“Going to China, and maybe Siam–
I want to see for myself,
Those faraway places with their strange-sounding names
In a book that I took from the shelf.”
My visits to Asia began in 1952, during the Korean War. Although I did not set foot in Korea at that time, I did visit Japan and Hong Kong. Later, in 1979, I traveled to China on business, going around the world in an easterly direction; I returned to China in 1986 and 1994. In 1983, I traveled around the world in a westerly direction, stopping in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand. Other trips took me to India and Nepal, several times to Singapore, and to Malaysia. My last trip was to Taiwan at age 72, and signaled my retirement.
Japan was my first overseas destination after being commissioned and graduating in June of 1952. I flew to San Francisco, spending a week there prior to boarding a troop ship. We arrived a week later at Yokosuka Naval Base. After a couple days there, I went by train the length of Japan to Sasebo Naval Base, a two-day trip. The bunks were too short in the train, and it was hot and humid. With the windows open for ventilation, smoke filled the compartment whenever we passed through one of the many tunnels.
At Sasebo, I was berthed on an idle Liberty ship for several hot and humid days, without adequate ventilation. Only the officer’s club was air-conditioned. Finally, I traveled by tanker to Task Force 77, where I boarded my ship, the Henry W. Tucker, DDR-875, by breeches buoy. After two weeks at sea, steaming with the task force in aircraft launch and recovery operations, we returned to Sasebo for R & R. It was then that I was sent out on Shore Patrol to round up the ships officers when an order came through for early departure the next morning. I hired a rickshaw and made the rounds of all the watering holes, managing to get some of them back aboard. We made a couple more tours with the task force before returning to Long Beach in September, after a stop in Pearl Harbor.
After a winter spent in Mare Island Naval Shipyard for refitting, we left the following May for Japan, stopping at Pearl again, and Midway Island for refueling. Midway is little more than a fuel dump and a bird refuge. After we reached Yokosuka, our officers were invited to a party in Tokyo, hosted by the father of one, who was an agent with our embassy there. While there, I traveled with another officer to Kamakura to see the great Buddha. In addition to our task force duties, during this tour we visited Nagasaki, Hong Kong, and Kobe. While in Nagasaki, I visited the site of the second atomic bomb blast. By this time, the city was largely rebuilt, but a brick Catholic church about a mile from ground zero was left as a ruin. One wall remained erect, after having been moved lengthwise about a foot from its foundation. On another trip, we stopped at Hakodate, a port on the northernmost island of Hokkaido, a remote place that smelled of squid drying on racks along the shore. Few spoke English there.
During July of 1953, the Korean Armistice was signed, ending hostilities. We remained in the theater until December, returning to Long Beach for the winter. The following June, I was discharged, my two-year contract having expired.
I returned to Japan in May of 1983, my first stop on a round-the-world trip. Arriving in Tokyo, I stayed downtown at the New Otani Hotel. The next day, I was taken to Yokohama by train, where I gave a seminar at the facilities of Chiyoda, an engineering contractor. Returning to my hotel, I was invited to dinner with four engineers who had translated some of my books into Japanese. It turned out to be a most enjoyable evening–they were very affable, and we spent the entire evening in good humor and camaraderie. The next day, I departed for Seoul.
In December of 2003, I was requested to stop in Tokyo for dinner with engineers from Chiyoda on my way to Taiwan. This stopover worked out well enough, except that my baggage was left behind, and didn’t catch up to me for five days. For further on this trip, see Taiwan.
My only visit to Korea (South) came in May of 1983. I flew into Seoul, and stayed at the Hyatt hotel downtown. During my stay of three or four days, I gave a two-day seminar at the hotel. My host took me around town, but nothing ambitious, and the restaurant food did not appeal to me at all. I can remember being saluted by American soldiers on the street, because I looked like a senior officer with my short-cropped grey hair. I struck up a conversation with the hotel assistant manager, and after he learned of my naval service during the Korean War, he thanked me profusely for helping save his country.
One morning, I walked to the top of the highest hill in the city, where a communications tower stood. There were fences and signs warning against trespassing on the tower property, which was a government facility. Other signs warned against looking north toward the enemy, which seemed kind of silly, but I suppose it was to discourage sending signals to them.
On Ascension Thursday, I took a cab to church for Mass, although it wasn’t very crowded. I later learned that it wasn’t a holy day of obligation there, but just a normal workday. Our pastor at Foxboro had been a chaplain with the army during the Korean War, and had spent several years there. When I told him of my planned trip there, he gave me an envelope to deliver to the Bishop of Inchon.
