Monday, October 19, 2009

Guangzhou, 1979

Note: I took all photos, except as noted, during my visit in 1979.

When it happened in 1979, Deng Xiaoping's visit to the U.S. (during which he famously donned a cowboy hat) was obviously an earth-shattering event.

Emerging from the death three years earlier of Mao Zedong as the de facto leader of the People's Republic of China, Deng embarked on a breathtakingly swift re-opening of China to the West, coupled with the selective introduction of market-based economics. Looking back 30 years later, now that China has become a major global economic force, the enormity of the watershed year of 1979 has only become more obvious.

In October of that year, I was one of the first Westerners to openly and, near as I could tell, freely travel in the PRC, albeit all too briefly.

I’d spent two years in Hong Kong as a Mormon missionary and talked my parents into paying my way into the mainland for a quick peek instead of buying me a camera for my birthday. Another missionary and I worked our way through church and political red tape and booked a trip to Canton, now called Guangzhou in the new romanized spelling. The name consists of two Chinese characters: “guang,” which means broad or wide, and “zhou,” meaning state or province.

I wrote a piece about this trip for the Daily Herald in Provo, Utah back in the early 80s, but I’ve never revisited it. Fast forward to the summer of 2009. My mother had died nearly two years before and my father had remarried and was moving out of the home where we’d all grown up. My siblings and I gradually gathered up stuff of ours that had accumulated in the basement over the years. Among the material was a box from my mission.

The fact that I’m no longer a practicing Mormon is irrelevant – two years in Hong Kong and nearly a week in Guangzhou the same year mainland China began reopening to the West is what it is – a rare moment in time. I had borrowed another missionary’s camera for the trip and, even though I was an inexperienced and poor photographer, some of the images are remarkable.

More amazing, Kathleen found a small silk hand-painted landscape in the box, which I recalled buying in an enormous department store in Canton for about five dollars U.S. The scene is of the Pearl River, which provides a seaport for Guangzhou 75 miles from the South China Sea.The silk comes from an internationally famous silk factory in Hangzhou and I feel very fortunate to still have it, particularly since I’d forgotten about it for nearly three decades. (The characters down the left side of the silk say: "China Hangzhou Silk Cloth Factory." Down the right they say: "Guangzhou West Bank.")

Even three decades removed, much of that trip is clearer to me than my last visit to the Bahamas less than a year ago. We flew from the old Kai Tak Airport in Hong Kong Harbor on an old Russian-made jet with carpet coming up from the floor. The flight attendants wore the only makeup we saw during our time in China. When we landed in Guangzhou, ours was the only plane on the tarmac and the airport was deserted except for us and the Chinese authorities.

The differences between Hong Kong and Canton couldn't have been more stark. Hong Kong had more than its share of squalor and poverty, but it also was something of an economic miracle, where money flowed and there was a sizable lower middle class. Canton and its surrounding region, then and now the third-largest metropolitan area in China, was clearly poor and polluted. It had a respectable public transportation system (mostly buses powered by overhead electrical lines) and some beautiful public areas, including former Buddhist temples that had been converted into parks.

We stayed at the White Cloud Hotel, a clean but spartan place that is now a Best Western. It was one of the tallest buildings in the city at the time – recent pictures show it dwarfed by skyscrapers in all directions. (I took the photo on top in 1979. The photo on the bottom is lifted from the hotel's current web site.) From our room we could look out through coal-smoke haze (still visible even at night in the current photo) to old colonial buildings from the 1920s – most construction had ceased during much of the communist revolution, World War II and through the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. We also could see a soccer stadium in mild disrepair -- it's now part of the New Sport Complex.

We were part of an American tour group and our visit was tightly scripted. My missionary friend and I learned that if we would begin speaking Chinese when we got off the bus we’d soon be surrounded by people who probably had never seen an American, let alone one who could speak Cantonese. It was sometimes hard to extricate ourselves from the scene to go with our tour group.

