'Song of Friendship' (友谊之歌), 1979. (ChinesePosters.net)
This is part of a series of ChinaFile stories entitled "My First Trip," a growing collection of essays in which authors recount their maiden excursions into and out of China. The series is a continuation of a Hong Kong Economic Journal project called "My First Trip to China."
The train from the old Kowloon station rumbled as it passed the Chinese border fence on its way to Canton and came to a lurching halt. It was a late summer day in 1981; I was 32 years old and now, as I reflected with deep satisfaction, no one could ever again dismiss me by saying I had not been to China.
Most of my generation of American academic China specialists, who attended graduate school in the late 1970s, did not travel to China until about the time we got our Ph.Ds. The isolation of China in those days is difficult to imagine for today’s generation, who may have made trips while still in high school, or even grown up there. Scarcely a Westerner had been to China since foreigners were expelled in the early 1950s. The place had become an intellectual abstraction, a sort of mathematical space into which clever people — the historian Joseph Levenson comes to mind — could, without friction, project ideas that today seem staggeringly general and lacking in empirical basis. At Harvard, where I was a graduate student, we hung on the words of teachers like John Fairbank, who had actually been into that space a quarter of a century earlier, or Ross Terrill, an Australian whose Chinese visa was such a rarity that its image adorned the jacket of his first major book.
We — or at least I — little understood the complex situations surrounding such visits: Fairbank in the darkest days of World War II as a somewhat bumbling member of the Office of Strategic Services (he was widely known for his inability to make the miniature photographs necessary for transmitting wartime intelligence); Terrill in the midst of Western enthusiasm for Chinese socialism plus savvy United Front propaganda work by the Chinese.
The Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars, an anti-Vietnam War and pro-PRC group founded in 1968 by American graduate students and junior faculty, organized a first visit to China in 1971. Some of my colleagues went on the trip and met Zhou Enlai. But going on the tour would have meant jumping through ideological hoops and I declined to join. In retrospect, it would have been fascinating to have seen “twilight” in what Fairbank liked to call “The People’s Middle Kingdom.” No one had the foggiest idea of the changes that lay ahead.
Ten years later I went commercial, by sheer luck. My first trip began when the phone rang in Princeton, where I was a post-doctoral fellow. Freda Murck, then the assistant curator of Chinese art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was calling to say that she could not, after all, lead a trip to China for Lindblad Travel later in the year and would I be willing to take her place? Willing? Of course. I was thrilled. Lars-Eric Lindblad in those days was the king of top-of-the-line travel to places like Tibet and the Galapagos. I quickly agreed. My trip was unusual in that it went to Xinjiang as well as to the usual “golden route” attractions such as Shanghai and Xi’an. My sister and I pooled nearly a thousand dollars to buy a silk prayer rug — if I could find one — for our father’s 70th birthday (I did, in Urumqi) and in no time I was in Hong Kong, awaiting the group at the ultra-luxurious Mandarin (not yet Oriental) Hotel, where I had often had coffee in years past, but never stayed. That was Lindblad’s headquarters, and where I lived when I later led more trips — most of my time occupied in writing reports, studying passenger folders, and shopping for Western necessities like Raisin Bran that were then not available in China.
My generation had been resourceful in getting as close to China as was possible. I did three years of language study in Taiwan, but it was only when I got to China that I fully grasped how many streets in Taipei were named for cities in the mainland, as it was known, cities far bigger than Taipei. Studying in Tokyo in the mid-1970s I had met a real Chinese, a young man from Guangdong, who did business. He confounded everything I had learned about New China at Harvard with his accounts of competitive pricing, commercial dealing, and connections. Cruising once from Singapore I met a deck hand from Hainan Island who told me a lot about life there — again, very different from what I had been taught. Then there were Hong Kong and Macau, where one could make a frustrating approach to the Chinese border. The best was a vacant lot in Macau that taxi drivers knew about. It was smack on the border with no fence or obstacle, though a sign warned “No Photographs.” One could peer across it into China ... which in those days meant square miles of rice paddies cultivated by the PLA, shimmering heat haze, and purplish mountains silhouetted in the distance. Shenzhen had not even been thought of.
* * *
The train started up and did not stop again. Now on that late summer morning I was actually in China, admittedly not very far, but enough to get me into the club. The previous evening I had met my group, mostly Americans as old or older than I am now, with more than a sprinkling of widows, as in many travel groups. We went to Sonja Lindblad’s not-bad-for-a-non-tycoon apartment in Mid-Levels for a reception. Professional that she was, she greeted every passenger by name as they came in the door. And later she told me, unerringly, which ones would be good and which ones would be problems. From her patio we looked down on the harbor. The passengers, anxious and full of anticipation said, “Arthur, of course you have been to China many times.” They went pale when I replied that no, this was my first time.
A stewardess pushing a refreshments cart made her way down the railway carriage. She had tea, coffee, biscuits, brandy, whiskey, etc. — I think I had a Coke. As I spoke to her in Chinese I sensed relief from my passengers: “It works,” I could hear them saying, as their faces relaxed and they began to smile. The language I had begun studying nine years earlier at Middlebury College in Vermont, and had pursued in Taiwan and then at Harvard, was easily intelligible to an ordinary Chinese. I was happy and relieved as well. The mood changed to very good and remained so the rest of the trip.
