china 1972
Guangzhou 1972
Guangzhou: 1972

The 31st Chinese Export Commodities Fair (Spring) was held from 15 April to 15 May 1972, and most of the foreign traders attended for the whole month. While the main purpose of the Fair was for China to exhibit and sell its products to the western world, buyers from the Beijing Government’s import agencies attended to negotiate the purchase of raw materials, metals, minerals and other commodities from the west, hopefully paying with Chinese goods.

China saw itself as a potential exporter of machinery and equipment, automobiles and other manufactured goods. In reality most of what was on display at the Fair in 1972 was several decades behind western countries and appeared to be copies of old European equipment and Russian cars. Construction, mining and manufacturing in China were still mainly labor intensive tasks with roads, bridges, dams, factories and buildings constructed by manual labor. Labor was readily available and cheap, and time did not seem to be of importance. It was a common sight to see thousands of workers moving earth and stones with woven baskets slung from each end of a bamboo pole stretched across their shoulders. Boats and barges, loaded with goods, were dragged upstream on the smaller rivers by long ropes with two workers on each side of the river.

Each morning before 8 o’clock a long line of taxis and buses headed down Renmin Road from the Dong Fang Hotel to the Fair, located in imposing exhibition buildings near Haichu Square and the Pearl River. Buses and taxis from other hotels arrived at the same time and parked in the huge parking area in front of the main building. Many officials and foreigners walked to the Fair from the nearby Guangzhou and Overseas Chinese Hotels. The Fair hours were 8:30 to 11:30 and 2:30 to 6:30 each day, and 8:30 to 11:30 on Saturdays. The opening ceremonies at 8:30 and 2:30 each day were very formal. Hundreds of foreigners lined up at the thick red rope suspended from large brass stanchions across the entrance to the hall, while Chinese photographers lined up on the other side. Precisely at 8:30 and 2:30 loud martial music began and the rope dropped, signaling everyone to run to the two small elevators or the stairs to take them to the meeting rooms. The photographers filmed it each time, smiling as we rushed by to get to our meetings on time. Most traders did not bother with the elevators and ran up the stairs.

Chinese Export Commodities Fair Guangzhou, 1972
Chinese Export Commodities Fair: Guangzhou, 1972

Meetings were by appointment and after the initial one to introduce ourselves, and reassure the buyer we were not from an American company, they became progressively shorter. When the meetings finished we patiently waited for the next one, sometimes for two days. Our agent had been at the Fair for a week before I arrived and he suggested I do all the talking on our side while the chief of the China National Metals and Minerals organization in Beijing would be the negotiator for his team of six. One of the buying team acted as interpreter while the other four quietly took notes.

After exchanging pleasantries and discussing the importance of friendship and long term relationships the buyer would ask: “What is your price?” When I answered there was a short pause before the interpreter replied: “Your price too high! We will meet again when you have reconsidered.” In the second week, I noticed Minmetals had a different interpreter. When asked: “What is your price?” I replied and waited for the inevitable answer. I was surprised when the interpreter came back with: “Your price too low!” I responded: “If my price is too low, how high would you like me to increase it before it is acceptable to you?” My response caused great confusion on the Minmetals side of the table with an anxious discussion between the interpreter and the negotiator. I was asked to repeat my statement, so I patiently said: “You told me that my price was too low and I said how high would you like me to increase it before it was acceptable to you?” After the translation there was an even louder discussion on the other side of the table and the interpreter’s face turned bright red before he replied: “I am sorry, I misunderstood. I usually work in the export department.” We didn’t see the interpreter from the export department again.

Chairman-MaoThe metal traders arrived for the daily opening ceremonies, not because they enjoyed the fanfare or wanted their photographs taken. There was a more serious motive. The negotiations with Minmetals took place in the same rooms on the second floor. Chairs were lined up outside the rooms as the traders waited for their meetings, the walls were thin and we could hear most of the conversations that took place inside. To help fill in the long days we often sat outside the meeting rooms and listened, hoping to hear what prices others were offering. The daily cocktail parties and banquet dinners also were opportunities to question our competitors. On the day of my “price is too low” incident, my dinner companions already knew the story and taunted me with: “How high did you have to raise the price?” The act of lying to the other traders became an art, as did picking up copies of their cables from the post office.

