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When China Was Communist

I always imagine writing about my China Experience, but how to even begin to tell what it was like to not just visit Mars but to live there, to work there, to be so inside an alternate reality that you can be effective in it? That time and place is impossible for me to return to life in words so I keep giving up.

Just now I realized that I had a passbook savings account in the Bank of China, Taishan County Branch, in the Spring of 1981. I believe that no other non-Chinese person on earth can make that statement. So I have to write that part at least.

If you are younger than me what follows may be hard to experience. Your China is so very different than mine. The People’s Republic of China in 1980 was an agrarian, third-world, closed and xenophobic alien world when I first got inside. Everyone here and there was trying to work with a situation that no one had experienced. The unquestioned ruler for the past 30 years, Mao Zedong, had died and a new leadership was consolidating power. The old order had passed and a new order was just being figured out. It was a time of optimism for many Chinese people. After 50 years of hating and fearing America suddenly Nixon had come to China and American tourists were paying big money to get the difficult visas necessary to join a tour group to see the Great Wall and the Forbidden City in a carefully controlled week in Beijing. Otherwise China was as closed as it had been since 1950. Few Chinese people under the age of 30 had ever seen a “white man” in person. No foreigners were permitted except for a trickle of people contained in Beijing on a state-sponsored tour. Like any forbidden place just discovered, the media was filled with China and it was a most sought-after visa conferring prestige for the few who had managed to get one.

In 1973-74 I had worked with Larry Davis at Sonoma State. We liked and respected each other in spite of some different opinions about the work we were engaged in. I left Sonoma State to build a new life in Comptche. Then shopping in Santa Rosa one afternoon in August of 1980, I'm stopped at a red light on College Avenue and Larry walked across the street in front of me, I yelled, “Hey Larry.” And he said, “Mike! I've been looking for you.” We sat on the lawn at Santa Rosa JC and he told me that his student, Buk Lu a Chinese- American, had found a backdoor to his hometown in China and he basically smuggled Larry in. Larry asked the local officials if he could bring some of his friends back next time and the officials were encouraging, but there was a snag. It was against national law in China for a foreigner to stay overnight in a private home and there were no hotels in Taishan permitted to take foreigners. Larry asked if he could build a hotel for foreigners? They loved the idea. But of course it was impossible for either party to actually do. So Larry went looking for me. 

Larry knew that I had a degree from the Cornell School of Hotel Administration. He figured with my background he could persuade some real estate investors that he knew to fund the adventure. Larry wanted to pay my way to China. I had never been outside the US. I was in Taishan four days later. Larry took me to Hong Kong and then into China to evaluate the situation. | was enchanted. From the the stonefaced border guards with red stars on their army greens to peasants plowing behind a water buffalo, it was a whole new world to revel in. I couldn't have imagined that in the near future those stern Red Army border guards would greet me with smiles and handshakes and we'd share a couple of Marlboros before they waved me in.

Everything was different. The way it looked, the way it smelled and felt, the humid South China heat, the streets empty of cars and full of bell-ringing bicycles, the acrid coal smoke. People were shocked, they stared, they formed crowds around me. I didn't realize that I was a terrifying and awful sight. I had an abundant black beard and shoulder-length hair and a long nose. I smelled bad to them. I was interesting. And so were they to me. My life would revolve around Taishan for the next five years. It is not long absent from my mind even now.

So, anyway, about that first year: Because I wasn't a tourist anymore and was doing something the Taishan County government wanted (making a place for foreign tourists and their hard currency US dollars to come into local hands) the officials had to figure out how to house me and allow me the companionship of my family; they were big on family values. The Taishan County government (and I never figured out how they pulled that one off) got visas for Anne, daughter Kathleen and son Mike “Boojie” to spend the Summer of 1981 living in Red China. Since I was now some kind of resident (they would eventually build me my own tiny house after my family went back to California), I would need regular things. Like a bank account.

China had two monetary systems at that time: regular money called “renminbi” RMB, the people's money. And FEC, Foreign Exchange Certificates, purchased with and convertible to hard currencies like Hong Kong dollars, Singapore dollars and US dollars. Foreigners were supposed to use only FEC and Chinese people only RMB. Everyone wanted FEC or, better, dollars. It was the only widespread crime I ever saw in China: a thriving black market for hard currency. I was a favored guest and never bought or sold money except at the bank. So I needed a bank account. When I showed up and asked, through my interpreter, to open an account consternation ensued. 

When I proposed to the bank manager to deposit my FEC and withdraw RMB because I was living there and needed the local currency for groceries and supplies (you understand, no foreigners had lived there or bought groceries, let alone offered to exchange valuable FEC for RMB) he had the delightful dilemma of getting valuable US dollars and giving RMB, shabby little paper yuan and aluminum coins, versus prison if he was wrong. He opened my account and issued me a passbook.

