In Wake of Turmoil, China Still Holds Surprises

Mehren is on leave to write two books for Doubleday. Her husband, Fox Butterfield, is the author of "China: Alive in the Bitter Sea" (Times Books, hard cover, and Bantam, paperback)

At a dinner party in Hong Kong on the eve of our departure, friends expressed surprise that we were venturing into China so soon after what they euphemistically called "the trouble" in Beijing.

Old China hands, our hosts had watched in horror the steady escalation of tensions. They shuddered at the May 20 declaration of martial law and grieved at the June 3 massacre in Tian An Men Square.

Now, less than three weeks after the explosion of violence in China, they marveled that we were preparing to saunter in like a couple of wide-eyed tourists.

"Americans are leaving China," one friend reminded us. "Are you sure this is the right time to go in?"

He had a point, certainly. U.S. citizens living in Beijing were evacuated within days of the massacre. And the State Department had strongly cautioned against travel in China. On my flight to Hong Kong I met several people whose long-planned tours of China had turned into hastily planned tours of Thailand.

A Naive Jaunt

But what we were proposing was neither a challenge to American or Chinese authorities, nor a naive jaunt to a combat zone. Fox, my husband, had lived in China some years earlier, before we were married. We'd talked since we met about traveling in China together. Now that we were in Hong Kong we were determined not to miss the opportunity.

My schedule was tight, so instead of traveling all the way to Beijing we decided to visit Guangdong, the province once known as Canton. Guangzhou, the provincial capital, is an easy train ride, less than three hours, from downtown Hong Kong.

Through a travel agent we got visas effortlessly. No one even blinked at the notion of two Americans traveling to China.

"This car is going to be very smoky," Fox warned as we settled into our seats on the train. It was a reasonable assumption. Many Chinese are enthusiastic cigarette consumers, and in the front of the car were three huge, multicolor ads for American cigarette brands.

But directly above one of the signs was a much smaller announcement: "No smoking."

That was the first of our surprises.

"In the old days," Fox said, "you would never have seen a sign like that."

Agricultural Statistics

In those same "old" days, maybe seven years before this expedition, the loudspeakers on the train probably would have blared communist propaganda, Fox said, or the latest agricultural statistics.

Instead--surprise No. 2--what we heard was the Chinese version of elevator music. And it wasn't even that Chinese. The first tune was a souped-up version of Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called To Say I Love You."

The train passed through Hong Kong's New Territories--a lush, subtropical region marked by dense forests of papaya trees. In their midst sprang "instant" cities, high-rise communities constructed abruptly to house upwards of 200,000 people in a single resettlement.

Bright patches of laundry of every size and color made a kind of abstract painting of the windows and balconies. But I wondered: In such steamy weather, how did the clothes ever dry?

Crossing the Border

Crossing the border at Lo Wu, the last vestige of Hong Kong, we entered Shenzhen, our first taste of China. As an indication of the expansion of Guandong's population, Shenzhen has grown from about 20,000 in 1980 to more than a million today. In turn, the province has swollen to 100 million.

Years ago, Fox said, we would have had to get out and go through customs and a rigorous luggage search. The process took so long that train passengers planned to have a leisurely lunch while they were waiting. Now all we did was fill out a short form to present to authorities in Guangzhou.

"Your first Chinese guards," Fox said, and pointed to two men in uniforms the color of split-pea soup. They looked young and watchful.

Around them a swarm of peasant workers in conical rattan hats and blue uniforms were clearing the land for more housing and industrial facilities.

Pink Hibiscus

Where shimmering green rice paddies had been stripped for new development, rich red soil peeked through. Giant pink hibiscus blossoms clung to the trees that had not been felled for construction.

Our friends in Hong Kong were not generous in their descriptions of Guangzhou. It's an unattractive, dirty, industrial town, they said. One guest called Guangzhou "the Buffalo of China." But another said that was unfair, that it was much more like Dayton.

But struggling for a U.S. comparison, Fox and I found ourselves thinking more of some place like Galveston, Tex.

