|With my interpreter Cheng Hongbao.|
The First Visit.
I first went to China in the summer of 1983. I was living in Birmingham, half a mile or so from where I had been born and, despite several attempts to escape, it seemed as though my fate was inextricably bound up in the Midlands. I had taken, idly, to wondering whether there might be a greater world rather than industrial cities and people who thought that those from a different town were foreigners but I had little proof that it might be true. I was breakfast presenter at the local BBC radio station interviewing people about local council committees, ageing hamster support groups and strange and original diseases and, at the ripe old age of 27, my family were starting to assume that I was seriously on the shelf
I was visiting the family home one Sunday to be fuelled and watered for the coming week when my father asked me if I wanted to go to China.
He, himself, had been travelling there, on and off, for seven years already, chasing steam engines. At that time, China was still manufacturing them with the inescapable logic that they were cheap, the land had plenty of coal and nobody gave a toss about pollution. PBW was a railway author and photographer who had already written and published more than 50 books and had spent much of his life working for steam preservation. It would be fair to say that he was obsessed — and for that he always blamed his nanny who would leave him in his pram on the platform of the local station while she was being romanced by the stationmaster.
He was in his own league as a train spotter. Where other people hung around railways noting down numbers, PBW bought the train.
We owned three full-sized efforts at one point as well as numerous models, paintings, train sets and regalia. Once, during a posh wedding we went to during my teens I confused a whole bunch of rather upper-class people who had been gazing at me suspiciously over their teeth. They had been talking about somebody or other's castle. I naturally assumed that they were talking about GWR engines.
'Oh really?' I said. 'We've got two. Clun and Thornbury.'
Which went down like a lead balloon.
This railway mania was not so much an obsession as a way of life. Once, after what looked, on the surface, to be another exciting holiday abroad, but was really a week of chasing steam engines, my mother said, ruefully, that she now knew every station ladies lavatory in Europe.
PBW's achievements included founding the Birmingham Railway Museum and presenting a BBC television programme called Railway Roundabout. From both of these he had cupboards full of films and soundtracks of favourite locomotives. It took me some time to realise why I was to sleep so well overnight on the Chinese trains until I realised that, as a baby, I had been lulled into slumber, more often than not, by the distant sound of Dad's tape recordings of Clun Castle climbing Hatton Bank.
When I was a child I was probably the only hope of sanity that my mother possessed. Nevertheless, Christmases and birthdays were just as likely to be marked with a new clockwork steam engine than a doll (for which, in retrospect, I am eternally grateful). It’s fair to say, however, that my engines weren’t lucky ones. For some reason, they always seemed to be the ones which were inexplicably involved in exciting train crashes when my brother Michael had friends to play.
Michael was, and still is, equally-obsessed and he and PBW travelled the world together, bringing back strange souvenirs and thousands of pictures which punctuated Christmases and weekends with slide-shows attended by strange, rather silent men with badly-matching clothes who only rose from their everyday torpor into spasms of enthusiasm when viewing something made out of metal with smoke belching out of its chimney.
Then tragedy struck: Michael became interested in girls. More to the point, he got married and started to travel with his wife instead of his father. It was a little like watching Puff the Magic Dragon drooping into his cave when his little playmate left. PBW found other friends to travel with, of course, but no one he could boss around quite as successfully as family.
I was sensible to realise that this fanaticism could be useful. At journalism college, we had to write a thesis on any subject and my History of Clun Castle got top marks thanks to PBW’s photographs, my mother’s typing, facts and figures from staff at the railway museum (where the engine lived) and intricate diagrams from friends of my brother’s who didn’t get to meet a lot of girls while train-spotting on railway platforms.
PBW was into China like a shot the moment that it opened up to the West. Somehow, within three or four visits, he had become involved with a twin-town project between Birmingham and Changchun, a car-manufacturing city in Manchura. He had even become known as the ‘wise, white-haired, old foreign devil’ and was fast friends with the China Railway Publishing House for whom he wrote a short treatease on steam engines. There was always a slight bone of contention in that China wanted to focus on the new and PBW wanted to focus on the old but everyone involved was quite politically astute enough to make sure that their bread was buttered on both sides.
There was a catch to this ‘would you like to visit China?’ offer of course. It seemted that Changchun needed a sort of ‘tester ambassadorial’ visit before either side would commit to sending or receiving an official delegation and signing any impressive documents. So I was to be a sniffer dog in a minefield. But that was okay; I could take a tape machine with me and make a series of programmes for BBC WM while I was there and there would be two birds flat out on the floor from one stone.
So, there I was, standing rather doubtfully at Beijing airport, peering out at a dim, cold September sky and some rather dusty trees and wondering idly where my luggage might be.
Dad and I had flown out to China together but, on this particular occasion, he was going in one direction and I, attended by a gaggle of Chinese 'minders,' was going in another. This was part of the deal. PBW wanted to go train spotting in the green and fertile south but the Chinese wanted 'an official visit' to the city of Changchun in Manchuria.
The reason for that was simple. On his travels through China PBW had set up a town twinning plan between Birmingham and Changchun and he had been invited to go there for the fifth or sixth time on an official 'thank you and can we show you off to the city?' visit. Instead, he was going off to have some fun and I was going to represent him.
Still, it seemed a fair deal. An all-expenses paid holiday to an exotic location where I would never have gone alone. I should have known better.
We waited at the airport for over an hour while my suitcase was discovered to be visiting Hong Kong for a mini-break in the sunshine. In the meantime, I tried to get my head around the names of some of the posse who were attending us. To my virgin eyes, the Chinese men were virtually indistinguishable from each other and the chorus of variable English welcoming my father as an 'Old Friend' and all the back-slapping seemed impossibly alien. I was new to them, and a woman to boot, so I did not automatically receive 'Old Friend' status. I supposed that probably the best I could hope for was to become 'The curly-haired, unsuitably-dressed, slow-on-the-uptake, big-nosed female Foreign Devil.'
