WOODSIDE, CALIF. 94062
December 15, 1973
Dear Kai Lai,
Enclosed you will find a copy of the final typed mss. I have
accepted your suggested revisions of the mss, making only
cosmetic editing changes, except that I am suggesting the first
C in the essay be your full name.
I think we have here a strong essay with good possibilities
for a major magazine.
Enclosed is a xerox of the letter with which I am submitting the
mss to the NY Times. Each submission letter will include the
paragraph about exact fidelity of publication.
Though I do not require it, I think it would be reasonable of
you to reimburse me $20 for this additional typing-xeroxing effort.
Vhoff to New York and will be devoting much of my time there to
the essay. Look it over by my return 4W on January 5 to be assured
that it is what you want.
WOODSIDE, CALIF. 94062
December 15, 1973
The New York Times
Dear Editor Honan,
I am the writer from near San Francisco who explored with you
last month articles on the Old Sacramento historical restoration
in California, the new San Benito-Monterey wine country, and
the Sacramento Delta, I am enclosing for you a resume of my
Today I am presenting an essay on travel in Mainland China
that I think you will find unique. The essay covers the experience
of a man born in China, who came to maturity in Hangchow before
the war, then moved to the United States* Recently he taturned
for an extended visit. While there have been many essays by
Americans on modern China, this is one of the few you will read
about a born Chinese who knows China today and also knew China
before the war.
Mr. Chung has cooperated with mp on this essay only if I agreed
to make the following requirement on submission: that the final
printed essay, if you accept it, be absolutely faithful to the
facts as presented in this script. He is concerned that any
editorial alterations might distort his experiences as presented
here. He wants to see a copy of the proof, and approve it, if
you contemplate any editorial changes, including missions. (1 am
assuming that my final script, typed in the press of activity
priot to this Christmas visit to New York, is totally accurate.
Mr, Chung will read it over the holidays and report back to me
by January 5. 1 will relay any changes to you by January 15).
A PRIVATE CHINA: RETURN TO HANGCHOW
Written by Lee Foster
Based on the narrated experiences of
Kai Lai Chung
Kai Lai Chung, 55 is one of the few modern Americans who has
traveled to modern China and can comment with the authority
of a native. He lived his first 28 years in China, leaving
shortly after WWII.
This native of Hangchow escaped during the Japanese invasion
to the southwestern China city of Kunming, Yunnan province.
There he studied and taught for eight years at the wartime
headquarters set up.by three major universities of China. In
1945 he came to the United States on a fellowship and began
his academic career in mathematics. He is a professor at
During the years of absence before his recent extended visit,
Mr. Chung carried on a regular correspondence with relatives
in China. Some Americans are surprised to learn that mail
.routes to interior China never were disrupted, even during
the Korean War.
Writer Lee Foster has collaborated to sketch the following
portrait of a private China, contrasting Mr. Chung's memories
of earlier China with impressions during his recent visit.
Woodside, Calif. 94062
As the plane wings from Karachi to Shanghai, last leg of
his Paris-to-China flight, Kai Lai Chung finds himself drift-
ing back to the saddest and deepest impression of his early
life in China: the geography lessons of Tsung Yu-long.
In 1931, C, then fourteen, watched as the dignified teacher,
who was also principal of the school, looked at the wall map.
Old Tsung, born into the mandarin tradition, dressed in his
classic square jacket with sweeping sleeves and sewn-on cloth
buttons, his head covered with a silken skull cap that peaked
in a knotted button, his feet swathed in soft cotton shoes,
shook his head and pondered, before observing, "China is big
but not strong. China cannot resist invaders who will carve
her up. We will never get out of this morass."
The classroom was respectfully silent. The old man, who
seemed to C so much of what was best in China, paus d and almost
wept. He was not a pessimist without cause. Slowi growing
into manhood before leaving in 1945, C came to realize how
accurate was Tsung's malaise.
Geography at that time was a patriotic subject. The brutal
Japanese to the east were thought to be the eternal threat, but
at least they were Asians. If one had to capitulate, it was
far better to do so to one's own race. The encroaching Russians
to the north were considered barbarians, Cossacks, partly because
they were not Orientals. Regardless, all hope was gone. China,
the motherland, was doomed. Such was the standard lament.
C's main thought, as he sits on the Air France plane
winging to Shanghai, is that he was wrong, Tsung was wrong, and
so was almost every Chinese who had an informed opinion in the
grim 1930s and desperate 1940s. China did not slip back into
an Oriental Dark Age; nor did foreigners carve up the spoils.
China not only held herself together but began to act as a
Believing in the late 1930s that China would be a world
power in the 1970s was like speculating that men would land on
the moon in the 1970s. Such comments in C's milieu were dis-
missed with pitying shrugs. Ah, the foolish patriot nourish-
ing his illusions, the slogan-shouter vaunting his idle delusion,
his flights of imagination. But here she is: China, with her
800 millions, her bomb, her growing productive capacity, her
discernible international voice. C finds himself balancing
equal reactions of wonder, satisfaction, and pride.
He needs not remind Tsung during this visit of his earlier
mistaken pessimism. Tsung is dead. But in his final years the
old man had the resilience of bamboo. He worked for the new
government, changing his life style and storing his former
attitudes, gradually surprised at the success of China under
a regime he would have judged alien. Tsung and C's father
found their communion with the new society in the category of
"enlightened gentleman," an appellation that Mao Tse Tung
specifically created for men who were not exactly springboards
of the revolution but were assets to China. Better to absorb
them than to increase the political strain. Such was the
genius of the Hunan Deadant.
