Our hosts arranged for a visit to Suzhou and Wuxi in Jiangsu Province to see two cities relatively untouched by the Cultural Revolution and experience the countryside. We left Shanghai late on Friday to travel the one and a half hours by train to Suzhou where we stayed in the grand old Nanyuan Guest House. Suzhou was an older city than Shanghai, with a population of less than one million people (in 1978), near Tai Hu, the lake at the centre of vast waterways and canals running 1,600 kilometers from Tianjin to Hangzhou. Its seventeenth century walls, temples, palaces, pagodas, gardens and summer residences of wealthy officials were magnificent. We were hosted to a welcome banquet and the following day taken on a tour of the city, a mahogany wood furniture factory and the spectacular Humble Administrator’s Garden – a classical, centuries old (rebuilt several times) Chinese garden. There were no other visitors, just our group. We walked slowly, without guides, through the narrow paths, reflected on the beauty and serenity of the gardens and enjoyed tea in a simple pavilion. No one talked as we took in the magnificent gardens until Toddy, in a loud voice, asked: “Who was the Humble Administrator and why he was humble?” He speculated that: “He must have been an unsuccessful government official.” I laughed and was immediately cautioned to be quiet. It was a place for silent contemplation, not a place for humor.
In Beijing, we were told that we were the first foreigners to visit the Imperial Palace Museum, since its closure in 1949. In Suzhou, we were the first foreigners to see the Humble Administrator’s Garden since the Cultural Revolution. Later, we became the first foreign group to visit the site of the proposed giant steel plant at Baoshan on the Yangtze River twenty-five kilometers north west of Shanghai. In Shanghai we had discovered the last bottle of gin in China. There was a pattern there. The Government wanted to impress us with the new China while cautiously allowing us to see a little of the old. The banquets were formal with speeches about the new China, the value of old friends and China’s desire to open up trade with the western world. We were in agreement because that was why we were there.
The Group had exhausted its supply of scotch and gin, brought in from Australia, Hong Kong and Japan so we became dependent on the local alcohol. At the banquets, we toasted with mao-tai, drank the shao-shing rice wine and the sweet lotus leaf wine, washing it down with local beer when we could not find the preferred Tsing-tao. We left Suzhou by bus to visit Wuxi, the Pengpou People’s Commune and a small village on the way. Farmers and children stood beside the road, smiling, clapping and singing. The warm welcome was obviously not spontaneous but it seemed genuine and was consistent with my past visits into the countryside. The farmers wanted us to stop at their village and I soon discovered why. They lined up near the bus with local food to sell so we bought and ate whatever looked edible and easily identified. There was no bottled beer, the safest thing to drink with the meal, only tea and bottled water. Laoshan (mineral water) seemed to follow us everywhere. Before we left the village, our hosts suggested we might like to have a toilet break before resuming the bus journey. A local official escorted us to an area beside the main road where large white painted drums had been set up below the level of the road. There were small-enclosed cubicles, fortunately with doors, set up above the drums and we were asked to leave a deposit for the local farmers to use as fertilizer in the fields and fish farms. We carried our own rolls of toilet paper. Westerners were the most popular visitors to the village for obvious reasons.
After leaving the village, we traveled on to Wuxi to visit a people’s commune where we were welcomed with a short speech by the local commune leader and the happy smiling workers who applauded vigorously as we walked by. We toured the fields and the machinery sheds, and were taken to a worker’s house where the family of three lived in one room. I do not remember much more about the visit to Wuxi or the commune as shortly after leaving the village I began to experience severe cramps in my stomach. I do remember searching for toilets, trying to return a smile to the commune workers while clutching a roll of toilet paper, and silently cursing the Humble Administrator and the villagers who sold me the food and bottled water.
The bus ride to the train station at Wuxi was excruciatingly long and uncomfortable. We boarded the train for Shanghai and I immediately sought out the toilet which was a small hole in the floor that emptied out directly onto the tracks below. There was no seat, only a small metal bar on the wall to help steady me while the train sped along, lurching from side to side. With sore knees and tired leg muscles I struggled not to embarrass myself so the only part of the countryside I saw on the way back to Shanghai was through a hole in the floor.