“My First Trip to China”
I recently moderated a panel discussion in Hong Kong among three authors, myself included, each of whom had written a chapter in a recently published book “My First Trip to China.” (Muse)
The other two were Orville Schell, Arthur Ross Director of the Centre on US-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York, and Leo Goodstadt, Adjunct Professor, School of Business Studies, Trinity College, University of Dublin. Both of them are prolific authors, and all three of us have been travelling to China since the 1970s.
The conversation took place over a breakfast meeting organized by The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. We Americans seem to hold more breakfast meetings than most other people. Some consider breakfast meetings uncivilized. Mostly they start at 8 a.m., although I’ve had them start as early as 7 a.m. Breakfast meetings in Hong Kong are not a problem from a transportation point of view, whereas in Beijing it would be a challenge, due to traffic.
“My First Trip to China” was the brainchild of a very bright Hong Kong Chinese writer and editor named Liu Kin-ming. He invited an assortment of 30 China scholars, diplomats, journalists and business people to write their recollections and impressions from the first time they visited China. Many of these visits took place in the 1970s; some earlier, and some later.
The book has been generally well received by reviewers, although one prominent female scholar correctly observed that it has too many male contributors. Point well taken.
I opened the conversation by saying that we would be discussing the obvious, dramatic changes we’d all witnessed in China since the early to mid-1970s. I thought it best to start with some anecdotes and recollections of that era in China, and also in Hong Kong, which was of critical importance to China’s economy at that time as well.
I began the conversation by asking my fellow panelists to describe some of the most memorable sights and sounds which they recalled from their first visit to China.
Orville Schell said that his most memorable sound after arriving in Beijing in 1975 was silence, and his most memorable sight was darkness. He referred of course to the absence of traffic noise and the paucity of electric lights, including the absence of street lamps, in those days.
My most memorable sound, as I have written in this blog, was the deafening 6 a.m. broadcast of “The East is Red” from loudspeakers outside my Dong Fang Hotel window in Guangzhou in 1975. It was a powerful and effective wake-up call, although not one which I’d requested.
Leo Goodstadt, who first moved to Hong Kong in 1962, described the size and shape of China’s trade with the world through Hong Kong, and how it developed in the early years. He focused in particular on the role of the so-called “sister banks” allied to the Bank of China, which together financed most of China’s foreign trade in those days.
International companies were beginning to do more business with China in the mid-1970s, but many of them worked through the traditional trading “hongs” in Hong Kong, such as Jardines, Hutchison, East Asiatic, etc. The so-called community of “China Traders” was a small one in 1975, but soon to experience explosive growth.
All in all, it was an interesting conversation, with a lively Q & A session. When looking back at an era of rapid, dramatic change, it is also important to reflect on those things which have not changed. That helps inform our planning and decision-making going forward.
I can think of many things in China which have not changed. Can you think of any examples?