china 1972

The Dong Fang (East Wind) Hotel was on Liuhua Road, between Liuhua Lake and Yuehsiu Park with its Chenhai Tower. Even though it was not close to the Chinese Export Commodities Fair, it was favored by the British and European traders. In 1972, the Dong Fang was a multistory non-air conditioned building set amongst what must have been beautiful gardens. It was quiet, away from the Pearl River traffic. Beside the hotel was a rough field used by the foreign traders to play rugby, soccer and volleyball during the Fair.

The old China hands, who travelled to the Fair twice each year and some for a month each time, stayed together in a tight clique that excluded outsiders. The Dong Fang Club, as the British members were called, always stayed at the hotel and had a cocktail party each night at 6:30 in one of their corner suites. Some stayed on when the Fair was over and traveled to Beijing to negotiate further business. The Club organized sporting activities amongst its members and against the Chinese and other nationalities in Guangzhou for the Fair. They stored their sporting equipment in cabin trunks at the hotel during the year along with books from their lending library. The library had simple rules, to borrow a book you donated one. The British were experienced at establishing an exclusive club for themselves in remote foreign locations, a legacy from the days of the British Empire.

Accommodation was scarce in Guangzhou during the Fair and few were fortunate to get a room at the Dong Fang Hotel. Rooms were never vacant so newcomers ended up at the less desirable hotels or the numerous guesthouses favored by the Chinese officials. The Dong Fang Club had a system to make sure its members could always get a room or a desirable corner suite at the hotel. Our agent, who was British and stayed at the Dong Fang Hotel, told me about the system so at the cocktail party and dinner on the first night I inquired, without success, if anyone was checking out of the hotel in the next few days.

Next morning I arrived early at the hotel while everyone was enjoying breakfast in the huge dining hall. The Dong Fang Club had convinced the hotel kitchen to make two fried eggs and toast for them as an alternative to the usual Chinese breakfast so the room was full of British traders. I moved from table to table asking if anyone was leaving the hotel that day. Luckily, I found one trader who was scheduled to leave for Hong Kong on the following day’s train so this was his last day. He agreed that I could share his room that evening, sleeping in the second single bed. I rushed back to my guesthouse to convince the staff it was essential for me to move to the Dong Fang Hotel to be with my business colleagues, one of whom agreed I could share his room. I explained the move would free up a bed at the guesthouse. The move to the Dong Fang Hotel took place later in the day and the following morning my new roommate left for Hong Kong leaving me as the sole legal occupant of the room. The system guaranteed there were no vacancies at the Dong Fang during the Fair. If the hotel staff knew what was happening they never tried to change the system, but they must have wondered about all the room sharing that took place amongst adult males.

The next challenge was to break into the closed group of metal traders, poker players and cocktail partygoers. It would take time and there was a price to be paid as membership was by invitation only. On the advice of our agent I agreed to play football for the English against the Chinese and Japanese teams, and volleyball for the French team. Also, I donated books to the Club library, money at the poker games and whisky and gin to the cocktail parties. This did not qualify me for membership in the Club but it did get me invited to some of their cocktail parties, dinners and poker games; and enabled me to get a room at the hotel. On the fifth night I was invited to a Dong Fang Club party and afterwards entertained about ten of the members at the Nanyuan (Southern Garden) Restaurant for dinner. Meals, beer and rice wine were cheap so the cost was affordable. We invited the Club members to our cocktail party the following week.

I never became a member of the Dong Fang Club but attended some of their activities. Membership was restricted to the early British traders but they allowed “associate” members so they could keep track of any new competitors. The Club members essentially ran the hotel by directing the staff in their true British colonial way. They could have been from a Graham Greene novel.

Most foreigners stayed inside the hotel, only leaving the building to travel by taxi to and from the Fair or to the few accessible restaurants. As it was my first visit I decided to explore the city as far as I could walk and still be able to find my way back to the hotel. I walked early in the morning before it became too hot and humid, mostly before sunrise, exploring the streets and parks around the hotel, each time going a little further. Occasionally, I was directed back to the hotel by the PLA.

The Dong Fang Hotel, like others in China in the 1970s practiced an open door policy. There were no locks on the doors which allowed staff, in their white coats, to walk in and check the room at any time. Maybe they were checking on those sharing a room or inspecting the disposable items thrown into the waste paper bin. The staff were located at a service desk on each floor and while their ability to speak English was close to zero, they were generally helpful. They had undergone some language training but obviously not from an English-born teacher as the few words they knew were spoken in what was best described as archaic English. It was like something out of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales so I could understand some of it without laughing, which would have been a major mistake. Our attempts to help the staff speak English were not welcome so both the staff and the guests struggled to communicate which lead to some unfortunate incidents. On one occasion I was directed to stand in the corner of the staff room facing the wall for 30 minutes until I was allowed to turn around. This “incident” was caused by me being impolite while asking the staff for my laundry. I used the word “please” at the end of the sentence and they expected it at the beginning. Another more serious “incident” was caused by me leaving a propaganda magazine face down on the floor of my bathroom. It had a photograph of Chairman Mao on the cover. The “incident” ended with me apologizing to four members of the Red Guard who visited my room late at night. Some of the foreigners spoke Mandarin but it was of no use with the Cantonese speaking staff. Even the Chinese interpreters from Beijing had difficulty with the Cantonese dialect. For the rest of us we just had to learn what worked, which was mainly a few words of archaic English.