I was proud of my group. We shared the carriage with only slightly younger French travelers who began chugging whiskey directly from the bottle and pulling off their shirts as soon as we left Kowloon. My passengers were earnestly immersed in serious books about China. I once asked Malcom Miller, the Englishman who is famous for having spent his life as a deep student of Chartres Cathedral, and as matchless guide to it, who were his best audiences. He responded instantly: “middle aged American women.” They are smart and when they travel they pay serious attention to what they are seeing. When we arrived in Guangzhou, my people were sharp and alert; the French were littered snoring on the floor of the train.
We met our national guide, a cheery and utterly unflappable fellow named Wang, who at the end of a successful three weeks gave me an ancient Chinese coin key chain that I still keep. As evening fell we were driven through steamy Canton, with its families sleeping on the sidewalks while feebly lit home interiors were barely glimpsed in the gloom. When we later got to rural Gansu with its bracing clear air, it was beyond my powers to convince the passengers that Guangzhou was rich by comparison. It had seemed like a slum to them. We reached the then-new White Swan Hotel with its clean cool rooms. I never stayed at “the Fang” — the dreaded Dongfang Hotel, which used to accommodate visitors to the trade fair.
To Freda Murck and the Lindblads I owe my first extensive travel in China. Lindblad’s need for guides, or “expedition leaders” as they were styled, corresponded with a time of unusual freedom in my life when I was not tied down by much of anything, could lock the door of my apartment on lower Witherspoon Street in Princeton, and leave for Asia on short notice. I even had a shiny little “my name is Arthur” staff tag from Pan American airlines, which partnered with Lindblad. I went pretty much everywhere tourists went in the 1980s with the exception of Tibet, where I now doubt I will ever set foot. I accompanied an intrepid group of ladies from Detroit, mostly widows of motor executives, to the Northeast, to places like Harbin and Anshan, sailed up and down the Yangtze from Shanghai to Chongqing through the Three Gorges and back, and got to the southwest to Yunnan — all in addition to standard sites.
The experience was altogether non-intellectual. I was not a professor yet. To the Chinese I was a very low status Westerner: a white male who seemed to make a living carrying bags and catering to rich older people. Most of the passengers’ concerns were in any case non-academic. They wanted fewer visits to “Buddha temples” and free markets, but in those days there was not much else. I had cordial relations with most of my Chinese counterparts, though with exceptions, as when, on the Yangtze, I showed some of British Channel Four’s then-new documentary The Chinese, which I had advised, and which contained some images of the Gang of Four. The Party Committee on the ship split: one member criticized me and warned me to stop, but the others told me to carry on. I learned how to bribe people, something I had never had to do growing up in suburban Boston. And I mastered the screaming match with tourism staff, for instance at the Diaoyutai State Guest House where we were put in Beijing (no Great Wall Sheraton, or even Jianguo — built 1982 — in those days) over their unwillingness for several hours to honor prepaid room reservations for which I held telex confirmations. I learned an awful lot about the public — how to deal with them professionally and courteously but without becoming emotionally involved except when it made sense: as the cruise director on the Yangtze put it, “process them. The human beings will make themselves known.” That was true. Among the passengers were some remarkable and wonderful people.
Such was my introduction to China in the early 1980s. That was a long time ago. Slogans and pictures of Mao were almost ubiquitous. No one had any concept of the vast economic development that would begin to lift China in the years immediately following Tiananmen, of which also there was no premonition. Cityscapes were poor, fresh oranges (one passenger was accustomed to eating a dozen a day) were unavailable, Shanghai had a derelict feeling about it (we stayed at the guest house, where Mao had made his headquarters) and foul-smelling tap water. At Dunhuang we camped out in a dirt-floored airline staff hostel. I was in China for Tiananmen too, but not with Lindblad — which was sadly bankrupted by the subsequent sudden drop in tourism. By then I was an academic, expected to wear a suit and tie, meet college presidents, not to mention enormously rewarding scholars and students, but nevertheless cut off forever from the kind of anonymity I had enjoyed as a tour guide.
That loss was summed up to me as the Yangtze steamer drew near to Shanghai on my final cruise. The Chinese guide, my best friend, came to me in extreme embarrassment and discomfiture. “Arthur,” he said, “a terrible rumor about you is going around the ship.” I began to worry. “What is it?” I asked. “People are saying that you have a Ph.D from Harvard University.” I tried to explain how that meant nothing, that everyone in America had a Ph.D, etc. but to no avail. My friend was abject. “If I had known that I would have treated you completely differently.”
A true and revealing comment. I thank God that the Chinese guide did not treat me differently. As a low-status tour guide, humoring rich white people, haggling over kickbacks and bribes, fighting for hotel rooms, rushing a sick passenger to hospital, listening to my Chinese counterparts when they relaxed and told me about their lives and frustrations (they had no choice: they were assigned to their jobs) — in all of that I got closer to the “real China,” I think, than did those lucky classmates of mine who shook hands with Zhou Enlai.