visit too short

We left Beijing on an old Boeing 707 aircraft operated by CAAC (the Civil Aviation Administration of China) Airline, which we soon renamed “CACK” for its reliability, cabin service, food and old aircraft. Unfortunately, I was traveling with a retired airline captain named Laurie and a China trader we called Toddy who had a fear of flying. Toddy had traveled from Guangzhou to Beijing by train, a trip of about two days, seated on a wooden bench rather than flying to meet up with the group. He flew with us to Shanghai under great duress, with the help of airsick pills and several shots of whiskey at the airport. Laurie, a veteran World War II pilot who had a long career flying for major airlines was an unhappy passenger.

The early morning flight did not start well for us when it was delayed in Beijing for three hours with no explanation. We spent the extra time discussing our experiences of flying in Asia and trying to identify the old aircraft that arrived and departed. Some resorted to drinking beer or rice wine to calm their nerves. When the time came for us to board the flight we walked across the tarmac to the waiting aircraft. Laurie made a short detour to inspect the aircraft’s tires and loudly proclaimed they were bald. We reluctantly boarded the aircraft and were shown to our economy class seats at the back of the aircraft. The wider front seats, two on each side of the aisle of the “one-class” flight, were reserved for senior Government officials.

The cabin attendant went through the routine safety demonstration, or so we thought as she only spoke Mandarin. When she held up a demo seat belt we knew it was time to buckle up as the aircraft was already taxiing out for take-off. Laurie had taken the seat behind me, another colleague had taken the window seat in my row and I selected the aisle so we could keep Toddy firmly wedged between us. As I pulled on my seat belt to fasten it one strap separated from its anchor point under the seat, so I started shouting to the cabin attendant while holding the seat belt above my head. She quickly walked down to my seat, collected the broken seat belt and handed me the demo seat belt she had just used. By then the aircraft was rolling down the runway so I sat holding the demo seat belt in my hand, hoping the bald tires would hold together and listening to Laurie muttering behind me. Toddy had opened his sick bag and was busily filling it with his breakfast. The aircraft groaned and shuddered when it reached rotation but soon became airborne. Laurie was muttering “Oh, that’s not good” but wouldn’t explain what he meant because he thought it was better if we didn’t know. Once airborne Toddy took a bottle of whiskey from his flight bag and poured some into the bottle cap and drank it quickly. He said: If I am going to die on this…. airplane I am not going to feel anything. Unfortunately, the Scotch disappeared too early in the flight and Toddy’s fears returned during the landing at Shanghai’s Hongqiao Airport. Laurie’s constant muttering about the strange noises from the aircraft added to his anxiety. I decided not to sit near Toddy or Laurie on future flights.

Stories of old Shanghai had always intrigued to me. I had read its history and heard stories about it from friends in Hong Kong who had been there many years before. Shanghai, often referred to over the years as the Paris of the East, Pearl of the Orient or Whore of the Orient was the most cosmopolitan city in Asia. It was “shut down” by the Communists in 1949 and “locked up” by the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s.

I had read about Shanghai’s tree-lined streets, the Tudor mansions in the old French Concession, the Cathay Hotel with its legendary jazz band, the foreign banks and trading company buildings along the Bund, the long bar at the Shanghai Club, the indoor swimming pool at the French Sports Club and historic Broadway Mansions overlooking Waibaidu Bridge where the Suzhou Creek met the Huangpu River. They all were on my list of things to see.

According to Graham Earnshaw (Tales of Old Shanghai: Earnshaw Books, 2008), by the end of the Second World War a change of great significance took place in Shanghai. In January 1943 the British and Americans signed a Treaty with Chiang Kai-shek abrogating their rights to the city and the French followed. The International Settlement ended within a week of VJ-Day and Chiang’s soldiers and politicians took control of Shanghai. Foreigners who had been imprisoned by the Japanese were released to become aliens in what had been their own city. Even so, it sprang to life again and, despite the struggle for power in China between Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Tse-tung, the city continued to prosper until 1949 when the Communists crossed the Yangtze and captured Shanghai. It was unique, a last oasis of yesterday in the China of tomorrow. To be a Shanghailander, whether British, French, American, stateless Jew or Russian refugee, was a badge of honour. Shanghai was a city of homes, not transients. Old Shanghai had lasted for more than one hundred years from 1843 to 1949 and was “the worst and best of everything.” It was the one city in China I really wanted to see.

We were met at Shanghai Airport and loaded onto a bus where we remained “glued” to the windows as we drove through the city. We had asked for accommodation at the Peace Hotel but were told the hotel was undergoing renovations and there were not enough rooms for our group. The bus took us to the dreary and sad looking Shanghai Mansions with its small lobby and ancient elevators. The hotel was not air-conditioned and did not have a restaurant or bar. The kitchen had been stripped from my apartment leaving the walls with water pipes and electric wires hanging down. The bathroom was large but very old and tired like the rest of the hotel. There was very little furniture in the room, only a bed and a chair in one corner. My apartment overlooked Suzhou Creek, busy with small boats moving cargo from ships on the Huangpu River to buildings along the creek. The view was spectacular so I opened the windows to catch a breeze from the water and listen to the noise from the river traffic below.

