looks like they shut down Twitter and Facebook as well in preparation for the 20 year anniversary of Tiannenman.

Terri Morgan said...

Craig, Nice essay. Takes me back. I was following the news as were some Chinese friends in the US from April 1989 up to the time the news feeds were cut off and we were all left to speculate about what was really going on.

I was on my way to a teaching job at what I'd thought was a mid-size college in central China when I landed at Hong Qiao in the fall of 1990, not well prepared but ready for whatever came my way (or so I thought). It was night. I wondered where the city was. Shanghai was even then a large city, but I couldn't see any "city lights." The trip had been less than smooth. The flight was late. By that time, it didn't matter. I was just glad to have finally arrived.

The plane stopped on the tarmac. I could see a tiny building that looked like a workshed off to one side. It was dimly lit. A rickety metal stair was rolled over to the door for us to disembark. I followed everyone else to the small building which turned out to be the terminal building. I'd retrieved my bags and cleared customs. The transit hall was mostly empty. A few chairs and a table or two. Not much else.

I looked around for the person who was supposed to meet me. There seemed to be no one inside the building except the passengers on my flight, security, some maintenance workers and several hotel hawkers. Outside, I could see people crowding up to a set of ropes strung around the doors and two or three uniformed guards. Then, I spotted a man with a sign that had my name on it. I waved.

After some discussion with the guards, he came into the building, greeted me in English and told me the person who was supposed to have come to meet me had a last-minute problem. He helped me collect my bags and we started out to the car. The parking lot was unlit and unpaved. So much for the roller bag. A car and driver were waiting for us. I didn't find out until later that since he was not a passenger, it was not permitted for him to come into the building.

Two days later, we boarded a train for the 17 hour ride to where I would live for the next year. Like so much else, I didn't find out until later that soft sleeper tickets were reserved and that, had my escort not been traveling with me, he would not have been allowed to purchase them.

Now, some 20 years later, there are still work sheds at Hong Qiao, right alongside the main terminal buildings which seem more like grand shopping malls complete with hotels and comfortable restaurants than airport terminal buildings. And the new, air conditioned, high-speed trains make that same 17 hour trip in about 6 hours. Changes indeed...

Tim Martin said...

I think people make a big issue of it because the Chinese government is so utterly terrified of letting the Chinese citizens themselves draw their own conclusions at all, and that basically leads people all over the world to conclude that the government is afraid of discussing the events. Agree that it is better to let history be the judge, but that is simply impossible with the current treatment by the government. How can the people reach their own correct conclusion, when it is forbidden to hear the other side of the argument ?

I first came to China in 1997, and to me, the changes are amazing. Many citizens are too busy enjoying their many freedoms and improvements in quality of life they enjoy right now to worry too much about the freedoms they don't enjoy, so I fail to see how having an open debate and discussion about 1989 is a tempest in a teapot. It's a big deal because the Chinese government take totalitarian, restrictive, and paranoid actions that ensure it's a big deal. Let Chinese people have this dialogue, and then they will learn from it. Debate and discussion rarely is a bad thing.

I do agree with Mr. Yang that the truth is probably a lot different than what many in the west believe, however.

Liqun Yang said...

Regarding the translation of the "五讲四美三热爱", I don't think translation words by words will work, it should be translated by its 'content meaning'. This way of saying things strongly reflects the type of sophistication of the Chinese language usage which does not exists in other languages. Here I'll give it a try: '5 promoting, 4 actions, and 3 encouraging (or inspirations)' - hope it could serve as a ’抛砖引玉‘ (give a 1st try and hope to lead to better ones put forward) for you. As for “反资本主义精神自由化“ (haha, nice to see some specific phrases of (historical) Chinese characteristics still being remembered by some one!). I guess it could be translated as "to against the capitalist style Liberalization".

This is exactly the problem for that the Chinese poems could not be properly translated into the English! (It will lost most of the real artistic beauty of the Chinese poems during the translation).