Frozen in time
February 1972: Nixon’s in China and worried about more than chopsticks
Nixon in China is John Adams’s famous opera, but it’s also a phrase, describing a clash of civilisations, loaded with political jeopardy – plus some bizarre superpower chow-downs. Food is central to the Chinese.
The banquet pictured here took place in Shanghai in February 1972, and placed an awkward US Republican loner in the dragon’s mouth. Everything about this picture screams, “Expletive deleted!”
Nixon had already struggled to find words for his historic Sino-American initiative. On his visit to the Great Wall, he had observed, in a moment of stunning bathos, “This is a great wall.” On a smaller scale, this scene is also rich in comedy and drama.
Tricky Dick knows he’s on primetime TV before a hometown audience that’s already wobbly about this trip. Worse, he’s been told that it’s rude not to express his appreciation to his Chinese hosts. His expression says everything: “I can’t seem too enthusiastic. What’s on the menu here? Is it bird’s nest or shark fin? Jeez – is it me? Next to these dudes, I can’t even work these goddam chopsticks.” (He and Henry Kissinger had been given lessons on the flight over.)
Trapped between China’s first premier Zhou Enlai and Shanghai Communist party leader Zhang Chunqiao, Nixon is struggling with “chopstick diplomacy”. Had he ever eaten Chinese food? Raised in church-going, conservative Whittier, California, he’s most at home with ketchup.
He was at one with America there. In 1972, the riches of Chinese food were becoming ghetto-ised in the Chinatowns of San Francisco, Washington DC and New York. Chopstick diplomacy had the unintended consequence of tempting the nation’s tastebuds. Ever since Nixon’s meeting with Chairman Mao, dim sum and peking duck have been high on the American menu. Not even a Trump trip to Beijing could wipe out this culinary dividend.