Our itinerary for the four days in Shanghai was busy with everything organized from 8:30 in the morning through dinner in the evening. We had meetings with Government officials followed by endless visits to factories, schools, cultural events and a commune. The welcome banquets continued and we reciprocated with “thank you” banquets for each of our hosts. There was little time to explore the city on our own so I resorted to early morning walks, in lieu of breakfast, and early evening walks before leaving for the official banquets. I did not sleep well as the boat traffic entering and departing Suzhou Creek continued all night. As each boat approached the police checkpoint at the entry to the creek, it sounded its horn several times to alert the watch keeper who responded by turning on a large red light that lit up my room. The red light obviously meant “go” as the boats continued past the checkpoint with the boatman shouting loudly to the watch keeper. Several times, I shouted “shut up!” from my window but my pleas were lost in the noise.

Waibaidu (Garden) Bridge and the Bund: Shanghai, 1978 by Ken Peacock
Waibaidu (Garden) Bridge and the Bund: Shanghai, 1978

My first walk was across Waibaidu Bridge to Huangpu Park and the Bund. The park was full of people enjoying the breeze and watching the river traffic. The buildings along the Bund were sad and neglected. There were no signs to indicate who had been their previous owners, and no color except on the large banners and flags. In the old International Settlement and French Concession, the grand mansions once occupied by wealthy foreign and Chinese families had been converted into schools, apartments for workers, State Guest Houses and offices or quarters for the PLA. We visited the Children’s Cultural Palace in a huge old mansion in the Zien Wei District. I was more interested in the house than the music performed for us by the students. It had been built in the early 1900s for a wealthy businessman but our guide would not answer my questions about the previous owner. Understandably, our hosts wanted us to see the new Shanghai. I wanted to see the old.

I walked across Waibaidu Bridge to Huangpu Park and along the Bund. The park was full of elderly people practicing their tai chi, ignoring the foreigner who walked among them. I never tired of the walk along the Bund, staring up at the magnificent buildings and wondering what they must have been like when occupied by their original owners. The Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank building was occupied by the Municipality of Shanghai, its entrance guarded by a soldier. The Shanghai Club was occupied by Government officials and guarded by the military who did not appreciate me trying to walk in the door to see the long bar. The Peace Hotel on the corner of Nanjing Road had two wings, one on the north side of Nanjing Road (formerly called Sassoon House and later the Cathay Hotel) and the other on the south side (formerly the Palace Hotel). It was a ten-story building situated on about one acre of land next to the Bank of China. Late one afternoon I entered the Peace Hotel and found the lobby busy with Chinese people drinking tea and eating cakes. There were no foreigners. I explored the hotel long enough to confirm that it was open and find the jazz band.

Waibaidu Bridge & Pudong across the river by Ken Peacock
Suzhou Creek meets the Huangpu River, Shanghai: 1978
(Russian Consulate General Building, Waibaidu Bridge & Pudong across the river)

Nanjing Road was the busiest and most popular shopping street in Shanghai. It ran for many kilometers from the waterfront at Huangpu Park past the old racecourse (now Renmin Park), the Number Ten Department Store (previously the Wing On) and the Park Hotel before it became Nanjing Road West (formerly Bubbling Well Road). It was a wide street with metal barricades separating the pedestrians from cyclists, buses and trucks. There were so many people walking and looking in the windows of the small shops that everyone just joined in with the other traffic in the center of the road. It all seemed to work with the buses and trucks moving slowly through the crowd and cyclists walking besides their bikes. I never felt uneasy or unsafe walking amongst the crowd of people along Nanjing Road as they seemed used to foreigners. Some did stare and on a few occasions people tried to speak to me in English. In the small stores, sales people were anxious to practice their English and to sell me handicrafts in either Foreign Exchange Certificates, RMB or US dollars.

The visit to Shanghai was too short and I did not feel I was getting into the soul of the city. I wanted to explore Old Shanghai to connect it with what I had read; and see the old French Sports Club and the beautiful mansions and wide streets in the French Concession. Time ran out on this visit. I did walk some of the back streets around Beijing Road and Suzhou Road, much to the surprise of the local inhabitants.

Nowhere in China was it more evident than in Shanghai that the country was undergoing great change. Shanghai had a feel and energy about it that suggested it would once again become a major world city. An old Chinese official told me: “China is not Communist; it is Socialist with Chinese characteristics.” I saw Shanghai as Chinese with capitalist characteristics – patient and resilient.

Photographs 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”.