Inchon is where MacArthur landed his invasion force, which cut the North Korean army in half and successfully retook Seoul. Our troops then proceeded north all the war to the Yalu River, where the Chinese entered the war, and with overwhelming numbers, drove us back to Seoul. On my last day, I asked to be driven to see the Bishop, and an assistant from our agency accompanied me there in a taxi. We found the residence, and asked a nun for permission to deliver a message to the bishop. After a few minutes, Bishop McDonough graciously invited us in. He remembered our pastor, and we talked for awhile about the war and developments since then. He was a very personable and humble man.
On our return trip to Seoul, an air-raid siren sounded, and all traffic had to pull over while a civil-defense exercise was conducted–it lasted for about 20 minutes. The next day, on my way to the airport, the same thing happened again. I was worried about missing my flight, but was assured that the delay would be taken into account in the flight schedule so that no one would be left behind, and it was. It was obvious that the Koreans were still fighting that war in 1983.
This section includes adventures in mainland China–known in these times as The Peoples Republic of China–and Hong Kong, soon to be incorporated into that republic (in 1999).
In 1953, Hong Kong was the typical British colony, English being the official language, the banks and double-decker buses being straight out of England. While it was considered a great liberty port, my principal memories of that visit took place aboard ship. As quite often was the case, our ship did not dock, but anchored in the harbor, necessitating transportation ashore by water-taxi. The first day in port, I had duty, but wasn't really disappointed when I discovered that merchants were allowed to board the ship. Permission was restricted to one of each category–one tailor, one barber, one jeweler, etc.–selected by the executive officer (no doubt in response to a gift of some kind).
Bargaining is an art not practiced by Americans, but expected by many foreign merchants. They undoubtedly enjoy doing business with us, as we are likely to accept their first price, and never endure to learn their last. About the only way to succeed in bargaining is not really to want what is being sold, or at least not to appear so. A vendor with an assortment of gemstones–both set and unset–followed me around the ship to make a sale. Without any experience in gems, I didn't want to invest in a worthless piece of glass. But his star sapphires had to be genuine, because the stars were plainly visible, moving with the light source. Yet I had no sweetheart at the time, and so was not really in the market. His price for a selected pair of earrings and matching ring was $100, but I really wasn't interested, and walked away. He followed, but I kept moving, and eventually lost him.
When I stopped to get a haircut, he found me again, in no position to move. The price then fell to $70, and what seemed to be a final offer, $50. When I still ignored him, he turned the tables, asking what I would offer for the set. I didn't want them, I objected, to which he replied, "What would you offer if you did want them?" In an effort to get rid of him, I answered a ridiculously low $30, to which he responded "Sold!"
Arriving home for Christmas, I mentioned the stones to my Dad, who offered to buy them for Mother. Of course, I sold them at cost. Mother later had a local jeweler friend look at them. His opinion was that the settings were of little value, but the stones were worth $100 each. He was interested in some business if I returned to Hong Kong, but I never did.
Until President Nixon visited China in 1972, there was much antipathy toward the republic, principally because of the "One China" issue. The Nationalists in Taiwan insisted that they were the official Chinese government, and were recognized by the United Nations as such long after they were driven from the mainland. By visiting Beijing, Nixon officially recognized the existence of the communist government, and opened the doors to trade with them. This did not happen overnight, however, as there was much resentment over China's role in the Korean War, imprisonment of clergy, and other human-rights violations. The "Cultural Revolution" also threw the country into a turmoil, leaving its future in doubt.
When the government stabilized after 1976, our company took an interest in the market for products in China. The first visits were by our top management from the U.S. and Singapore, exploring the possibility of a joint-venture production facility in Shanghai. In 1979, I was invited there as the first technical representative from our company. There was to be an energy conference sponsored by Great Britain in June in Beijing. We were to provide a list of possible topics in advance, one of which would be selected by the organizing committee. The selection had already been made when I was brought aboard, and the topic was on electronic controls for power plants–not my choice, but I prepared my presentation.
As many place-names in China, Beijing is generic, consisting of two parts: Bei means North and jing means capital–hence Northern capital. It has been the capital off and on through history, for example, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and since Chang Kai-shek ruled from Chongqing (Chunking). Beijing has been called at various times Peiching, Peiping, and Peking, although the name has not really changed. These may simply represent attempts to use the Roman alphabet to model the pronunciation phonetically.
