“Customer is Emperor!”（“客人就是皇帝！”）
街上的零售店挂着英文招牌“Department Store of Daily Goops”（“日用粘糊商店”，正确拼写应为“Department Store of Daily Goods”——即“日用百货商店”），宾馆的洗衣单上列明还可以洗涤“Brassie”（“高尔夫木杆”，正确拼写应为“Brassiere”——即“文胸”）。
“Do We Look Japanese?” (Part One)
My first trip to Yunnan was with a well-known American publishing entrepreneur and two of his Boston-based colleagues. It was the mid-1980s, and they were in the middle of an Asian business trip.
He had asked me to suggest an interesting spot in China to spend a weekend — offering good weather, scenery, food and sights — and I suggested Kunming. On fairly short notice, the weekend excursion from Hong Kong took place.
As first-timers to Kunming, I recommended we line up a tour guide, which we did through China International Travel Service. For the three American publishers, the appeal of a guide was having a bright young Chinese person to help them understand what was going on in this fast-changing, intriguing but somewhat puzzling country. They were full of questions, and our guide, Ms. Shi, was well-equipped with answers and viewpoints.
In terms of height, at six feet tall, I was the second shortest among the four of us. The media tycoon was just a bit shorter than me, but his colleagues were both very tall guys, at six foot six and six foot four.
Especially with the two giants in tow, it was impossible for us to take a low-key walk down the streets of Kunming. Wherever we went, we drew upward stares.
We looked like escapees from Noah’s Ark: a pair of giraffes escorted by a pair of monkeys. Foreigners of any size were something of a spectacle in those days, even against the backdrop of colorfully garbed minority tribes commonly seen on the streets of Kunming.
We took a side trip to a geological wonder called the Stone Forest, a natural forest of strangely shaped stone pinnacles. Their natural beauty had been hijacked by an extraordinary concentration of ankle-deep plastic and paper garbage on the ground. It was a sign of the times, and the first time I recall seeing such a mountain of non-biodegradable trash in China. Up until those days there had been very limited if any use of plastics in the packaging of consumer drinks, snacks, etc. Nightsoil carts were still a common sight.
Domestic tourism was also in its infancy. At this particular place and point in time, the trash was clearly winning the battle with the trash cans by an emphatic margin. The visit to the Stone Forest was the first time it dawned on me that China’s pristine pre-plastic age was about to end, abruptly.
On the way back to Kunming we stopped, unannounced, in an ancient village with buildings constructed from dried mud, with free-range chickens running around. This was the era when all chickens in China were free-range chickens and did not command a premium price as a result of that status.
We also stopped in a free market where horses and cattle were on offer, along with a rainbow array of produce and handicrafts. The big boss bought two large mythical animal figures made of green porcelain, to decorate the roof of his house and ward off evil spirits. I wondered to myself if they would be effective against evil spirits in Massachusetts since they were designed to counteract the local Yunnan variety. However, my opinion on this question was not sought.
As was the case in many Chinese cities inland from the eastern coast, the open door and reform. era was just taking root in Kunming by the mid-80s. Experimentation was in the air, and showed itself in interesting and sometimes amusing ways.
Even in the state-owned hotel where we stayed, the restaurant was trying to get on the bandwagon of better customer service. A large paper scroll, hand-painted in English with a Chinese calligraphy brush, hung on the wall, and proclaimed:
“Customer is Emperor!”
Although the service and food in that restaurant were OK, it seemed to me that the wall message was more of a goal embedded in the Five-Year Plan than a statement of current reality. In any case, there was none of the imperial pageantry depicted in Bertolucci’s film “The Last Emperor”, nor did I notice any giggling concubines in the kitchen.
Down the street was a retail store with an English sign: “Department Store of Daily Goops”. The hotel laundry form. included a clothing category called “Brassie”.
Here was a place reaching out to the outside world after a long stretch of isolation.