Dad and I had flown out to China together but, in a couple of days’ time, he was going in one direction to play with trains and I was heading north to Changchun in Manchuria to be ‘the Princess Diana of Birmingham.’
My own personal interpreter was to be Chen Hongbao and he was possibly the most intimidating of all of the welcoming group. In those days I did not understand the importance of 'face' to the Chinese and poor Chen had already lost face in front of this strange, foreign woman because her baggage had not arrived. He obviously felt humiliated and upset despite my assurances that I could manage perfectly well overnight. Half the airport had to be laid by the ears before we were allowed to leave. At least it gave me time to work out some distinguishing marks between those who were to be my personal companions for the next few days. Chen, the interpreter, was short and stocky with a shock of vertical black hair, thick horn-rimmed spectacles and an ever-present sleeveless grey cardigan. With him were Mr. Lu, the photographer from the China Railway Publishing House who was short and stocky with a shock of black hair, and big horn-rimmed spectacles and a grey cardigan with sleeves and finally and Miss Lee (I never discovered what she did) who was short and stocky with a shock of black hair and slightly smaller horn-rimmed spectacles and wearing a grey cardigan. Only Chen spoke any English, the others just nodded and smiled.
In the end, they all assured me that my suitcase would be found and it would be at the hotel just as soon as I was.
Which it wasn't.
Dad went ahead in car no. 1 and various officials and I travelled behind with Chen, Lu and Li in car no. 2. I spent the journey into town expecting the view to be exotic which was a bit daft as very few cities have dramatically beautiful roads to the airport. It was grey concrete all the way. Chen talked to me constantly, asking questions about Britain and pointing out landmarks of alleged interest in the sea of grey around us. The car we travelled in was spick and span and looked about 20 years old and the surroundings too looked like the worst of the British1960s high-rise buildings. I had forgotten that most of ‘old China’ had been destroyed in the cultural revolution. We had left England at the time when autumn is at its most splendid and the contrast was almost painful. What trees there were drab and dusty and there was no exotic foliage to be seen.
Our hotel was, logically, called the Peking Hotel (this was before everyone returned to calling it Beijing). It was large and looked impressive with red banners hanging over the great entrance and the steps leading up to it. Inside, it was huge and there was enough paperwork to fill in to keep Chen and PBW busy for a whole ten minutes so I could look around followed only by Lu and Li. The hotel shop was a riot of colour and excitement, filled with bright kites and Chinese silks but before I could throw myself into the fray I was rounded up and clucked at and herded up a set of brown stairs to the first floor and my room.
Back then, there was nothing much more dismal than the corridor of a Chinese hotel. It was dim and long and carpeted and painted in dull colours. From several of the rooms, which had their doors ajar, I could hear the blare of Chinese television and, as we passed, there were glimpses of businessmen drinking tea, smoking and watching TV in their underwear.
Then it was my room and I was bustled in, shown how to work the TV and left ‘to relax’ for half an hour before supper. The room had its own bathroom and the water was hot. This was a kind introduction and fed me with an illusion that was comforting if short-lived.
I sat on the lumpy, green-covered bed and contemplated my fate. The room was full of dark, painted wood and dim lighting and the view was non-existent. The television yawped out the Chinese equivalent to the Ying Tong Song no matter what channel I tried and when I turned it off, the same sound echoed clearly from the room next door. Suitcaseless, I did what I could and thanks to Dad’s long-held policy of carrying a sponge-bag and spare underwear in hand luggage it was a lot better than it could have been. By the time my three attendants knocked briskly at my door, I was, at least, presentable.
The main dining room was packed with Chinese people audibly enjoying their food and the first surprise was that our Chinese friends did not sit with us. This similarity to a Jewish Orthodox family not eating with those of other religions was strangely shocking, but PBW was there to wean me into the delights of Chinese dining. He told me that Chen would always translate the menu for me when he was staying in the same hotel but that there would be many times when he would be lodging elsewhere and I would be eating entirely alone. To help me with this, he produced a tiny but extremely thick Chinese-English phrasebook with a flourish. This tome kept me entertained in a horrifying kind of way for the rest of the trip. Goodness knows who had done the translations but either they were extracting the Michael from the Chinese or they genuinely loathed the Brits.
It referred to all British people as Mr. or Mrs. Boring and it lambasted them with criticisms and condemnation. ‘This behaviour is insulting to the great people of China,’ it said on the first page I turned to. ‘If you are not prepared to honour our ways, why have you come to our glorious country?’
I read with a mixture of fascination and disbelief to find that ‘the working people in the capitalist countries are living a hard life’ and that the Chinese ‘do not think much of money because we work for the revolution and not for money.’
Suitably chastened, I moved on to the section where Mrs. Boring lost her handbag and was told, ‘You should not have left it unattended. It is your own fault.’
Somewhere, lost in the barrage of ‘We are extraordinarily patient and you are imbeciles with big noses’ there was a section on food. I wondered just how hungry I would have to be to be brave enough to look for it.
That night I ate real Chinese food for the first time. It was simple chopped up pieces of meat with bones, pak choi, bean curd in soy sauce and white rice. It was simple and fairly tasty but nothing at all like anything I’d had from the takeaway at home. To drink there was beer or tea.
There was no hot water by the time I got back to my room so a bath was out of the question and I slept badly in rough sheets, naked ... and feeling very alone, frightened, cold and vulnerable in a very foreign world.