In those days, our company allowed us to select our own itinerary, so I chose to fly east from Boston on SwissAir, with a stopover at Zurich. The flight then stopped at Athens and Bombay, but we were not allowed to leave the aircraft. (Seventeen hours in the middle seat of the coach section of a DC-8 is not exactly comfortable.) When we circled Beijing we were warned by the pilot not to take any pictures from the aircraft or the airport.
As planned, I was met by Peter, our sales manager from Singapore, accompanied by a driver, a Chinese engineer, and an interpreter identified as Madame Chang. Her English was excellent, and she seemed genuinely excited to welcome me to China. I had some other interpreters during my visit, but she was the best, and was employed by the research group which was to be our joint-venture partner in Shanghai.
We arrived at the Friendship Hotel in Beijing, and I was escorted to a very small room with a single bed that was more like a cot. A thermos of hot water and a can of jasmine tea were the only amenities. Since it was late, I made a cup of tea and took a bath, ignoring the cracked plaster in the bathroom and the stains in the tub. Next morning, I had an English breakfast with Peter–in fact during that whole trip I did not have an oriental breakfast. To lessen the shock, Peter insisted I have an English dinner as well, but it wasn't very good, so I ate Chinese lunches and dinners after that.
When in China, you eat with chopsticks–in my opinion a poor substitute for silverware, but they are not difficult to use, on most food. It helps immensely to do as your hosts do and eat what they eat. They appreciate your willingness to learn their ways, and it becomes an adventure for you. Especially in China, where all the food is strange, and most of it quite palatable, I chose not to ask what I was eating, but usually was told. After a while I recognized the rubbery substances like jellyfish (looks like rubber bands) and sea-cucumber (purple) and avoided them. But at a banquet, the guest of honor is served by the host, so I had to try everything that came my way. For the most part, I enjoyed the food in China, and never suffered any after-effects at all, which is more than I can say for eating in most foreign countries.
My lectures were scheduled for three consecutive half-days in a room that held perhaps thirty at most. I could not understand this, as the paper I was requested to give could not take more than an hour. But I filled the presentation into a half-day with extra slides I had brought along, and responded in detail to every question, which prompted more questions. Speaking through an interpreter takes more than twice as long to deliver the same message as it would otherwise, and simplification is required. Some technical terms are not directly translatable, resulting in a pow-wow between some of the audience and the interpreter, eventually arriving at an understanding. I found this experience very tiring, and yet exhilarating in the response of the audience.
After lunch, I returned to the same room to find the same audience. Wondering if they expected to hear another topic, I learned that they expected more on the same topic, and that the same group would appear again the next day. Fortunately, more material was on hand, but the effort to present it was exhausting.
Evenings were spent with Peter and Colin from Singapore, drinking Napoleon brandy into the wee hours (all the cognacs at the hotel store were priced the same, so there was no reason not to drink the best). But I was having some trouble sleeping. All China is in a single time zone, so in June the sun rises very early in Beijing–around 4 o'clock. The blinds weren't able to keep out all the sunlight from my east-facing window, so sleep beyond 4:30 was impossible for me, even after drinking until 1:00. Finally it occurred to me that the green tea I had at every lecture break was loaded with caffeine, although it didn't look or taste particularly strong. I had had a similar problem awaking early in Brazil after drinking their delicious coffee after dinner. Alcohol can put me to sleep promptly, but its effect wears off before that of the caffeine, which then rouses me early. Limiting my tea intake to morning hours solved the problem.
The Chinese strict adherence to communist principles at that time required me to be constantly on the alert. For example, it was impossible to infer someone's station in life from their appearance, as an effort was made by everyone to appear alike. The common mode of dress was white short-sleeved shirt and black pants, with one size fits all–extra large! The lack of form and makeup rendered the women essentially unattractive, almost as another gender.
One day I was taken by taxi to Tsing Hua University, and was met upon arrival by an elderly woman plainly dressed who opened the door for me. I assumed this was the portress, only to be introduced to her as the university chancellor! The university buildings showed some scars of the cultural revolution (such as bullet holes), and most of their lab equipment was gone. The faculty had largely been dispersed to work camps, and were gradually being restored–it would be a long rebuilding process.