The Pakistani and Burmese passengers on the flight have
deboarded at Karachi and Rangoon. C wonders if the Chinese
remaining on the plane share his passing thoughts. The cluster
of passengers aboard is the Chinese delegation to the World
Ecology Conference in Stockholm. They consist of a white-
haired, scholarly gentleman who is treated with some deference,
several roly-poly political types, and staff members who hover
about like faithful attendants. C would like to talk to them,
especially because the white-haired gentleman could well be a
man he had known in-the 1930s or 1940s. He makes a faint
attempt to talk to the group, but this attempt gets a fainter
response, so he returns to his seat. The members of the group
remain together, congenial to each other, talking busily,
comrades intent upon building a future.
While stretching his legs in the.aisle, C meets another
passenger, an Overseas Chinese. The man is a legendary Chinese
merchant, as recognizable as a repeated character in Dickensian
fiction. He left China a year ago for Paris, where he runs a
Moroccan leather shop. The man's French would cause a Gallic
wince, so C' cannot converse easily; and the man's Chinese,
ironically, is of such a recherche dialect that C can hardly
understand him. The merchant returns to China, typically, to
see his relatives, especially the grandchildren. C's inten-
tions are different. The family is one focus of his visit,
but equally anticipated are strolls in the street, walks
through the lakes and mountains of the Hangchow countryside,
repeats of boyhood ramblings, and tastes of the native food
and wine. If C could have chosen a traveling companion on
this search for past memories, he would have invited someone
who could remember things past as well as Marcel Proust.
As the plane taxis down the runway he realizes that he
is here, at last, in China! Just a brief year ago, this would
have been inconceivable. For years, his Chinese friends in
the United States had occasionally asked each other; "Could
we ever return except as refugees or intruders to China? Do
we risk detainment and harassment? How would the United
States view our visit to an enemy country?"
He looks out the window at the black night, for the streets
of Shanghai are no extravagant milky way of lights. Behind him
now after an absence of 28 years.,is the drama of getting into
China, of obtaining a visa, which is not so much an art as a
concession to blind chance. He remembers knocking uncertainly
on the closed door of the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa to secure
the paper. Later a bland noncommittal reception to his inquiry
at the Chinese Embassy in Paris. The frustrating bureaucratic
answer: neither yes nor no, and a limbo of no comment on the
anxious question as to how long it takes to get a definite
answer from Peking.
An Indian friend with whom he lunched in Lausanne suggested
that C revisit his native land, but SZ kept his plans and
apprehensions to himself. The unknown process by which visas
were approved or disapproved could well dash his hopes. The
trip might fail to materialize! Then the letter from C's wife
in California, enclosing a note from the Chinese that she, a
non-Chinese, could not read. It said yes, the visa is granted.
Then the heady plane flight from LausanneAParis. Calming
down with a hot bath in his hotel. Shouting at a restaurant
that night for service, for he was bursting with good news and
lacked a sympathetic ear, the service was slow, and life in
Paris's Arrondisement Eight proceeded in its everyday manner
while he is going to China! Then the disappointment, while
sitting at a cafe in the early morning near the Chinese Embassy
on Rue George Cinq. Of all things, the piece de resistance,
he read in Le Monde that a worldwide airline pilots' strike
canceled his flight. Getting the visa but then four more
days of waiting. All this is behind him now as he taxis down
the Shanghai runway.
When he left in 1945, he did not wonder about ever returning.
He wondered about very little. Wonder is the luxurious preroga-
tive of people with a full belly. Fortunately, he had won
fellowships to Britain and the United States. He chose the
American fellowship1 though it paid less, because America* had
not been ravished by war and he knew there would be plenty of
food! What an elemental reason! So great had been his priva-
tion during the war that he spent years afterwards coping with
nightly dreams about waking up without a roof over his head,
moving from one r tio i squalid structure to another#
When he left Hangchow his mother had packed him a small
trunk of clothes that would have to last for the war years,
supplemented only byhis lucky purchase of a black-market
sweater. Towards the seventh year his winter clothes had
become so shabby and worn that C constantly worried: would
he weather another winter in such threadbare garments?
When he left China for India, awaiting passage to the
United States, C22y was startled by his sudden well-being.
How easy life in a Calcutta hostel was to a man who had shared
a mud-floor apartment for a year with bold rats thriving in the
adjacent toilet. How sweet were the fruit cocktail and extra
stewed figs ladled out by a generous cook on the Liberty Ship
to a man who had not been able to afford sugar for so many
Chung had been uncertain about getting a visa for this
trip back to China. Deboarding into the warm evening of
Shanghai, he realizes that he has only fall clothes, hardly
appropriate for the sweltering heat, especially the inevitable
tropical humidity of southern China. His prospects for a visa
in Paris had been such a long shot that he did not think of
taking along an album of family pictures to show his relatives.
He feels fortunate to have flown the Paris-to-Shanghai rather
thanASanrFrancisco-to-Canton route. The latter entrance has
the virtue of being cheaper but, in his mind, the heat and
tedium of the approach outweigh the cost. Boarding a plane in
Paris, sitting tight in a seat for eighteen hours without
additional exertion, arriving directly into the middle of the
country--that is how he wanted to return.
Shanghai at last! A slight nervousness. Then the first
question from a young woman, a Customs clerk. "Would you like
to be classified as American or as Overseas Chinese?"
He senses that this is a large question. He is an American
citizen, but he is also a born Chinese who has gone overseas.
He inquires what effect his answer will have, but the woman
remains noncommital. In a modest flourish of patriotism, he
responds, "Overseas Chinese," thinking she will prefer the answer,
but her face remains impassive and inscrutable. She notes his
reply carefully on a form. An "American" gets the better hotels,
finer cuisine, and companionship of international travelers.
