china 1972

With agreement from the Dong Fang Hotel staff, I arranged for a taxi to take me to the Guangzhou Zoo. The PLA driver responsible for my well-being was unsmiling and silent all the way. The hotel staff had told me, and the driver, that I was allowed one hour in the zoo and the driver would wait at the main gate. The zoo was not large so it was crowded and Mao suits were the popular dress for both adults and children. The main attraction, until I arrived, was the panda bear enclosure. As I approached it people quietly moved away from the fence to let me get up close. They stopped talking and stared at the white-skinned, fair, tall and hairy foreigner. The few with cameras ignored the pandas and photographed me. Repeating an earlier experience at the Number One Department Store, some of them moved closer and began touching my clothes, the hair on my head and arms, and occasionally pinching my skin.

After two hours in the zoo I made my way back to the main gate to be met by a very aggravated driver. After some pointless shouting and hand waving we climbed into the car and headed back towards the hotel. A little further along Hsianlie Road I asked the driver to stop at the Mausoleum of the Seventy-two Martyrs at Huanghuakang so I could take a closer look. He refused but when I started to open the door to get out he stopped suddenly, not wanting to be responsible for returning a battered body to the hotel. After a quick photograph we continued to the hotel in silence where I was advised “I had earned another demerit point”.

Guangzhou Zoo: 1972
Guangzhou Zoo: 1972

The Fair was closed on Sunday so the hotel arranged a visit to a People’s Commune outside Guangzhou. After a sleepless night, due to the hot and humid weather, three buses left the hotel at 7:30am for an uncomfortable trip into the countryside. It was the day before May Day and there were more red flags than usual. The PLA guards outside the hotel were wearing new blue uniforms, with red markings, instead of green. The PLA directing traffic at the intersections wore blue pants with white jackets instead of the all green with red markings. Their new uniforms were a great improvement. May Day wasn’t a major event in China, they celebrated the anniversary of the revolution on 5 November.

The bus moved quickly along the narrow roads with the driver honking the horn to clear the way, scattering cyclists in all directions. We were unable to take photographs from the speeding bus and maybe that was the idea as there was still considerable sensitivity to foreigners taking home pictures of the “poor” people of China. The farming areas provided the most interesting scenery with people working in the fields, paddling sampans along the irrigation canals, riding bicycles laden with goods or just walking along carrying things in the traditional baskets balanced on a long bamboo pole across their shoulders. They “bounced” barefooted along in a curious walking manner, balancing their load through the narrow, slippery paths dividing the rice fields. The workers in the country areas seemed happier and instead of just staring at us many of them smiled or laughed when they saw us. Perhaps being “sent down” to the country was not all that bad for them, or we were just amusing.

There were hundreds of people on bicycles, all going somewhere or returning at a steady pace. They wore the same blue clothes, sandals and facial expressions. The young women looked happier, and some of them wore canvas shoes, a white shirt and colored hair ribbon contrasting with the dull Mao suits. The old men with their brown lined faces, bare feet, black or gray clothes and huge straw hats, to shield them from the hot sun, looked bewildered and tired. Everyone was doing something or waiting to do something. There was no rush, just quiet resentment of the buses moving through the crowd with their horns blaring. Many seemed immune to this intrusion and did not look up. Others waited patiently to cross the road. We passed the markets where people stood quietly in line for vegetables and other produce. There was plenty of time. We saw a farmer cycling home with a small black dog hanging by its neck from a rope attached to the back of the bicycle. Dinner no doubt.

The People’s Commune was a “showcase” farm carefully selected to impress the foreigners with an example of the progress being made by China. The Commune Leader welcomed us with a short speech, quoted impressive statistics about the success of the commune and escorted us around his “decentralized city” of nearly 80,000 people. We went to the pond where fish were harvested before being loaded live onto junks for the trip down the Pearl River to Hong Kong, and visited a silk worm farm. In a nearby building we watched young girls reeling silk on old but effective equipment and working on beautiful hand embroidery. Their nimble fingers would work one large piece for a week before finishing it. After a banquet lunch of fish and green vegetables we walked along a narrow path through the cornfields, mulberry bushes and rice fields to the home of a peasant farmer who told us how life was better under Chairman Mao. The farmer proudly claimed he earned 326 Yuan ($125) per year, mostly in kind, which was more than he previously had been paid. Everywhere we walked, the workers and children were lined up to applaud and welcome us. After a long and tiring bus ride back to Guangzhou we arrived after the hotel dining room and the Bicycle Restaurant had closed and the water had been turned off. After an obligatory whisky or two we went to bed early.

