We didn’t stay long in Guangzhou before flying to Beijing. In those days the domestic planes were flown by air force pilots so we shot along the runway at an amazing speed and walloped up into the sky so fast we all thought we were heading off to the moon. Similarly our landing at Beijing Airport was just as speedy but we did arrive safely, much to our relief after this white-knuckle flight.
We stayed in the Peking Hotel, a very posh place, where we had the delight of watching Senator Ted Kennedy strutting around with his entourage – nothing like a US Senator expecting his due from the minions around him! The hotel was on the main boulevard and was centrally heated, a fact we really appreciated as it was bitterly cold in Beijing and we’d flown out of Australia in mid-summer.
The Beijing Hotel was also handy for shopping in the many little outlets we found in the old centres of the capital city. I think we were lucky as I’ve read that many of these have now been bulldozed and replaced with modern buildings, so we had a chance to look at old China before the new appeared.
I do feel nostalgic for the rather mysterious places we saw except that the people there were obviously living in poverty with very basic living structures. It’s easy for us in the West to be romantic and regret the loss of historic housing – except we didn’t live in them with their overcrowding, poverty, lack of sanitation and dirt alleyways.
We were there in winter, and Beijing looked grey, foggy and rather austere, but incredibly busy. Tienanmen square was huge with sightseers from the provinces, but it was such a big space the people on it still looked quite sparse. But all around you could see the roads absolutely full of bicycles and very few vehicles. Cars in those days were mainly for official use, the traffic was utterly chaotic but somehow cyclists and drivers managed to mesh quite well together.
The Chairman Mao Mausoleum hadn’t been open long when we were in Beijing. Mao Zedong had died in 1976 and, although he wanted to be cremated, a decision was taken to build the Mausoleum in the middle of Tienanmen Square, with it being finished in early 1977.
I looked up the history of the Mausoleum on Wikipedia and was fascinated to find that it was a collective effort from around China:
“People throughout China were involved in the design and construction of the mausoleum, with 700,000 people from different provinces, autonomous regions, and nationalities doing symbolic voluntary labour.[ Materials from all over China were used throughout the building: granite from Sichuan province, porcelain plates from Guangdung province, pine trees from Yan’an in Shaanxi province, saw-wort seeds from the Tian Shan mountains in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, earth from quake-stricken Tangshan, colored pebbles from Nanjing, milky quartz from the Kunlun Mountains, pine logs from Jiangxi province, and rock samples from Mount Everest. Water and sand from the Taiwan Straits were also used to symbolically emphasize the People’s Republic of China’s claims over Taiwan”.
We were very lucky to be allowed to join the queue of those paying their respects to the embalmed figure of someone so respected and revered in China. There were long queues, people waited quietly and patiently, and it was quite awesome to finally enter the Mausoleum and see the transparent, crystal coffin with Mao Zedong’s embalmed figure inside. The Chinese people passed by the tomb with great respect and with many in tears as they paid their homage to a man who had helped establish the People Republic of China in 1949.
In the mornings you’d look out from the windows of the hotel onto cold, grey scenery enlivened by so many people practising Tai Chi on the streets. It was fascinating to see the slow, deliberate movements being performed by so many, and interesting that this was a very popular keep-fit exercise carried over from olden times. We also saw many practising Tai Chi in the mornings when we were staying in Shanghai.
We had the opportunity of visiting a farm just outside Beijing and it was a reminder of the feudal past of this huge nation. There were only dirt roads, very small houses, roofs covered with sweetcorn cobs drying out in the winter air, lots of geese, chickens and animals such as pigs. People were obviously poor as nation-building had really only begun in 1949 after the ravages of the war and Japanese occupation, plus the military action to oust the US-backed Chiang Kai-shek forces from the mainland. But wherever we went we were greeted with such warmth and friendship that my memories of my 1978 China visit remain a lovely memory for me. I might also mention the honesty – a couple of us left things behind in our hotels, but we’d find them turning up eventually wherever we’d moved to, having been forwarded from the previous hotel we’d stayed in.
We also visited the Forbidden City, a place of quite stunning beauty and art treasures. It’s hard to describe the splendour in which the old feudal leaders had lived – the Emperors with their huge wealth, courtiers, living in isolation from the peasants who weren’t allowed into this huge complex – hence the name “Forbidden City”. We saw a huge marble staircase which some poor sods had dragged hundreds of kilometres for it to be installed in what is the biggest palace complex in the world. I could go on and on about this place, because it’s absolutely staggering in its size, history and artistic wealth. I’ll just provide a link to a longer description in Wikipedia Wikipedia – Beijing’s Forbidden City.