PS: Anne and 13-year-old Mike and I were likely the only American family actually living in China, population one billion, in the Summer of 1981.

Mike was a sensation. All the kids wanted to be around him. So much so that we had to limit visits so as not to overload him. When he and I rode our bikes through town late one evening I heard “Boojie! Boojie!” as we passed. To many families I was known as Boojie's father.

There were no private cars or motorcycles. Everyone wanted one. The local officials hinted that I could buy a motorcycle out in Hong Kong (I could go in and out freely; they couldn't) and import it for the use of our joint venture the Stone Flower Mountain Inn (i.e., The Taishan County government's use; certainly not for our use). They would work with (bribe) Customs to let it in.

So I went out to Hong Kong, which I knew pretty well by then, and shopped hard for a small motorcycle. I got such a good price that I bought two. Back in Taishan we waited to see if the scam would work. After a couple of weeks a truck brought two crates and we unpacked two bright shiny 100cc Yamahas.

We got fuel and Mike and I fired them up and went riding out into the country. Wonderful feeling! We both had motorcycles back home and the freedom and sensuality of riding fast on empty roads in a hot and humid south China was so outrageously fun we laugh about it today.

Public Security was freaked out. Two Americans, who actually weren't even supposed to be there, were loose — god knows where — having unsupervised fun. On motorcycles! When we got back the cops had to be polite because of who we were. But you could figure out the words without an interpreter. “Are you guys nuts?! This is Communist China! You can't just hop on a motorcycle and go roaming. We can't do that and we're the police.”

But, in general, the strangeness of it all gave both them and me prestige. They could look very progressive for somehow pulling off a joint-venture with an American company (which was the first successful joint venture between an American company and a Chinese County government. We were featured on national news. Anne's parents watched it in Detroit. I was quoted in Newsweek magazine and in an AP dispatch).

And, as for me, Taishan County had a “state-of-the-County” annual meeting of the leadership at which the heads of the Communist Party, the city mayors, the County government offices of health, public works, education, agriculture, security, etc. — all the usual power points — would convene to assess last year's progress and plan for the next. About 200 participants.

The Provincial Governor sat in the center seat on the raised dais. I was seated on his left. That was as in as a white guy could get. I cherish the photos of that event more than the media stories.

The Chinese referred to us as “ghosts,” not because of our white skin, but because we suddenly appeared, made incomprehensible sounds, acted weirdly and then disappeared, never to be seen again. So how was I going to be taken seriously as a leader which would be essential to do my job? My strategy was to be so regular as to become predictable. “Here he comes, he'll want pu-er tea and two char siu bao.” He has become real. Wear the same clothes: blue workman's cotton shirt and pants. Arrive at the same time. Predictable.

In the Fall, after Anne and Boojie had left, they built me a tiny two-room brick house with a bed, a table and a chair. There was no running water but there was a standpipe out in front so I could wash. My house was close to our construction project and every morning as the workers arrived I enjoyed giving out a smile and small bow as they passed by. They reciprocated. Nobody had made the small bow since grandfather's time. They began calling me, “Mi seen-san” (Mister Mike). Nobody still used “seen san,” that was old style from before the revolution. The politically correct address was “tung ji” or comrade.” I couldn't be a tung ji since I was neither Chinese nor Communist. They wanted to show respect to me as I had to them. I loved working there.

I have always wanted to write a pamphlet on how to work with and through an interpreter. I had watched Larry and others talk for two minutes and three ideas. Chinese, too, did the same thing. Then the interpreter was to not only remember all that, but to interpret it just as it was meant. Impossible, even if the interpreter’s language skill is really high, and you don't know if it is do you?

My Method: Two conditions you will encounter: You bring your interpreter to the event, or they provide an interpreter that you have had no time or affinity with.

Spend as much time with your interpreter as possible before the meeting. Talk about some things other than the meeting subject: casual stuff, how old, where are you from, any family? Food, art, whatever. You are assessing the person's level of English and intelligence and experience so you know how to educate your interpreter about your objective in the meeting. You are only as smart as your interpreter. Your interpreter is a pipe through which the ideas, your and theirs, are going to flow back and forth. It's essential that the interpreter can adequately render your thoughts. This is your problem, not theirs. Tthey can't be any smarter or suddenly more fluent in your language. You have to adjust your choice of words, your speed of speech to your interpreter's ability. And you have to make some judgment about the intelligence, receptivity and time of the person or group that you are communicating with.

Unless you are working with an interpreter who knows exactly what you want and is fluent in both languages, use this rule: Only one thought per sentence. Don't rely on the interpreter to extract the important part from your rambling explanation or story. This is slow and takes real discipline on your part but if accuracy matters, and it often does, go one sentence per exchange.