As an "Overseas Chinese" he must be satisfied with lesser hotels,
common food, and his own resources for company. But he has the
compensating advantage of more mobility. A Chinese lady from
Michigan, who registered as "American," tells him later that
guards with fieldglasses watch the entrance to her hotel, noting
who enters and when. At least he is not hampered by that degree
of solicitous security.
His brother later apologizes for not forewarning C of the
question and coaching him on the right answer. So striking is
the difference in accommodations and service that the relatives
feel C's prestige would be higher if he were classed as
"American." When he becomes sick from the heat for a few days
in Hangchow, his brother's wife tries without success to have
him transferred to a better "American" hotel, but apparently
"Overseas Chinese" papers are all in one building and "American"
papers are in another building, far away. The little episode
becomes a triumph of bureaucratic rigidity.
When Customs has finished, he looks down the long hallway
and sees his brother and his brother's wife. He last saw his
brother 28 years ago in southwestern China during the war, when
C was a student in the city of Kunming, temporary headquarters
of three universities of Peking. His brother headed a corps
of engineers sent to work on the Burma Road. The brother's
arms were covered with watches, American and Swiss imports,
bought from Black market GIs as a hedge against inflation.
C's brother didn't know he was often paying several times the
market value for a Benrus or Bulova watch, so intoxicating was
the possession of watches to a Chinese. GIIA reputations as
sharp Yankee traders were borne out when the watches proved
less valuable than their trade price in crisp greenbacks,
largely because they were found wanting in their main functions,
keeping time. The brother had all the trappings of prosperity
admidst the havoc of war. C was discreet enough not to wonder
aloud how the Burma Road builders came by their affluence.
C had never met his brother's wife, though he had heard
about her in letters. Many Americans are surprised to learn
that regular mail routes to China through Hong Kong have never
been disrupted. Since 1945 C has sent monthly letters to
inland China, all through the Korean War and the excesses of
Joe McCarthy's reign. Because of their private rather than
political content, discounting some slips, such as his father's
comment on how well behaved were local units of the People's
Liberation Army, the letters were probably dull reading for
the poor censors of the FBI and China security. On only one
occasion had the contents of C's letters caused concern among
his relatives. His young son-had drawn a picture of a mammoth
machine, actually a wild geometric pattern, possibly a Rube
Goldberg contraption, which C sent to Hangchow as evidence of
the boy's ingenuity. The relatives feared that the Chinese
or American censors might wonder: What is this? A secret plan?
Another atom bomb design, cleverly disguised?
Upon meeting his brother, C delivers the first of several
gifts he has brought. For Chinese the offering of gifts is
imperative. A watch, of course, is the appropriate gesture for
his brother, who appreciates the $100 Omega. The brother is
brand-loyal, as are most Chinese, so C knows he will like either
an Omega or Longine#, the two companies whose products the
Chinese favored most. The rise or fall of quality in these two
watch companies and the current state of the watchmaking art
are not as immediately thrilling to the Chinese as a comfortable,
well-known brand name. C himself had not been entirely immune
to this typically Chinese craving for watched. After the war
he spent his first pay check earned at Princeton University
on a good Longine.
His other gifts, large and small, meet various receptions
here and later in Hangchow. The French bonbon candies are
highly appreciated because sweets currently available in China
are less refined.
The three cartons of American cigarettes--one Camel, one
Lucky Strike, and one Kool--are a special treat to the relent-
less Chinese smokers. The celebrated China traveler, Chen-ning
Yang, C's former shipmate to America and a Nobel prize winner
in Physics, had advised him that American cigarettes would be
The Ronson cigarette lighter he has brought is prized,
surprisingly enough, for the length of its flame, which is
longer than the flame of lighers available in China. Requests
were made for C to send more lighter flints from America.
Two ounces of ginseng, the one gift that C brought from
San Francisco, includes one ounce of the Korean variety, which
has a potency favored by most Chinese. The Chinese use of
ginseng for general medicinal powers is largely and perhaps
deliberately misinterpreted among food cultists in the United
States as aphrodisiacal. His mother prefers the ounce of
American gingseng, which is milder. "Too much fire," says his
mother. "Korean ginseng has too much fire for an old person."
C's ability to choose gifts failed him when he decided
on two red shawls. Perhaps he was thinking of some flamboyant
tune like "The East is Red" when he selected the garments in
such bright colors. They are for his mother, a senior citizen
who prefers blue or another subdued tone. "Red hurts the eye,"
A small electric-coil water heater is received with many
thanks. Good for boiling tea water and warming milk.
One gift he did not bring: a German Zeiss Ikon camera.
A woman friend of his family in Hangchow requested that he buy
a certain model of Zeiss Iron for up to $230 American or 500 Ren
Min Pee, a small fortune in China were wages run from $30/month
for a worker to $140/month for a full professor. He planned to
get this camera at Orly Airport before his flight, but the
selection proved meager. The exact model was not available.
He looked at a slightly different and larger camera. Seeing
him waver, the salesman showed him a cheaper but similar camera,
which he swore was of as high a quality. It was made in mainland
China! But C was going to China! Probably the camera was not
available for sale in China. Only for export. He knew that
among his compatriots, ex-bourgeois of an older generation,
there was a distinct preference for foreign-made goods, especially
German. Among similar items these Chinese would instinctively
choose a foreign product. Finally, pulling out his traveler's
checks, he decided to buy the German camera. Promptly the
shopkeeper revealed himself to be a man of the French tradition.
