It was 6am when I heard the water gurgling into the empty bath tub. I had left the tap on before I went to bed to make sure there was enough water to wash myself in the morning. I could hear water pipes rattling throughout the hotel and footsteps in the room above as someone headed for their bathroom. There was no need to hurry as the water was turned off after 10 minutes leaving about six inches of a brown-colored warm liquid in the bottom of the large tub. At 6pm the water would be turned on again for 10 minutes for those who wanted to wash in cold brown water. I had been awake for more than an hour, sitting by the open window to catch some air and watch the sunrise across the hotel gardens. It was early May and the temperature was already close to 70F with humidity over 80% so any breeze was welcome in the non-air-conditioned room. The desk fan was noisy but I had kept it on all night to keep the mosquitos moving.

It was my first visit to China and I had been invited to attend the Chinese Export Commodities Fair (Spring) 1972 held in Guangzhou (formerly Kwangchow) from April 15 to May 15 for negotiations with government officials attending the fair from Beijing. The Fair (more commonly known as the Canton Fair) was first established in 1957 as a biannual exhibition of Chinese goods for sale into the export market. The majority of attendees were European commodity traders and textile buyers who attended the fair for a whole month, twice each year. I was not a textile buyer but a seller of minerals to China and it was easier to meet in Guangzhou than take the train from there to Beijing.

Diplomatic relations with The People’s Republic of China had not yet been established and travel to Guangzhou was only by train from Hong Kong. I had left Kowloon train station on an early morning train packed with European commodity traders and their companions, some imported from Europe and others collected in Hong Kong, with my baggage including a “survival kit” purchased at the local stores near the train station. My “survival kit” included the essentials for a potentially long stay in China – soap, towel, toilet paper, medications, scotch, vodka, wine, ketchup, crackers, cheese, canned sardines, olives, small camera, color film, radio/tape player, cigarettes, books and Hong Kong newspapers. Only the camera, exposed color film and the radio would return to Hong Kong. The other items were consumed or traded. As a non-smoker the two cartons of cigarettes were valuable for trading and playing poker with other foreigners. The local train arrived at Lowu, on the border between Hong Kong’s New Territories and China, at 10am and we walked along the tracks across the bridge over the river into Shenzhen (then Shumchun) where we spent four hours being “processed” through customs before catching the non-stop train to Guangzhou. The train arrived late in the day.

After a thorough search, my “survival kit” passed the scrutiny of the customs officials. The alcohol limit was two bottles of no specified size so I bought two one-gallon bottles of liquor at the store next to the Kowloon train station and a one gallon cask of wine in a box marked “sample only”. Assisted by the other commodity traders attending the fair, the scotch, vodka and wine was to last about two weeks. Supplies of other essential items, especially soap, toilet paper and Imodium, also lasted about two weeks so trading became a necessity. Boredom was the common enemy of the commodity traders attending the fair for a month so they organized a book lending library, regular football and volley ball games, nightly cocktail parties and regular poker games. I hoped to stay for two weeks before returning to Hong Kong. The days were long as the negotiations were short, and leaving the hotel compound to explore the city was discouraged.

We were not permitted to travel outside Guangzhou except on an organized visit to a People’s Commune to see the happy workers. All foreigners were encouraged to make the visit at least once. As the visit to the People’s Commune was a long day we were served a full breakfast before the early start. On the morning of the tour we were assigned to special tables in the hotel dining room to introduce ourselves to the other travelers and served a large English breakfast of cereal, eggs, bacon, potatoes, bread and fruit with hot instant coffee or tea. It was more satisfying than the usual Chinese breakfast. We were escorted from the dining room to the waiting bus full of comradery and nutrients. There were about 60 foreigners and one interpreter on the old uncomfortable bus as we bounced along the rough dirt road into the countryside.

Chinese men harvesting at the Fish Farm (1972)

Two hours into the tour we stopped beside a large fish farm and were escorted to a small white concrete hut at the side of the lake. We were advised to take our toilet paper so welcomed the stop. The hut, with two holes in the floor, was large enough for two people so the interpreter stood outside with the long line of traders while in turn we each dumped into the holes. Underneath the hut were two large wooden drums to collect the donations and when we finished workers carried them out into the lake to feed the fish. When questioned about the stop, the interpreter explained: “You westerners have more sh…t and you have better sh…t so we can breed larger fish for sale to Hong Kong and other places.” I thought: “yes and it is free!”

After the brief stop at the fish farm we continued to the People’s Commune where we were greeted with smiles and offered tea. The commune leader talked to us, through an interpreter, about life in the commune today and how it was different under Chairman Mao before showing us around the commune and a worker’s one room hut. Children were lined up in the street to applaud and thank us as we walked by.

The visit to the fish farm and People’s Commune was a long day but educational. I learned feeding with high nutritious food was the most important part of fish farming, westerners were full of sh…t and why the children at the commune thanked us. Also, I learned not to order fish at the hotels in Hong Kong.

A year after my visit to Guangzhou, diplomatic relations were established between the USA and China leading to a huge increase in western visitors with their nutrients. Forty-five years later, China is the largest exporter of farmed fish providing more than 50% of the world’s supply. It was achieved with the help of the “westerners” so a little hint for the trade negotiators: “If you want to reach a peaceful solution to the trade imbalance don’t give them any more sh…t!” Ken Peacock December 30, 2019 Photographs used were taken by the author.

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Photo Credit: the photographs used in this story were taken be 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”.