Ordering the English breakfast was relatively simple, as others had trained the staff to understand the chicken and pig sounds when ordering eggs and bacon. The first time I tried it the waiter smiled and held up one finger and then two indicating one or two eggs. Happy with my success at communicating with him I held up two fingers. The service was prompt and the waiter returned with two large plates each with two fried eggs and placed them in front of me. The communication was not as effective as I thought because I ordered two eggs and he thought I wanted two servings of two eggs. Next day I got it right and ordered one egg and two eggs appeared. We could not order the eggs, bacon and toast at the same time, each one was ordered separately and appeared on a fresh plate. After three days the waiters knew exactly what I wanted for breakfast and each day the same thing arrived without me ordering, as long as I sat at the same table. The instant coffee, carried in from Hong Kong, was marked with my name and remained on a side table in the dining hall for the duration of the stay. No one would use someone else’s coffee without being invited to do so. Such was the honor system that operated amongst the traders.

The rooms at the Dong Fang were basic but clean. Two single beds, a writing desk and chair, polished concrete floor and bathroom with a toilet and large bathtub. Water was available for two hours early in the morning and again for two hours late in the afternoon. The days were carefully planned so we were back at the hotel when the water came on. Everyone did the same thing so there was very little water pressure or warm water but a bath in about 25 inches of cold, brown water after a day’s negotiations in the hot and humid conditions was welcome. Before I went to bed at night, I turned on the tap in the bathtub and inserted the plug so when the water came on at 6am it became an effective alarm clock as the hotel came alive with rattling water pipes and loud martial music from the speakers outside in the gardens.

Each day started with some back stretching exercises on the concrete floor, to overcome the soreness from sleeping on the hard bed, a careful shave and bath before hurrying to the breakfast hall to make sure I had my two eggs and bacon before supplies ran out. Routine, rules and consistency seemed to be the most effective way of enduring life at the Dong Fang Hotel. A little daily dose of whisky and/or gin made it more enjoyable.

The writing desk in the room contained a few sheets of hotel stationery, envelopes, forms for cablegrams, a telephone, flask of hot water, bottle of “fresh” drinking water refilled each day from the tap outside the hotel, and a fly swat so we could kill our quota of one fly each day. As international telephone calls had to be booked several days in advance through the service desk in the hotel lobby the most common means of communication were cablegrams and letters. As there were no telephone books for local numbers everyone developed their own list. There was little sharing of the numbers or addresses as they were precious commodities. There were no newspapers, television or radio stations for the foreigners so we relied on the exchange of information or newspapers brought in from Hong Kong by recent arrivals. My short wave radio did pick up the BBC and I played music cassettes on the tape recorder to drown out the martial music that played until eleven o’clock in the evening. Room fans, available on request, were essential for the hot, humid nights and to keep the mosquitoes mobile. Frequent power outages interrupted our activities and ice was available, if pre-ordered, for the cocktail parties but was used only to chill the beer.

A black market system existed amongst the traders at the hotel so goods could be exchanged whenever someone was short of essential supplies. We traded film, alcohol, cigarettes, toiletries, food items and sometimes cash to make up for any hard currency losses at the poker games. As we had to document all money changed into the local currency (Renminbi) and the forms were checked by outgoing Customs officials to ensure all money brought into China was accounted for, everything needed to balance. If we lost money playing poker, we paid in goods or local currency, not in hard currency unless someone had an undeclared surplus.

There were some simple rules amongst the traders, always bring in the latest newspapers, extra batteries and film, as much alcohol as allowed, and never leave with unused toiletries, over the counter medication, film, alcohol (not usually a problem) or food; and donate all books to the Dong Fang Club library. On subsequent trips I brought in cartons of cigarettes (for trading) and extra supplies of the most sought after goods, toilet paper, soap, Lomotil, mosquito repellant, batteries, books, newspapers and film. Toilet paper and soap were not provided in the public toilets, on trains, in restaurants or at the Fair, so we carried our own supplies when we traveled away from the hotel.

On weekends, the Dong Fang Club organized games against other foreign national teams. The first task was to clear the field of large stones, mark out the playing area and erect goal posts, or volleyball nets. We rarely had time to train so positions were filled based on experience or individual choice. I played several games of rugby, including one against the Japanese “national” team from another hotel. The hard ground and fanatical Japanese players left me badly cut, scratched, bruised and sore, especially as I played in tennis shoes, shorts and no shirt. For the next visit, I would add bandages, tape, Band-Aids, disinfectant, shorts and a tee shirt to my growing list of essential supplies. The whisky was too valuable to use for cleaning scratches and abrasions.

