I began my first post-graduate job in late ‘79
- just as China was opening up for foreign tourists.
- just as China was opening up for foreign tourists.
There was only one tourist company, the state run China International Travel Service and I worked in the Beijing branch as a local English speaking tour guide.
There were only three hotels for foreign tourists at that time, the Friendship Hotel (where we used to the live), the Front Gate Hotel on the south side the city, and the Beijing Hotel in Tiananmen Square – which was the preferred destination since it was in the center of the city and close to the Forbidden City.
The original Beijing Hotel was built in the early 1920’s and a new building was attached to its east side in the 1970’s. Originally, plans called for this new wing to reach taller than its current 17 stories. But according to rumor, the high officials who lived in Zhong Nan Hai were afraid that they might be seen from the top of the building, so the building had to be re-designed. ( For hundreds of years, ever since Ming dynasty, houses in Beijing were only allowed one story – since the emperors didn’t want ordinary people to see them.)
New tour guides, like myself, spent our first weeks memorizing the script and following the senior guides around until we had proven ourselves capable to take groups on our own (which were groups that the seasoned guides didn’t want.)
Some of the guides preferred large groups (so they would get larger commissions from restaurants and shops) – and some of them tried to avoid tourists from New York, since they were known to be more difficult and demanded more attention. The guides were the only English speakers the tourists would ever meet, and were available for complaints 24 hours a day.—even back at the hotel, where we would sleep in an adjacent room.
But I was just happy to be around American tourists , not only to improve my English but also to learn about that part of the world. I learned that American people were often kind, simple and honest. They believed what you told them.
I don’t like it, but in China, a person who tells 100% truth is known as “stupid” - and sometimes we had to lie to tourists about where they might stay that evening, because no place was available (the hotels had been overbooked) It was very hard for me to keep the truth from them.
Many times, their hotel rooms were not ready for them at the end of the day, so we’d have to keep them on the bus or take them somewhere else until the rooms had been vacated and cleaned.
Sometimes, we even had to put the tourists into ordinary Chinese hotels which must have been quite a culture shock . The tourists in those years were mostly quite prosperous, and they were not used to shabby accommodations.
In one instance, I had to separate husbands and wives into different rooms. One older couple came to me with very sad and angry tones --- telling me that they have been married 40 years and had never slept in a different room. But what could I do ? I felt very bad, but they still had to be separated.
We took them to the four major sites in Beijing: The Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and the Temple of Heaven.– and then we’d also take them to some special shopping districts. In the early days, the guides were not allowed to accept cash tips from the tourists or kick-backs from the shopkeepers –but over time, that changed. Tourists would often leave us small gifts, like perfume – and all these gifts were turned in to the agency and then equally distributed as gift packages to the guides at the end of the year.
On Chinese New Year, we drew lots , and that’s was how the gifts were distributed among us. Little by little, tour guides stopped handing the gifts in, and unofficially we were allowed to keep them. Over the years, I had kept some the novels that were either given to me or left on the bus. I read some of them, such as “Coma” by Robin Cook, and “Stranger in the mirror” by Sidney Sheldon.
As I gained seniority, I was allowed to pick the kind of tour groups that I wanted – which were small ones – because it’s so much easier to keep track of 6 people instead of 60 – and you had a chance to get better acquainted with the people, most of them Americans , and a few of them of Canada, England, or Australia.
Within the Beijing Branch, there were several offices. The Japanese office took care of Japanese tourists, The European office took care of all the Spanish and Italian as well as Australians. There were about 30 – 40 tour guides in each office, but later that number grew ( I was there from late 1979 through June 1986 ).
I liked the Canadians the best because they were very well disciplined and complained very little. No special requests, not a lot questions -- they were very quiet people and easily pleased. Australians were also good, but usually our office didn’t handle them. Over the years, I made a few close friends, a couple of them are still in touch with me.
We were only supposed to talk about the news or information that had been printed in the “Peoples’ Daily”.
If a group had more than 30 people, two local guides would be assigned to it, plus the one national tour guide who accompanied the group throughout their entire tour. So in that situation, you’d better not say anything politically. Who knows what would be reported after the tour?
Even though I was an outspoken person, I had to hold my tongue in the presence of other guides. Once, I was challenged by the American tour guide, who was trying to please his group to get bigger tips – and he asked me many questions on economy and politics which I had a hard time to answer.
