In his farewell column in the International Herald Tribune titled “A Bridge to a Love for Democracy”, U.S. veteran journalist Richard Bernstein recounted his first trip to China through Hong Kong in 1972. “There was a short trestle bridge at Lowu. I’ve often wondered if it’s still there. The Union Jack flew at one side, the red flag of the People’s Republic of China at the other. The border town on the other side was a little fishing and farming village called Shenzhen, now a modern city of skyscrapers and shopping malls, an emblem of China’s amazing economic development.”......
The Hall of Uselessness pertains to the period when I was studying and teaching at the New Asia College in Hong Kong in the early 1960s. It was a hut located in the heart of a refugee shantytown on Kowloon side (Diamond Hill). To reach it at night, one needed an electric torch, for there were no lights and no roads – only a dark maze of meandering paths across a chaos of tin and plywood shacks.
I was secretly contemptuous of all my friends in Hong Kong who were still rather skeptical about visiting China. It’s all very well for nearly all of them now to declare themselves patriots or admonishing those who are not patriotic enough, although they are precisely the lot who harboured suspicions and didn’t even have the guts to find out more about the fast changing China.
My first off-campus "I'm-going-to-speak-Chinese-now" experience happened when I rode my bicycle in search of the Friendship Hotel. I thought I would try out my budding language skills on the guy pedaling beside me. So, with a nod and a smile I laid it on him: "Where is the Friendship Hotel?" He looked at me, then jumped off his bicycle to check his back tire.
The big change came in 1992 with Deng Xiaoping’s exhortation to speed up the modernization process. That was the signal for the ministry of culture to launch a China Art Fair in Guangzhou, followed by an “Art Fair Biennial”. Had the reform not been pushed forward, China’s art scene may well have floundered, or flourished in other better ways, depending on your perspective.
“Your file is already an inch thick,” a confidant with police connections in Shanghai told me. “Be mindful of what you are doing.” My paper file, if it still exists, must be thick and doggy-eared indeed, though there’s no saying it’s all in one place and what’s left of it is probably scattered on forgotten shelves here and there.
I left the guest house alone to go into a nearby store. When I entered, there were no customers. Suddenly, people began to pour in—to look at me. After scores had entered, I fled, moving rapidly up a hill until I had lost everyone except one young man. Finally, I stopped, and in my rudimentary Chinese, asked, “Do you know who I am?” Silence, then “Albanian?” Never before nor since have I been confused with an Albanian, but Albania was China’s only friend at the time.
My first trip to China was meant to be a young Chinese patriot’s journey in search of his Chinese roots. What I found was a Hong Kong identity and the realization that I must learn about the history of Hong Kong if I wanted to understand modern China. This was the beginning of my interest in the history, politics and society of Hong Kong.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but the flight over the Himalayan Hump to China, in a sense, previewed what awaited me in China. Each of us was ordered to pay a one dollar deposit and issued a parachute for the dangerous flight, by a First Sergeant who assured us that if the chute failed to open our deposit would be refunded.
When the family arrived at Chongqing in 1937 we lived in such a house, with no electricity, no running water, or any evidence of modern sanitation. In 1980, living conditions for the Chongqing populace did not appear to have changed. Houses still dotted the hillside, except whereas the earlier houses were topped with grey tiles, the roofs of 1980 were covered cardboards or tin sheets.
A small man wearing a cloth cap and a happy smile was showing us round in Coal Hill. Everyone thought he was the head gardener. I looked a bit harder and realised it was none other than Deng Xiaoping, on yet another of his attempted comebacks from Cultural Revolution exile. I asked him just that: "Are you Deng Xiaoping?" He giggled agreement. Sadly my worldwide scoop was cut to pieces by sub-editors in Sydney who did not have the slightest idea who Deng was.
My colleagues and I rendered things differently. Where I saw almost everyone housed, they noticed the drabness of the housing; where I saw everyone clothed, they observed sartorial monotony; where I saw shops stocked with basics, they remarked on the lack of variety. It was clear that we were re-acting to our own values, life experiences and a priori expectations of China.
During an evening stroll along the famous Bund in Shanghai, we heard the sound of whispered voices coming from a nearby, darkened bridge. As our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we saw dozens of young couples, crowded together along the bridge railings, in various stages of sexual intimacy. All were more-or-less fully clothed; and all were vertically upright. But there was clearly a good deal of body heat being generated.
I remembered the magic credential, the postcard with Gorbachev’s picture, that Soviet officials were using to ease their way through the crowds in Tiananmen Square. I pulled it out of my pocket and held it up. It was like brandishing a wand.Shouts of “Gorby, Gorby” went up and became a great communal roar. I found myself pedalling past tens of thousands of cheering Chinese as though I was a rock star.