People’s Commune, near Guangzhou: 1972
People’s Commune, near Guangzhou: 1972
People’s Commune, near Guangzhou: 1972
People’s Commune, near Guangzhou: 1972
People’s Commune, near Guangzhou: 1972

The last few days in Guangzhou went quickly. I had a final meeting with Minmetals when we agreed to disagree on the price for a new contract. They did not want me to leave before we reached agreement but we were not close. An electric fan, requested two weeks before, was delivered to my room perhaps as a parting gesture. It kept the mosquitoes moving and helped me sleep for the last few nights. I had advised the hotel service desk staff I wished to return to Hong Kong on the first available train. They noted my request and advised they would let me know when a seat was available. We held our final cocktail party and invited members of the Dong Fang Club. The party for forty people, with drinks and snacks cost about $20. Afterwards thirteen of us went to the Nanyuan Restaurant for a banquet dinner. The jokes and the beer flowed for hours before we returned to the Dong Fang and to a Turkish trader’s room for coffee. We had carried in whisky and gin from Hong Kong, he carried in a coffee machine and coffee.

I resumed my exploration of Guangzhou, visited the Number One Department Store again, and walked to Yuehsiu Park and around Liuhua Lake near the hotel. I had one more game of volleyball with the French team and went to a farewell party held by the Dong Fang Club. After waiting three days the hotel advised that I had a reserved seat on the train to Hong Kong for the next day. Once I knew that I could leave Guangzhou I quickly made arrangements to leave behind the essential supplies I no longer needed. The whisky and the gin had gone, I had no unused film, but did have some over-the-counter medical supplies, batteries, soap, insect repellant, bath towels and toilet paper that helped settle some of my poker debts. I wrote a letter to my wife and patiently stood in line to buy stamps, which were available only at set times each day, and to use the glue pot. Dinner on the last night was at the Bicycle Restaurant but there was only a small group of tired traders so it was a somber occasion. The night before I left Guangzhou a newly arrived English trader moved into my room to sleep in the second bed. I was pleased to be leaving as he snored loudly and talked in his sleep. His routine was different to mine which was planned around the 6am and 6pm bath times. My visit to Guangzhou had not been successful so after more than two weeks in China, with little news from the outside world, I looked forward to “going out” to Hong Kong. I had lived in a different world, witnessed the effects of the Cultural Revolution, developed a better understanding of China and its plans for change, and learned an old proverb: Patience and the mulberry leaf becomes a silk robe.

I left the Dong Fang Hotel early in the morning for the Guangzhou Railway Station in an old gray car. There was no one in the lobby when I left and I was the only passenger in the car to the station. There were few people on the train and we didn’t speak so I looked out the window at a more familiar country. The journey from Guangzhou to Shenzhen seemed faster, the martial music wasn’t as loud as before and the fields were less crowded. The train arrived at Shenzhen just before lunch and we passed quickly through customs as I presented all of the declared items I had carried into China. The currency declaration form and foreign exchange dockets tallied. Lunch was not provided but I did sit in the same waiting room as before. The glass cabinet of unclaimed “trash” from previous travelers had many more items of interest. My passport was returned at the border and I walked back across the bridge to Lowu to catch the train to Kowloon. Life in Guanzhou would proceed as if I had never been there. The daily cocktail parties held by the Dong Fang Club would continue and there would be no vacant rooms at the hotel.

The KCR train slowly made its way back to Tsim Sha Tsui and arrived late in the afternoon. There were few people at the station as I carried my almost empty bags to the Star Ferry, crossed to Central and caught a taxi to the Hilton Hotel. After a long hot shower, I went to the air conditioned bar for a large gin and tonic and to the restaurant where I ordered a hamburger with fries and a cold bottle of San Miguel beer. It felt strange eating and drinking alone. No one to talk to, no jokes, no stories, no questions about the negotiations with Minmetals and no more “demerit points” for being late. I was free to walk anywhere at any time, take photographs or just do nothing. I chose “nothing”.

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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”.