The Eleven-Hour Drive– Part One
In May, 1979, I attended the 45th Canton Trade Fair. During the Fair, I joined some meetings between members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong and various Chinese counterpart organizations to discuss trade and business issues.
Compared with just a year or two earlier, big changes were clearly gaining momentum in China.
Advertising billboards, long taboo, had sprung up at various strategic locations around Guangzhou, initially promoting foreign banks, booze, and cosmetics. Official periodicals such as “Peoples’ Pictorial” also jumped on the new advertising bandwagon, offering one page full color ads for the princely sum of US$25,000.
Some signs of change had begun prior to 1979. At the Fall, 1978 Trade Fair, the Dongfang Hotel’s new wing lobby suddenly sprouted China’s first hamburger and hot dog stand –RMB 1.00 (US$0.64 at prevailing rate of exchange) for a hot dog; RMB 4.00 (US$2.60) for a hamburger. It was arguably also the first place in China you could buy a cup of coffee. Underlining the experimental nature of these changes, however, this pioneering fast food venture lasted only six months or so. It disappeared without explanation by the time the Spring, 1979 Fair opened.
New forms of business such as compensation trade were now permitted, as a part of the first stage of opening to foreign investment. American banks were jostling for position in establishing relations with the Bank of China, especially in the wake of the normalization of US-China relations earlier that year.
Change was in the air. A massive search for offshore oil was underway in the South China Sea, sending Hong Kong real estate prices into the stratosphere. Expectations were sky-high. Trade Fair visitors included big corporate heavyweights as well as carpetbaggers and scam artists.
Towards the end of that Spring, 1979 Fair, the Guangdong Foreign Trade Bureau kindly extended an invitation to the Amcham group to visit a newly formed foreign trade zone along the coast. Little was known about the place at that time. It was referred to as the Bao-an Foreign Trade Base, a name which had a quasi-military flavor to it.
The plan was to drive to this new trade zone – China’s first — from Guangzhou, then tour the area, listen to briefings, spend the night in a local hotel, and return to Hong Kong the following day.
It sounded like an interesting adventure, so I signed up, along with 7-8 other Amcham members. We were under the impression that we would be among the first foreign or Chinese business delegations to visit the new trade zone.
We set off from the Dongfang Hotel early one morning in two vehicles: a sedan for the Amcham President, who was the head of a big American bank, and a Japanese minibus for the rest of us. Even in the early morning hours, the spring weather in subtropical Guangzhou was hot and steamy.
We reckoned that our road trip to the Bao An Foreign Trade Zone would take us a distance of about 80 miles as the crow flies. Little did we know that due to the primitive state of the roads, the absence of bridges at several key river crossings, mechanical failures and various unforeseen delays along the way, the 80-mile drive would take us 11 hours.
Still, as we set out from Guangzhou, the whole trip had an air of excitement and exploration about it. Spirits were high, cameras loaded with Kodachrome, notebooks at the ready.