Already the selection in the camera shop had been meager and
the prices high. As should be expected, the service was now
about to become quixotic. The shopkeeper kindly requested that
C cash his traveler's checks at the Airport bank, to save the
shopkeeper trouble. The bank was two or three flights of
stairs above. C took one flight. Was it worth it? What if
the lady in China was not happy with this model, which is not
exactly what she wanted? He walked out the concourse and
boarded his plane.
During the week in Shanghai C longs impatiently for the
three-hour train ride to his native Hangchow. Shanghai appears
to him like the worst parts of Chicago, both shabby and badly
polluted. The hotel to which he is assigned is:as Spartan as
the Ukranian hotel he had lodged at in Moscow, with the consola-
tion that the room in China costs a third of the Russian tariff
six years ago. The weather is oppressively hot and the only
air conditioning available is a rotating fan.
Because it is politic to do so, C stays longer in Shanghai
than he intended. China Travel has scheduled him to see a
watch factory, youth palace, exhibition hall, and an evening
performance of the drama "White Haired Girl." He makes a
special visit to the leading university, Fudan, where he has
a round-table discussion of science in general and mathematics
in particular. He is pleased at the warm reception because
his studies epitomize a Western-style research that is theoretical,
divorced from the practical and pragmatic priorities that are
the current governing vision of Chinese life. There are no
opportunities in his work to genuflect before the Chinese
trinity of "workers, peasants, and soldiers." He would be hard
pressed, indeed, to argue that his studies "serve the people"
in the immediate, tangible manner that China now demands.
His meager enthusiasm for Shanghai rests partly on his
past humiliations there. In the 1930 he pursued his last
year of high school studies here, under the immediate guns
of Japanese gendarmes patrolling the intersections. He remembers
how students crossing the streets to school had to bow to the
conquering Japanese to avoid a beating.
He visits the old apartment in the International Settlement
where his parents took refuge during the early years of the war.
After Pearl Harbor they returned to Hangchow. C wishes to
glimpse only the outside shell of the building. The wash
hangs out in the courtyard and he feels like an intruder.
Several families now crowd into the building, one family to a
The train trip to Hangchow surprises him because so little
has changed. The lush rice fields, near-tropical fecundity,
hard rain, and patches of vegetable fields next to the railroad
track are as he remembers them, timeless and changeless.
Lounging back in his seat, C recalls his first of many rides
on this train. He was a boy of 12, traveling with his father,
a man of some means who journeyed in comfort. Especially in
a culture that did not indulge children by showing them around
as readily as do Americans, traveling to Shanghai with his
father was a great treat for C. His father's presence
occasioned special services. C still remembers a plate his
father ordered for him--macaroni with chicken giblet sauce.
The dish was C's first taste of something foreign, a large
world beyond his own. Since then he has consumed in Italy
and elsewhere tons of pasta with a variety of sauces, but never
has he found that first taste equalled. He wonders if memory
has cheated him by investing that first experience with a
quality it never possessed.
C. feels in this voyage a nostalgic return to the setting
of his youth. As the train speeds toward Hangchow, he recalls
historical allusions to his home town: Marco Polo and others
had sung praises to the temples in this capital of the Southern
Sung dynasty. More recently, President Nixon had spent a day
of sightseeing,relaxation,and pleasure in the same place. From
his home TV set C had watched with longing as the President
stepped into a pleasure boat on the famous lake of Hangchow.
HangchowUhs the scene of his life through early manhood.
C's first eighteen years here were a boyhood that had touches
of the idyllic, though at times he was a rebellious youth. His
father, a fairly prominent man, was regarded as a lone wolf.
Typically, C as a child did not know what his father's
professions were. In earlier years, the elder C had managed
a Shanghai newspaper and an electrical company. Once he had
been linked with a rebellion of a less powerful warlord against
a more powerful adversary, but through good fortune he was not
executed. Later he served as adviser to the provincial govern-
ment and administered the area's stamp tax program. He had a
Doctorate in Economics from Waseda University, Japan, and was
associated in the early years with the national revolution
under Sun Yat-Sen. There he &adethe acquaintance of many men
who later became dignitaries, some of whom joined the new regime.
He died in 1961 shortly after receiving the cable announcing
the birth of his first grandson.
His father's one word of advice struck C as a young man.
"Don't become a government official," his father admonished,
"or you will always be beholden to some warlord."
He favored for young C a dependable, profitable career
in Engineering; but young C was not so practical minded,
partly because he was strongly influenced by literary friends.
He and his father compromised. C enrolled in college to study
Physics, which would eventually allow him to slide into
His asn cQmed from Soochow, which is famous for its
beautiful women. She is well versed in the old literature,
rare for a woman, and has a strong interest in poetry and
calligraphy. As a child, her feet had been bound in the old
manner. Herfather, a noted Buddhist scholar, was famous late
in life for a long stone scroll that he had carved on a large
wall after going blind. In the high passions of the recent
Cultural Revolution this mural was destroyed.
In Hangchow the China Travel officials first lodge him
in a park on the famous West Lake of the city. "Flowery
port viewing fishes" is the literal translation of this agree-
able hostelry, where even the sandalwood furniture exudes an
aroma of perfume. The measured background symphony of
cicadas and the fragrance of water lilies greet him on early
morning walks. He picks up a fistful of water and flicks it
onto the lilies where the droplets scatter like small pearls.
After seeing the lakes of Italy, Switzerland, and the United
States, his impression is that West Lake is cramped, not quite
on the grand scale he remembered. He can walk around it easily
in a day. However, the lake has a subtle charm that Chinese
poets have described with the phrase "close to you." Beyond
the lake, the historic and aesthetic ambience of the city
gives to the people a style that is civilized, though from
the point of view of a world traveler, slightly provincial.
