Book review: My First Trip to China

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 December, 2012, 11:21pm

My First Trip to China

edited by Liu Kin-ming

East Slope Publishing Limited


Mark O'Neill

It is 1972 and American lawyer Jerome Cohen is sitting in a Beijing restaurant drinking hot soy milk. Eager to start a conversation, he asks those around him the name of the soup. No-one dares to answer. "Defend the motherland against spies" reads a notice on the wall.

Finally, one says "not clear" - the best formula on the mainland to avoid a difficult question.

Cohen is one of 30 people who have written accounts of their first trip to China in this new book by a Hong Kong publishing house. They include businessmen, scholars, journalists, lawyers and diplomats; five are of Chinese descent. The editor is Liu Kin-ming, now with the multimedia division at the South China Morning Post, who then published 51 of them on the website of the Hong Kong Economic Journal, although he chose 30 for this volume.

His idea was to capture the freshness and curiosity of that first encounter with China by people who later became familiar with it, such as David Tang Wing-cheung, China expert Roderick MacFarquhar, human rights campaigner John Kamm, economist and former head of the Central Policy Unit Leo Goodstadt, and BW Group chairman Helmut Sohmen.

Cohen has become one of the most distinguished China lawyers; his columns appear regularly in this newspaper. His visit included an unscheduled stay in Nanchang, a closed city; his group was kept at the airport until dark and taken to a hotel which they were forbidden to leave, before returning to the airport at 4am.

The highlight of his trip was a four-hour visit with then premier Zhou Enlai, the only leader then prepared to engage with foreigners.

It was a different story for C.P. Ho, a Malaysian-Chinese who, at the age of five in January 1942, went with his family to Shenzhen after having moved from Ipoh to Hong Kong. A group of bandits escorted the family to their destination, Ping Shek, and relieved them of everything, including his father's shirt and trousers. "'There are good Chinese and bad Chinese,' his father explained. 'When you are older, you must differentiate between the two.' And, to this day, I have been trying to do just that."

For Ho, as for the other writers, it was the shock between what he had expected and what he found in reality.

For Tang, the experience could not have been better. Invited by the legendary Ho Yin, the "emperor of Macau", the businessman went to Anhui province in 1979 to climb Huangshan, one of the loveliest places in China. "The scenery was so beautiful that our pace provided us with opportunities to admire Chinese nature at its best." He and his companions slept in a monastery at the summit and woke the next morning to see the ocean of clouds. "It was like a moment of warm embrace after many years of separation."

In his account of a trip in 1972, journalist Jonathan Mirsky explained how he changed from being a fan of Chairman Mao Zedong to a counter-revolutionary in 48 hours. His party was taken to a "typical Chinese worker's apartment", complete with radio, television and several bicycles.

The next morning he discovered it was a show flat for "foreign friends" and that everyone else in the block lived in shabby conditions. "I was stunned by what I had seen and heard." He became suspicious of everything he saw and was told.

The richness of the book lies in the variety of accounts by people of different nationalities and professions and at different times in history. Some are favourable to the government and some are not. The first, by Ho, took place in 1942 and the last, by academics Michael and Josephine Duke, in 1986.