We were given an extended history of the Forbidden City by one of the historians responsible for the complex in one of the very ornate rooms. As we were given details of how the complex had come into being, the creation of its treasures and structural wealth, we were given the ubiquitous jasmine tea to drink while we listened. We clattered away with the cups and saucers, nonchalantly filling our cups from the very graceful teapots which were topped up continuously by helpers – that is, until the historian casually mentioned that the tea service we were banging around so unceremoniously was around three hundred years old. There was instant silence and we all froze, suddenly holding the cups with both hands, putting them very carefully on the saucers, and then giving away the tea-drinking in seconds!
I almost forgot our visit to the Great Wall of China – absolutely fantastic to walk along this historic edifice, to look at the length of the wall extending far into the distance and know that we had just a very small glimpse of this amazing construction. It was also a bit humiliating – you don’t realise how steep the wall is until you start climbing up the slope, so there we were struggling along, only to be overtaken with great ease by obviously older men in the uniform of the People’s Liberation Army cruising past us, along with other older Chinese men and women who left us in their wake! And the ache in the back of my legs the next day was excruciating as we’d been leaning at such an angle to walk up the wall!!!
From Beijing we flew to Dalian, a fishing town, which I really don’t remember much about. I do know it was perishing cold but again the hospitality was extraordinary, as it was wherever we went. People seemed delighted we were offering the hand of friendship and they were only too willing to return that friendship. I did have lots of photos but got rid of most of my whole collection – family, holidays, etc., – after we’d done some travelling, lugged big albums around with us on our various moves, and because I got fed up when my family back in the UK indicated they didn’t want to meet me when I went back for a holiday in 1994.
I will also add that the Chinese people have a wonderful, earthy sense of humour. We were prepared to be very serious and respectful as, really, when we visited China it was only just opening to the world and no-one knew much about it. But the Chinese we met loved jokes, would roar with laughter when we told them jokes and were endlessly amused by our gallivanting around the various places we visited.
We flew back to Beijing (again with flights resembling fighter jet landings and takeoffs!), and after a short stay, set off for Shanghai. It may be a fascinating city but I can’t say much about the place, because I got bronchitis quite badly so ended up in my hotel bed for most of our stay. I was treated by local doctors who provided me with antibiotics but also very interesting Chinese medicines, lots of packets of various herbs in tiny pillules which I had to swallow by the dozen. It was very effective as I was up and about pretty quickly, in time for us to set out to Shandong province and visit an oil field where we met a women’s brigade.
In my next post I’ll cover the ‘burbs, so to speak: Shandong, Changsha in Hunan Province, and finally Guangzhou again.
There are two backdrops to the situation in my home as a child, teenager and adult. The first is the underlying effect of domestic violence in my mother’s family. I adored my maternal grandparents because I knew, when I stayed with them, I was loved unconditionally. I’d spend hours wandering on my own in the big garden, the fields beyond the garden, and the small copse just below the house beside us which was the last along the lane. This was Blackheath where a bit of paradise was tucked away down this lane and I used to step outside the back gate, listen to the wood pigeons cooing and feel absolutely happy in my solitude and among nature.
So it was a heck of a shock when my mum told me, when she was on holiday in Australia in early 1975, that my grandfather used to beat my grandmother when my mum, brother and sister were kids, as he was a sweet old man who spoiled me no end. Mum said the kids used to run when he was in a rage to get away from his violence but my grandmother copped it the worst. I guess they must have made their peace in their middle and old age as they seemed happy together as I was growing up.
My mum did think that my grandmother had intended shooting through to her mother in West Hartlepool, in the north-east of England, but changed her mind when mum said something to her – what it was is lost in the midst of time. But the effects passed down generations. My uncle beat my aunt and he also came close to beating my cousin so hard he could have inflicted serious injury had my father not stopped in. My aunt married a violent man – again there was some sort of violence between my aunt and uncle when they were staying with us, I remember the shouting and yelling, and again my father intervened with my aunt and uncle leaving the next day.
