24/09/2021

China

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My Far East activity also begged the question as to what might we do in China? Richard published several magazines with an Irish-American publisher, Pat McGovern. His International Data Corporation was huge in business and computer publishing, it still is today. Pat had followed on from Nixon’s Ping-Pong initiatives and founded China Computerworld newspaper, published in Beijing in Mandarin. It had a print run of 140,000 copies and each was said to have had 1,000 readers before the ink finally wore off!

Pat advised that he could effect introductions to the right people in China if we could gain the China rights for Sinclair. Clive had made several attempts in China without success and with Pat McGovern in our background he readily signed for us to have the distribution rights for China – at a stroke awarding us a third of the world!

Pat arranged for Saiman Hui to be our guide, meeting us, walking us through the Hong Kong border and taking us on to Huizhou, Guangzhou (aka Canton), and then on to Shanghai and Beijing.

Huizhou was a small cattle town gathered around a station and a square, a particularly stunning fact when you see the city has blossomed into a second Hong Kong. We were advised that we were only the seventh and eighth Westerners who had visited the city since the country’s liberalisation. We realised nobody stopped us walking around freely, so we did. We caused absolute consternation, particularly Richard for his fair hair. Crowds gathered and individuals almost fell from their cycles in surprise.

Huizhou West Lake

 

Our hotel was beside a lake famous throughout China, it still appears on many UK Chinese restaurant calendars. One morning we could not get out of our chalet-like room because a water buffalo was scratching itself against the door. But the real concern was a big hole in the bathroom that was our toilet, you were expected to squat over it. However, all around the edge were some pretty large droppings, rodent not human! We both provoked a state of constipation rather than risk our wedding tackle over this deep scary hole.

Early on we had a major meal with local dignitaries like the mayor and the head of the economic committee and were introduced to various local delicacies – tree fungus soup and a deboned whole chicken that had been baked in salt. There was a meat that they tried to describe with hand gestures which we translated as a fish or a lizard but they said that it was neither. We concluded it was probably dog and they were being polite, pandering to our Western beliefs – if it was, it tasted a lot like chicken!

They proved to be very sensible people, they got up when the sun rose, and went to bed when it set – but this was at 7pm while we were there. We just couldn’t sleep at that time of the evening so each day we scored a bottle of Chinese brandy and, safely inside our mosquito-net, and well away from that hole in the ground, played backgammon until late.

We were there for almost a week and concluded this must be how China was, a system that kept everyone occupied within a sort of feudal system, with a few leaders now beginning to espouse Western ways. We felt a missionary zeal in answering in full their questions about our way of life.

So we were almost angry when we travelled on to Canton (Guangzhou) and checked in to the White Swan hotel. It was completely Westernised. In the lobby, you walked through a gap in a waterfall to enter a Western-style buffet restaurant. We challenged the Head of the Economic Committee, who had been with us in both places, asking how both situations could exist so close to each other. He spouted some party-line gumph about ‘Of course we all aspire to this, but we have to move slowly.’ Our first negative conclusion.

Me, Richard and Mayor of Huizhou

 

When we reached Shanghai we stayed at the luxurious Jing Jiang Hotel, in a modern apartment-style room. We learned that this city was the fashion capital of China. The downtown was very European in architectural terms, even boasting a replica Big Ben atop the Custom House, apparently still the tallest clock in Asia.

We met a Professor from Shanghai University who was extremely interesting because it became obvious that his knowledge of the West was solely from reading. He had a few evident errors or naïvetés. For example, he proclaimed he had an approach that would enable him to kiss all Western women. He would put some mistletoe in front of a mirror, because our women were all so vain that they would soon stand before the mirror and then he had the right to kiss them. Where do you start to unpick that book-learned belief?

One night we walked over to the associated Jing Jiang club.  It was remarkable.  It had a 10-pin bowling alley which had been put there for President Nixon’s visit, his team stayed in that part of the hotel and they had signed the Shanghai Communiqué here in 1972, this pledged the United States and China would work towards a normalization of relations.

In one room there were four snooker tables that had been there since the Japanese invasion in the 1930s. The baize was grey, had lost all of its nap, the rubber in the cushes had become solid. There were no longer any lines or dots, and whatever angle you hit your shot it came off the cush at right angles with a dull doink sound.