Tea was the universal drink. Everyone, everywhere. Hot water, a pinch of oolong tea leaves and a cup. There was no hot running water. A communal boiler was heated by a coal fire in the morning. Boiling water was poured into everyone's one-liter thermos and pots and cups were made all day. This caused much slop and spill making the ubiquitous wooden tables warped and ugly. For the tea tables in the Stone Flower Mountain Inn rooms I wanted marble tops. I had seen enough nice marble in China, so I knew it was available somewhere.

You know how in military movies there is always a guy who knows where you can swap a jeep for a case of whiskey? Meet Mr. Wu. One-eye Wu was the tiny inconspicuous shabbily dressed man you went to when you needed to find something locally unobtainable. Wu was our fixer. Wu knew.

There was a marble quarry way southwest of us near the Vietnam border. Wu contacted them and they were willing to cut what we wanted and sell it to us directly. We huddled and agreed to go there tomorrow. Wu would find us a van. So Wu, Lee Yeh Nu, my interpreter, Ah Bien the construction foreman, and Driver (everyone just called him “Driver”) and I set out. We stopped for lunch in a smoky crowded truck stop. And at that moment with our chopsticks pulling out of the common dish, we were a crew. I love that memory. Just one of the guys out on a stunt. So we got back on the road and found ourselves part of an army convoy. Oops. Not in the script. We were not legally there at all and with an American very off limits in a military event. We found out later there was tension between China and Vietnam and that was why there were troop movements to the border. We left that road and went another way.

I got to select the stones that would be sliced into table tops. The quarrymen were delighted to be in on this stunt; selling their product directly to an a American for FEC. A couple of weeks later their truck dropped off highly- figured marble table tops at the Inn.

And a last Mr. Wu story: Gold tile roofs were for temples and high government buildings only. Wu found a source of factory-seconds in Foshan, a town noted for ceramic production, and only 30 kilometers away. So our Inn had gorgeous tile roofs in various shades of gold. Cheap.

I hired some laborers to clean up the site before opening day. It was a hot humid day. All the men had retreated to the shade. One little girl, big straw hat, was raking. Slowly, but never stopping. I hired her onto the Inn staff on the spot. The Inn women told me that she had named herself Wendy. Wendy Wu. She was Mr. Wu's youngest daughter.

My banquet. After the Inn had been open for a while I organized a tour group made up of California State and local officials to meet with their Chinese counterparts. So, as host, I would arrange the formal banquet. I knew that the Chinese officials that I wanted to impress would be there. I had often eaten dinner in the Hubin Hotel because the chef was brilliant. I sat with him to plan the dinner. I'm a person who cares, probably too much, about food and the eating of it. We spent a mutually enjoyable afternoon discussing a seasonal menu with what was fresh- and exotic. It was Fall and Three-Snake Soup was the ultimate protection against the rigors of Winter. But Three- Snake Soup is extremely expensive because some of the snakes are poisonous and all are difficult to catch. The soup would cost as much as the whole rest of the meal.

It would be the first course. A Cantonese banquet starts with soup, usually special with herbs and other healthy and nutritious ingredients. And just to show the Chinese how far in I was, I chose dog stew as the main course. Dog was party food. They called it fragrant meat because it was. It, too, was expensive. And delicious. The Chinese officials were glowing with appreciation for this feast. Me too.

I should add, “expensive” is relative. In 1983 that lavish banquet for 20 in the finest restaurant in Taishan cost me about $150. A bowl of the best wonton soup I've ever had in my life was 12 cents in the Taishan Number One Noodle Shop.

One Comment

  1. Bob A. September 16, 2023

    I visited China during the summer of 1984. My neighbors had been teaching English there the previous year and encouraged me to take one of the tours that were being offered. So, I made a detour on my way home from business in Japan and flew into Hong Kong. From there, I arranged a three day package tour of Guagzhou and its environs. Arriving in Guagzhou at the White Swan hotel I was met by my own personal guide and driver. We spent the next two days driving around the countryside. Scenic but still quite primitive. Farmers working the fields with hand tools and odd little tractors that resembled a lawn mower engine hitched to a pair of 2x4s for handles. The restroom at one of the scenic sites was interesting. A pair of ladies in a white uniforms handed out little patches of cloth that were steaming in a big pot of disinfectant. When you were done with your patch, back in the pot it went! One evening I took a walk and got a good look at how the urban folk lived. Ground floor apartments that featured dirt floors resembling caves. It was beastly hot, so people were preparing their meals over charcoal fires out of doors. Lots of friendly chatter that washed me along on my ramble. I passed by the charcoal works, which was easily identified by the black dust that marked the way out. A sparsely stocked department store with mannequins that dated to before the revolution, tiny stalls selling soft drinks. Everyone on foot or bicycle. A happy looking fellow peddling along with two small pigs lashed by the back wheel like a pair of saddle bags. Looking at photos of China today, I doubt I’d recognize any of it.

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