Shortly after I arrived at Fudan one of the teachers found out that I liked to make music and sing. So he recruited me for participating in the „Night of Friendship“, to be held at the Shanghai Stadium on October 14, 1987. The special act was the rock band „BAP“ from Cologne, Germany.
It was a very long night, with traditional Chinese music and, well, BAP doing their thing! And as a last point in the program about one hundred foreign students from around the world would sing „Auld lang syne“ in Chinese. Much to our regret we singers didn’t see or hear much of BAP, because we had to prepare backstage for the finale.
Below you can find the song text, and the invitation to the rehearsals, as well as the time of departure for the stadium.
It was good fun, although the audience didn’t wait for us to finish our act, but rather left the stadium to catch their buses. Oh – Shanghai didn’t have a subway system, yet. Neither did people own private cars. So it was the bicycle the public bus, or a Mianbaoche taxi.
So, this was the plan: About 15 to 20 fellow students from my semester back home were spending a year in China, scattered all around Mainland China, as well as Taiwan, and we had agreed to somehow, somewhere meet in Hongkong for Christmas.
Once again: Remember this was before email, smartphones, text messages and social media. Communication was by hand-written letters, dropped in a mailbox, and delivered by the Chinese postal services – which were actually very quick and reliable!
But meeting people in a big city this way without meticulous advance planning was basically, well: bumping into one another by chance! I do not remember whether I actually met any of my classmates from home.
Anyway, this was my first long train journey in China, and I was joined at least by one other Fudan student. I took some pictures on the way „down South“:
The coal loaded onto the train was both for heating and for the large water boilers to make tea in every train coach.
We arrived in Guangzhou / Canton and took the night ferry to Hong Kong from there.
We stayed in the legendary, infamous backpacker’s paradise or hell „Chunking Mansions“ in Kowloon. The weather was not too cold, but rainy. I remember only how strange it felt to see the Xmas decorations and hear Xmas carols and music everywhere.
Let me see what pictures I still have from Hong Kong:
I also remember getting really sick in Hong Kong for the first time.
The Yuyuan is more or less the only „ancient“ site in Shanghai. The „Old City“ next to this beautiful garden and tea house you see nowadays is a Disneyland-style creation of the 1990s and 2000s. In 1987/88 the „real“ Old City still existed, and while it had great charm for visitors it was definitely not a good place to live – think modern plumbing, electricity and communications. Still, it is a pity that it has been replaced completely.
Here are a couple of pictures from my first visit to Yuyuan in fall 1987:
The Wujiaochang – literally „five corner square“ was an intersection of five roads, with a traffic circle in the center. It was the local business center, with a farmers‘ market, small shops – government-run as well as private. This is where we went for everyday shopping: Food, office supplies, etc. Also, Bus line 55 to downtown Shanghai started here.
„Change money?“ was a phrase that every foreigner living in China during this period of time heard every day. Sometimes whispered by a passer-by, but mostly from the organized illegal money changer gangs in the backstreets of the Peace Hotel in the city center. The money changers were not seeking foreign currency, but the much-coveted „Foreign Exchange Certificates“, or FECs – a parallel currency to the „People’s Currency“ renminbi, or RMB. The black market course in Shanghai varied between 140 and 160 RMB for 100 FEC, which was quite attractive for us who did most of our shopping in regular shops, rather than the FEC only „Friendship Store“. This is why a sly money exchange business had set up close to the foreign students‘ dorm, in a side street of Wujiaochang: On the surface it was just one of the many private „Get your Family Photos developed in 24 Hours!“ photo booths. However, this was mainly facade: The money exchange went like this: You prepared by putting the amount of FEC you wanted to change into one of the light-tight film containers, 100 FEC, usually. You approached the booth asked for the current exchange rate they offered, and if it was favorable, you handed them you film container, and received one back, with the agreed-upon amount of RMB. Maybe the exchange rate was less favorable than offered by the money change gangs in the city, but you could be 100 percent sure that you got the correct amount. A simple mutual trust business! Especially since we often heard of other being cheated when exchanging money in the backstreets of downtown.
The Foreign Students‘ Office organized events and trips for us all the time. And while we enjoyed many of them at the time, we did not appreciate them as much as we maybe should have. But we were young and easily distracted…
There were trips to sights in and around the city, movie theater evenings („Red Sorghum“, „Paris, Texas“, some 1950s European thrillers, dubbed into Chinese, …), Peking opera, Shanghai opera, and many more.
My father used to be an avid traveler. Not the backpack kind, the organized travel group trips. And so he traveled to China in the early 1980s with a regular tour group, going to the usual places. Including a boat tour on the Yangzi or Changjiang. And he carried binoculars with him, which were ideal to watch the river banks from the boat. The Chinese passengers were intrigued by them, and soon he was asked by some whether they could take a look through them. And this is how he got to know a freshly married couple from Shanghai – Mr Wang and his wife. Mrs Zhang. Although they couldn’t communicate with words, my father took some pictures and promised to send copies to them once they were developed, back home. So they exchanged addresses, and contact was established.
