china 1972

The 32nd Chinese Export Commodities (Autumn) Fair was held between 15 October and 15 November 1972 and I received an invitation to attend. The political climate was changing in Australia, the USA and China but there still was no formal diplomatic relationship between the countries. Chairman Mao was seemingly in control of China, although the struggle of Mao’s wife and her supporters (the radicals) against Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping (the moderates) was building towards the confrontation that occurred in January 1973. China was unsettled politically and economically although significant progress was being made towards greater economic development. The influence of the former Red Guards continued to decline. The Chinese people were becoming more familiar with foreigners visiting the country, although no tour groups were invited. Visits were limited to favored foreigners willing to do business. Again China declined to extend an invitation to Americans working for the company so another senior Australian executive accompanied me to the Fair.

Guangzhou 1972
Guangzhou 1972
Guangzhou 1972
Guangzhou 1972
Guangzhou 1972

For the visit to Guangzhou I used my second passport and applied for a room at the Dong Fang Hotel for two people. Our invitation was for the last two weeks of the Fair, so I was prepared to share the room with a colleague if it meant being able to stay at the Dong Fang. This time I was able to book a room at the hotel and during the visit we were upgraded to a corner suite when one of the Dong Fang Club members left for Beijing. One bathroom and very little water for baths proved to be a challenge but we worked out a system that did not involve sharing the water.

We arrived in Hong Kong two days before the expected departure for China, checked in to the Hong Kong Hotel and the following day picked up our documents and tickets for travel to Guangzhou. The same efficient system existed at China Travel Service and I paid HK$132 for the round trip by train, transport from the Guangzhou Railway Station to and from the hotel and lunch at the Shenzhen Station restaurant. We spent the rest of the day buying everything on the expanded list of essential supplies at the little supermarket near Star House, including one-gallon bottles of whisky and gin, and the stores around the hotel. We also bought two casks of Australian wine, which we declared as samples, an expanded array of food, tonic water, insect repellant, medical supplies, sunscreen and cigarettes for trading.

The following day we left the hotel with a porter carefully pushing the trolley with our heavy bags and their precious contents. We checked in at the Tsim Sha Tsui Railway Station after 8 o’clock for the 8:38am train. The train ride to Lowu and walk across the railway bridge to Shenzhen was the same as I had experienced in April. The passport and customs procedures and the train trip to Guangzhou were unchanged except everything appeared to happen more quickly than before. The journey was quieter after I disconnected the wires to the loud speaker in the carriage. The huge anti-American billboards alongside the tracks had disappeared, replaced by billboards proclaiming the great achievements of a people’s commune or factory and showing happy, smiling workers. There were new signs welcoming China’s friends wishing to be part of the economic prosperity of the country. Large photographs of Mao seemed to be everywhere.

When we arrived at Guangzhou we were reminded that Australians remained at the bottom of the list of “favored friends” attending the Fair. After everyone had left the train station we were assigned to a bus for the Dong Fang Hotel, even though an earlier bus had gone there with the more favored friends of China. The Dong Fang Hotel was unchanged but the staff was different. They wore smart new uniforms, in place of the old white jackets, and their proficiency in English had improved considerably. In six months they had progressed further in their ability to communicate in their English than I had in my Cantonese. They were happy to practice their language skills, their use of archaic English sentences was less noticeable and they were friendlier than I remembered. There were no “incidents” caused by the language barrier and no sign of the fanatical Red Guards to enforce the teachings of Mao. I hoped with the change of staff the hotel had destroyed their list of my “incidents” from the previous visit, but carefully avoided making the same mistakes. Travel around Guangzhou by taxi with a PLA driver was the same except there was greater willingness to take foreigners to places other than the Fair. There were no time restrictions and the drivers waited solemnly until we were ready to return to the hotel. We were able to visit handicraft factories, department stores, the Friendship Store and other places suggested by the friendly hotel service desk. Credit cards and US dollars were still not accepted, the exchange rate and prices were unchanged but there was an increased recognition of the economic benefits of foreigner’s spending money. The changes in just six months were surprising and I felt more welcome.

Negotiations with Minmetals were not successful again as the world market for minerals had improved and prices had risen significantly. China, with its limited foreign exchange, could not pay world market prices quoted by the major western producers, and sought supply from developing countries willing to accept payment with Chinese goods. This was the role played by the European traders. We had a number of meetings with Minmetals and heard the same speech about the importance of a long term friendly relationship. The meetings were short so we had a lot of spare time to explore Guangzhou but it was not as interesting as before. Nor was the visit to the People’s Commune. The Dong Fang Club still had its daily cocktail parties followed by dinner at the same restaurants, and we hosted one party for old friends. I did not play volleyball or rugby and no one invited me to play soccer. The two weeks passed slowly. Nothing had changed amongst the foreign traders or the Dong Fang Club. The only thing that had changed was China.

I continued my early morning walks as that was my favorite time of day to watch the city wake up and people travel to work. There seemed to be even more bicycles on the roads, mixed in with the farm vehicles pulling trailers loaded down with their goods. The late autumn weather was more pleasant than in May but it was still hot and humid all day and at night. A small electric fan in the room helped but sleep was difficult. My roommate had no trouble sleeping on the hard bed despite the loud music coming from outside; and he did not stir as the pipes rattled when the water came on at 6am. I was first into the bath in the mornings and he was first at 6pm.

We were able to visit local factories manufacturing (by hand) pottery figures, bowls, tea cups and other handicrafts. I bought a large set of hand painted bowls and tea cups, carefully packed in a heavy wooden box, which became a challenge for the airline when I carried it on board as hand baggage. The lunch at the People’s Commune resulted in food poisoning, followed by a heavy cold, so I was confined to the hotel for several days. It was a long visit, but there was no pressure for us to stay. Seats were readily available on the train to “get out” to Hong Kong.

We left quietly for Hong Kong, leaving behind the surplus supplies, including some gin and wine we had not finished, with invitations to return to Guangzhou in 1973 for the Spring and Autumn Fairs. The train to Shenzhen was newer, quieter and faster. I read a book and rarely looked out the window. We passed through immigration and customs quickly, checked out the discarded items cabinet, walked across the bridge to Lowu to catch the train to Tsim Sha Tsui, and returned to the air conditioned comfort of the Hong Kong Hotel.

After a long hot shower we wandered the streets of Kowloon, checking out the little stores, bars, restaurants, hassled by street vendors selling silk neckties, leather belts, Swiss watches, designer bags, gold bracelets, diamonds, designer label shirts, and “nice clean girls”. The contrast with Guangzhou couldn’t have been greater.

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Images: all the photos in this story were taken by the author, 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”.