The First Annual Tientsin Carpet Fair
One day when we arrived back at the hotel for lunch, I spotted two Chinese boys playing badminton in a small paved area near the hotel. Wandering over to watch, one of the boys laughingly held out his racquet to me. Throwing caution to the thick black smoggy wind, I took it. A bit of exercise was much more appealing than lunch. Badminton happens to be one sport where I’ve always been able to more than hold my own. But this was the People’s Republic of China so I gave my cute young challenger enough of a fight to let him see he was playing a worthy opponent. But of course I subtly gave him the last point.
Totally engrossed in the change of pace, and etiquette of our game, I hadn’t noticed the crowd gathering to see the strange woman with strawberry blond hair. Westerners were a great novelty in Tientsin, unlike Peking and Shanghai where foreign diplomats and business people were rather commonplace. Word had spread fast and a very large crowd surrounded us by the time the police arrive to clear them out. Comrade Sung arrived with the police and the crowd dispersed fast. Needless to say he had much to say to me at our evening meeting beginning with, “I forbid you to ever play badminton again!” Then he went on about visitors in China must abide by the rules. In all the material I had to prepare me for my trip I couldn’t remember a single reference to playing badminton but I let him rant on.
One evening we decided to have a cocktail party. Helene volunteered her suite — she somehow had landed a bedroom and little sitting room. Everyone was instructed to bring their own glass. Steve brought his own chair. However, he spent most of the party on the floor with his legs over the chair and hands behind his head mentally composing a new song. While known primarily as an actor, TV star and comedian, Steve Allen was a jazz musician, composer of many hundred songs including the very popular “I’ll be Home for Christmas”, author of books of poetry, fiction, mysteries, juvenile books, autobiographies, travel, screen plays, movie scripts, TV plays, a man of seemingly limitless talents. Jerry and Louise Fisher and I brought two bottles of champagne which cost us about $3.00. That’s exactly what it was worth. Herb Cole brought a bottle of Chinese red plum wine no one even tried. The safest drinks in China at that time were tea and orange pop. If you ordered orange juice for breakfast, you got orange pop. In fact, if you ordered anything anytime that wasn’t understood there was a pretty good chance it would be orange pop that was served. Tea was accessible 24 hours a day. A very large thermos of boiling water was left outside our rooms each morning. And tea leaves could be purchased at the “gift shop” downstairs. Those thermos bottles appeared to be quite flimsy but they were possibly one of the greatest Chinese inventions since gunpowder. Water could stay boiling hot in them for up to two days.
Lying in bed the next morning waiting for my 7:00 call my thoughts wandered. A French woman’s comment, “The Tientsin Fair wasn’t ready for your crowd. You all have turned into the best show in town!” The girls guides at the fair describing the years they spent laboring and living in the caves of Yunnan and how much they respected the hardworking peasants there. We hadn’t heard any news for days. We knew nothing beyond our own little group’s activities. What were those gunshots I’d heard late two nights before? It wasn’t a dream. Herb had heard them too.
A visit to a carpet factory broke into the monotony of the fair. The factory employed over 1,000 workers. They were a healthy happy looking crew who worked from eight in the morning until noon. Two hours were allowed for lunch and a nap, then back to work from two until six in the evening.
Four girls worked at each loom. They would pull and knot wool with their left hand, cutting, to the exact size needed with a small cleaver in the right hand. Embossing was done with the newly invented electric scissors. There was great pride in these new electric scissors as the old scissors crippled the hands of those who used them continually. This factory visit, like every visit to any business, ended with a meeting with the heads of the factory. At these meetings we were asked for suggestions on how they could improve and of course included much Communist Party propaganda from our hosts.
Arriving at the carpet factory we ran into George H. W. Bush, chief of the U.S. Legation in Peking, who was just leaving. He appeared very happy to see fellow Americans, especially since he and the Allens were old friends. He was warm and friendly and immediately extended an invitation to visit Barbara and him when we got to Peking. Although it was the Allens who were his friends, he was very good about including all of us in his conversation. Little did we realize this friendly very attractive man we were talking to would soon be president of the United States? Speaking of which I must say the small American flags on the front of his official black limo waving in the Chinese breeze as he drove off looked mighty good to us.
Our lives were fairly well confined to the fair area and Tientsin Hotel Number One for our first five days in China. Jane and Rosa’s negotiations for their carpet purchases were confusing, annoying and generally hopeless. When the two of them could finally agree on something, negotiations would be stalled by the Comrades Chou and Chen who sat across the table from us at all business meetings. Rosa was the big problem. Every time the order appeared set, she found a new rug she wanted, had a new list, or just plain disappeared. We were learning to say “Do you know where Rosa is?” in Chinese, Rumanian, Bulgarian and Hungarian. And we could understand “No” in all these languages.
Kathleen Fetner, Technical Advisor and Friend