Chinese Experience

The year was 1980, just two years after President Nixon opened the doors of China for the United States to engage in trade negotiations.  Of course, the whole world was anxious to begin trading with China, since the massive country had closed itself off since 1945 and the rise of Mao Zedong.  We were very lucky to have our application accepted; invitations were issued by taking into consideration the limited accommodations available at the Dang Fang Hotel.  It was the only hotel in Quang Chow, the city hosting the International Trade Fair, and the Chinese also tried to spread their invitations out to as many countries as possible.

It was like a time-warp back to 1945

We landed in the British ruled Hong Kong where we spent a week of pampered bliss.  However, the real adventure began when we boarded the train in Hong Kong.  Entering mainland China, we were commanded to disembark while machinegun-toting Chinese police inspected the train.  Quang Chow was like a time-warp back to 1945.  What a contrast from modern, up-to-date Hong Kong.  An attendant in a gray uniform escorted us to our room: a high ceilinged sparse space with a 1940’s chest of drawers, desk and a four-post bed draped in mosquito netting.

Our first day at the fair was filled with a preponderance of foreign languages, colors, traditional designs, exquisite workmanship and the always smiling and bowing salesmen.  But all negations came to a complete stop at twelve noon, when a loud factory siren blasted throughout the Fairgrounds—lunch time.

Hundreds of hungry businessmen and women filed into the massive ultraconservative, no frills dining room.  Long tables were set and bowls of steaming hot rice and unidentifiable meat in a broth were served by androgynous wait staff sporting bowl haircuts and grey Maoist uniforms.  Hot tea accompanied everything, as usual.

As we wound our way through the streets, back to the Dang Fang Hotel, I couldn’t help but observe the distinguished showroom salesmen riding their bikes like children.  The sound of old-fashioned bicycle bells permeated the air as they pedaled their way from the fair.  We began mulling over the morning prices in our room when we spotted a bugging devise planted in one of the lamps.  Those innocent smiling salesmen had a one-up on us, spying on their foreign buyers.  (Although, it could have just been the government).

The afternoon found us giddy with delight!  In each showroom we burst open boxes of treasures, one more beautiful than the next.  Figures and flowers delicately carved in beautiful stone: rose quartz, amber, crystal, malachite, jade, ivory.  The salesmen put a chalked symbol on the boxes of our choice and our interpreter guaranteed us that this simple chalk mark was enough information to get us our chosen pieces shipped back to our home in St. Louis.

Before we left St. Louis, we anticipated our concerns about the strange food we would encounter in China.  As a precaution, we packed some old fashioned American staples to tie us over when we couldn’t indulge in monkey brains or snake soup: tuna, peanut butter, and dried fruits. One night I awoke to munching sounds.  I turned my flashlight onto a large rodent perched on the desk at the foot of our bed.  He was resting comfortably on his haunches all the while grasping my saltine crackers with his two front paws, nibbling away with what appeared to be a smile on his face.

I shook Charlie from a sound sleep and asked “Do mice climb into beds?”

He rolled over and replied, “if they are tired they will!”

We did receive some wonderful information from an Italian jeweler who said, if you ever come across any antique sterling silver jewelry, buy as much as you can get.  Sure enough, one afternoon while Charlie was buying some magnificent gold-plated sterling-silver horse figurines, I wandered to the back of the showroom and found boxes of antique Chinese jewelry that had been looted from burial grounds. Each piece had the authenticated red wax seal affixed to it, indicating that the pieces were over 100 years old.  We bought the whole lot.

Our week in Quang Chow went by fast, but we for sure put in our reservations to return the next year.  As it turned out we came back the next five years, though on the 5th trip back to the Quang Chow Fair we were saddened by the drastic changes that took place.  No more bicycles with their tinkling bells filling the streets.  Instead, traffic jams of sooty automobiles clogged the roads.  The Dang Fang Hotel turned into a Las Vegas Emporium, complete with crystal chandeliers and flocked wall covering.   The waitress’ in the gaudy dining room had permed hair and wore hot-pink satin uniforms.  And in place of delicate hand painted Chinese landscape paintings hung wide-eyed knock-offs of Keane paintings.

Thirty years after our first trip to China, Charlie and I had the thrill of taking our whole family: our two married children and our four grandchildren.  It was 2008, the year China hosted the Olympics.  We walked hand in hand, climbing the Great Wall together.  On the hillside a giant sign embodied all of the change . . . One World, One Dream.