Remembering early days of China’s opening
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.