Back then – and even now – I do not know how China’s economy works. We Chinese never paid taxes before the 1990’s, so I had no idea how the government got money.
And there were also certain things we just could not share with them even if we knew the answer. He made me feel so small and ignorant. That was one of tours I felt very bad about it.
But on the small tours, I would sometimes be the only guide present – so I could talk about my own life – and every time I talked about the Cultural Revolution, I cried.
Then, as now, my English was not perfect – but I have a talent for figuring out what people are trying to say, even if I can’t understand all the words – so I think I took good care of my tourists – and I was also popular with the tour bus drivers, making their jobs as easy as I could.
One time, a tourist asked to take my picture next to one of our buses – and then, the following year, one of the guides showed me a magazine article that included a picture of me standing next to the bus door – and describing one “Miss Wang” who was a “ pretty girl who spoke English very well”. I was very proud !
Since we accompanied the tourists all through their stay in Beijing, we also attended their banquets – and this was first time I had ever eaten like this in my life – Peking Duck every week ! But to tell the truth – I didn’t really appreciate it. I had grown up in boarding schools where you ate whatever was given – and it would be many years later until I learned how to take pleasure from good food.
Especially when I companied the tour to small cities, and the tour was served with 10 – 20 different dishes and delicacies The tourists were stunned with how they were treated, but sometimes they would not appreciate the food at all. For example, there is a famous dish served in the Summer Palace. I was told that it should only take 4 minutes from when the fish was caught in Kung Ming Lake until it appeared on a table in the Summer Palace. The fish was fully cooked, but the fish mouth was still moving, so it scared most of the Americans.
That dish always ended up at the bus drivers’ table.
But at least I was beginning to take pleasure from good clothes. Ever since I was a teenager, the approved clothing for women was shirt and slacks – but now I was discovering the world of long or short colorful, flowing dresses. But you could not find them in any of the department stores in Beijing. In order to have them, friends from the travel agency showed me where to shop for fabric and then take it to a good tailor.
The first time when I was visiting my new in-laws in Sheng Yang, a big city in Northeast of Beijing, I walked down the street dressed in my new long dresses, and I swear, everyone was looking at me. I felt like a beautiful peacock in the Zoo !
But makeup was an unknown concepts when I grew up, and
I still didn’t wear lipstick or eye shadow – does a pretty young girl really need to ?
One time, much later in my career, I even got a fur coat, thanks to some wealthy Americans who were connected to the Reagan administration. There were five of them – and unlike other small groups, each one had to have his own hotel room. One day, when I was taking them through a market, they stopped to look at some furs made from various exotic animals – and asked me whether I liked the one made from wildcat. I was polite, and agreed with them that it was beautiful –not knowing that when the tour was over, they would give it to me as a gift.
And now I must report that one time I did break the “law”.
As tour guides, we did not have access to the Friendship stores which were only for the foreigners. Unlike other Chinese, we could enter them, but we were still not allowed to buy anything. One time when I was in the Shanghai Friendship store, I really liked a pair of shoes on the shelf. A nice American tour leader offered to buy them for me and then I would pay her back later at the hotel. We did not want the store find out that it was for me, But I had to try them on to see if they fit. The store manager did not say anything at the time, but he sent a letter to my office, and my boss did not let it go easily. I had to write confession and apology to the entire department. I was so sad, and regret that over a pair of shoes, such a big deal had been made..
Fortunately, there were never any great disasters on any of my tours. Sometimes a person might lose track of time while shopping and miss the bus –or someone else might trip on the curb and break a bone – but at least none of my customers ever died ! (although I did hear of some who did – travelers who were ill to begin with – like one man who was dying from AIDS. (we had never heard about AIDS back then – and we certainly weren’t prepared. Chinese hospitals sterilized but they did not dispose of used needles)
Eventually, after working for a year in Beijing, I began to be offered positions on national tours – where I would accompany groups all over China. Local guides would give the tour, but I would serve as interpreter – and over the next five years, I got to visit every tourist destination (except for the Silk Road – which I’d like to see eventually, as a tourist myself)
I even traveled to Tibet – where the locals figured that I was just as foreign as the foreigners we were guiding.
