Other Tales Class of 59 Tales China Trip
Back from my travels by Christopher J
(Oct - Dec 1999)


Subject: Back from my travels
From: Christopher J
Date: Tues 14 Dec 1999

Hi everyone! Sara and I are finally back in Geneva after 2 months of travel and feel we need another vacation!

After spending a week in New Delhi on business, we flew to Hongkong to meet our daughter Sonali who took a few days off from Teaching in Japan to accompany us on our long-awaited visit to China. As it was Sonali`s first visit to Hongkong we spent a couple of days just showing her around the very congested, noisy but exciting and vibrant city. Our hotel was in Kowloon district (ie. on the mainland) and right in the middle of all the action! Lots of inexpensive shoppping around - very few foreigners here-- I guess they are afraid of crowds! Most foreigners seem to congregate at the southern end of Kowloon next to the waterfront and the fancy hotels such as The Peninsula!

We took a train to Guangzhou (the old Canton) and arrived on the first day of the twice yearly International Fair and there were thousands of businessment crowding all the hotels. We were looked after throughout our trip to China by the China Travel Service (A Government organization) and an organization which has been in existence for over 50 years and which we are happy to recommend to anyone who plans to visit China. They have offices in New York and perhaps on the West Coast -- we went through their London office.

After the usual sight-seeing around the city and sampling the local cuisine we were impressed by the overall cleanliness of the city (compared to India) and the smoothly flowing traffic (again a vast improvement on India) . Taxis are mainly VW`s with airconditioning -- you need it along the Southern China coast! The blowing of car horns is not permitted (a great contrast to India) and while we saw plenty of expensive cars in the city most people do not own cars but rely on public transport. This is relatively cheap - there is a price differential of RNB 1-2 between non-airconditioned buses and airconditioned buses! The Hotels were of high quality and comparable to the best anywhere. A variety of cusine is available.

We drove to Macau the next day through the countryside stopping off at the birthplace of Dr. Sun Yat Sen - he is widely revered as the father of the nation! China has excellent motorways with road-signs in English and Chinese. There are plenty of tolls but at least the highways are well maintained! There were plenty of signs of affluence -- apparently the farmers have done well for themselves especially in some parts of the country and now live in multi-storied houses with TV and Radio ariels festooning their rooftops. They are of all wierd and wonderful designs though often groups of houses clearly have been designed by the same architect! It is clear that the Government`s policy of allowing Economic freedom but not political opposition seems to be working! Our guide told us that there was plenty of official corruption but most average people were much better off than in the past. We saw the signs of relative affluence -- schoolchildren riding to school dressed in attractive tracksuits, no beggars anywhere and no-one shabbily dressed. Clothing is cheap in China.

Macau is a tiny little principality, very similar to Gibralter or Monaco. It reverts to Chinese rule next week and there was quite a degree of excitement even when we were there about this prospect! The Portuguese influence is very strong although 97% of the population are Chinese. The total area of the country is only 15square miles and the population is around 400,000. The main industry is Gambling and there is a small textile/garment industry. All the Casinos(11) are owned by 76 year old Mr. Ho. He came to Macau from Hongkong some 30 years ago and built up a billion dollar empire. His leases on the Casinos are due for renewal early in the millennium so we shall have to see if he is able to keep his monopoly. Lately there has been a lot of triad opposition accompanied by violence and killing and the Chinese Govt. will probably clean up this seedy aspect of Macau after the take-over. We returned from Macau in the evening to Hongkon by a Hydrofoil ferry which takes only an hour!

Our next adventure in China was a 28 hour train ride from Hongkong to Shanghai! The train was extremely comfortable - we had 3 berths in a 4 berth compartment. The linen and bedding supplied was spotless and a huge flask full of boiling water was filled at regular intervals . The Dining car was equally clean and the food was excellent -- in fact we found the food on the train to be better than some of the restaurants we ate in during our trip! The route follows the coastline and we travelled through miles and miles of paddy fields which were in the process of being harvested . As individual holdings are very small, we didn`t see a single tractor and all the work was being done by family members by hand. They had small desk-sized threshing machines which appeared to be worked by a pedal type of attachment. Even the ploughing was done by hand using spades ! What surprised us having travelled widely throughout India by train was the absence of animals or birds! We used much of the time on the train to work with our daughter on completing University Application forms -- she returns to Geneva this summer and want to do an MA!

What made our train trip was the occupant of the fourth berth in our compartment! Herbert Chang, a man of around 75 travels often between his homes in Hongkong and Shanghai and turned out to be one of the millions who suffered during the Cultural Revolution! Unlike our guides who were reluctant to discuss either this period or the more recent Tiananamen Square incident we were told of all the horrors of this black period in China`s turbulent history. It seems that he came from a relatively affluent home in Shanghai, his father owning a up-market furniture and curio shop. He himself had an Engineering Degree and after independence in 1949 came back to China from Taiwan as he felt he should use his abilities in the remaking of his homeland. His brother and sister, however emigrated - his brother to the U.S. where he is a multi-millionaire and art collector, his sister to England where she married a professor in Cambridge. When the Cultural Revolution came about, Herbert`s parents and wife were killed or died in prison and he was imprisoned for 5 years and narrowly escaped execution! Finally he was released and he managed to get permission to go to Hongkong where at the age of 55 and $10 in his pocket he took a job on a construction site for $25 a day.

Over the next couple of decades he taught himself English and moved up in the Construction Company eventually becoming the General Manager with a $1M salary , chauffer and apartment! He then started off on his own in Construction and having made a fortune, passed on his business to his son. He has another son in Shanghai who lost his job and is suported by Herbert.