In one of my free days, I was taken to the Ming tombs. In the main vault, an emperor had himself buried with his wife and his whole court, although only he had died. Within the vault were huge cauldrons of oil, which were set afire before the doors were closed, to consume the oxygen in the room and help preserve the bodies. Two massive stone doors were then swung closed and dropped into precut slots so that they could not be reopened. The tomb remained sealed for nearly 500 years before being discovered in this century.
China's most famous scenic attraction is the Great Wall, said to be the only manmade object visible from the surface of the moon. It is really a concatenation of walls running across the ridges of a mountain range in Northern China, intended to keep out the Mongols. A section that has been restored is not far from Beijing, and in 1979, it had few visitors. The wall is not high–perhaps 30 feet, and about 12 feet across. It is made from cut blocks of stone, with watchtowers interspersed at intervals of 100 yards or so. It was designed to convey a regiment of soldiers along the border. Where the ridge is particularly steep, there are steps, but in some places lacking steps, guardrails have been added to keep visitors from falling. Its most remarkable aspect is that it stretches toward the horizon in several directions, clinging to the ridge of the barren mountains like a dragon.
Several Chinese from the Shanghai research group accompanied me on the C.A.A.C. Boeing 707 to Shanghai. Peter and Colin were remaining in Beijing, but I would be well taken care of. Upon arrival, my passport and return ticket were taken from me–"to confirm my return reservations." We then took a taxi to the Ching-Chiang Hotel (where comedian Bob Hope was staying at the same time); I was brought directly to my first-floor room without registering, and without being given a key. My companions would be in the room across the hall if I needed anything. Lunch would be served on the 11th floor.
When I emerged from the elevator on the 11th floor, I was escorted directly to my table by an elderly waiter who seemed to speak English quite well. He asked if I like beer, which I answered in the affirmative, and he returned with a liter of beer (which was quite good). This ritual would be repeated each lunch and dinner. There was a small card on my table with Chinese writing on it and my company's name. When I inquired of the waiter what it said, he squinted at it and replied: "It says you don't have to pay!" Then he returned with several small dishes of excellent cuisine and a bowl of boiled rice. Later he brought soup (usually served last) and some fruit. I lost no weight on that trip.
My seminars were conducted in an old building that used to be in the French quarter. The class was scheduled to start at 8:00, and everyone would be there waiting for me, pencil at the ready. It was terribly hot in Shanghai, and no air-conditioning at all then–not even ice or refrigeration. Hot tea was served repeatedly, which brought out more sweat. But the classes went well, and the questions raised told me that the attendees were learning.
There was a banquet nearly every evening, hosted by a different ministry each time. The mainland Chinese have a traditional firewater called "Mao Tai," a distilled rice product containing 55% alcohol. It smells like paint thinner and tastes about the same. Each place at a banquet is set with a large glass for beer, a wine glass, and a half-ounce glass brimming with Mao Tai. The banquet officially begins with a toast of Mao Tai offered by the host to the guest of honor (me). They are followed by similar toasts offered by his various deputies, and the guest is expected to return each. Before long, the word "Kam pei!" is added, meaning "Dry cup!" Mao Tai burns all the way down when tossed like that, but one has to go along. I try to count my drinks to limit my consumption, but this was a new experience, and the waiter kept refilling my glasses so that I was unable to keep an accurate count. But I managed to survive all the banquets, and Mao Tai doesn't leave a hangover.
This city of about two million (formerly known as Soochow) lies north of Shanghai about two hours by train. At 6:30 on Sunday morning, I was picked up by a taxi occupied by a substitute interpreter and Mr. Wong, whom I don't remember being introduced to, but who seemed to be with me everywhere, even to the men's room. The interpreter was a woman of 27 who spoke English with a London, theatrical accent; she was particularly excited about boarding the train, as she had never left Shanghai in her life! As we approached the station, I watched delivery of huge basketloads of duck eggs strapped to a bicycle. There was no wrapping paper or plastic or boxes for food products.
When our train arrived at Suzhou, we were met by an English-speaking guide who parroted the party line. She took us to a Buddhist temple where some joss-sticks burned, which she attributed to decadent beliefs of elderly people. We then visited a virtual palace of carved teakwood paneling which she said belonged to the governor of the province 400 years ago, but now belonged to the people, who used it a craft shop. When I inquired who owned it in 1948, she replied that that was "a very dangerous question!"
As noon approached, I was taken to a hotel, directly to a first-floor room where I could "rest." The dining-room was down the hall, and the routine there was identical to that at my hotel in Shanghai: "You like beer?" "I like beer." etc. My companions disappeared to find their own lunch, but emerged as soon as I was finished.