Muggy and congested, the subtropical metropolis of Guangzhou is the most important industrial and foreign trade center in south China.

At least 100 U.S. companies maintain operations in Guangzhou, and the city's Chinese Export Commodities Fair attracts exhibitors and traders from around the world. Cargo vessels clog the Pearl River, a waterway that bears more resemblance to unset concrete than to a glistening gemstone.

Trading Post

Tribal people settled in the Guangzhou region more than 2,000 years ago. During the Han Dynasty (221-206 BC), numbers of Han Chinese were rounded up and sent to settle the area. It became an active trading post, known then as Panyu. In 714 the Tang Dynasty officially sanctioned Guangzhou as a foreign trade center.

Now Guangzhou and its surrounding province are so thriving that they account for one-half of all of China's foreign investments. The province manufactures one-half of the total value of all exports from all of China.

It was Lin Zexu, Guangzhou's town commissioner, who set off the infamous Opium War of 1839-1842 by dumping 30,000 chests of opium into the Pearl River. After the second Opium War, of 1856-1860, portions of the city were parceled out to foreign states. The city fell into poverty and decay.

By 1927 Guangzhou was back on the map as the site of a bloody campaign launched by Chiang Kai-shek to exterminate the Communists. Guangzhou was important in that dispute because four years earlier, rebels led by Mao Zedong had taken over a 14th-Century Confucian temple to establish the Institute of the Peasant Movement.

Poignant Quality

Just weeks after the recent violence in Tian An Men Square, the photographs of young, earnest revolutionaries hanging on a wall at the institute assumed a particularly poignant quality.

Killed in their struggle to overthrow unjust landlords and other agents of what they saw as unjust authority, these soldiers of the revolution died young, bearing eerie parallel to those who fell to army troops in Beijing.

So here, oddly, was another on our growing list of China surprises. We had expected to find many reminders of the strife between students in the Chinese democracy movement and leaders of the communist regime. We would not have been shocked to find troops roaming the streets.

We imagined that one day after the appointment of Jiang Zemin as the new Communist Party leader, we might have seen posters or billboards singing his praise.

We were prepared for loudspeakers filling the air with truths of the party. And we expected Chinese citizens to be wary of foreigners. In the face of strict government crackdowns, we assumed we would have no casual contact with ordinary citizens.

Peasant Movement

Instead, it seemed that we were the only visitors who lingered in front of the portraits of the heroes of the early battles between Communists and Nationalists. At the entry booth to the Institute of the Peasant Movement, reproductions of these pictures were all but hidden from view.

But prominently displayed were several color photographs of sultry Hong Kong movie starlets. The movie star pictures sold briskly, a clerk told us.

In Guangzhou it was business as usual. Streets were crowded, commerce was brisk. The only genuine propaganda poster we saw urged family unity and showed a brush painting of a little Chinese girl. It was about as politically compelling as a U.S. clothing ad.

In the city's Culture Park, a dreary facility that provides recreation ranging from opera to table tennis, we did hear messages coming from the loudspeakers. They were announcing a small circus that would arrive soon.

Two teen-age girls were playing table tennis. "Who's ahead?" Fox asked in Mandarin. Smart alecks, like many teen-agers the world around, they retorted: "Who wants to know?"--then broke up at their own brazenness.

'Change Money'

Far from heeding government warnings on improper contact with foreigners, we were approached regularly. "Change money?" "Change money?" was the usual salutation from Chinese who were eager to trade in our foreign exchange coupons. Their forwardness reflected, we thought, major disdain for official proscriptions on such activities.

Partly because we were by then viewing ourselves as amateur anthropologists, kind of a husband-and-wife version of Margaret Mead, and partly because we love to dance, we decided to take in a Chinese disco.

The cover charge was steep, about half of what an average Chinese worker makes in a month. But the dance floor was packed with young Chinese in up-to-the-minute leggings and miniskirts. When we left at 1 in the morning the dancers were still going strong.

