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I graduated with a degree in Chinese Studies in 1976 from Yale. By coincidence a neighbor was a Yankee trader and entrepreneur who secured one of the first visas to China a few years earlier, when President Nixon helped push doors open to a nation that had been as closed as North Korea is today. I was hired at the age of 22 to be his door opener to unknown, future business opportunities and, in the summer of 1976, crossed the border between Hong Kong and the mainland. The rail line was controlled tightly as Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin.
Through a college friend, I met a wealthy Chinese woman who lived in Hong Kong. Half of her family had emigrated to Hong Kong when the Communists consolidated control of China in the 1940’s; half remained in Shanghai where the family fortune had been established over many generations. In the intervening thirty years, the family in Hong Kong had built a new fortune in textiles. The half in Shanghai had been forced into poverty and oppressed as enemies of the state. By her description, they were prisoners in their own tiny apartments.
By 1977 I still couldn’t get into Studio 54. The new thing was Michael Jackson. David Bowie was androgynous.
After a few visits to trade shows in Guangchou and Beijing, where only a handful of Americans had been allowed entry, I was given permission by the government to travel to Shanghai. As a businessman, or imagining myself to be one, I was such a rarity that the hotel did not know how to account for my stay. They wouldn’t take cash. Couldn’t. Didn’t know how to. I was billed, later, and I still have the receipt: it bills me for hot water as a separate expense. Every day, a crowd of more than a thousand waited silently, patiently outside the hotel on the opposite side of the Bund, for a chance to glimpse catch an American in China.
In Hong Kong, later, my new friend immediately grasped the importance of my itinerary. She asked me a favor and pressed a hundred dollars in my hand. In Shanghai, I had been taken by my sponsors to the single retail store in the city for foreign exchange. The store was used as a showcase for visiting dignitaries and Communist officials. It was organized in the style of Soviet era display cases, dim lighting, heavy drapery, and a grim collective antipathy toward consumerism. Nevertheless, the store had a few radios, televisions, appliances, and new, shiny bicycles. Compared to the teeming millions on the streets of Chinese cities, these were like Rolls Royces.
Now that I was heading back to Shanghai, my friend asked, would I meet her nephew — a fifteen year old — and buy him a bicycle? This question posed a number of obstacles I could not imagine. There were no telephones. She would write to them and alert them of my next visit.
My trips to China were always point to point: either from hotel to office building or restaurant. In other words, familiar locations to taxi drivers whose orders for conservation required operation at night with headlights turned off. When I handed my driver an address in the Shanghai suburbs, he looked at me quizzically. I insisted and he pressed on. I couldn’t tell you where we went, in a million years. But when I arrived it was clear everyone had been waiting for a long time. The building was non-descript within an apartment bloc of concrete construction within many similar structures: a dozen or so floors facing a small, cement inner courtyard. It was springtime. Everyone’s windows were flung open. Hundreds of residents– men, women, children– all chattering, leaning out to watch as news had quickly preceeded my footsteps. I was directed up a flight of stairs to the tiny apartment: come, come, come.
Looking back at this moment, I understand how little I knew of the extraordinary wrapped in ordinary. These moments are all around us. Continually. At any point I could have been stopped because I was under constant surveillance. In Beijing, hall monitors sat at desks on every floor. Although I spoke Chinese, they would never speak but only look disapprovingly when I would bring a girl to my room. But in the streets, I would often have men pop through crowds on the sidewalk and address me in language school English. Now a father and son, a cup of tea and a plan that meant everything in the world. Through the open windows, the neighbors leaned in and listened. He would accompany his son to the hotel where I stayed. I would meet them outside. I would take the son into the hotel, to breakfast. We would become familiar to people watching me. I would take the son by taxi to the retail store, he would otherwise never be allowed to enter. I would buy the bicycle and we would leave then, together.
No one owned a private car. We were nearly alone in the hotel restaurant. There really wasn’t any business being done in Shanghai. The boy, whose name I have forgotten, was very polite. He studied very hard, he said, because he hoped to go to college. Because the government had punished their family– for their past status– he had to be at the top of his class. Unless he was the most brilliant, he would have no chance of being accepted. My friend in Hong Kong, the boy’s aunt, told me of a cousin in Shanghai whose joints had frozen in the shape of a crouch from the cage he was kept in, throughout the Cultural Revolution. The boy picked at a full breakfast with restraint. If he was nervous, I couldn’t tell.
We pressed through the crowd outside the retail store ominpresent to catch a glimpse, I suppose, of someone who could buy something new, something modern and unattainable. The boy was composed. He knew exactly what he wanted and instructed the store clerk with certainty I imagine, as I write these words almost forty years later, to have been as practiced as my memory of it. I paid for the bike. He wheeled it out, hopped on in an instant, and without giving any observer the chance to react, disappeared into the crowd. It was the last time I ever saw the boy.
In Hong Kong, his aunt had received the news. She said her father, the family patriarch, wanted to thank me personally and would invite me to lunch at his penthouse apartment not far from the race track. I looked forward, in the limousine where she meet me, to meeting a man she had described as one of the wealthiest in the city. I had no reason to doubt her, but what I discovered was a surprise. The private elevator opened to an immense apartment with incredible views of Hong Kong and furnished with plastic, lawn furniture.
The three of us sat down to a lunch prepared exquisitely and copiously. The patriarch, my host, spoke only Cantonese and a Shanghai dialect I couldn’t understand. He spoke mostly to his daughter and seemed to express very little interest in me, beyond the introductory note of thanks. They conversed. She explained the importance of each dish as it arrived in the hushed efficiency of well-practiced servants. At times he seemed oblivious of me, and I distracted and unsettled by these very odd surroundings. Until the end of lunch, when the desert was cleared and he addressed me directly. His daughter interpreted. “You are probably wondering,” he said and indeed I was, “why a man as wealthy as me lives”, he gestured to the barren surroundings, “like this.” I waited for his answer. I was only 22 years old. What did I know? Was he waiting for my answer? His daughter –elegant as a Wall Street executive– appeared like a silent testament to what their family in Shanghai had endured. The apartment, the leering neighbors, the bicycle, the boy. “Once I had everything,” he said and didn’t finish the thought.
I don’t remember the drive back, and I never spoke to either of them again. A few years later, I left China to work in a family manufacturing business. We were successful. We made structural strength elements for fiber optic cable among other engineered products. I gained a measure of financial independence to write my observations of the American spirit and our shared geography, unconcerned with whose views I might offend. The business was sold. Its products likely part of the Chinese supply chain. Today, the sales of General Motors in China jumped to 1.21 Million Autos, exceeding the market in U.S. for first time. It is all true.