Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Thirty Years Ago

In 1976, Mao TzeDong died, and the Gang of Four were arrested. In November 1978, The “contract responsibility system” started in Anhui province, kicking off the economic reform that resulted in the China today.

In the summer of 1978, I went to mainland China for the first time, with my father and my sister. It was a very different China then.

In Guangzhou (廣州), the largest city in southern China, the main streets had 4 lanes, 2 of which were for bicycles. The bicycle lanes were just as wide as the vehicle lanes, and were always full. But the few motor vehicles on the street were all military trucks or otherwise governmental. The streets were very safe because there were so little traffic other than bicycles.

The restaurant we went to had three sections. One for foreigners, a second for compatriots from Hong Kong and Macau (港澳同胞), and finally, a third for mainlanders. The environment, the food, and the prices were all different. As HK-Macau compatriots, we were not allowed to pay by reminbi, but must pay by foreign exchange vouchers (外匯劵).

The rice served were not white but brown (actually red - the husks were removed from the rice but not all the red-colored bran). They were eaten then not because it was healthier (as is the fashion these days), but because they were cheaper. There were grits in the rice so we had to eat very carefully.

My aunt, like other mainlanders, was not allowed into our hotel.

We took a boat and went to my aunt’s village in DongGuan (東莞), at the heart of the fertile Pearl River Delta. My aunt’s relatives grew lichee, and had enough to eat, but not much else. The main room in the house had a small table in the middle, set against the back wall, and one stool on either side. I can remember no other obvious furniture.

We were offered sweet soup. In Hong Kong, sweet soups are made with red beans, green beans, lotus seeds with eggs, bean curd sheets and eggs, sweet potatoes, etc. In Dongguan our sweet soup was made with two spoonfuls of sugar and hot water. In the evening, we ate outside; then we sat outside or in the dark because electricity was so precious.

Among the many children I saw, there was a girl who was about eight years old, slender and pretty. She could not hear or speak; but she always smiled. She should be 38 now and I have always wondered what her life has been like.

It was Dongguan in the photo, taken in August this year, 30 years after my first visit.

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