Memorial to Sun Yat-Sen Guangzhou 1972
Memorial to Sun Yat-Sen: Guangzhou 1972

The Minmetals negotiator was polite and friendly for most of the meetings but on May Day, after we did not agree on the price, he commented that “Australia was a small and unimportant country and we should agree to do business because China would be reinstated to its rightful place in the world.” I replied he should not forget those friends who traveled to China to do business before their countries established diplomatic recognition. Also, as we could not reach agreement on price I planned to return to Hong Kong. The negotiator replied that I should spend more time visiting the Fair to gain a better understanding of the new China. It was a subtle way of applying pressure for a lower price so I could leave. I had seen the Fair so decided to explore the city. The attendant at the hotel service desk was not helpful, they either did not understand what I was asking or was instructed to ignore requests for information on Guangzhou. People came for the Fair, not to go sightseeing.

The weather was hot and humid, not really conducive to walking, but there was no other way to explore Guangzhou. Taxis arranged through the hotel would only take foreigners to a specific place like the Railway Station, the Fair or a restaurant and wait for the passenger to return to the hotel. They could not take foreigners on a sightseeing tour, to a park or any place where the driver may lose the passenger. Taxis could not be hailed in the street or picked up at other places around the city. The drivers did not speak English and foreigners could not negotiate with them, the fare was a fixed fee for the trip to and from the approved destination. I did have a minor victory with the unhelpful staff at the service desk by convincing them I must visit a department store to buy some clothing and other necessities. They provided a taxi to take me to the store and said I must return to the driver in fifteen minutes to come back to the hotel. The department store was huge and as I had nothing specific to buy I wandered through every floor looking at the locally made products. The electronic equipment was out of date, and the Mao suits came in two colors, blue and gray. There was no other clothing except padded jackets, basic underwear, shoes, and sandals made from plastic. I bought some paintbrushes for my children but could not find shorts or sneakers large enough for me. The department store was crowded with Cantonese, mostly browsing not buying. I was the only foreigner and the tallest person in the store so quickly became the center of attention. When I stopped to look at something the crowd moved aside. If I turned around I could see hundreds of unsmiling faces staring at me. No one spoke and when I tried to speak to them, in the few words I had memorized in Cantonese, they turned away without responding. Some of the more daring locals quietly walked up behind me and touched my hair, skin and clothes. When I turned around others now behind me reached out and touched me or tried to take a hair from my head.

Six Banian Pagoda Guangzhou, 1972
Six Banian Pagoda: Guangzhou, 1972

I walked on, followed by a crowd of people, until I felt I should leave the store, but not soon enough for the driver who had been waiting for over an hour. When we returned to the hotel the service desk attendant told me I should have stayed only fifteen minutes in the store. My only excuse was I could not find clothes to fit and became lost in the store, so I must return to the store the next day. The following day I made the same trip but had negotiated with the hotel for one hour in the store. The driver dropped me off at the front door and waited by the car while I went inside, out another door and down the crowded street to explore other stores. Two hours later, I returned to the department store and left by the front door to find my worried driver. Fortunately, I had bought a few handicrafts and some fruit from a street stall so had an excuse for being late thinking the driver could relate to standing in line waiting to be served. He refused to accept a piece of fruit. Nothing was said to me when I returned to the hotel but the service desk would have noted my file for being late again.

In the afternoon I went out to the Nanfang Mansion Friendship Store on Yenchiang Road near the Pearl River and made sure I returned to the taxi within the allotted one hour to earn some credit points. The Friendship Store was only for foreigners so it had a wide range of products for sale, at higher prices. I bought a silk shirt and a brown jade carving. The leather jackets attracted my attention but I did not buy one until a later visit.

After two days rain I continued my exploration of Guangzhou, walking as far as I could without becoming lost. Walking was more interesting, despite the humidity, than sitting in the back seat of a car with white lace curtains. I caused many incidents amongst the cyclists as they wandered sideways into others while staring at the westerner walking beside the road. The constant ringing of bicycle bells and honking of truck horns almost drowned out the persistent martial music coming out of the speakers across the city. Perhaps that was why the drivers honked the car horns incessantly. As there were no street signs the street names only became known to me during a later visit when I was able to buy a map of Guangzhou. The Yuehsiu Park was about fifteen minutes from the Dong Fang Hotel, bordering Huanshi Road and near the Beijing-Guangzhou Railway line, so I made it a regular place to visit on my early morning walks. The park itself was unremarkable even though there was some green grass from the rain. The magnificent pagoda style building inside the park, the Chenhai Tower, had great views of the park and the gray city from its top floor.