We visited a commune (including a medical facility where an abortion was being performed more or less as we watched) and many historical sites. We had an unforgettable seven-course Cantonese meal including a suckling pig (yes, they served the whole thing) and an enormous pile of sautéed sparrows in a gray sauce that was spectacularly disgusting. I was the only diner to eat one, feathers, beak and all. I don’t recall the flavor but the sensation of sinewy meat and tiny bones remains crystal clear. The pig was as delicious as the birds were appalling. There was much bok choy, rice and, alas, plum wine and Tsing Tao beer that I was forbidden to drink.

Canton struck me as how Europe must have looked in the 1920s. Sprinkled with the odd Chinese-style building, the city was mostly two- and three-story stone and brick buildings and dank alleys. The Pearl River, namesake of the “commie soda” we occasionally drank in Hong Kong, was nearly irretrievably polluted but made for a lovely scene nonetheless. There were many bridges spanning the river, all of which were festooned with large placards containing political slogans very much in keeping with the spirit of socialism that still gripped the country, even as Deng began introducing selected pieces of capitalism. (The sign atop the building on the river in the picture at the top of this blog says: "Remember, the police keep the motherland safe.")

In the rural areas there were more water buffalo than tractors plowing the fields. Both inside and outside of the city bicycles outnumbered cars perhaps 1,000 to one. Driving at night, taxi cabs would leave their lights off unless the driver determined there was some reason to flash them – usually to warn cyclists to get the hell out of the way. There are now some 10 million people living in the metropolitan area (some estimates put it as high as 18 million) – the population in 1979 was probably two-thirds that.

The children were sweet and curious and the adults were as intrigued by me as I was by them. I had spent two years among the Chinese of Hong Kong, many of whom had family in southern China and nearly all of whom spoke the Chinese dialect of Cantonese instead of the official dialect of Mandarin. The Cantonese language of Hong Kong had evolved over the years of separation from the mainland, so the Guangzhou version required me to concentrate – the people of Guangdong Province spoke a more precise dialect that didn’t include many of the contractions and shortcuts used in Hong Kong.

(The image to the right is the imprint of a "chop," a carving of the three Chinese characters that my name was translated into -- roughly, they are pronounced "poe long jee" in Cantonese. Last names go first in Chinese, and there is no "R" sound in Cantonese. Cantonese and Mandarin are written the same but spoken differently. At one time all chops were made from ivory -- my is made from plastic. The red ink is the original provided with the chop from 1979.)

We took the train back to Hong Kong when our visit was through, chugging through a green countryside of rice paddies and small villages in a vintage passenger car pulled by what appeared to be a coal-fired locomotive, though my memory could be imprecise. Looking back, I didn’t fully appreciate the rare opportunity I’d just experienced. Only months after Deng’s “re-opening,” I had been among the first Westerners to openly tour a small piece of the mainland.

I've not studied China deeply or recently enough to draw any conclusions other than the obvious -- China has made remarkable progress since I was there 30 years ago. I’ve been an amateur sinologist ever since but I’ve let too much memory go unrecorded. This small essay is simply my start in rectifying that.

1 comment:

  1. I concur with your sentiments. I was lucky enough to go to China two months before you did. I am writing up my vignettes on my blog at the moment -

    It was called Canton in those days, spartan, hints of leftover colonialism and slight bewilderment at the abrupt end of the Mao Dynasty. I can empathise with the delicious food. Snake King Man and Da Jia Le (Everybody's Happy) were fantastic.

    Though it was obvious that things in China were going to improve, it was not so easy to see how fast the changes would come.

    At the rate we are going, it looks as if we are heading for a clash of civilisations and possible war. It won't happen lightly - China is not traditionally expansionist, but I feel the Chinese will be forced into it - basically for their survival and needs for water, food and energy resources, owing to there being possibly too many people on this earth.

    They are arming to the teeth and the good old West is carrying on with a policy of appeasement, running down its forces and taking its eye off the ball by putting all its resources into a part of the world which will not be a main player.

    Murmurs of joint military exercises between China,Russia, Iran and Syria should get alarm bells ringing in Whitehall and the Pentagon.

    But it's not all doom and gloom. Parts of China, even with its extravagant growth is still wondrous and magical.