Nixon said to Zhou En-lai, "Mr. Premier, I want you to take note of this young man." I interpreted that. "Because very likely he will be the first American ambassador to China." I was 27 or 28, and I thought to myself, "My God, he's either saying that they're going to have to wait thirty years for an embassy, until this fellow grows up, or he's saying they're going to send the least consequential, youngest ambassador ever to China." Zhou En-lai muttered something like, "That'll be the day,"
I asked to see a Protestant pastor, Zhao Fusan who wanted to talk about socialist China, not about theology. He put everything in a framework of imperialism, which my education made me inclined to accept. “There is little light for us in Western theology,” he complained. I asked him: “Which parts of the Bible do you turn to most often?” Looking impassive, he replied, “All parts of the Bible have appeared in a new light to us since 1949.”
In 1968, my mother took me to Guangzhou to visit relatives; I vividly remember being yelled at by a barber in the Overseas Chinese Hotel who forced me to stand and recite one of Mao’s quotation on the wall before he would give me a haircut. We queued for almost an hour to get a table in a restaurant. The waitress threw the chopsticks on the table and walked away. Everybody behaved in a manner that officials like to call “vigilant”.
More memorable was the Oct. 1 parade on Tiananmen Square for the 35th anniversary of the People's Republic. It featured the first military parade since 1960 and, despite some of the anger, students still called out "Xiaoping, ni hao!" when he passed by in a limousine. Five years later, of course, the students and Deng collided and this almost naïve era ended in a bloodbath.
On my first day in Beijing, I underwent an unexpected name change. For twelve years my Chinese name had been "Kong Jierong". But in the China of mid-1972 Kong had become the enemy.I had inadvertently arrived in the midst of a nationwide campaign to wipe out the remnants of Lin Biao and Confucius. So my hosts declared that I should have a new, more proletarian name.
Visiting China in 1985 was much more pleasant than in 1977-1978. Our former young guide and I talked about the former trip and she reminded me that I had worn a pink shirt! I told her I had felt that we were like fish in a fishbowl in 1977-78. We could see China and we could even hear some of China, but we could not touch or feel China. She responded, “That is exactly what we were trying to do!”
When I visited Hong Kong, I followed in the footsteps of the American China-watchers I had read and admired and watched China without going – I made my pilgrimage to the Lok Ma Chau lookout point and stared, fitting the images I saw into the imaginary picture I was building. How far I could travel in my mind! Just looking at a map of China was a sensuous experience for me: my fingers tracing the Silk Road or the Long March.
My coverage of Guangdong led to reverberations that lasted until 1998. The fallout began the day after my feature story was published. I came back to the office after lunch to find Derek Davies puce with rage. I had, he said, destroyed the Review’s chances of ever opening a Beijing bureau. Chinese officials had just called to see him and protest at my reporting. They had alleged that I had tried to bring China into disrepute.
The China Travel Service in Hong Kong had advised me to stay at the Overseas Chinese Hotel in Canton, but the young woman behind the counter there told me the hotel was full and refused to refer me to another hotel. I then was forced to produce American identification and explained that, though a Hong Kong compatriot, I lived in New York. The change in the clerk’s attitude was remarkable.
At the Canton Zoo, I struck up a conversation of sorts with a 22-year-old worker. We talked mostly in sign language. I told him he must be happy in the workers’ paradise. I mimed happiness, pointing at my big grin, and then at him. He shook his head and turned down his mouth in a Chaplinesque expression of sadness. I was stunned - how could a worker in China be unhappy?
In those few years in the wartime China controlled by the Kuomintang, father had people come to our place. Conversations were normal when the subject matter was about the Kuomintang and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek. But the tone turned low and conspiratorial when the Communist Party or Mao Zedong was mentioned.
When we visited Peking University, we were received by the Revolutionary Committee. Zhou Peiyuan, the distinguished scientist who had been in effect the president of the university, welcomed us, but when we were all seated, he said he did not understand the political situation and called upon his colleague, a PLA soldier who then recited the political line of the Cultural Revolution.
Strolling in Hangzhou, I stumble upon a series of about six freshly plastered “dazibao” on a wall. I get photographs of two only. Several of the broad masses have called the hotel to say that a foreigner with a beard and glasses and short pants took a picture of a big character poster this afternoon. They asks for my film, which they will develop and cut out the offending picture.
A taxi driver asked Liu Binyan about China's chances for real reforms. Michael was getting ready to take notes, but I interrupted and asked if the driver himself could offer some suggestions so that Liu could write about them in the People's Daily. Without hesitation, this young man said that in his view if China allowed the United States to manage it for fifty years, then things might be all right! Liu didn't say anything; he just burst out laughing.
