frozen in time
Hong Kong: 1972 by Ken Peacock
Hong Kong: 1972

My first visit to China was in April 1972 but the journey started much earlier. China, then referred to as The People’s Republic of China (PRC), always had been a country of great interest due to its size, population and potential market for raw materials; so in 1970 and again in 1971 I contacted Minmetals in Beijing (Peking) seeking an invitation to attend the bi-annual export commodities fair. There was no reply. China’s policy of not trading with countries that did not officially recognize them and traded with Taiwan precluded Australia and the USA. For many other countries it was easier to buy from than to sell to China.

The USSR and its Eastern Bloc countries had recognized China in 1949 and by the end of the 1960s India, Indonesia, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Switzerland and most of the African countries had established diplomatic relations. Traders from these countries received preferential treatment when they visited China as they were considered “old friends”. By the end of 1971, Canada, Italy, Chile, Austria, Iran and other African countries had recognized China; and China had replaced the Taiwan at the United Nations. The UK established diplomatic relations with China in March 1972 but its commodity traders were already visiting China to attend the export commodities fair, many using a second passport.

In 1971, we appointed a trading company headquartered in Switzerland to negotiate the sale of minerals to China on our behalf. The trading company regularly attended the Chinese Export Commodities Fair in Guangzhou (then Kwangchow and formerly Canton) and was experienced in buying from and selling commodities to China. At the Autumn Fair in November 1971, they successfully negotiated a large contract for us with payment in Pounds Sterling to a London bank. The shipments commenced in January 1972 on bulk carriers provided by the China Overseas Shipping Company. The ships arrived and were loaded at night, leaving early in the morning for the ports of Shanghai, Whampoa, Talien, Tsingtao and Hsingkang. Following the initial sales to China, an invitation arrived for me to attend the Spring Chinese Export Commodities Fair in April 1972 for further discussions. Invitations to visit were for individuals who were carefully screened, not companies. By the time Australia had formally recognized the PRC, on 21 December 1972, I had made my first two trips to China. Other Australian traders also had made the journey to buy fabric, textiles, leather and clothing.

In 1972, Chairman Mao was still in power but the influence of the Red Guards was diminishing. It was the final days of the Cultural Revolution and the beginning of the changes that have resulted in today’s China. There were no western style hotels or restaurants, travel was often uncomfortable and the accommodation basic. The main point of entry into China was by train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou and foreigners carried with them all of the “necessities” for their personal comfort and hygiene. Communication with the outside world was through letters and cables. There were no mobile phones, laptop computers, or television and radio stations that broadcast in English. It was difficult, often impossible, to make or receive international telephone calls so we didn’t try. Letters, sent by air via Pakistan, became my form of communication and record of my travels in China. I recall standing in a long line to buy postage stamps at the hotel in Guangzhou and then another line to use the only glue pot to stick the stamps on the letters. Waiting for the glue pot was like trying to do business with China in the 1970s, it took a long time and required great patience and determination.

The ten-year period from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s was perhaps the most turbulent time for the people of China during its 30-year diversion to socialism. The foundation for the Cultural Revolution was laid as early as 1958 when Mao announced the Great Leap Forward, his vision to equal the living standards of the UK and USA within fifteen years. As part of the Great Leap Forward China established large agricultural communes but was unsuccessful in feeding its population or industrializing the country. There remained a huge gap between China’s poverty and the expectations of its government and people with the economic progress slowed by an entrenched and immovable bureaucracy. Mao launched a new slogan to motivate the people, learn from the People’s Liberation Army, which replaced the old slogan learn from Lei Feng. The “learn from” theme was the subject of huge posters spread across the countryside and along the railway lines, and articles in Government-produced magazines.