His first destination is his mother's house. During
the Cultural Revolution her house has been "appropriated,"
but she has been allowed to keep two rooms. Acknowledging
her old age, the State allows for her care a woman companion
named Old Chou. Respect for age remains a compelling tradi-
tion in China, though the old form of greeting which meant
literally "earlier born" has been replaced by "comrade," mean-
ing "person of common purpose." He finds that his mother's
situation is tenable. Some of the old mahogany tables and
chairs as well as some household utensils remain. The larger
room looks out on a courtyard containing a tree that provides
pleasant shade. Old Chou, who does all the housekeeping and
keeps C's mother company, has excellent culinary skills. She
prepares special dishes for C and talks about her own son, a
factory worker held in high regard. At the direction of C':s
Other, Old Chou fixes two favorite dishes of C's youth. The
first combines freshly picked bamboo and mushrooms. Shortly
after C visitiM his father's grave and gave the attendant $9
to thank him for keeping the grounds nicely, the gravekeeper
return lto the rooms of C's mother with a gesture of his own,
a huge chunk of freshly picked bamboo shoot, ideal for the
bamboo/mushroom delicacy. On another day, Old Chou prepares
a second masterpiece; two small fishes, a species of carp
are brought alive and jumping to the house. Freshness is the
key to this dish. The fishes are steamed in a soup-souffle
that is an epicure's delight.
Commuting from C's hotel to his mother's rooms is difficult.
The buses are crowded, infrequent, and stuffy. But staying
with her presented problems. The lack of a modern toilet is
a serious drawback, precluding his spending the night in her
rooms, though he takes naps and meals there. The rickshaw
drivers of old are being phased out because it is felt that
they symbolize exploitation of man by man. Even use of these
tricycle taxis requires explanation if one wishes to avoid the
nasty remark: Can't he walk by himself? When C first signals
a tricycle and climbs aboard, the driver waits for several
seconds, presuming that C has some heavy baggage to load.
Would a man without a load dare to use a tricycle? The young
in China walk or ride bicycles; oldsters simply don't move
Some splendors of the Hangchow he knew have diminished.
As C walks this provincial capital, he discovers that some of
its famous 360 temples have been emptied of the relics and
color he once knew. The Japanese in their invasion and the
mobs during the Cultural Revolution have removed or desecrated
many of the ancient relics, such as ink and tablet masterpieces
of the calligrapher's art, which will be sorely missed when
China eventually retrieves an interest in her awesome heritage.
Paintings belonging to C's father perished during the Japanese
war or were appropriated as national treasures during the later
The style of Hangchow as he knew it does not exist today.
Many cafes have so succumbed to the egalitarian ideal that
cuisine is not an accurate term to describe their food. Youths
from all over the country, speaking in a clatter of accents,
wade with muddy boots through the once clear brooks at Tiger-
Run Temple. The best tea available in local stores is a Dragon
Well variety of Grade 4 quality, in the 10 recognized grades.
Higher grade teas are exported to Hong Kong, where he will
buy a quantity before returning to San Francisco. He asks a
shopkeeper where he can buy the delicate jellies made of
crab apples that sold for 10 cents a box in 1937. But the
shopkeeper replies, "Ah, that is no longer made. Too wasteful
of material and labor. Now considered too bourgeois. I am
Much of his earlier China exists only in memory. He goes
looking for the Middle School where he studied for three years
after being tutored at home until age 11, but the streets are
so altered in name and the appearance so changed by mounds of
dirt from bomb-shelter excavations that he cannot find his way.
Russians are the bates noir who inspire these diggings.
One of the constant visitors at his mother's house is a
cousin, Y, a stooped old man who comes every day for reasons
of economy to eat with C's mother. He has a square face, dark-
rimmed glasses, crew cut, and an owlish air. He is a fine
walking companion for C and an able rconteur of the legends
and history of Hangchow. At the time of the Communist victory
in 1948, he was the editor of a provincial newspaper that
was judged "reactionary." Now he is employed by the city as
a "paper cutter," literally. When he returns with C from
house to hotel, he never enters the building itself, for that
requires showing the hotel guards his identification card on
which employment is noted. His job has the stigma of a
charity position, hardly an exalted status for a man with
his background and education. Too proud to risk the humiliat-
ing glances of the guards, he turns away and walks to his
home or, more properly, to his small room, which he never
shows C. Physically and emotionally he is a stooped man.
The paper-cutting job has bent his body, but perhaps it could
be said more accurately that he was broken and cast out by the
Y's daughter will not visit Magg She is over forty,
unmarried, a Chemistry teacher. She fears that C might ask
her questions on Chemistry that she will not be able to answer.
She worries that she might be humiliated. How curious her
reaction appears to C until he learns of her problem. At the
outbreak of the Cultural Revolution in 1967, she had a position
teaching Chemistry at the University. When she was required
to mix political teachings with science she became confused,
confiding to her mother, "When I face my class I am no longer
sure whether I am teaching Chemistry or political thought.'
Her students and the Red Guards challenged not her Chemistry
but her explanations of Mao's Thought, which she was supposed
to perceive "correctly" and expertly. She became so distraught
that she could no longer teach effectively. Gradually she
also lost confidence in her scientific knowledge.
Y's son is also initially apprehensive about visiting C.