If I asked a question of Chinese officials I would get the same answer, using pretty much the same words, anywhere in China. Given the almost insuperable difficulties of communication throughout the country at the time, this was both a formidable achievement and a somewhat frightening one.
We spent a wonderful afternoon with an excursion to the Great Wall. Zbig Brzezinski had lots of fun with his Chinese hosts from the Foreign Ministry (translated by Shi Yanhua) in playing up the Russian angle. Once he stopped the group, peered northward, and said “Out there is the Russian bear and I am the bear tamer.”
Noticing that the first two floors of most apartment buildings were covered with barbed wire, one of the schoolteachers asked about the crime rate. “There is no crime in China,” came the answer. “The barbed wire is there to keep out the flies.” Apparently Chinese flies do not fly above the second floor---and must be very large…
Beijing in the early 1960s was heaven for cyclists. Although there was little motor traffic, all the major roads had broad cycle lanes shared by pedicabs, mule carts, and camels that carried coal into the capital. Traffic lights were worked manually and the roads were so quiet that they could be switched off altogether when the traffic cops went off duty at 7.30pm.
In 1969, when I was in Hong Kong, I decided to apply for a visa to see what would happen. As soon as the officer was told of my citizenship, the answer was “no.”. Though hardly surprised, I sought to draw him out, saying why do you not welcome us foreigners? Are not all people within the four seas of one family?, at which he looked me in the eye and replied sternly: Not all one family!
An uncomfortable moment was my first meeting with Jiang Qing whom Ed hadn't seen since 1939 when she had become the young wife of Mao Zrdong in Yenan... Introducing me, Ed remarked that she and I had much in common: “you are both actresses.“ Jiang Qing's face froze. She practically spit out, “I am NOT an actress!” (I retired behind Ed.)
Zhou Enlai gave the delegation a banquet, shook all our hands -- a “zongli hao” from me elicited a sharp look but nothing more -- and posed with us for a photo op. Years later I was told that the Chinese had expected us to ask to see Mao and that they would have agreed, but the British never asked and so we were deprived of even a glimpse of the Chairman.
The next day, I met Deng Xiaoping. Sort of. It wasn't exactly a one-on-one. I was standing on a row of bleachers, along with many other properly-badged journos, in the room where Deng welcomed the Reagans, husband and wife. Deng wandered over to the bleachers to say hello. What was my first impression? To borrow the immortal words of Richard Nixon at the Great Wall (“It really is a great wall”), Deng really was very short.
I was rudely awakened at 6 a.m., by piercingly loud, searingly shrill broadcasts from loudspeakers in the streets outside the window of my room... “Down with American Imperialists and Their Running Dogs!”... Still only half awake as the harsh denunciation sunk home, I thought to myself: “I'm pretty sure I'm not an imperalist... but I'm not so sure what exactly constitutes a running dog.
No American official had been in China since 1949, so we would be the first American officials to visit China in 22 years... as we crossed the border, I was in the front of the plane. So I've said ever since then... that I was the first American official to visit China since 1949!... I deliberately raced to the front of the plane to do that...
I took part in the funeral of Zhou Enlai as part of the American delegation... China would be visited with much more sorrow that year, the campaign against the right deviationist wind, the Ching Ming protests and the deadly response, the July earthquake in Tangshan, and much joy when the Gang of Four was overthrown in October. I witnessed all of those events, making six visits to the country that year.
Soon after the train pulled into the old Tsimshatsui Railway Terminus, word somehow spread among the passengers that Bruce Lee had died four days earlier. It was the biggest piece of news in the global Chinese community that month. Yet the Bamboo Curtain was so air-tight that nothing, not even petty gossip about movie stars, could percolate into China.
The doctor made the first incision, drawing a bloody line across her lower belly with a scalpel. I turned to go, but the woman's broken cries drew me back and I watched, horrified, as the doctor soon pulled a tiny, limp body from her torn womb. The light seemed to fade from the room, as if it had suddenly been transformed into an antechamber of Hell.
In the late 1960s, I admired Mao because I felt strongly about things like peace, freedom, justice, truth, and a fair chance for the little guy. Today, I detest Mao and his legacy. Why? Because I am drawn to things like peace, freedom, justice, truth, and a fair chance for the little guy.
Viewing this poor, proud and determined country, it seemed to me that its poverty was hardly either unusual or surprising in light of conditions in much of the post-colonial world at that time, and in light of China's modern history of war and revolution. Indeed, there was much that struck me positively about China's achievements at the time.