That afternoon we visited some parks and gardens for which the city is famous. Having a little time to kill before the train left, we wandered past some of the shops along a downtown street. Soon I noticed that we were being followed by a couple dozen young people, looking at me as if I had just arrived from Mars. My interpreter asked if Chinese in Boston attract that much attention, where of course they are commonplace. But my followers had never seen a foreigner before, and were understandably curious.
The train passed mile after mile of cultivated land, where huge water buffalo were harnessed to the plow. I saw a boy of only about four seated atop one of these beasts, and wanted to take his picture. As I rose with camera in hand, Mr. Wong rose too, and spoke to me for the first time. I was certain he would forbid me from taking pictures from the train, but he only said: "Better use 1/500th of a second–the train is moving very fast!"
Back in Shanghai
Arising early each morning, I would sometimes go for a walk or jog, while people lined the streets either singly or in groups, doing their tai ji quan exercises. These are standing-in-place motions which stretch muscles and loosen joints, but are conducted in a far more graceful style than our familiar calisthenics. In 1979, it was extremely popular, encouraged by the state. Jogging by in my red polo shirt, I stood out like a sore thumb. Being unable to read street signs, and lacking any recognizable landmarks, I would circle several city blocks, assuring a return to my starting point. My only danger was getting lost (as once happened in Taipei).
On one of these jaunts, I passed a large romanesque building which bore the shadows of lettering that had been removed: "COLLEGE DE STE. JEANNE D'ARC." This had once been a Catholic school in the French quarter, converted to a public school following the revolution of 1949. Later during a visit to Brazil, I mentioned the place to our general manager in São Paulo. His eyes widened as he told me about attending school there prior to his family's sudden departure in the face of the impending revolution. His father lost all his business assets, and the family had to leave quickly, taking only what they could carry.
Each evening, the group across the hall would gather to ask questions, mostly technical, but others as well. I asked the man who took my passport and ticket if my space was confirmed yet, and he replied that I was "Number-one standby." If I didn't leave on that plane, I protested, my wife will think I have been "shanghaied!" They didn't understand my meaning until I explained that it once was common for people to disappear in Shanghai. Then I was assured that Shanghai was a "very safe place."
There is no doubt that I was under constant surveillance. It was impossible to leave my room at any time of day without being seen, and all my activities were escorted. After returning home, I heard a story about two professors from Sweden visiting Beijing that year. They arrived separately and stayed at separate hotels. When the second arrived, he placed a call to his colleague in English, and then changed to Swedish. Suddenly another voice interrupted: "Speak English, please!"
Before boarding my plane for Tokyo, I waited in line at the money changers behind an Englishman also changing Yuan to U.S. dollars. With his hand full of greenbacks, he said to me, "I'll never understand you Yanks–your money is all the same size and the same color–I don't know whether I'm rich or poor!" I can remember receiving some silver coins and silver certificates in that exchange–money they had saved since 1949. I then returned home from Tokyo, completing an eastward circle around the world. My suitcase arrived ten days later, having missed the connection in Tokyo.
At that time, I waxed enthusiastic about China: the people seemed generally hard working, with few resources, and facing an ominous rebuilding task. Those I worked with were quite cheerful, with never a "discouraging word." It wasn't until returning to the States that I heard people complaining. We had far more to be happy about than they, yet we seemed to complain far more! But these people were also recovering from the very hard and uncertain times of the cultural revolution, and so optimism prevailed.
On one occasion, my interpreter told me she made about $40 per month, which was average then for professionals, and there was not a wide variation in income among the population. The revolution had succeeded in narrowing the wide range of wealth previously common in China by making everyone poor! She also asked me how much I earned, which at the time may have been about $3000 per month. "What do you do with all that money?" she exclaimed. When I tried to explain how most of it went into taxes, insurance, mortgage, tuition, and charitable contributions, her face went blank–none of these terms held any meaning under the communist system.
China would recover but could never reach the standard of living common in the Western world. With six percent of the world's population, the United States was then consuming 36 percent of the world's petroleum production. With a population then four times as large as ours, there weren't enough resources available to satisfy it. China was then exporting some oil to obtain hard currency, but the flow would have to reverse if its infrastructure were to grow. A quick survey from my hotel window in Shanghai counted ten bicycles for each motor vehicle, most of which were trucks, the cars being taxis or government vehicles. There had been little road or building construction since the 1940s. All of this would soon change.