Chenhai Tower Guangzhou, 1972
Chenhai Tower: Guangzhou, 1972

The tower was bare inside with all remnants of the past removed or destroyed, leaving a lonely shell of a building with no soul. I walked up the wide concrete stairs to the top, stopping at each of the five floors to join the people staring out at the city and looking down at the park. The most interesting part of the park was the small primary school with happy young children playing outside in organized activities. They appeared to be about five or six years old. Later, I approached the school through the trees and sat down to watch. As soon as they saw me the games turned into singing, organized by the teacher. I could not understand the words of their song but it appeared to be happy and friendly towards the foreigner seated on the grass. As I left, the children returned to their games.

Walking south from Yuehsiu Park along Chiefang Road to Dongfang Road I discovered the beautiful Memorial Hall to Dr Sun Yat-Sen, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China. Sun, a revolutionary, was born near Guangzhou in 1866 and fled China in 1895, returning in 1917. In 1921 he was elected president of a self-proclaimed National Government of Guangzhou and was involved in the establishment of the Kuomintang political party. Sun established the Whampoa Military Academy (later the Huangpu Military Academy) with Chiang Kai-shek as its commandant. In 1924, to hasten the conquest of China, Sun actively cooperated with the Communists and the USSR to reorganize the Kuomintang. He died in 1925 and two years later the Communists and the Kuomintang separated, starting a bitter contest to rule China ultimately won by the Communist Party in 1949. Dr Sun Yat-Sen was buried in Nanjing but was considered a son of Guangzhou. His widow, Madam Sun Yat-Sen, the former Soong Ch’ing-ling, split with the Kuomintang headed by Chiang Kai-Shek and joined with the Communists. She rose to a high position in the government of Communist China and in 1981, just before her death, she was appointed Honorary President of the People’s Republic of China. On a later visit to China I visited Madam Sun’s house near Hou Hai Lake in Beijing.

Before returning to the hotel I saw a tall pagoda further south of Dongfang Road and decided to investigate it. After the visit I was not sure which direction to walk to the hotel, or back to Yuehsiu Park, so tried what I thought was a shorter walk through some of the back streets. This was not a good plan as I soon became disoriented and completely lost. I came to a military establishment and startled the guards by talking in English before producing a piece of paper with the name of the hotel printed in Cantonese. After much shouting I was bundled into the back of an army truck and driven to the Dong Fang Hotel where I received a strong lecture from the hotel staff, which I did not understand so we were even. They became less friendly and helpful.

Dong-Fang-Hotel-Guangzhou-1972
Dong Fang Hotel: Guangzhou 1972

The effects of the rugby and volleyball, sleeping on a hard bed and walking for hours began to have its effect, I started to suffer from severe backache. The pills I had carried from Australia marked “for extreme pain” were helpful and the daily dose of whisky helped me sleep. A small group from the hotel decided to visit the Chungshan Hospital to witness the use of acupuncture as an anaesthetic. I thought I would go along and if it looked ok seek treatment for my back. We were told visitors could stand in the operating room next to the table while the surgeon performed the operation or watch from an observation room overlooking the table. I opted for the observation room. We saw two operations using acupuncture. The first was a caesarean section. Before the operation the mother talked to us, through an interpreter, and said she was ten months pregnant and the child was in the wrong position for a natural birth. Five needles were used for local anaesthetic, one in the stomach and one in each ankle attached to an electric manipulator that twirled them rapidly. The other two needles were carefully placed in her nose, twirled from time to time to relax the patient. It appeared to be a difficult operation but the mother was awake and talked to the surgeon during the whole procedure. We saw her again after the birth when we rescued two of our colleagues from the operating room where they were throwing up into buckets.

The second operation was the removal of a kidney stone and we went to the patient’s hospital room to talk to him before the surgery and walk with him to the theatre. This was to ensure we had no doubts that the man we talked to before the operation was the patient in the theatre. The doctor used four needles for the anaesthetic and we watched the procedure from the observation room. It was a short operation and when it was over the man sat up, waved to us and walked out of the theatre back to his room where we visited him again. Through an interpreter he said he felt no pain from the surgery. I was very encouraged by what we had seen but decided my back was feeling a whole lot better and the whisky treatment was working fine.

We returned to the hotel late in the afternoon to wait for the bath water and in the evening went to the Panchee (Friendship) Restaurant. The food was excellent but not as friendly as the name suggested and I was sick with food poisoning during the night. The next day I stayed in the hotel room and it was then that I discovered the secret to the hotel water system. The cold water was turned off at night and the hot during the day, which explained the cold baths at six o’clock in the afternoon and brushing teeth in warm water in the morning. I switched to using the bottled water on the desk and the hot water in the thermos flask for my teeth, although I suspected they both came from the same source.

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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”.