Hong Kong to Canton in 1976: a Full Day’s Trek
One early morning in May, 1976, en route to the Canton Trade Fair, I boarded the train in the old Kowloon station in Tsimshatsui, next to the Star Ferry terminus-beneath the old clock tower which still stands there today as the sole remnant of the train station.
All passengers going to Canton would disembark the train at Lowu, on the Hong Kong side of the border, clear exit formalities there, and then –with their baggage in hand – walk across the covered wooden bridge above the Shenzhen River. The British flag flew above the Hong Kong side of the old bridge, opposite the Chinese flag on the mainland side.
On the Chinese side of the bridge, foreign passport holders went through one track of entry formalities on the upstairs level, and Chinese went through another, downstairs.
After clearing immigration, which included presenting proof of having obtained several vaccinations (failure to do so, as I learned, meant being escorted into a small room and jabbed with a needle), the foreign travelers were escorted to a dining room where a sumptuous set Chinese luncheon was served.
After lunch was about an hour of allotted rest time, in a cavernous room lined with soft, antimacassar-backed armchairs. Dotted among the armchairs were spittoons on the floor. Many, many spittoons.
The spittoons were almost as numerous as travelers, so we would have been well served in the event of a sudden outbreak of mass expectoration, or a group exercise in consumption of chewing tobacco.
Many of the spittoons were decorated with colorful floral patterns. Previously I had only seen spittoons in the bar scenes of cowboy movies I watched as a child. This added a strangely familiar element to their presence here in China, perhaps the only vaguely familiar aspect of the place at that time.
On the wall was a huge traditional Chinese landscape painting of a pine tree with a line of calligraphy: “Welcoming guests pine tree.”
There were magazine racks with titles such as “China Reconstructs”, “Beijing Review”, and “China’s Foreign Trade” in English and various other foreign languages, filled with photos of smiling Chinese people from all walks of life, with shining teeth and rosy cheeks.
Although we were sitting only a stone’s throw from the Hong Kong side of the bridge, it felt like we were already a million miles away. Crossing the border seemed to involve going through a time warp, like a stereo turntable turned down a few steps, from Hong Kong’s energetic 78 rpm pace to China’s slow-moving 16 rpm.
One good thing was the relaxed dress code, which was practical given the lack of air conditioning. That day I wore a khaki safari suit, a popular style. at the time.
The train station complex on the China side was an island of noontime naps, surrounded by rice paddies, duck ponds, and the occasional water buffalo. The heat and humidity were intense, but not as hot as the ideological issues which formed the backdrop of business or life in general during that era.
The view from the train station and the train for Guangzhou which left in the early afternoon was of a landscape dominated by traditional labor-intensive agriculture.
On red brick walls and building sides there were big character slogans painted in white, like “Long Live Chairman Mao”, “In Agriculture, Learn from Dazhai”, etc. These were the political forerunners of the explosion of commercial billboard and outdoor advertising which would follow a decade or so later. Commercial advertising was still considered a foul offspring of capitalism until its official rehabilitation and revival in 1979.
The train arrived at the Guangzhou Railway Station between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m.. Foreign visitors were typically met there by a representative of their host organization, who would escort them in a chauffeur-driven car or mini-van to the Dong Fang Hotel a short ride away. Taxis had not yet arrived on the scene, and street culture was dominated by bicycles rather than automobiles.
The journey from Hong Kong to Guangzhou covered only 134 kilometers (84 miles) as the crow flies, but it took the better part of a working day and landed you in a radically different socio-economic and political environment.
Little did I know at that time in May, 1976, that tremendous and historic changes would unfold in China that year. January 1976 year had seen the death of Premier Zhou Enlai, which would be followed in September by the death of Chairman Mao Zedung. In October came the celebrated downfall of the infamous Gang of Four.
In many respects, October 1976 was the beginning of the pre-Open Door era in China.