Last week I talked about the horrific experience of using the public toilet at the Ming Tombs in Beijing back in my school days. This culture shock is still vivid in my mind thirty years later. However, this was not my first China shock.
My first was in 1978, during a family trip to Guangzhou when I was eight.
It was shortly after the Cultural Revolution when China was under the transitional regime of Hua Guofeng. The Kowloon-Canton through train service was not resumed until the next year, and passengers had to change trains at Shenzhen in order to get to Guangzhou. The joint inspection station was only completed in 1985; before that, passengers had to climb through the trains to get across the Sino-British border, which was not easy for travelers carrying a lot of luggage and goods to support their motherland.
Back then, it was not rare to take a whole day to get to Guangzhou, whereas the train now only takes two hours. As far as I can remember, I left my Hong Kong home around 3am and arrived at my relatives’ in Guangzhou around 9pm. If it were today, the first thing to do after a long day of travel would be to settle the kid (that is, me) down to sleep. However, it was not the case back in 1970s Guangzhou, as all visitors, upon arrival, were required to register their temporary hukou (Personal records) at the police station. I can still remember what it was like to be in the station: a crowded room with more than ten people, all tired and hungry, standing there like statues under the dim light from a 4W incandescent light bulb, waiting for the revolutionary comrade to complete the registration. That was the first time I felt how deterring a communist cadre could be.
More shocks were yet to come. One day, we had dim sum lunch at Panxi, a garden restaurant beside the scenic Lychee Bay. I was a frequent dim sum goer in Hong Kong and was quite familiar with the operation of a restaurant. Panxi’s experience was truly shocking. Not only did the customers have to prepare the tea themselves, but they also had to get their own dim sum from the kitchen. When I asked the elders why, I was told that the ‘revolutionary comrades’ had done their job making the dim sum, and any more manual work that we perceived as integral to the ‘service industry’ was exploitative in the eyes of the communists. Later on, revisionism (or ‘reform and opening up’ as propagated by Deng Xiaoping) sent workers back to ‘exploitative capitalism,’ and the service industry revived.
After having dim sum, we visited the Lychee Bay Garden before taking a bus back to my relatives’ house. We waited at the bus terminus, as did dozens of other passengers. When the bus arrived, they—actually we—swarmed around it like locusts, pushing their way through the windows and doors just to get a seat. Given my small size as a kid, I was lifted up by a relative and shoved through a window, and quickly got a seat. It was the only time in my life that I entered another space through a window.
On another occasion, I was in Nanfang Building, the largest department store in Guangzhou. I was already a book-lover by then, and the Xinhua Bookstore there interested me. All the books were in the glass display cabinet, and I needed the help of the female shop attendants, who were chatting excitedly. I drew the attention of one of them, and she threw the books I wanted in front of me, glancing at me with fury. This time I got it—service was a form of exploitation, and I was exploiting her right to chat.
In those days, it was not rare to see Hongkongers putting loads of goods on the two ends of a carrying pole, bringing much-needed support to friends and relatives in mainland China. Sending in a letter asking for TV sets, refrigerators, motorbikes, and all the wishes would be fulfilled. I had a relative who pretended to have broken his leg and applied for his nephew in China to come permanently to Hong Kong on the pretext of needing personal care. Supermarket plastic bags were collected and given to mainland relatives as gifts because they were luxuries there.
Hongkongers never expected to be repaid for their kindness to China. However, given the recent repressive measures in Hong Kong, we cannot refrain from asking what we have got in return for the selfless sacrifice of our forefathers.
Obviously, China bit the hands that fed it.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.