In the early 1980s the number of foreigners resident in China was a tiny fraction of what is has grown to be in recent years, and most of these were based in Beijing.
Sino-foreign joint ventures were just getting started, and only a handful were up and running to the point where foreign experts were resident on site. The initial ones were mainly located in major cities along the Eastern China coast.
Out in the southwestern city of Chengdu, in Sichuan, however, there was a small band of resident foreigners, comprising academics working on their research, and one of the early JVs — a cable manufacturing venture involving an American company.
In those days, most of the daily life arrangements for foreigners resident in China were handled by a designated official of the local Foreign Affairs Bureau. Such was the case in Chengdu as well.
It so happened that many of the dozen or so foreign residents in Chengdu in 1981 were from North America. Americans celebrate one holiday — Thanksgiving — which is unique to North America, although Canada and the U.S. celebrate it on different dates.
Thanksgiving is an important holiday for Americans, a time when families and friends gather together and enjoy a sumptuous, usually home-cooked meal. The favorite main course on this occasion is roast turkey.
In recent years, many hotels and eateries in large Chinese cities have gotten aboard the bandwagon of Western holidays, offering special events and festivities at Christmas, Easter, Halloween, and even Thanksgiving.
In 1981, Thanksgiving was largely unknown in Beijing, let alone in Chengdu. Even in the relatively international Chinese city of Hong Kong, turkey was not considered a very palatable dish at the time. I recall the US poultry export council ran a series of promotions back then to try to persuade Hong Kongers that turkey was indeed a delicious menu item.
In the weeks and months leading up to the date (celebrated in the U.S. on the fourth Thursday of November), some of the Americans in Chengdu let the “responsible person” of their local foreign affairs department know that they would really appreciate the chance to enjoy a special Thanksgiving dinner, complete with turkey.
The foreign affairs person dutifully took note and promised to look into the matter, which was a brand new idea to him. He mentioned up front that he was not sure whether or not it would be possible to find a turkey for them, but said he would do his best.
He came back some time later with an interim report saying that although there was a type of turkey native to some parts of south China, it was a scrawny bird and probably not suitable for roasting, even assuming one could be found.
They urged him to keep looking, which he did.
Finally in the weeks before Thanksgiving, the resourceful chap came back with the wonderful news that he had found an imported North American turkey for them, and was happy to make arrangements with the chef in the Jinjiang Hotel in Chengdu to cook it for them.
He added that they would need to give the chef some guidance on how to prepare the turkey and the other traditional dishes, since the Jinjiang Kitchen was more accustomed to preparing dishes like spicy ma-po tofu, camphor-smoked duck, etc.
To this they agreed, and the plan was set in motion. In the end they had a most enjoyable Thanksgiving dinner, all to the credit of their helpful foreign affairs person.
Afterwards one of the Americans asked him where he had finally found the elusive imported turkey.
He explained that his extensive research had shown that although there were none available in China through retail or restaurant outlets, he knew how much they were looking forward to their special Thanksgiving feast, and he had finally found the only available source for the turkey, and purchased it for them.
“What was the source?” the curious American asked.
The answer came back: “The Chengdu Zoo.”
The Americans now felt a strong pang of guilt for depriving the zoo-goers of their handsome North American turkey.