We spent hours talking about China with him and thoroughly enjoyed his company. He had earlier published a book on his family history (he showed it to us) and was planning a new book which would however tell the dark truths of the Cultural Revolution and hopefully have it translated into English for the outside world. We became good friends and even visited his apartment the next day in Shanghai where he showed us some of his priceless collection of Chinese art -- his family are well known to Christies and Sothebys! He has promised to visit us in Europe next year after his book is published!

Shanghai is an amazing city! The original Westernised part of Shangahai borders the river and is referred to as ` The Bund ` - a good old AngloIndian word!! The buildings are typical of the period of the 20`s and 30`s when Shanghai was one of the most developed Cities in the World -- the Paris of the East. What were once occupied by Trading Companies and Western Banks are now occupied by Chinese Government Offices and their local Banks and Commercial Organizations. Across the river however a new commercial centre is rising on what was once swamp-land. A beautiful suspension bridge (longer than the golden gate Bridge in Sanfrancisco) joins the city to the new commercial centre. The Commercial buildings would not be out-of-place in New York or SanFrancisco and are most impressive! In fact Shanghai is more modern than many European Cities. Much of the old city has been re-developed and the original residents rehoused in multi-storied apartments on the outskirts of town. An elevated 6 lane highway runs through the city so that there is easy access to any part - even the old congested city centre! We really enjoyed strolling through the old shopping centres in the Chinese district. We also saw the so-called French Quarter where the buildings were right out of Europe and had the look of a Parisian suburb! The hotels are magnificent as is the new Airport! The Chinese Government wishes to make Shanghai the main point of entry into China, replacing Hongkong! We flew to Beijing where again we were impressed by the economic developments of China! India , unfortunately has paid the price of being a democracy riddled with corruption and self-seeking politicians and is decades behind and I fear the gap will only widen.

The one child policy is strictly observed -- in cities more than one child means instant dismissal from ones job and heavy fines etc. In the countryside, in case the first child is a girl, a couple are allowed another try! Our guide`s brother had arranged for his wife to be sterilised after the first child only to find that somehow she became pregnant! Although it was not their fault and the hospital should have been blamed, he was heavly fined! The result is that while China`s present population is around 1.3BN it will stabilise around this figure while India`s population will exceed Chinas by the 20`s!! What a disturbing thought!!

While Tiananmen Square is impressive in its size, one somehow could not remove the bad connotations from one`s mind! My daughter is particularly sensitive and was unwilling even to listen to the Guide who tried to down-play what happened as being largely media hype!! The Imperial Palace was very impressive in its size and layout! However having brought-up in India with its magnificent palaces and forts I was not that impressed.

What was the most impressive sight however was the Great Wall! It has to be seen and climbed to be properly appreciated!! It stretches for nearly 7,000 KM across high mountains and gorges etc. We did our bit in a section around 70KM from Beijing! The steps are so steep and high that by the time we got down again our knees were trembling and out muscles sore! We only climbed up to a couple of watch-towers but that was more than enough for us! There were thousands of tourists there - local as well as from overseas . To think that this masterpiece of engineering was started over a thousand years ago is really mindblowing! It is worth visiting China just to see this wonder! We even got a small copper plate engraved confirming our having climbed the wall!! Another example of free enterprise in today`s China.

Needless to say we managed to fill our suitcases with lots of examples of the wonderful arts of China. The silks, the carvings in wood as well as in bone etc. were beautiful. All tourists are encouraged to visit the various Government owned Emporiums where it is possible to bargain for items! We also bought a small silk carpet which adorns our home in Geneva.

With the presence of every manner of Multinational in the country, there is nothing that is not available in China in the way of electronic/ electric goods, clothing and sports equipment, shoes etc.!! We visited a couple of the so-called New Economic Zones and there were like one massive building site!! Everywhere one could see the names of the well-known multinationals on the factories and commercial buildings! Until I visited China I had been unable to understand why International Companies were willing to invest in a country with no real legal or accounting systems and where very few Companies are actually making a profit! I can now see that it is the open-door policy and absence of the minefield of regulations found in India that make China so attractive to investors! Much will have to change in India before they can attract the sort of investment which is required to enable the technology levels increase to international standards and supply the jobs which are so badly needed!!

We returned to India from China and visited, Bombay and Calcutta before going on to Bangalore where we spent 10 days with my father who turned 85 in September! Happily he is in relatively good health and keeping himself busy with his painting and writing his memoirs and stories for children . Recently the Max Mueller Bhavan in Bangalore had an exhibition of around 40 photographs taken by him 40 years ago of the tribals in Bastar and other areas in Orissa and Madhya Pradesh. It was a great success and really made him feel good! In fact the exhibition was taken to Berlin last month and will then tour several cities in Germany. It will be held in Bombay sometime next year. The Germans have always felt a great attraction to India and its art and culture.

Since returning I have been busy trying to catch-up with my work related correspondence as well as prepare for the year-end Christmas festivities etc. I have not therefore been able to respond to much of the news that was awaiting me on my E-Mail Filing cabinet --over 300 messages! However I will be writing to many of you separately in response to the joyful and unfortunately not so happy events that have taken place within our class during the last two months!

My son comes home next week from Montreal for Christmas after which he is going off with some friends to see the New Millennium in from the Algarve in Portugal. My daughter is going to do the same in Hawaii with some friends and Sara and I are going to the capital of the Champagne country - Reims (wonderful cathedral) where we are meeting up with 7 couples from our London days to spend 4 days eating and drinking and forgetting about our weight!

It should be most enjoyable. We are booked for the 31st. Evening at a 2Star Michelin restaurant in the City and the menu is enough to make my mouth start watering from now!!

May each and every one of you and your families have a joyful Christmas with your loved ones and may the New Year and the New Millennium usher in a better, more peaceful and caring world. Good health , happiness and prosperity to each and every one of you!!

Sara & Chris

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