I guess my mother felt safe with my father as he didn’t indulge in physical violence. Instead he resorted to emotional abuse because if Mum crossed him in any way, he wouldn’t talk to her for a couple of weeks, just sent her to Coventry. I never realised this as they were good at keeping up a front at home, but she told me later when they’d emigrated to Australia in 1978 after I’d moved there in 1972.
As for me, Dad was a control freak as far as my whereabouts where concerned. I was kept close to home as a kid with curfews which earned me a big scolding if I came home a bit too late. Luckily Dad had no idea of how far I used to roam and the escapades I used to get up to once I was out of sight of our home. He used to try to steam roller me if I expressed opinions but, luckily for me, I found the courage to argue back. I know it’s made me very stubborn in my opinions, mainly because I felt so threatened by his overbearing behaviour. I’ve never handled bosses well either because anyone telling me what to do instantly puts my back up and I head out to do the opposite!
Dad was, to some extent, a psychic as he used to know what upset me and he’d go for my underbelly with his words. I remember once, after Mum had died, that he told me how she’d worried about my weight. It hurt me no end and I caught a look of malicious glee on Dad’s face as he knew he’d managed to stick the knife in and turn it. He’d praise other people around him knowing it hurt me that he never once had a good word for me. In all our life, he never hugged me or told he me loved me, and never gave me praise or approval. The only photo we ever had together was when he was finally in a nursing home, and the closest contact we had was when we had linked arms at my mother’s funeral and he squeezed my arm as her coffin began to roll behind the screen after the funeral service.
I’m doing a slight detour here from my next post about the counselling I received after my mother died, as I’m hopping back to my involvement in women’s liberation.
In 1975, my boyfriend at the time and I had decided to go back to the UK for a holiday but I changed my mind as I simply wasn’t interested in returning to England at all. I was fascinated by Australia, Asia and all things going on in this region of the world where I was now living.
So I took my share of our holiday money and put it towards my fare to Thailand and back when I was invited to act as Co-ordinator of the Secretariat of the Women’s Conference held by the Asian Students Association in Chiang Mai in November, 1975. The Women’s Conference was being held as part of activities in the United Nations’ International Women’s Year in 1975, and preceded the general conference of the ASA. There was a lot of political activism among Asian students in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand at that time as there was considerable repression in those countries.
I flew from Perth to Kuala Lumpur via Indonesia. We landed in Jakarta in what looked like cool weather, overcast skies, rain – only to enter a truly oppressive sauna when we stepped outside the air-conditioned plane. We only had a short stopover in the city but the sight of armed police with machine guns was very sobering. It was a very solemn reminder that the Suharto dictatorship was still in power, more or less a decade after the massacres of 1965-66 when genocide was carried out against sections of the population alleged to be communists or sympathisers, or of Chinese origin. The army was the driving force when nearly a million Indonesians were brutally murdered and a blind eye was turned to this disgusting atrocity by the Australian, US and British governments.
When we arrived at Kuala Lumpur airport, I was pretty appalled and panicky when the customs guy started checking my suitcase as, at the bottom, were copies of Malaya News Service, a newspaper produced in Australia by progressive students and which I was bringing to pass out to other students in Thailand. For the first (and last) time in my life I did something which went right against my principles, and flirted outrageously with the Customs guy to deflect his attention from my suitcase. It worked and hey, while I hated acting like a ditz, it probably saved me imprisonment in a Malaysian prison as they didn’t muck around in those days, and still don’t. The Emergency Powers were used to imprison people without trial and that would have been my fate if the newspapers had been found in my luggage.
I had a day or so in Kuala Lumpur before catching the train to Bangkok, and enjoyed looking around the city. It seemed so Western to me with traces of Malaysian heritage, and of course exotic as this was my first prolonged stopover in south-east Asia. I was staying in a very Westernised hotel but took public transport to one of the big night markets, it was fantastic, I really enjoyed myself.
Then I boarded the train to travel to Bangkok. It really was a wonderful journey, to see such a totally different culture and scenery, to talk to people on the train and to really feel like I was in a foreign country. I’d travelled a lot in Europe but this was something else altogether. We saw small villages on the edge of the jungle, small stations, stopped in the big station at Penang for a while, then set off for Bangkok.