Our joint-venture company was not official until 1983, as there were no legal or commercial precedents to follow. Corporate and trade laws needed to be drawn up and contracts hammered out–it was a slow process. Then a flood of Chinese came to our home offices in Massachusetts for training in manufacturing, sales, and service. A few, enjoying their newfound freedom, defected. But by now, China was a player in international markets, and attractive to foreign visitors. The Instrument Society of America (ISA), the principal professional society in our business, participated in a trade show in Beijing in April of 1986, and I was invited to present a paper. This time, I traveled west from Boston to Shanghai.
This time, I was met at the airport by our deputy general manager, Ernie, whom I knew from home–he was on the second of a two-year assignment–one of only two Americans at our Shanghai factory. Remembering how hot China was during my previous trip, I brought only summer clothes, and shivered in the wind and rain of April. Buildings are not heated there, so there is no alternative to warm dress–expatriates wisely invested in silk underwear. At first opportunity, I bought a 100-percent cashmere sweater made in Inner Mongolia, for $45, one of the best bargains in China.
Ernie and his wife lived in an apartment building a few blocks from the Shanghai Hilton where I stayed (how quickly things were changing). Walking there after a workday, I was welcomed and offered a Martini, a genuine luxury anyplace away from the States. To provide themselves with such amenities, they had to ship two year's supplies from the States, especially gin, tuna fish, and peanut butter. Dinner was to include a fresh green salad–another luxury in China, because the Chinese do not eat raw vegetables. Fresh greens from the market had to be soaked in Chlorox to be free of pathogens, which are ordinarily killed in the process of cooking.
The apartment was large and comfortable, but dated, and the building was under renovation to the extent that scaffolding outside was blocking all the windows. (Scaffolding in China usually consists of a network of bamboo poles lashed together, covered with woven rattan matting and ascended by bamboo ladders; it looks shaky but the workers seem to feel secure.) I asked Ernie if the walls had ears, and he was certain that they did; but he had a job to do and nothing to hide, so it really made no difference to him. All buildings frequented by foreigners had someone stationed opposite each exit and each elevator who kept tabs on the whereabouts of everyone, and there was plenty of anecdotal evidence to support it.
Shanghai reminded me of Buffalo in the 1940s where I went to high school, because aside from the Hilton and some monstrosities built by the Russians, the buildings dated from that period. But the buildings were not well maintained, with cracked and broken windows, missing tiles, etc. Sheds added at the ground level had corrugated roofs held down with stones or bricks, and walls around buildings were often falling down. Apartment buildings were festooned with laundry hung from long bamboo poles. But it was more colorful than what I had seen in 1979.
One seminar I gave in 1986 in Shanghai was held in an old building near the river. I have never had to lecture under worse conditions before or after. The lecture hall was dingy, not having been painted since the revolution, and walls and ceiling were stained by leaks. The washroom was disgusting. The custom in many Eastern countries is to provide toilet facilities built into the floor, with no seat (you squat), without paper available. But this one was especially filthy. On ascending by the stairway to the third floor where the lecture hall was, we passed on a landing a double bed with bare mattress, where a woman was trying to rest, apparently having no other place to stay. It was a relief to finish that lecture and return to the Hilton.
My American friends accompanied me to Beijing for the conference, along with their executive secretary (who, speaking both languages, was the only person with access to all the information in the joint-venture) and some other Chinese whom I didn't know. Another American colleague arrived to present a paper, as well. As this was his first visit to China, we hired a van to bring the entire party to the Great Wall on Sunday. The place was now so crowded with both tourists and locals, we had trouble parking and fighting our way into the entrance.
During our return to Beijing, Ernie suggested a visit to the Emperor's Arch, a slight detour off the beaten path. It is a large stone arch richly engraved with carvings, and both Chinese and Sanscrit characters–something of a huge Rosetta stone. Local vendors had set up their wares on some tables near the arch, selling some old coins, handicraft items, etc. Ernie's wife began bargaining for a handmade table cloth, with offers and counter-offers written on a scrap of paper. She and the vendor couldn't agree, and so discontinued the session. To me, the latest asking price seemed reasonable (around $20), so I offered to make the purchase, handing the woman the amount last asked. Like a flash, the man next to me reached out and tore the bills from the woman, inciting a violent argument which I did not understand. The secretary quickly intervened, and returned my money to me (some of which was torn), explaining that the tablecloth was not a wise purchase, as it would surely shrink. This was an obvious coverup, but I backed off and returned to the van.