Guangzhou offers little pretense of being a tourist town. It has the inevitable jade and ivory carving studios, but even these are more of an excuse for commerce than an occasion for aesthetic appreciation. Several monuments memorialize martyrs from various centuries.

The Five Goats

A statue in Yuexiu Park portrays the five goats that are said to have arrived on the backs of celestial beings when the city was founded thousands of years ago.

Shamian Island, once the enclave of French and British traders and diplomats, now houses tennis courts, a popular park and the luxurious White Swan Hotel.

Guangzhou's Huaisheng Mosque was built in 627 and is the oldest in China. Zhenhailou, a pagoda-style temple built in 1380, offers green tea to those who survive the climb to the top of its five stories.

But once I had looked at all the buildings, I was determined to see another kind of Chinese landmark. The vast Guangzhou Zoo is one of China's four major zoological gardens. Miles of tropical gardens appear to be untended, growing over the chicken-wire cages that house many animals.

I was by myself on this outing, and without a map and without a mastery of Chinese, the search for a particular animal turned into a true scavenger's hunt, for most of the directional signs featured words, not pictures of the animals.

Exhausted Animals

Things in China have a way of looking instantly old. A cab driver boasted that an elevated roadway was just a year old, but already it was cracking, more like an ancient Roman aqueduct than a recently built highway.

And so it was also at the zoo, where even the animals looked exhausted. Monkeys who, had they read their contracts, would have known they were supposed to be bouncing and hilarious, sat on their rocks and stared vacantly. A red fox looked like a rug.

But at last I reached my goal. The creature in question, a genuine Chinese giant panda, obviously knew his job, for he was strutting back and forth, occasionally performing such dazzling feats as scratching his nose. Along with a cadre of 5-year-olds, I gazed in wonderment.

Our trip out of China was as uneventful as our entry. We decided to take the hydrofoil, a sleek vessel that speeds down the Pearl River to Hong Kong. With a few minutes to spare, we grabbed a meal in a proletarian restaurant at the port that was as good as any three-star meal I have eaten anywhere.

There was no baggage inspection on our way out. A customs officer stamped our visas with barely a glance. We took seats by the window and watched as China's shoreline receded. There were no patriotic anthems on the loudspeaker on this voyage, either. This time, it was Barbra Streisand.

Guangzhou is accessible by train, boat or airplane. Foreigners who travel here are likely to stay either in the Garden Hotel, the China Hotel or the White Swan. All are luxury class and priced accordingly.

The Garden Hotel boasts an excellent restaurant specializing in delicate Cantonese cuisine that bears no resemblance to the sweet-and-sour glop many Americans associate with that term.

The China Hotel has a vast, showy lobby; a trendy discotheque; a mini-mall with fashions suited for the discotheque and a bowling alley.

The White Swan has two swimming pools, a health center that includes squash courts, a Benetton shop and an Elizabeth Arden salon.

Along with a Western-style coffee shop that overlooks the murky Pearl River, "The Swan"--as travelers refer to the hotel where Deng Xiaopeng once stayed--also features an ice cream parlor that serves Meadow Gold ice cream, plus a Japanese restaurant, two Chinese restaurants and two discotheques.

In the Eastern Bloc, travelers may be surprised to find a uniformed "concierge" on each floor of guest rooms. In fact, this person--who cheerily calls for the elevator whenever a guest is approaching--is in charge of noticing just who is and is not coming and going within the hotel.

These young men and women may speak limited English, but on the first floor the staff at the information, reception and cashier's desks speak English.

Most of the table waitresses in restaurants also speak English, as do government employees in the post office (also in the hotel) and travel office (ditto).

The white-uniformed doormen appear eager to show off their English, and will make sure that a taxi driver knows exactly where a guest wants to go. The White Swan has its own fleet of taxis ready at all times. Hotel personnel can also arrange for tours of the city and the surrounding area.

Rooms are comfortable but not lavish, in proper haute socialist fashion. One wonders, though, whether Chairman Mao, who seemed to have something to say on every possible topic, would have chosen to comment on the complimentary bubble bath.

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