Xmas 1987 in Hongkong

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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.

We returned to Shanghai by boat from Hong Kong.

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Everyday Life near Wujiaochang

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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.

This is what Wujiachang looked in 1987:

The traffic circle at Wujiaochang in 1987

Now, take a minute to compare this to what Wujiaochang looks like today! (Google Maps Foto link)

Kindergarden near Wujiaochang

An Anecdote

„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.

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University-Organized Trips and Events

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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.

Soon after our arrival we were taken on a trip to the Fang Ta pagoda and the Sheshan Catholic Basilica, built on a mountain near Shanghai.

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Meeting the Wang Family

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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!

My Majiang set bought in 1987 in Shanghai

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My Room

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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.

An Anecdote

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.

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My First Impressions of Shanghai

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Five fen bus ticket

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…

Fifteen fen bus ticket

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.

百闻不如一见

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.

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The Fudan Foreign Students Campus

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After the arrival the new students settled down in the foreign students‘ compound.

It was located outside the university campus, had its own wall around it, and there was a gate with a guard, that was closed at 11 p.m. There was still a guard inside, but if you arrived past 11, you were reported and reprimanded. On the map above it is the walled compound in the top-right corner.

I can remember language class placement tests and an official welcome event, with the head of Fudan University attending and welcoming the new foreign students.

Also, we were assigned our final room and roommate. I happened to share a room with a Japanese student – Takabatake-san.

View from my room’s window to the middle school on the other side of the road

This is what the campus looked like:

My room was on the top floor (5th floor – China counts floors the same way as Americans) in the building right from the gate.

Later during the school year an artificial mountain was added in the rubble field you can see on the pictures. The gabled building in the background was the canteen, with an activity room on the top floor which offered, among other things, a table tennis table, board games, and a piano.

Here you can see the lunch tickets for the foreign students‘ canteen and the regular canteen on the campus.

The main university campus was already decorated for National Day on October 1st:

The Chinese students‘ dormitories look beautiful and romantic from the outside. But they had big eight-bed room dormitories with bunk beds. So our two-bed rooms were actually quite a luxury.

An Anecdote

While I was there we experienced a heat wave. Many of the dorm dwellers gathered for the Chinese evening news in front of the color TV in the dorm lobby every night. And as it got hotter by the day we watched the weather forecast for the next day going up from 37 °C to 38 to 39 to 39,5… And that’s where it stayed for the next few days. We were wondering… Until a second year student explained: There obviously was a law stating that workers could stay home when the temperature rose to 40 degrees and above. So, magically, it never did! Can anyone confirm or debunk this?

We were about 400 foreign students at our compound at Fudan from literally all around the world: 200 Japanese students, a lot of Americans, Germans being the second largest group, including three form the soon-to-be disappearing GDR – who would have thought, just two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall?! – Australians, French, British, Belgian, Italian, … as well as a couple of Africans, I think from Benin, two Russians and even two North-Koreans.

After a couple of weeks everyone was fraternizing, except for the North Koreans. The Japanese were mostly keeping to themselves. But as I was placed in the highest language class with the students from the GDR and Russia, and had a Japanese tongwu I was on good terms with them all.

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Arrival in Shanghai

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Frankly, I don’t remember much about the flight to China. It was on September 15, 1987, and it was a Zhongguo Hangkong Gongsi flight – the PRC government airline – from Frankfurt to Beijing, with stop-overs in Rome and Sharjah (for refueling in the gulf states). Every passenger received a plastic model airplane as an in-flight gift. After arrival in Beijing there was a connecting flight to Shanghai.

At that time Shanghai Airport was a bumpy runway somewhere in between cabbage fields in the yet-empty Pudong area. Seriously! I was not the only student on the flight who was bound for Fudan, and I suppose the uni had organized a mianbao che – a tiny minivan in the shape of a U.S. bread loaf, hence the literal translation „bread car“ – to bring us to the foreing students‘ dormitory.

Night had fallen in the meantime, and we were assigned a room for the first night. It was a hot and stuffy night. I remember being woken up at about 5 the next morning by the deafening sound of cars and trucks and bicycles outside the window.

And so my year in China began! Or, as that „traveling China in the 1980s“ cliché goes:

千里之行,始於足下

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A Year in China in the Late 1980s

Overview

Preface

From September 1987 to August 1988 I spent a year as a foreign student in China. I was assigned a place at Fudan University in Shanghai by the Chinese government authority. The Fudan was (and still is) one of the most prestigious universities in China. However, as it turned out, this was not an advantage for foreign students in the late 80s at all, unfortunately: The Fudan was the strictest in keeping foreigners and Chinese students apart from each other. All foreigners were segregated in a campus outside the main campus, making direct contact with Chinese students pretty hard. To be fair: in hindsight it is not clear whether this was the reason, or whether they intended to offer us decidedly better living conditions than the Chinese students on the main campus had.

