My First Trip to China (Part 1)
Canton Trade Fair
With a sense of great excitement, on an early morning in April 1975, I embarked on the full day, 80-mile train journey from Hong Kong to Guangzhou, starting from the old Kowloon train station next to the Star Ferry, where the clock tower stands today.
After seven years of Chinese studies in the U.S., I was excited at long last to be going someplace where Putonghua was widely spoken. I had obtained an invitation to attend the Canton Trade Fair as a member of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong’s delegation, despite being the assistant editor of a Hong Kong-based trade magazine.
Invitations were not easy to come by, especially for journalists; and visas were only granted to those with invitations. In Hong Kong, invitations were issued by the local arm of the Ministry of Foreign Trade, China Resources, whose offices were then in the old Bank of China Building on Bank Street in Central District, where portraits of Marx, Lenin, Engels and Stalin welcomed visitors from above a pair of ping pong tables — premises currently occupied by the China Club.
Travelling from Hong Kong to Guangzhou required boarding the early morning train from the Kowloon station, which brought you into Luohu (Lowu) in time to connect with the afternoon train to Guangzhou. No other transport connection was available. This was before the era of airplane, ferry, and highway links. The fastest way to get from Hong Kong to Beijing involved taking the train to Guangzhou, and an overnight there in order to catch a flight the following day.
After clearing exit formalities on the Hong Kong side of the Shenzhen River at Luohu, passengers walked with their luggage across the quaint, covered wooden bridge — with the PRC flag waving ahead, and the Hong Kong flag flapping behind — and began entry formalities on the China side.
There was a distinctly slower pace on the Chinese side. Emerging from the covered bridge, it felt as if a giant stereo turntable had been stepped down from 78 r.p.m. to 16 r.p.m. Not only was the pace different, but also the sights, smells and sounds. The Shenzhen River was not very wide, as rivers go, but crossing it at that point brought you into a very different world.
From the windows of the train station complex on the Chinese side one gazed out at a sleepy farming community, one corner of a People’s Commune, with wallowing water buffalo, ducks dotting mulberry tree-lined fish ponds, rice paddies, and low brick buildings. This hamlet was the forerunner of Shenzhen, although it wouldn’t be named Shenzhen for another five years or so. This was Bao An.
The advertising billboards near the Hong Kong side of the border were replaced by political billboards on the mainland side, with messages like “We have friends all over the world”, “In agriculture, learn from Dazhai”, “Dig tunnels deep, store grain everywhere,” “Long live Chairman Mao”, ” Serve the people”, etc.
There were many forms to be filled out. The tempo of inbound customs and immigration formalities was slow, but the reward was a sumptuous 12-course Chinese banquet served to all foreign guests within the cavernous low-rise train station complex. After lunch there was time to relax in a room filled with plush antimacassar-backed armchairs with spittoons at their base, beneath a huge Chinese landscape painting captioned “The welcoming guests’ pine tree.” Light blue enamel ceiling fans whooshed lazily overhead.
The spittoons, long since disappeared, were a unique feature of the design motif of meeting rooms. The standard spittoon had a white enamel finish with a stripe of bright red trim around its mouth and a cheery blue floral pattern circling its bulbous midriff. They were the bass note in the triumvirate of receptacles which awaited visitors in every conference room: spittoons, porcelain-lidded tea cups, and ashtrays. Local cigarettes featured copious quantities of red in their packaging, with brand names like Worker-Peasant (工农), Red Lantern (红灯), Bumper Harvest (丰收), Unite (团结), Glorious (光荣), Great Production (大生产), Great Leap (飞跃), Hero (勇士), Red Flag (红旗), and Labor (劳动).
那个时代的香烟商标 / Cigarette brands of the era
After lunch and the rest break (everything ground to a halt during mid-day nap time), came the 2 ½ hour train trip to Guangzhou, which delivered passengers there between 3 and 4 pm. The view from the train windows was overwhelmingly agricultural: no paved roads or high-rise buildings, virtually no factories, and few mechanized vehicles.
(to be continued next week…)