Beverly Hills April 2005: Monday’s society columns reported that Merv Griffin’s Beverly Hills Hilton Hotel ballroom was filled to overflowing, the gala benefit chairman wore a floral print chiffon gown from Oscar de la Renta’s spring collection and $250,000 was raised for the charity.
“You live in Santa Barbara I understand,” the elegant older woman, an American of Chinese descent, sitting to my right said in opening conversation. And my affirmative answer was followed with, “Do you know Rosa Wu* by any chance?”
“Indeed I do. It was thanks to Rosa that I was able to visit China during the Cultural Revolution 34 years ago. Just last week I told a friend about a remark I made to my fellow traveler Steve Allen(1) in 1975, that Rosa’s mother must have been the Madame Claude(2) of China to get us into China during the Cultural Revolution, and to get us a one month visa at that…
* Name has been changed
1. Steve Allen was actor, composer, author, comedian and possibly best known for starting the Tonight Show in 1954 on NBC.
2. Madame Claude ran the most famous, most glamorous house of prostitution in Paris the second half of the 20th century. Many of her beautiful, elegant, well trained girls married into the French aristocracy.
AND SO THE ADVENTURE BEGINS
They were an incongruous pair, the flame-tressed American woman and the stylish American of Chinese descent belting out chorus after chorus of Hello Dolly in Mandarin Chinese. Big red-painted wheels rolling noisily over rusted train tracks played backup for the twosome as we made our way towards the crossing point into the People’s Republic of China.
White mist from the steam engine up ahead cast a protective shield over a cluster of baby water buffalo grazing beyond our train windows. Big-footed Hakka women, who unlike most Han Chinese women never bound their feet, labored in the fields, shielded from the 20th century by black ruffled curtains cascading from their crownless straw sun shade hats. Viewing the serene ancient pastoral scene outside our train windows one could lose prospective of the ideological fanaticism of the Cultural Revolution that gnawed away at the remarkable ancient Chinese civilization.
And we were singing our way right into the eye of that frightening storm.
It was February 24, 1975 and ten of us from southern California were going into China. During that dark period of Chinese history people didn’t go to China, or leave China, visit China, take a trip to China. One was either going into China or coming out of China. It was rather like gaining admission to a high security prison.
The trip had come upon us quite unexpectedly. Rosa Wu had gone from Santa Barbara to visit her mother in Peking, a rather surprising event in 1974 when American citizens were not welcome in China unless their name was Nixon or Kissinger. While there she learned from her beautiful mother that the Chinese government was hoping to somehow get 10 Americans for the upcoming First Annual Tientsin Carpet Fair to be held in February 1975. The had ten Rumanians and ten Czechoslovakians, ten Russians and ten Bulgarians. But suddenly they wanted ten Americans.
Jumping into action Rosa flew out of China to Hong Kong and from there contacted her friend actress Jayne Meadows Allen in Los Angeles and on the telephone she, Jayne’s’ husband Steve Allen and Jayne formed a carpet company. That was three out of required ten Americans. Then Rosa remembered that she had seen me taking notes for my society column in the Santa Barbara News-Press in shorthand and remembered me once saying I longed to some day walk on the Great Wall of China. “Call Beverley Jackson in Santa Barbara and ask her if she wants to come as the secretary of our carpet company.” Without a thought of how I would swing it of course I said yes!
That was four out of ten. Rosa and Jayne filled out the remaining six with a couple who owned a carpet company, one of Hollywood’s leading interior designers and her daughter, a woman who had an important antique carpet company and a male interior designer. I was the least interested in carpets but I worked the hardest once we got to the Tientsin Carpet Fair as I had to keep writing the whole time — notes on all the endless meetings and transactions. I earned my trip by filling notebook after notebook of shorthand notes that were really of no interest to us but impressed the Chinese with how dedicated I was to my job. Jayne and Rosa bought lots of carpets for their company. Steve spent his time talking into his two small handheld recorders taking notes for the book he would write Explaining China.
Getting visas wasn’t easy. The United States and China had no formal diplomatic relations. George H. W. Bush was our representative in China but he was not an Ambassador. He was Chief of American Legation in Peking. There was no proper embassy in Washington DC and our visas had to come from a small office somewhere in our capital. Mine arrived special delivery air mail in the evening the night before I was to leave. Being optimistic I was packed and ready to go. I knew that I was going to China even though I had no visa for entry in my hand until hours before my departure from Santa Barbara.
This is what led up to our going into China on that old steam powered train with Hollywood actress and TV comedienne Jayne Meadows and Rosa Wu singing their way into China. Other than our own group, the passengers in our railroad car were returning Chinese carrying big bundles back from a day’s journey to the New Territories or Hong Kong who chose to ignore the strange singing and foreign words.
There was a bit of déjà vu for the two singers in the words “It’s nice to have you back where you belong”. Rosa had lived her early childhood in China, as did Jayne whose parents were American missionaries there. Jayne remembered her family’s hasty departure from China when conditions turned very bad for foreigners. She was seven years old and her sister, the late actress Audrey Meadows was five.
Hello Dolly in Mandarin wasn’t usual, nor was anything else about our journey into China in February 1975. Americans weren’t exactly running in and out of China in over-packed tour buses at that time. President Richard Nixon had been there. And Henry Kissinger. David and Evangeline Bruce had opened the U.S. Legation, but they weren’t swamped by an overflow of visitors from home. Barbara and George H. W. Bush were now holding down the Legation fort with no improvement in the situation. —to be continued
Kathleen Fetner, Technical Advisor and Friend