A few years later I got the admission to Fudan in Shanghai, and so they, who were maybe 15 years older than I and had a one-year-old son took care of me a bit while I was in Shanghai: Showing me places, helping me buy a warm winter jacket and long underwear before the cold season – remember: no heating anywhere south of the Changjiang! – and so on. I owe them a lot, and we have met several times after this, both in China and in Germany.
I was invited to their tiny apartment in an old house in the former „French concession“ part of downtown Shanghai. We spent a lot of time together. I saw places I would never have seen without them and experienced Chinese hospitality. His grandparents lived in the apartment too, but they didn’t speak Mandarin, and communication was difficult.
There was, however one fantastic interaction with the grandparents: I had bought a Majiang game in the Old City, and I was invited to be taught the basic rules by the grandparents. Majiang is a major gambling game in China, and was considered „bourgeois“ during and after the „Cultural Revolution“. And my hosts were surprised that now they were on sale again. I still treasure my artificial bone Majiang set, although I don’t remember how to play anymore. Anyway: The two seniors got totally into it, and we spent several hours playing the game on the living room table in the tiny apartment. After explaining the rules and playing a few games with a couple of „mercy wins“ for me, they took off and were invincible! This was so much fun and such a pleasure to watch them enjoying themselves no end!
I shared a room at the foreign students‘ dormitory with Takabatake-san, a Japanese student who was a couple of years older than I and didn’t speak any Chinese or English at first. It took months until we could communicate on more than a basic level in Chinese. He had brought his guitar from Japan and let me play until I bought a Chinese guitar for myself. I made a sketch of our room in my diary, later:
Note that we had heating in our room! An absolute luxury, as Shanghai is South of the Changjiang (Yangzi) river, and therefore „Southern China“, and traditionally there was NO HEATING South of the river.
The tiny round thingy is my thermos can. Hot water, or kaishui, is available everywhere in China, all the time. There was a large boiler on each floor where we could fill up the two liter thermos provided to each student, to make tea.
There were common showers and bathrooms on every floor. Chinese porcelain hole-in-the-ground sitting toilets that often got clogged. A pity it never occurred to me to take a picture! There was a laundry lady on the ground floor of the dorm where you could get your clothes washed and dried for a few cents a piece. But the laundry and drying process was definitely not optimized for „delicate textiles“, and so most of us decided to hand-wash our clothes ourselves lest they would be ruined in a short time.
Many years later, in 2002, I backpack-traveled with my husband in China for four weeks. As we traveled „the rough way“, with only one backpack each I decreed: „Let’s only pack underwear for a couple of days, and buy inexpensive underwear when we arrive. We can give it up when we leave.“ And so we did. At a Beijing street market each of us bought about ten pairs of hand-sewn cotton briefs in comfortable sizes but truly strange colors for next to no money. But, quite unexpectedly, these beasts lasted forever! We actually kept and used them for several years, caught between embarrassment about their color and qualms of binning perfectly fine underwear, before we finally decided to retire them in a clothes recycling container.
So, this is what our room looked like:
Note the mosquito net over the bed. Basically, during summer you had the choice between suffocation under the mosquito net or being eaten alive by mosquitos. You can also see my red thermos and the water filter on the shelf. The tap water had a hideous smell and tasted terrible.
One of our first ventures into the inner city was to the „Friendship Store“ to buy a bicycle, which we also needed to register with the police office at our compound, to get a little license plate. The Friendship Store (Youyi Shangdian) was a department store where foreigners were able to buy imported goods and other rare items (better quality chocolate, milk powder, …) for so-called „Foreign Exchange Certificates“ – a parallel currency for foreigners, highly sought after by Chinese citizens, because the possession of „FEC“ allowed them to shop there. More about the thriving FEC black market later…
Basically, there were two ways to get into the city center which was about seven to eight kilometers from the student dormitory: Take Bus line 55 from the Wujioachang – the „five-corner square“, as it is a junction of five roads. Or ride my bike. As Wujiaochang was the head station of line 55 the buses were always empty when you got on there, but filled up rapidly on the way to the city center. So I took the bus often, and regretted it each and every time on the way back, when I had to get on a more than packed bus back to the uni during rush hour at Waitan (The Bund). Had I come by bike I would have been back sooner than by bus!
By the way, there were two ticket vendors on each bus. When the bus was very full so that they could not get through, your fellow passengers would pass your money – typically 5 fen (cent) or 1 jiao (ten cents) – to the vendor, and return the ticket – a ridiculously thin paper strip and the change.
And yes, there were for pay bicycle parking lots, and parking tickets when you parked in the wrong place. And bikes were stolen. And of course there were terrible accidents every day. Luckily, I was never involved in any.
Seeing once is better than hearing a hundred times, as the Chinese saying goes. So let me post some pictures from my first ventures into the city…
Here you see why I apologize for the poor picture quality in the preface. Once bright and clear slides have turned freckly and unclear with age.