I later understood that there were two distinct currencies: Foreign Exchange Currency (FEC), and local renminbi (RMB). Only foreigners were permitted to use the former, and only domestics the latter. My FEC was received in exchange for dollars, and were to be used only in hotels, restaurants, and shops designated for foreigners alone. But since they were usually more valuable than RMBs, they were sought by the locals. The man who forcibly removed the FEC from the vendor was the security agent assigned to our group, and my offer forced him to blow his cover. Life in China was indeed more complex than I had supposed.
One of my seminars was held at a steel mill on the edge of Beijing. On the way there in a taxi, we traveled the center lane of a wide boulevard, alongside bicycles about five abreast. A car approaching from a sidestreet plowed into the stream of bicycles without slowing or honking, and the cyclists had to stop abruptly to avoid a collision. One unfortunate cyclist was not watching closely and struck the car broadside denting the door while bending his own front wheel. He was not injured, but received a severe tongue-lashing from the driver, who was of course at fault.
Later, I was invited to a conference banquet at the Great Hall of the People at Tiananmen Square, a familiar sight on television during the ill-fated demonstrations of 1989. It is indeed a beautiful building, and the banquet most enjoyable. (Beijing received most of China’s money and attention in construction of roads and buildings to attract foreign visitors and business; the Sheraton Great Wall and Toronto Beijing Hotel were brand new.) Following the banquet, at perhaps 8:30 P.M., I elected to walk back to my hotel, which was a mile or so down the boulevard. There were still many people in the streets, including bicycles. As I stepped off the sidewalk to cross an intersection, a woman on a bicycle blindsided me–fortunately, neither of us were hurt. She had shown the same disdain for pedestrians as the driver did for bicyclists earlier in the day. At another intersection, attempting to cross with the green light, I was surprised by a bus that ran the red light–no traffic cops on duty at night. China was not a "classless" society, for I identified three distinct classes that day: drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians!
The Forbidden City is located across from the Great Hall of the People. You have seen it in the film, "The Last Emperor." Dominating the main entrance is the portrait of Mao Zedong (Tse-Tung). The buildings date from the height of the Ming Dynasty, about the time of Columbus. The architecture is magnificent, the workmanship skilled, and the buildings well-preserved. This same architecture has survived to the present day even in small homes in the villages and countryside. However, I found the latter to be poorly constructed and all deteriorating, crudely patched, with the rubble not even removed. In fact, just two blocks from the main street of hotels financed with foreign capital, there are ugly, stained apartment buildings festooned with laundry, overcrowded and dirty. Probably 99.9 percent of the Chinese live under these conditions.
A seminar was arranged for me at the Yanshan Petrochemical facility, about 2 hours drive from Beijing. A taxi arrived at my hotel with a representative from our joint-venture company. Before we were very far out of the city, the driver got lost and had to stop several times to ask for directions. The road was two-lane, badly broken up, and flanked by brick walls and houses that were largely falling apart. It looked like a war zone, and may have been, but no one had bothered to clean up after the war was over. Yanshan appeared to have been a small city built around the petrochemical plant, providing adequate housing, schools, medical facilities, etc., for the skilled employees it had to have.
We arrived at the training center, and were ushered into the seminar room where class was ready to begin. At noon, we broke for lunch, and I was shown to the lunchroom. There, I ate alone, but struck a conservation with a big American at a nearby table. He worked for a U.S. contractor, and was responsible for commissioning a packaged plant at the site. He had been the only American there for six months, and was anxious to finish. He advised me to buy any beer I wanted before the store closed at 4 P.M., as there was nothing to do evenings.
After the afternoon seminar, I was escorted to my room (cell) and told I would be picked up there at 6:30 for dinner. The room had a bare concrete floor, single bed, lavatory and stall shower with a single faucet (no hot water). There was a watchman stationed in the hall outside my door.
The dinner was the typical Chinese banquet served at a round table and toasted with Mao Tai. The chief engineer was the host, and he served me. The meal lasted until 7:30, at which time he arose, signaling the end. I returned to my cell with the instruction that I would be picked up for breakfast at 7:30 A.M. Fortunately, I had to spend only one night there.
