A Front Row Seat for the Cultural Revolution
THE LEGENDARY CAPITAL OF CHINA
We staked our claim on the only small patch of clear ground in that sea of blue Mao suits. In our cozy mink and camel hair coats we perched on our bags, as confused and intimidated as the masses all around us. It appeared we weren’t going anywhere.
The guides who met us were not happy. It should be explained, in China during the Cultural Revolution no one went anywhere without a City Visa. One didn’t just get on a train in Tientsin to Peking in 1975 and head off to the hotel. Everyone needed a city visa. And our group visa allowing us into Peking was nowhere to be found. Rosa was the culprit. She was in charge of our city visas. But where had she put it for safe keeping? She couldn’t find it. We all searched her belongings and couldn’t find it. The guides brought officials and they couldn’t find it. We weren’t going anywhere — except out of Peking on the next plane to the United States our guides informed us. We were not happy. We had those highly coveted four week visas to China. Westerners didn’t get four week visas to China in those days but for some mysterious reason, which would be answered for me 34 years later, we had them. And here they were throwing us out after only one week!
I’ve never been sure exactly what happened at this point. It appeared Rosa suddenly gave the officials some telephone number to contact but she was so mysterious about everything, and this was no exception. Within minutes after this we were allowed to leave the train station and go directly to our reserved rooms in the new wing of the old Peking Hotel. Rosa had been the center of suspicion as far as the Chinese officials were concerned but they now appeared to be treating her with a surprising new respect as we departed the train station. I couldn’t help wondering whose telephone number she had given them? The person obviously had amazing pull. We were later told the missing visa document was found in a pocket of a sweater Rosa had worn under her coat. But Marge and I had checked that sweater ourselves and there was no group visa. One more mystery to be solved 34 years later!
All any of us cared about at that point was getting to our hotel rooms and a hot bath. The Peking Hotel was the best hotel in town at that time and we were fortunate to be assigned there. You didn’t pick your own hotel in China in 1975. China Travel put you where they wanted you to be. The 17 story air-conditioned new wing had just been completed months before our arrival. This was where the foreign diplomats and business people were housed. It was the very best the Chinese had to offer.
The rooms were clean, modern, and from mine I had a view from my windows of the tremendously wide main street, Ch’ang An Chien, that passed between the Forbidden City and Tian an men Square two blocks down. In front of our hotel at any hour of the day or night there were mobs of Chinese peering through the fences and down the driveway to catch a glimpse of the foreigners coming and going. We were all a celebrity to them!
Looking at that wide boulevard I was amazed at the total lack of traffic day and night. There were traffic police in white coats and caps at all the major corners. However the only traffic rule I ever became aware of was blowing your horn gave drivers the right of way.
No headlights of any sort were allowed at night, so that was added danger. Bicycles, of which there were thousands, also had no lights, not even reflectors. But most of the bicyclists did have Mao quotations on red cards attached to their handlebars. Those without could be stopped and threatened. We were assured by our guides however that if there were an accident, all drivers must know how to take their cars or trucks apart and put them back together before they could get the supposed license. And one accident and the license was revoked for life.
The most surprising thing about my hotel room was the curtains at the window. They were electrically controlled. We had lighting of about two watts per globe, inadequate hot water, toilets that sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t, no TV, mini-bars, refrigerators, but our curtains were opened and closed by pushing a button. Buttons also summoned floor attendants, who of course entered without knocking. It was the same routine here of the desk near the elevator where your room key was secreted. The neat clean bathroom had the same heavy bright pink toilet paper we had found in our Tientsin bathroom, plastic shower slippers, clean comb and tiny bars of soap. The pillow cases and sheets were trimmed with hand embroidered blue flowers. The cost of this large clean new room was $25 a night.
Some room service was available here. I ordered fresh squeezed orange juice first thing. Everyone in the group was catching colds or flu so I wanted an extra shot of vitamin C. The room service menu read “fresh squeezed orange juice”. It was orange soda pop that arrived, on a pretty tray with beautiful silk damask napkin. It cost the equivalent of two cents in US money. And of course there was no service charge as there was no tipping allowed anywhere in China in 1975.
Laundry service was superb. You could send anything out and it would return the same day neatly folded with a small piece of white cloth stamped with Chinese characters suspended from the garment by about an inch of crocheted thread. Although lost now, for years I treasured a Vera print nylon bra and panties with those laundry marks attached.
The lobby, which we passed through that first night in a cold tired daze, was massively marble. There was a very large map of the world on one wall, topped by clocks with the different times in cities through the world. Groups of school children were brought to the lobby to see this amazing map and clocks. We studied it to get an idea of time zones, anticipating calls home. The lobby was filled with Japanese businessmen, European diplomats, women from small countries in Africa draped in brightly printed native gowns and a big group of German engineers who were on our plane from Canton to Peking when we first arrived in China.
The service desks were very small, and no one at them appeared to speak English. In fact, the only ones other than our guides who acknowledged speaking English were one telephone operator and a couple of elderly waiters in the dining room. The dining room where we dined three meals a day was on the same cavernous scale as the train station. The far end was covered with an intricate mosaic of the picturesque mountains of Quilin.
The center wing of the hotel housed a gift shop with the limited supplies and gifts available for purchase — orange pop, bottled water, Chinese dolls, embroideries, and tourist items. In the same area was a branch of the Bank of China. We used that a lot. A post office that took care of all small pieces of mail was located here as well. Big packages required a trip to the main interesting post office in back of Tien an Mien Square.
Sightseeing in the original wing of the hotel was discouraged. It was aged and run down, but picturesque with large red and gold columns in the grand old style. It was a sort of Hollywood Grauman’s Chinese Theatre without the hand and footprints in the cement out front. We were never allowed to linger long enough in this area to figure out who was housed here.
Thirty-four years later the two main things I remember about the New Peking Hotel are the electrically controlled curtains and the telephone service. Calls back to California were put through within ten minutes, and the lines were perfectly clear. However, a call to one of our group three doors down the hall could take up to an hour to complete. And then the conversation was unintelligible. However, this may have been due to antiquated surveillance equipment rather than staff inadequacy. We knew we were under constant surveillance here as we had been in Tientsin. But at least there were no late night interrogations to cope with in Peking. …to be continued.
Kathleen Fetner, Technical Advisor and Friend