This little blog is about my year in China.

While I blogged about my trips to Xinjiang and Tibet in spring 1988, as well as the return trip on the Trans-Mongolian Railway before, I only recently decided to get all of my slides from that time digitized. In hindsight, it was a bad and unfortunate decision to do it only now, as the slides have suffered a lot of damage in these 30 years. Some are hardly usable anymore…

Also, I am now disappointed how few pictures I had actually taken during that time – except maybe for during a few extraordinary trips. But remember that this was the pre-digital age! Digicams or smartphones did not exist. Photographic film rolls, especially slide films were a real cost factor. So was photography equipment. Also, the film rolls had to be stored, developed, framed, …

As photography was not a hobby of mine, I just brought my good old simple rangefinder camera. Through the entire year I took 26 rolls of film worth of pictures, 37 pictures per film on average. One of the last film rolls, while I spent a month in Beijing (Peking) before returning to Europe, was destroyed when my camera got soaked in a rain shower.

To sum this up: There are not really a lot of pictures and the quality leaves much to be desired. Perhaps they are still interesting to some. That’s the reason why I am posting them publicly.

A look back on different times

At the time, I was a 21-year-old university student who was not really interested in politics. I was fascinated by the emerging computer technology (remember: it was the 1980s!) and had an obsession with Chinese and Japanese characters and the languages, and therefore started an M.A. program of Computational Linguistics and Chinese Studies. The Chinese Studies required students to spend a year in China. And that’s how I got there. There’s actually a German language blog entry where, looking back, I try to explain why I decided not to pursue a career in China after graduation from university.

So, look at the pictures and comments through the eyes of the naive 21-year-old that I was then. Let’s be honest: All of us young students from Western countries were pretty much spoiled, entitled brats, thrown into this year-long adventure in this threshold country that the China of the late 1980s still was. Draw your own conclusions of what you see in these old pictures, and compare with what you see China has become since then.

By the way, I am blogging in English which is not my native language (as you may have figured out already) so that more people can read it.

Use the table of contents in the Overview on top of this page to navigate.

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  • Pre-existing „autonomous“ blog posts

Preface – Traveling in Tibet in 1988

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Introduction

From September 1987 to August 1988 I spent a year in China as a foreign student. I was 21 at that time and was studying Chinese at Shanghai’s Fudan University. During that year I had the opportunity to travel all around the country, from Shanghai to Kashgar, from Xiamen to Dali, from Hongkong to Beijing, and to many more destinations as well.

In May 1988, I was traveling to Xinjiang in the far West, on the border to Pakistan and Afghanistan, together with another German student from Fudan. Due to recent popular unrest in Tibet, Tibet was officially closed for foreigners. However in Turfan and Kashgar we met backpackers who had just been in Tibet, and who told us that there was one legal way to get to Lhasa, and once there, travelling was quite unrestricted.

The only legal and official way to get into Tibet, they told us, was renting a minibus from Golmud to Lhasa from the official Chinese tourism agency. Why not give it a try? On our way back from Xinjiang we stopped over in Dunhuang, and then took the public bus to Golmud.

It was in fact possible to take a minibus to Lhasa, and so I had the opportunity to spend a couple of weeks in Tibet. From Lhasa I traveled to Xigaze and Gyangze, and back to Lhasa before returning to Shanghai via Xining. (Link: Route on Google Maps)

The slides I took during the time in Tibet may have almost „historic“ value today, more than 20 years later. I am quite sure that some of landscapes and buildings I was able to see then have now given way to a more „modern“ and supposedly better way of life. This is why I decided to have them digitized and to post some of them, with the date they were taken and the little background information I can still find in my diary from that time. I decided to post in English to reach a larger audience.

Before you expect too much: you will not find any really spectacular photographs – I never was a skilled photographer, and I was taking the pictures with a simple 35 mm rangefinder camera. Also, do not expect too much background information. I am not an expert on Tibet and Tibetan culture. Also, the diary entries have been translated without a lot of editing. They are the sometimes rather naive notes of an uncritical 21-year-old. I hope you will enjoy the pictures anyway, and I am looking forward to comments.

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A Page from my 1987/88 Diary


Many thanks to Barry for copy-editing the English text.