In Hangchow politics the son is an important mover and
shaker. He had the foresight to join the Party before Libera-
tion, adopting a pseudonym and escaping to Yenan. He directed
the building of the new Hangchow airport for President Nixon's
visit. As a man on the rise, he is cautious because his
father was known to be suspect, and he doesn't want to displease
his comrades. Should he associate with an older exile relative
One day, while C is on an excursion, he comes to visit
C's mother, asking "What is the status of second uncle his
extended family title for C? Does he consider himself
Chinese or American?"
C's mother solds SS for asking the question, for
hesitating to meet a returned relative. She browbeats him into
visiting C at his hotel. He capitulates, arriving with gifts
of Mao buttons, which are proper and postage stamps for C's
son in California, which are greatly appreciated. He also
offers some Grade 2 Dragon Well tea. Later he invites C to
see his apartment, which appears to be no more opulent than
that of an ordinary worker, a fact that comments eloquently
to C on the moral force of the Revolution.
The family's former rickshaw puller, a private chauffeur,
comes to visit C and greets him with the title "second junior
master," a salutation now outlawed because it suggests class 4 S'-hCo\-s,
Several people try to shush the old man and prevent him from
using the archaic and forbidden term, but he either does not
hear or chooses to ignore them. He is partially deaf,
which is sometimes convenient. Of hearty and rude peasant
stock, the old rickshaw puller is now past 70. He visits
around the neighborhood frequently, partly because he does not
enjoy his son's family, with whom he lives. His reversion to
such taboo greetings as "second junior master" is viewed
with benign tolerance because he is too old, too incorrigible
to be reformed. And who is more deserving of sympathy as a
true proletarian? People seem to say: Let him live out
his old age with deserved respect.
His coming to see C at the supper table is a sign of
China's new social order. Previously he would have stayed in
the kitchen. He does not eat with the former masters, however,
for that would have been too much in the rickshaw puller's
eyes. He also refuses gifts, so great is his pride, until C
forces him to take a few American cigarettes, which he accepts
reluctantly but gratefully. Like many Chinese, he is a fiend-
ish smoker. In China, smoking is an inexpensive way to relax
and relieve tension. The Chinese generally believe that smoking
will not harm an otherwise healthy man.
Because the C family is progressive, the old rickshaw
puller could have remained secure in the family's protection.
He lived in a small room in front of the house when C was a boy.
He was free to leave the family's employ if he wished. C re-
calls fondly how the rickshaw man pulled him to Middle School
on days when his father was not being taxied about. (ften C
and the rickshaw puller took trips to see some outlying
scenery, villa, or temple, even in the rain, covered by
thick glazed oilcloth. Though the man could have stayed with
the family in his old age, other people in his situation were
less fortunate. Sometimes old people died of starvation if
they had no family. Old workers were discarded like used
furniture. Now they are all pensioned off, preferably to the
homes of their relatives, who are paid by the State to keep
them. All old people are secure in the knowledge that they
will share whatever degree of prosperity the body politic
This current confidence of the Chinese people amounts to
a major shift of attitude. Such a new mantle of security
has little to do with their immediate wealth but, rather,
with the knowledge that they will not be dealt with capriciously
by landlords, employers, roving bandits, or the government.
Each person now feels part of the society, certain that he will
be taken care of, that he will never starve in his old age,
unless everyone starves with him. They know they are part of
the group. By contrast, the Chinese commoner of the 1930s--
especially the peasant--has been described as a man up to his
chin in water, who could be drowned by the slightest ripple.
C feels this cohesiveness at his mother's house when an
official of the local cadre makes an appearance. The pleasant,
middle-aged woman, who might be the structural equivalent of
a precinct leader in the American system, is most solicitous
of the wellbeing of C's mother. C is told that the average citi-
zen today has a basic assurance that he will share, equally with
those in his area, such health services as are available.
C spends much of his time in Hangthow wandering the
streets, imbibing his past, savoring his sojourn. The shop
windows are shabbier than in former days. The people are ab-
sorbed in their daily work, a sharp contrast with the langorous
mood of his bourgeois youth. He visits briefly the home where
his family lived before moving to the house where his mother
now resides. In the courtyard of this earlier home he had a
large stone container about two feet in diameter and about three
feet tall. As a boy he had filled this container with water
from the well and plants from nearby ponds. He then gathered
all sorts of sea life, retrieved from the cook's daily market
basket, such as prawns, minnows, and clams. Once he even
boosted an eel into this aquarium, where his small menagerie
thrived in their little artificial world. Now the courtyard
i-s used by several families. Women were performing their
various household chores. He did not feel like walking into
his childhood home. Glancing up at the second-story balcony
window where he once perched to watch the activity in the
street, he feels that he would intrude if he asked the people
to let him look out the window again.
C makes an effort to relive some of his favorite boyhood
trips to the mountains near Hangchow. When he was in the sixth
grade, he would organize a small party--perhaps of five: or i
friends. His mother would prepare for the group an excursion
lunGh of canned food, Western-style bread, and sometimes a whole
watermelon. They would take the paths to the mountains, visit
caves and temples along the way, and wade streams they came
upon whileStrolling the region known as Nine Streams and
Eighteen Brooks. Peasants in the region would be picking some
of the finest green tea in China. At a secluded spot they tacs
a dip after stripping off their clothes, a more risque act in
China than in present-day United States. Later they entertained
themselves with school problems, especially little mathematical
tests. Toward the end of the day, they would seek the hillside
cedar forests where they could always count on a breeze. If
they were hungry, they would end the day in an ancient temple,
sipping tea and eating noodles. C learns that the celebrated
cedar forest was destroyed by the Japanese, who chopped it into
firewood during the war. Many of the temples have gone into
For 35 years he has lived with a memory of a particularly
delicious brand of canned, fried anchovies enjoyed during these
early picnics. Now he can buy them, imported in the United
States, for one dollar a can. In Hangchow much of the fun has
gone out of his revisits to these mountain retreats. He is
not so spry as he used to be. His childhood companions are
dead or dispersed. Several times on the streets he passes
people who look vaguely familiar, acquaintances drifting from
the past back to his consciousness.