Mao attempted to purge the artists, writers and scholars for being bourgeois and the new class enemies of the state. He ordered the destruction of all flowers, lawns and pets, as they were bourgeois indulgences. The flowers and lawns were replaced by vegetables to feed the people. China became a gray and colorless place and many of the once magnificent gardens and parks became dusty and bare. There were few trees and fewer birds. Nothing was grown or fed that could not be eaten. The absence of birds, flies, flowers, green grass and domestic animals was one of the first things I noticed when I arrived in China. Cultivated farmland dominated the landscape.

According to The Economist (August 21, 2004):

Life was relatively simple for the Chinese in the 1970s. Those who lived in a city worked in a state-owned factory or office and those who lived in the country worked on a collective farm. No one earned much, but that didn’t really matter because there wasn’t much to buy. Clothing options were limited to a choice of a dark gray Mao suit or a dark blue Mao suit. Only Party officials had the use of cars, and for everyone else transport was by the “Flying Pigeon” bicycle. The basic needs were provided by the Government, health care, education, housing and pension payments…. Following the “open door” policy of Deng Xiaoping in 1978 China experienced the most dramatic burst of wealth creation in history. A middle class has been created where none existed before.

Some believed that the period from 1949 to 1979, when China was Maoist and experimented with various forms of socialism, was merely a diversion from the natural course of its history. This thirty-year period of “diversion” was put in perspective by a senior Chinese official in response to my questions about China’s socialism with a difference. He said: Remember, we have been Chinese for over three thousand years and socialist for only 30 years.

My strongest recollection of China in 1972 is of a colorless country frozen in time. If there was a color it was gray. The people were poor with little to look forward to after a long day’s work. There were some hidden treasures to be found, in the form of beautiful old buildings and gardens, if you were determined enough. Most of the traders stayed within the hotel compound in the late afternoons eating, drinking, reading, playing poker, volleyball, rugby and soccer. Walking and exploring Guangzhou was best done in the early mornings when the city was waking up and people were quietly cycling to work accompanied by the sound of their bicycle bells. Also, it was the coolest time of the day.

Old Kowloon: 1972 by Ken Peacock
Old Kowloon: 1972

In 1972, Australians were slightly more welcome in China, due to earlier visits by the few buyers of fabrics, and from the Leader of the Opposition and future Prime Minister of Australia (Gough Whitlam) to meet Zhou Enlai in 1971. But we were still near the bottom of China’s list of “friends” behind the Africans and Eastern Europeans. I carried two passports, one for travel to Taiwan and Hong Kong and the other for travel from Hong Kong to China. In return, the Chinese did not stamp my passport so there was no record of me visiting there. A paper insert was placed inside the passport by immigration officials, stamped on arrival and removed on departure. My passport was collected at the border on entry and returned when I left. My only form of identification was a pink ribbon, to be worn on the outside of my jacket, stating I was a visitor to the Chinese Export Commodities Fair. To travel beyond Guangzhou required a separate invitation and visa.

Not all Chinese goods were sold to traders at the Chinese Export Commodities Fair. There was a continuous flow of fresh food, live fish, clothing and leather goods shipped down the Pearl River on junks and sampans from farms and factories near Guangzhou to godowns in the infamous “walled city” in the Old Kowloon area of Hong Kong. It was rumored that China controlled the one square mile area, bounded by a “wall” of houses and notorious for being the heart of Triad activity and smuggling, to facilitate the movement of goods from China to western countries. It was here that the “Made in Hong Kong” labels were attached to the Chinese-made goods before they were shipped to the USA and Europe. Foreigners did not venture into the “walled city” but, like me, enjoyed the regular sight of the old Chinese junks with their bright red sails crossing Hong Kong Harbor.

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Photographs: Ken Peacock
Ken Peacock

Ken Peacock

Ken Peacock, a former senior Australian executive of a mining company, first visited China in 1972 at the end of the Cultural Revolution and before diplomatic recognition by the Australian and US Governments. This was the first of many visits to China during the 1970s and 1980s. In 1978, he traveled throughout China with a trade delegation and revisited Shanghai where he stayed at the Shanghai Mansions Hotel and discovered the “Last Bottle of Gin in China”.