Re­mem­ber­ing early days of China’s open­ing

Shanghai Daily - - FRONT PAGE - Vic­to­ria Gra­ham

Iread with dis­may about the Chin­aUS trade fric­tion. I re­mem­ber when Sino-US re­la­tions were of­fi­cially re-es­tab­lished 40 years ago, China was open­ing up.

That was a time of op­ti­mism, mu­tual good­will and friend­ship based on geostrate­gic in­ter­ests, not af­fec­tion. Both sides agreed to put aside fun­da­men­tal dis­agree­ments and fo­cus on the many ar­eas in which they could co­op­er­ate. The pos­si­bil­i­ties for mu­tual ben­e­fit were enor­mous.

Still, the nor­mal­iza­tion and open­ing of China was ex­hil­a­rat­ing. Ev­ery­one wanted in. To see, to learn, to share, to sell, to buy. But do­ing busi­ness wasn’t easy; there was sus­pi­cion and a desire for self-re­liance.

Or­di­nary peo­ple were wary strangers.

There was a pa­rade of govern­ment of­fi­cials, busi­ness­peo­ple, schol­ars, teach­ers, stu­dents, doctors, artists, mu­si­cians, bal­leri­nas, film directors. There was the Har­lem Boys Choir, the Bos­ton Sym­phony Orches­tra, Big Bird, Muham­mad Ali, co­me­dian Bob Hope and for­mer US Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon.

I ar­rived in April 1979 as a young re­porter for The As­so­ci­ated Press. John Rod­er­ick, an old China hand, and I re­opened the AP bureau.

I didn’t speak Chi­nese, but AP de­cided they needed a fea­ture writer, not a si­nol­o­gist.

I was wel­comed with an in­ti­mate, lav­ish din­ner at the Old Sum­mer Palace, with its col­or­ful or­nate paint­ing on beams and a view of the lake with the splen­did mar­ble boat pav­il­ion.

Our host was Yao Wei, Amer­i­can mis­sion­ary-ed­u­cated chief of the press di­vi­sion of the Min­istry of For­eign Af­fairs, who was in­ter­preter for the then Pre­mier Hua Guofeng and Vice Pre­mier Deng Xiaop­ing.

Once I even danced with For­eign Min­is­ter Huang Hua at a party thrown by Cam­bo­dian Prince Norodom Si­hanouk, fondly known as “Snooky.”

Such din­ners might be rare these days. But back then it was pos­si­ble to at­tend a na­tional day and find a Chi­nese of­fi­cial smok­ing in a cor­ner. And he’d be will­ing to chat.

At our AP apart­ment — home and of­fice — in Jian­guomen­wai, Bei­jing, we oc­ca­sion­ally in­vited Min­istry of For­eign Af­fairs of­fi­cials of the North Amer­ica/ US di­vi­sion for din­ner. They all came in a group, maybe six men, all wear­ing well-tai­lored dark blue Mao suits (ac­tu­ally Sun Yat-sen suits). Con­ver­sa­tion was po­lite, friendly, a lit­tle stilted and non­po­lit­i­cal, un­til the end when we knew we could ask a po­lit­i­cal ques­tion, get a care­ful an­swer and a news story. Then they rose at once, thanked us gra­ciously and took their leave.

For a jour­nal­ist, and ev­ery­one else, these were heady times. Mo­men­tous times. China was emerg­ing from the “cul­tural rev­o­lu­tion” (1966-76) and peo­ple were still a bit un­cer­tain of the fu­ture as they’d lived through so much tu­mult.

We watched the dis­man­tling of com­munes, the steady emer­gence of pri­vate en­ter­prise. “To get rich is glo­ri­ous,” Deng Xiaop­ing had said.

One Sun­day we went to a young peo­ple’s poetry read­ing at the Old Sum­mer Palace. It made a lovely story about the blos­som­ing of hopes and dreams and re­count­ing of frus­tra­tions.

Other for­eign news agen­cies and

of news­pa­pers were al­ready in China but for AP and its read­ers, it was all new and ex­cit­ing. There was also The New York Times, The Wash­ing­ton Post, Bal­ti­more Sun, Time, Newsweek and a num­ber of other new­com­ers. Com­pe­ti­tion was fe­ro­cious.

My ed­i­tors said: “Tell us all about China, what’s it like? Does ev­ery­one ride bi­cy­cles? Do they all wear Mao suits? What do they eat? What are their houses like? What do they do for fun? Can they speak freely?” Ev­ery­thing was in­ter­est­ing. We wrote a lot of “gee whiz” sto­ries.

There was the first pri­vate res­tau­rant, a hole-in-the-wall with mud walls and de­li­cious food jiaozi. Greens, spicy meat.

Even­tu­ally there was a McDon­ald’s, a Star­bucks.

Pos­ing on an an­cient bridge was a pretty girl wear­ing a snug white sweater, slacks and pretty flow­ered scarf — her hair was permed. She was lovely. Her pic­ture said a lot. Style was re­turn­ing, no longer a sym­bol of re­viled in­di­vid­u­al­ism and Western in­flu­ence. To­day, high-end lux­ury stores are ev­ery­where in big cities and sta­tus is all-im­por­tant. Young peo­ple post pic­tures of them­selves and their US$700 designer hand­bags.

We did a lot of “the first”–type sto­ries. The first hair sa­lon — women didn’t have to wear short-cropped hair. The first dat­ing ser­vice, the first for­eign fash­ion show, this one by Yves Saint Lau­rent. There was Big Bird from Sesame Street, co­me­dian Bob Hope, Mal­colm Forbes and his hot-air bal­loon. It seemed that ev­ery US gov­er­nor vis­ited with a trade del­e­ga­tion — and we had to drive all the way out to the Great Wall to get pic­tures of them giv­ing bal­loons to chil­dren.

I watched the first pro­duc­tion of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Sales­man” in Bei­jing in Chi­nese. It res­onated as the dark side of the Amer­i­can Dream and fea­tured a trou­bled fam­ily.

We found one of the first hang­outs for young peo­ple re­lax­ing, laugh­ing, drink­ing orange soda, some per­haps mixed with beer.

We wrote about the mag­nif­i­cent red­walled com­pound Zhong­nan­hai, the res­i­den­tial com­plex of the Chi­nese top lead­ers. And the place be­hind crim­son gates where lead­ers could get for­eign news­pa­pers.

When we needed more trans­port, we bought a Chi­nese ver­sion of an old Soviet Red Army bike — a copy of a BMW — army green with a side­car. I usu­ally sat in the side­car. We’d roar up to the Great Hall of the Peo­ple and heads would turn.

The best part was tak­ing rid­ing/driv­ing lessons from an old gen­tle­man (he spoke a lit­tle English) early in the morn­ing, sev­eral times a week. He rode in the side­car and cor­rected me. We drove to the out­skirts of Bei­jing, watched the city come alive as cook­ing smoke filled the air, women made con­gee (por­ridge) and roost­ers crowed. As we rode, we talked a

Red-haired Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist Vic­to­ria Gra­ham star­tles PLA sol­diers at the Great Wall.

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