One day he meets in the park a group of curious soldiers.
After striking up a conversation, they ask what it costs to
fly Paris-Shanghai. For fun he throws the question back
at them. One soldier ponders his answer before reaching for
a sum he feels is safely high--the Chinese equivalent of $140.
C doesn't have the heart to tell him that the actual figure
is more than ten times that amount, so he merely begs off by
saying it is very expensive. The soldier's answer impresses
C with how little comparative ,information these people possess.
While sick for several days, partly because of the constant
950 heat, he takes much solace in the two books he has brought
from Paris, reading them slowly so he will not finish them
before he is well. No literary books are available in Hangchow,
except propaganda, which does not suffice to while away his
enforced idleness. He has George Simenon's Quand j'etais vieux
and a volume on two Chinese poets, by Kuo Mo-Jo, the leading
Chinese academic. The books are welcome company because, as
his stay in Hangchow stretches on, he finds that he has little
in common with the other Overseas Chinese from Asian lands who
overcrowd the hotel. He hungers for some intellectual and
international company, if only for tourist chitchat, but he is
not allowed to move into the-foreigner's hotel in Hangchow.
Once, however, he is invited to glimpse the Hangchow Hotel
by a Chinese lady from Ann Arbor, who classified herself as
"American." C knew the Hangchow Hotel before the war as an
exclusive domain for political big shots, movie stars, and
foreign tourists who came from Shanghai to spend their holidays.
Being foreign in those days meant a right, ipso facto, to
the best of everything. He finds that the Hangchow Hotel
has kept up its grand manner except for a slight change of
clientele--a crowd of Asian visitors, apparently from Sihanouk's
Cambodia. C envieS most the air conditioning in their rooms
although the lady from Michigan complained that it stoppA too
early in the evening. The dining hall, the Western and
Chinese menus, the white-uniformed waiters, and the Friendship
Store full of the best of Chinese-made gifts and souvenirs,
vgg a marked contrast to the homely atmosphere in C's own
hotel. The difference -A-as s--E that between a de luxe
hotel in Paris or Rome and a category III lodging. And all
for a difference of about a dollar a day! Such are the ad-
vantages of claiming foreign status.
Finally he leaves Hangchow, via air, for Peking. The
Friendship Shop at the airport sells fine cloth, which he buys
for his brother's wife before departing. He asks the luggage
attendant before boarding, "Will we eat on the plane?" The
man says he doesn't know. C finds that a simple piece of in-
formation regarding schedules and services is seldom ventured
with certainty in China. On the two-hour flight he receives
chewing gum, soft drinks, and fruit.
This is not his first visit to Peking. Shortly before
the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937, he began his
freshman year in college there, but he was back in Hangchow
for summer vacation when the Japanese took Shanghai# in July
1937. At the end of August he left Hangchow and fled south
with a group of Peking schoolmates, leaving his family--father,
mother, and younger sister--ensconced in their suburban hideout,
an old temple, while Japanese bombs fell sporadically.
For five days he savors the encounter with Peking, basking
in the company of Chinese and foreign intellectuals. He
delivers a Mqthematical lecture at the Academy of Sciences and
is hosted by the vice-chairman, his Physics teacher during
freshman year in 1937. He succumbs willingly to Peking Duck,
superbly prepared for only $1.75 per person. He shared this
dinner with two Chinese-Americans and an American girl who was
married to one of them. The married couple had come from Taiwan
after their Chinese Studies. He was informed by this couple
that they were able to get a reserved table only by using C's
name. As an American professor who had been invited to the
Academy, C had obtained a VIP status, which did not surprise C,
for the college professor is the highest-paid profession in China.
Their table was indeed in a large, otherwise empty, private
C. regrets missing a tour of the Ming Tombs and a display
of recently unearthed burial treasures of fine gold and jade
craftsmanship. Archeology is one study, oddly enough, that has
f urished in spite of the cultural changes.
The weath in Peking is more comfortable, hot but not so
muggy. He cools himself in a marketplace by drinking yogurt
flavored with the natural tastes of walnut and grape. One
"foreign" restaurant amuses him by offering dishes made exclus-
ively from canned food, presuming that Americans and other
foreigners prefer such fare. For two dollars he gets a salad
consisting of canned chicken and potatoes /)almost devoid of
One foreign visitor who crosses his path in Hangchow,
Peking, and Canton, is a medical doctor of Chinese ancestry
who now lives in California. When this medical man finds that
C is from Stanford University, he asks, "How could they let
those students riot?" and "How could they let Angela Davis
out of jail?" His comments suggest to C the political spectrum
of visitors to China as well as the range of dislikes fre-
quently found among struggling Chinese overseas. The doctor
has a low opinion of blacks and rioting students. He does not
have a high opinion of much of the New China, especially the
goods for sale. Typically he has come to China to visit his
native Fukien ancestral home and burial site.
"This is not too important to me," he notes to C. "But
my family and friends in California will not let me return
without at least one picture. Then my duties are over."
In Peking C meets him at the Temple of Heaven, a round
structure celebrated as one of the world's beautiful pieces of
architecture. The doctor, resting on the stone steps, gazes
up at C and says, "I've had it." He trudges out, the tired
From Peking C flies south to Canton, passing over the
ground of his earlier sad trek under the distress of pursuing
Japanese. In 1937 he fled first to Changsha, an area known
for its rice, perpetual rains, spicy foods, and passionate Bn4l.h,
The Japanese pursued without pause.