Once or twice during the week, I played volleyball with the French team, as an alternative to the late afternoon drinking sessions, and this was less damaging to my health than either rugby or the alcohol. I did not speak French so couldn’t understand the constant chatter of my team mates, but it did not seem to matter. The drinking started earlier each day as the visit progressed so it was good to be away from the hotel until 6:30. Some of the traders who had been at the Fair from the first day were drinking at lunch time by the second week.

Even though the Cantonese food at the Dong Fang Hotel was good, our regular group of about twelve explored the local restaurants. The nearest one, very popular with the Cantonese, we called the Bicycle Restaurant because of the hundreds of Flying Pigeon bicycles lined up outside every night. We walked from the Dong Fang and were quickly ushered into a separate room, after the Cantonese customers were pushed out to make room for the big spending foreigners.

We ate there several times each week as the food was excellent and we could walk home, avoiding the scary rides in the local taxis. Other favorite restaurants, that required reservations so they could assign a private room to keep us separated from the local Cantonese, were the Nanyuan (Southern Garden) and Peiyuan (Northern Garden).

Taxis, only for foreigners, were Chinese copies of Russian designed cars brought to Guangzhou for the Fair. Some were left-hand drive and others right-hand. They were all gray in color and fitted with white lace curtains on the rear windows so the locals could not see who was inside. This suited us because pedestrians and cyclists would stop and stare at any European face which caused major traffic jams in the wide streets of Guangzhou. The drivers of the taxis were from the PLA and the system required foreigners to book the car through the hotel service desk with the cost charged to their hotel bill. The driver and car remained with the passengers until they returned to the hotel and, as they did not speak English or Mandarin, destinations were handwritten by the hotel service desk. Punishment was severe if a driver lost his passenger. The drivers were either untrained or just simply dangerous. They tested the car horn before starting and used it every few seconds as they sped through the busy streets. The cars had right of way, except for military vehicles, and the drivers made sure they exercised that right. Pity the poor pedestrian or cyclist who was unfortunate enough to get in the way.

Early one morning on my way to the Fair, the driver turned sharply around a corner and knocked an old man off his bicycle, spreading his precious eggs and vegetables across the road. The driver stopped, ran over to the old man and starting shouting and beating him with a stick, followed by savage kicks to the body. The other bicycle riders stopped and stared, no one intervened to help the old man. The driver returned to the car and we resumed our journey in silence. As we drove away I pushed the lace curtains aside and looked out the rear window to see a crowd of people rushing to help the old man gather his remaining vegetables and eggs.

At night when we ventured out to restaurants on the other side of Guangzhou, we were forced to use taxis. It was a rush to see who could get into the back seat of the car as the most dangerous seat was in front next to the driver. The drivers did not slow down or use the car’s headlights. In many of the narrow poorly lit streets, the bottom few feet of the trees were painted white. This helped the driver find his way. His other driving aid was the constant honking of the car horn to warn pedestrians to get out of the way. It was simply frightening to sit in the front seat, without a seatbelt, watching the trees flash by and the dark shapes of pedestrians leaping out of the way. This was another sound reason to drink sufficiently before venturing out at night.

Always aware of the risks of going outside the hotel to eat in local restaurants, walk the streets or talk to the Cantonese some of us were willing to take the risks to see the old China. We pushed the boundaries. In doing so we discovered some restaurants where the food was exceptional and we saw aspects of ordinary Chinese life the government did not want us to see. Photography was discouraged so cameras were kept out of sight and photographs taken quickly. Conversations with the Chinese people were impossible because of the language barrier and their reluctance to be seen talking to foreigners. There were no maps of the city or street signs so my early morning walks were gradually extended. This worked most of the time except when a long walk to explore the “back streets” and parks ended with an unpleasant ride to the hotel in the back of a military truck and a stern lecture from the hotel staff.

I played only one game of “football” for the English team due to a misunderstanding that I could play soccer. I was asked if I could play football and thinking they meant rugby I said “Yes”. They meant soccer. The match was against a local Cantonese team, held at the Guangzhou Football Stadium. Several thousand people showed up to watch the game, which was billed as an international match between China and England, even though some of the “English” spoke, French, Spanish, German and Italian. The Cantonese team looked magnificent in their new white uniforms compared to the unfit, untidy rabble billed as their English opponents. Fortunately, I was injured early in the match and was replaced by someone who had actually played the game before. The final score was an embarrassment and I was not asked to play soccer for the English team again.

The weather in Guangzhou was oppressive, with constant gray skies and high humidity. The days were long with hours of waiting for short meetings and hot, humid sleepless nights. I walked in the early morning when people were cycling to work or late in the afternoon with my small Leica camera hidden beneath my shirt. Even though I removed the pink ribbon we were asked to wear I stood out in the crowds on the streets. People stared at me as I walked past and turned their heads if I looked directly at them or raised my camera. Mothers would turn their children away so they could not be photographed. No one spoke to me and if I tried to talk to them they would hurry away so they were not seen talking to a foreigner. I can only recall one incident when an old man tried to talk to me in English. He invited me in to see the Pagoda he was caring for, but there were no other people around.

Images: 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”.