During my six years as a tour guide, I was known for my straight forward and honest personality. Sometimes, I got into trouble for that, but I also made some good friends who could trust me. One day, one of the guides who was a party member approached me and closed the door behind him. He was a nice guy from worker’s family who had joined the party while at college. He had been one of my school mates. He sincerely asked me if I were interested in becoming a party member myself. I was surprised and then I laughed a little about it. He was puzzled, since usually people feel honored to be asked. Then I asked him if he really wanted to know what I was thinking at that moment. (I trusted him) and he said yes. My answer was even if the gate to the party membership was widely open, I would not step in. He was shocked and then scared, and he begged me not to mention it to anyone else: “ I am sure you would be in a big trouble if another person in this office heard you say that” . He never reported it to our boss, and he never approached me on that subject again.
Being a tour guide was great fun and these were some of the happiest years of my life – but I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life doing it. I was beginning to have other plans for what to do next.
The following is the report of an American woman
who traveled to China during that time.
who traveled to China during that time.
Let me say right off that this was the trip of a lifetime – way back in 1983 – soon after China had opened up, and it was my first trip to Asia. I was single, 38 years old, and had been working hard for several years as a sales rep in telecommunications (though I had a degree in Fine Arts) . I deserved a big, special treat - and this was it: a three week swing around China, organized by a San Francisco organization, the China-America Friendship Society.
First, we flew from Japan to Beijing – staying 5 days in a newly built hotel that was about a 25 minute ride from the center of the city. It didn’t really seem like a permanent structure –there were some design peculiarities – like unventilated restrooms in the center of the building . But clearly, great efforts had been made to accommodate us.
Our group had 16 people, and our guide was a very well educated young Chinese woman. Her English was impeccable, and with a troubled acceptance, she shared the story of her life during the Cultural Revolution – how family members had been arrested and how she had worked on a farm.
The food was terrible – but you know, that’s not why we were visiting China.
There was no shopping – except at the state run “Friendship shops” – where we paid with the scrip we’d been issued . We couldn’t purchase regular currency- so we couldn’t even walk down the street to buy a soda – which we could hardly do anyway since nobody spoke English and we couldn’t read street signs.
My main complaint was that other than tea, all we were offered to drink was Tsing Tsao beer and some kind of orange drink that seemed to be nothing more than orange colored sugar water. Beer gives me a headache – so I was always feeling thirsty. (and when we finally crossed the border into Hong Kong, my first purchase was a big bottle of tomato juice. Why tomato juice ? I don’t know – but for some reason it’s what I craved the most)
We did get a large, fancy banquet one night in Beijing – with a very impressive, colorful display -- but the food was much better seen than tasted. The Peking Duck, for example, was just bones – the bones of some poor duck whose flesh must have been eaten somewhere else. Mostly I remember eating rice – lots of rice mixed with some kind of very tough greens.
And I remember the kind of people we saw:
*the young and old factory workers hand knotting rugs, doing meticulous cloisonee work, or working the silk making machines. They were so focused ! … some were very young … and there was so little joy in the air. (All these products eventually went to the Chinese Friendship Shops where we tourists were herded in every city visited.)
*the men and women as they pulled those large, heavy wheel barrels down streets, whether paved or not. In the cities, bicycles were everywhere, hardly any cars, and people dressed in dark Mao pants and jackets. They just stared at us --- never a smile or wave.
*Grandmothers attending the children.; Pre-school children harnessed together in straight lines. (I think we have adopted that system here.)
* Old women standing very precariously on bound feet.
There were long, comfortable train rides, where tea was served, and the windows had crisp, white lacy curtains. And plane trips .........ooooh, … they could be scary and noisy,. It felt like the fog was blowing in from outside the plane.
Magnificent things: The Yang Tse River barge trip through the Three Gorges, ,The Great Wall, The terra cotta figures of Xian...being just a few yards and looking down on them. (Okay, awesome) And of course, the Winter Palace
I loved that trip ! It was a real adventure – and very affordable, too --- costing no more than what I might have expected to pay for a modestly priced Alaskan cruise.
I’ve taken a few other foreign trips in my life – and a few years later I went to Japan and Singapore – and especially enjoyed Autumn in Kyoto.
But this trip to China was special – like some kind of special moment in history – and I was there to share it.