He and other students were ragged refugees, catching oppor-
tune trains south to Canton, where they were packed into the
dorms of a Christian college. Three months later they took a
boat to Hong Kong, stayed there for a night, then boarded
another boat to Hainan Island, and finally to Haiphong and
Hanoi. China was so backward in those days that he had to go
through Vietnam to take a train into the primitive Southwest
China where, residing in Kunming, Yunnan province, students of
the exiled Associated Universities of Peking had the protection
of a warlord for the duration of the conflict. For the next
eight years he studied in this obscure location. The province
later reminded him of California without a coast because of its
agreeable climate. His situation was far from carefree, however.
Eight students at dinner were served a communal bowl of vegetables
cooked with an occasional piece of meat and the staple rice,
which was often riddled with the ubiquitous pieces of gravel
that farmers mixed in to increase the weight before selling.
Spitting out the gravel was a deft art in the hurried meal.
The speed with which a few slices of meat were trapped by
chopsticks was a measure both of one's agility and hunger.
Because the nutrition level was low, many daylight hours were
spent idly in the tea shops of the town, playing chess or gos-
siping4which demanded little concentration.
He was a studious young man in an environment that had a
profound respect for professorial knowledge. The eight years
of privation in his young manhood had some consolations;
young men and women were thrown together in a Bohemian style
unusual for China, with the attendant love intrigues. By
1945 he had finished his degree, taken a Master's Degree,
and become an instructor in.the University. With a fellowship
earned two years earlier, he then exited from China.
He flew over the Hump to Calcutta after the war ended.
From there a boat would take him to America. Though he had
five dollars a day (then a fortune!) to spend on himself in
Calcutta, the years of wartime hardship caught up with him.
Because of his weakened condition he became deathly sick with
a local fever. He was unable to travel, but fortunately the
boat arrived late. With twenty other Chinese students, he
crowded into Fourth Class quarters.
On this boat C had his first experience with Americans.
A Southern lieutenant put an open bottle of ink into his bag
of clothesfand then threatened to beat him if the prank was
reported. When he arrived in New York, too weak to carry his
bags down the tilted ramp, a friendly American solder rushed
to his assistance. With several fellow Chinese, C took a
taxi to his hotel, -the Edison, on Broadway. The taxi meter
read 65 cents, so promptly each passenger gave that amount
plus a tip to the driver, who smiled benevolently and drove
away. At the Bond Store on Broadway he bought a new blue
coat for $45. The coat stood up well over the years, but the
sweetest moment# of ownership came on the day of the purchase,
a special buying spree that was exultant, a sharp contrast
to the years of subsistence living. He rode up to Princeton
to begin his academic career in America.
C ends his current China journey in Canton, which appears
to him to be the shabbiest city he visits in the country. Hot,
humid, smoggy, unruly, and dirty, Canton is the ambiance for
illustrating the Southern Chinese character: they are a
smaller, shorter people than the Northerners; they are more
individualistic, more sensuous, and more aggressive. The city
is terribly overcrowded. His hotel is run down, with cockroaches
and crude food. The standard "Chinese food" in American restaur-
ants, until recently, has been Cantonese; but the cooking style
does not always appeal to Northerners. Emperors from the North,
in the eras of the dynasties, sometimes brought their cooks and
food with them when traveling in the South. C wonders if the
culinary traditions have been enhanced in the last 25 years.
Probably not, he concludes, because of the thoroughly egalitarian
emphasis that he notices everywhere. He wishes he had friends
in Canton with whom to share a dinner.
He exists from China with a bureaucratic flourish. In-
formed by the Central Bank of Peking that he could exchange his
money at the border, C declines to spend about $90 he had changed
into Chinese currency. The bank at the border is not of one
mind with the Bank of Peking on the subject. They will not
exchange the money, offering him the option of sending it to
someone in China. C wonders aloud, "What if the traveler has
no relatives in China?" He sends the sum to his mother.
The border guards search his luggage meticulously, even
opening his tube of toothpaste. He explains thoroughly what
he is taking out: a small Han dynasty figurine that his
mother had given him, an4 ink holder carved of green stone,
and his grandmother's ivory fan. About his most cherished
souvenir the border guards have no questions. They cannot
see the memories of his private past in China, now freshly
renewed but also transformed.
Woodside, Calif. 94062
Dear Kai Lai,
Enclosed is the revised essay. I have cast it in more of
a third person manner, for two reasons. I think it will
give to the piece an objectivity that will remove, for you,
some of the reservations you have had about intimate
subjects. And secondly, as we proceed, I think you will
feel more willing to explore your reactions to China and
your past if you can see yourself as the character of the
book rqqher than the first-person confessing/revealing.
Woodside, Calif. 94062
Dear Kai Lai,
Enclosed is the revised essay. I have cast it in more of
a third person manner, for two reasons. I think it will
give to the piece an objectivity that will remove, for you,
some of the reservations you have had about intimate
subjects. And secondly, as we proceed, I think you will
feel more willing to explore your reactions to China and
your oast if you can see yourself as the character of the
book rqaher than the first-person confessing/revealing.
MARGERY L. FELTON
261 Hamiiton Avenue
Palo Alto, Califok-La 94301
November 7, 1973
Mr. Lee Foster
"A Private China ...
(This should have been $44.00!
Please don't ask me to discount
my work again. I can't afford it!)
f I 2 A