So I boarded a train from Shanghai to Yichun in Jiangyxi province. Yichun, with a population of several hundred thousand, would have been a major city in Europe but was hard to find on a China map. And my treasured „Lonely Planet“ travel guide didn’t mention it at all. I was told that I was the first European there, and with my dark blond beard and hair I must have been quite a sight!
I was warmly welcomed by the family and could even stay in their home for the days I spent there.
Here are some impressions:
The four-year-old son of Mr Yan called da huzi de shuhu – the uncle with the big beard. And his cousin – she was about the same age – was totally crazy about me.
Mr Yan knew that my father worked on the restoration of historic water mills in South-West Germany, and therefore organized a trip to a Chinese mill, an oil mill, actually.
Afterwards we went to a place with hot springs, where I was able to take a real bath for a long time. The naturally hot water was also used for washing clothes in a cammunal washing house.
After a few days I left Yichun for my next destination: Guilin and Yangshuo – the famous hills on the Li river.
Chinese Universities have a winter break around the Chinese New Year, from mid-January to mid-February. All the foreign students took the opportunity to travel and see as much of the country as possible in these two weeks. So did I.
I chose the South-West for two reasons: I had an invitation from a painter in the city Yichun in Jiangxi province – another travel acquaintance of my father’s, years ago. Also, I wrongly assumed that in winter the South would be warm. It was not. And while the cold North had heating, the south did not. Never in my life was I so cold! Also, except for Yunnan, the weather was abysmally rainy, and it shows on my pictures.
As a result, probably, I got an infection of the middle ear upon arrival back in Shanghai, which kept me painfully busy for several weeks.
Several entries about the different places I went to will follow.
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!