我的第一次中国之行(二) / My First Trip to China (Part 2)





My First Trip to China (Part 2)

At the train station in Guangzhou I was met by a representative of my host organization. Chinese people who had reason to talk to foreigners, and approval to do so, introduced themselves by surname only. Strictly speaking, the proper term of address was “Comrade”, as in Comrade Li, Comrade Wang, etc.

Name cards were not yet in use among the Chinese side, ostensibly because they would have divulged an excessive amount of potentially sensitive information, such as names, addresses, and phone numbers. For ordinary Chinese to be accused of having unauthorized contact with foreigners (li tong wai guo 里通外国) was a very serious matter indeed; which meant that the emphasis was on institutional rather than individual communications. Spontaneous street-level conversations with foreigners carried serious risks for local Chinese.

The weather report was classified because it was deemed to be sensitive information of potential value to hostile foreign military forces.

东方宾馆老翼楼的正门 / Main Door of the Old Wing, Dong Fang Hotel






All foreigners were mandated to stay in the Dong Fang Hotel. To find a friend or colleague in the hotel required checking the cork bulletin boards in the lobby, where new arrivals would post their business card with the room number scrawled on it. There were no telephones or air conditioners in the rooms. The best rooms, in the Old Wing of the Dong Fang, were more spacious and came equipped with a tent-like mosquito net which hung over the bed.

The telephone played virtually no role in doing business in China at the time. Instead, telex, telegrams and letters — all impersonally addressed to avoid getting the Chinese recipient in trouble — were the available communications conduits for the conduct of commerce. A private telephone was such a rarified, elite device that the telephone book was also considered a state secret.

China’s total foreign trade volume was a pittance — her total imports and exports in 1973 were less than US$11 billion. That’s roughly equivalent to the volume of her luxury goods imports alone in 2010 — which represents a staggering degree of qualitative as well as quantitative change in less than 40 years.

In 1975, all foreign trade and economic decisions were concentrated among a handful of high-level bureaucrats in Beijing, and implemented through 12 highly centralized, monopoly state-owned import-export corporations under the Ministry of Foreign Trade. Foreign trade was largely an extension of foreign policy, and viewed as a kind of necessary evil.

Foreign investment was taboo. Words like “advertising”, “marketing”, and “competition” were regarded with obvious disdain, trumped only by the ultra-sinister word “profit.”

广交会展馆 / Canton Trade Fair Complex



The Dong Fang Hotel during the trade fair housed a motley collection of people from every corner of the globe. Gaggles of folks wearing colorful native costumes shuttled between meals in the hotel restaurant and the sprawling trade fair complex situated across Xicun Road. The incredible diversity of the delegates was a bit reminiscent of the intergalactic bar scene in “Star Wars”, except that bars were not permitted in China at the time.

Delegates were required to wear pink ribbons on their lapels, demonstrating they were authorized to enter the trade fair complex. The pink lapel ribbons added a festive, slightly comical touch, as if the wearer had won the competition at a county fair for growing the biggest pumpkin or baking the best apple pie.

佩戴着粉红丝带的参会代表 / Trade Fair delegates wearing their pink ribbons





After arriving in the Dong Fang that first afternoon, and filling out another small forest worth of forms, in a room dedicated to form-filling for foreigners, it was almost time for dinner. Meals were served at fixed times, with set menus. Good, cold Qingdao beer was available; Coca Cola and coffee were not. Foreign guests were fed like kings and queens compared to ordinary Chinese people, who could be seen queuing at food shops around the city with ration tickets in hand.

Then it was time for an early evening. There was no place to go after dinner other than sit and talk with colleagues, send telexes, play table tennis or billiards. An upstairs dining room in the new wing of the Dong Fang was converted into an ersatz bar serving local beverages, which regulars affectionately nicknamed “The Purple Cockatoo,” fantasizing about a far more enticing ambience than that which actually awaited them: hospital green walls, bright white lights, and plain cotton tablecloths.

So, that first evening I turned in early, excited about what the next day might bring. Finally, after all these years of study, my first full day in China lay just ahead of me.

(to be continued next week…)


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