That city was a real eye-opener. Even in 1975 it was crowded, the traffic was chaotic but the various shrines to Buddha around the city were such a stark contract to the slightly seedy feel of the city in those days. It looked calm on the surface but suddenly you’d see an army truck go past full of armed soldiers and you somehow felt that there was a seething turmoil beneath the benign, placid, public face of Bangkok. As I was to find out, attending the Asian Students’ Association Conference was also dangerous, as there was huge conflict between left and right forces in Thailand which still exist to this day.
I met up with fellow participants at the conference in the hotel we’d been booked into and then, once all the delegates had assembled, we set off for an overnight coach journey to Chiang Mai in the north. When we arrived we were in a fairly modern hotel, but told not to stray from the hotel. I thought that was seriously weird – why come all this way to Chiang Mai to lurk in a Western-style hotel? So I took myself off, explored the city – it’s beautiful and was much cooler than Bangkok as it was so much further north – and had a wonderful time browsing in the various markets.
However, when I got back to the hotel, I found out we’d been advised to stay put because right-wing students were threatening to attack participants in the ASA conference and to bomb the hotel. We also had students armed with guns who were our bodyguards wherever we went in Chiang Mai!
The conference went well with various speakers on many issues: it was noticeable that the students from Malaysia and Singapore were very nervous about government surveillance of them, and they were very careful in what they said publicly at the conference. In between the switchover from the Women’s Conference to the General Conference (if I remember the timing rightly) we were taken for a remarkable experience which I still remember with profound gratitude today and which is why I wanted to write this post.
We were driven outside the city to the outskirts of the jungle, then walked quite a way through until we ended up in a small village where we were to stay overnight. It was an amazing stay, one I remember with fondness and great gratitude. The people were extremely poor but their hospitality and generosity were just unbelievable. We had an evening meal and then attended a community dance out in the open afterwards. In the middle of the event, a young man jumped up to launch into a speech which I guess was critical of the government, but I’m not sure. No-one turned a hair but applauded the speaker when he’d finished and then carried on the celebrations as if nothing had happened!
When we returned to the hut where we were to sleep overnight, I remember asking (or miming, more like) the lady of the family where I could use a toilet. I always remember her warm words as she held her open hands out to me and said (a student translated for me): “The jungle floor of my home is yours as much as it is mine”. Well, it was a reminder that a conventional toilet was out of my reach, but the way in which she offered such basic facilities with grace and dignity is a memory I really treasure.
The next day we had sticky rice balls, sugar of some sort and plain water for breakfast, before we thanked our lovely hosts profusely for the generous way they opened our homes to us and then walked out of the jungle to get on the coach back to the hotel.
And here comes the crunch. I got gastric poisoning from the well water we drank at breakfast. About four of us copped a violent stomach bug which left us very ill and bed-bound. It was vicious and I almost died in the early morning when I was vomiting and choked on my vomit. I remember lying on the floor, struggling to breath, with my room-mate fast asleep oblivious to my difficulties, thinking I was going to die on the floor of a bathroom in northern Thailand, away from family and friends. And then finally I to cough and clear my airways. What an immense relief – and that’s probably an understatement!
I was left with severe bouts of diarrhoea which would hit me without any notice. So one lunch-time, when we were back in Bangkok, we were having a meal with a lady we’d met from the United Nations when I started getting severe stomach cramps. I ran round to the restrooms – which were labelled in Thai so I had no idea which loo to use. I turned to a family eating nearby and gestured to one of the restrooms and they just smiled so I ran in and used the loo, which was one of those in the floor. When I walked back, the family were laughing their heads off so I figured I’d used the male toilet instead of female. I’d just got back to our table when the cramps hit again so I ran back and used the other restroom, assuming that this was the ladies. But when I walked out, the family at the table nearby were in absolute hysterics. So I never did find out which restroom was for women and which for men!
I finally flew home into a political storm in Australia as it was just after the Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, had been sacked by the Governor-General and a Liberal-Country Party administration installed. There was upheaval, rebellion, marches, general uproar and my time in Thailand faded to a wonderful memory.
But in the following year, the Thai Army staged a coup and introduced martial law. I saw scenes of deal people on the streets of Bangkok and so many of those were the lovely Thai students I’d made friends with. They were murdered by army forces with many of the young women raped before being killed out of hand.
It was such a sad ending to my Thai experience but I treasure the memories of those I met at the conference, and also so very much the kind villagers who offered complete strangers such wonderful hospitality.