Even more bizarre, was to go down to the restaurant to find a wizened old Chinese providing the music, he sat on a stool with a guitar. Wearing collar and tie, his shirt was many sizes too large for his stringy thin neck. The overall effect was that he looked like a tortoise or turtle, yet was playing Jambalaya (On the Bayou).

We were much delayed when flying on to Beijing and so I actually read the CAAC in-flight magazine which had some unique articles. It talked about an air hostess who had worked sixteen hours (I hoped this did not extend to pilots!) yet was still caring for her passengers. She is pictured with one flyer being sick into a bag!

They had also gathered a montage of letters from happy customers, I’m not sure why I read the one in English in the foreground, but I did. It started with the comment ‘I have never flown any airline that was anything like CAAC’, they had obviously translated that far and considered this was a happy punter, hence its pride of place atop the montage. But the letter goes on to deride a number of factors experienced, it was clearly a letter of complaint not a commendation.

Formal Pic with China Computerworld team

Arriving late to the Beijing Hotel, late for China at 8pm, we found their restaurants were closed. We persisted in our complaint, so that the reception team let us into the kitchens where we raided a fridge to get some over-the-top artificial-cream slice.

When I got to my room I made a stupid mistake, putting the plate on my bedside table and going off to see the floor-boy about arranging my laundry. When I got back the dessert was absolutely sprinkled with cockroaches.

I made my second mistake when I tried to flush the whole cake down my en-suite loo. We were there for four nights and no matter how much toilet paper (or other materials) I placed on top of it, it still floated to the top with the cockroaches stubbornly clinging on – it’s not just a nuclear attack that they can survive!

The water level was quite high and so if I sat on the seat it would have been only an inch or so from my operative parts, so I developed a sort of ‘crouching tiger’ stance over this not-so ‘hidden dragon’. I think I might have preferred taking my chances with Huizhou’s dark hole.

We made another schoolboy-error while in Beijing. We learned that the Friendship Store, a place authorised to sell goods to foreigners, was two stops by bus, so hopped onto one and found it and shopped ‘til we dropped.

But we hadn’t asked where the bus stop was for our return journey and of course all the signage was in Mandarin. We found no-one prepared to admit they spoke English, no-one wanted to be seen talking with foreigners on the street. So we had to walk back with all our purchases, fortunately one was an expanding suitcase so we wheeled it back.

With Nigel of Sinclair at The Great Wall

The Managing Director of Sinclair, Nigel Searle, joined us for the Beijing leg, which was now scheduled to be a contract-signing. An interesting guy Nigel had earned money from his backgammon in the States and set about restructuring Richard’s and my understanding of how to win – I still use elements of his approach today. However, he was not yet inured to Chinese brandy and so we successfully got him pissed enough to beat him on the eve of our long bus trip to the Great Wall and Ming Valley. He didn’t look well all day.

Saiman’s story had come out during the trip. We initially thought he was part of China’s monitoring system, and that’s why we kept walking out without him as some sort of overt sign to confirm that we were not being constrained. We soon learned he was independent and very keenly wanting to assist. He had been in the People’s Army, posted to the Indian border to interrogate Indians (in English) who crossed into China. His wife Peidei Zheng was on China’s national television teaching English, we met her when we got to Beijing.

Peidei had been at Beijing University while Saiman was posted on the Indian border, and during the Cultural Revolution she was thrown into jail. Saiman, wearing his army uniform, had travelled to the prison and under the guise of taking her off for questioning got her out.

They later had two children when the prevailing cultural ethos, monitored by the Granny police, was to have just one. But they had obtained a chop through the back-door on a document to excuse this. Back-door chops greased much of Chinese activity.

Saiman became so cross with the Ministry of Electronics guys that they got up and left. Saiman explained that he had told them to get on with things, we were important people who had no time to waste. They came back thirty minutes later with a contract typed in Mandarin Chinese. It set out what we had been discussing, that the Ministry would buy 500,000 complete knockdown kits of the ZX Spectrum at an agreed price.

But most significantly, it agreed these would all stay in China, when the usual deals back then were usually that the principal must re-export a high percentage of the units constructed in China.

The first step was to be a test production run for Sinclair to check the quality of their work.

FT report of our China deal
ASIDE: we got several translators to provide a cassette, interpreting that Mandarin contract into English, and we ended up with two handwritten versions. I framed the original and put it in my office. There had been several hand-written changes we inserted. When I saw someone looking at the contract in my office, I delighted in pointing at the changes and saying ‘As you can see, we couldn’t let them get away with that clause!’

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