On our return to Beijing, we passed the usual number of mule carts hauling loads of brick, telephone poles, cinder blocks, hay, and whatever needed hauling. Perhaps for the first time, I noticed that at least half of the mule drivers were asleep. This was a great system! Once the mules know the route, the driver just turns over the job to them and takes it easy, especially on the way home. I later used a slide of a sleeping driver and his mules as a perfect example of an "expert system," a system programmed with the skill and knowledge of an expert to perform a specialized task without his help. Expert systems are usually specially programmed computers, but here was a living example. How much longer would it be before technology would bring us an automated self-powered vehicle capable of bringing us safely home through traffic while we sleep? It seems that God has already done it!
Economic development in China stalled somewhat following the Tiananmen Square incident of June 1989, when many dissenters were killed and imprisoned. And some questioned whether trade with China should be contingent on their human-rights record. The question still had not been satisfactorily resolved when I returned in 1994, as no one in government seemed anxious to make any decision changing the status quo.
On arrival in Shanghai in April of 1994, I noticed some of the changes immediately, especially new construction of high-rise buildings. While there were some new apartments for foreigners, not enough were available to meet the demand for expatriate housing, so that apartments were renting for $6000-7000 per month. The free market had taken hold, at least for foreigners. I stayed at the Yangste New World Hotel, at $120 per night–a far cry from the Ching-Chiang Hotel. The dual-currency system had also been eliminated in January, and locals were free to shop anywhere. New shopping malls and department stores were busy, but few locals had the money to shop there.
Road construction was lagging behind everything else, especially the growth in taxi traffic. Volkswagen had built a factory there, turning out thousands of maroon Santana taxis. But as a result, traffic crawled slowly, no matter where we went or what time of day. Shanghai seemed even dirtier than I had remembered it, and all the construction didn't help, as there seemed to be construction debris everywhere. But there was also litter everywhere, too, paper and plastic wrapping materials which did not exist on my first trip in 1979. As usual, it rained almost every day, adding to the dreariness of the place.
The driver of our company car offered to take me to church on Sunday. Word had gotten around that I was Catholic, and apparently he had driven our previous manager to church every Sunday. There was a Catholic church only 15 minutes drive from my hotel; the driver returned to pick me up for the 6 P.M. Mass.
The church was traditional in style, with high windowed, brick walls, cathedral ceiling, and twin steeples. It was about half full when I arrived, with a large group of girls wearing dark blue and white uniforms in the front pews on the left. They were chanting something repeatedly–it could have been the rosary. Mass was conducted with the priest facing the people, as it is everywhere now. It was a sung or "high" Mass, with the priest intoning and the congregation answering in song. I could recognize no words except "alleluia," but the melodies were the Gregorian chants I remembered from my youth, when all hymns and responses were in Latin. (These melodies are rarely heard anymore in American churches.) While I could understand none of the words, it was important for me to be there, praying and uniting my prayers with the others who worshiped the same true God. And the communion is the same in any language.
There has been controversy in the Catholic church in China, over who appoints bishops. The government insisted on that right, which the Pope refused to grant. Hence there were said to be two churches: the patriotic church approved by the government, and an underground church faithful to the Pope. This church was not located underground, but that was all I knew about it. When Mass was over, I left with some others, but most stayed. I had already been there over an hour, and jet lag was putting me to sleep.
My first seminar the next day started out as a disaster. The room was only big enough for 80 people, and 120 were trying to get in. It was long and narrow, which made it difficult for those in the rear to see the screen. I intended to project computer-screen images of simulations, which I have been using on all my seminars. I brought my notebook computer, along with a color video panel which lays atop an overhead projector. The image is dim, however, and requires low lighting in the room, along with a good overhead projector, to be seen well. All of these requirements had been forwarded to Shanghai in advance in an effort to minimize problems, but to no avail. The overhead projector was held together with bailing wire, and could not be focused. The screen was too small and in similar shape. And windows at the back of the room allowed too much light to enter. Someone went back to the office to look for a better projector, while I proceeded with transparencies.
The interpreter assigned to me spoke English well enough, but was not an engineer, and therefore was unable to translate any technical terms. He was soon replaced by another who mumbled into the microphone. Meanwhile, another projector arrived, which had a faulty plug. We were on hands and knees on the floor trying to make it work before finally giving up. We struggled like this until the lunch break–it was very frustrating.
After lunch, I returned to the lecture hall to find the windows covered and the new projector producing a sharply focused image. Lian, my host from Singapore, was now available to interpret for me, and it was smooth sailing the rest of the way. But up to that point, I felt like I was back in India.
The next day, we drove to a chemical plant near the coast, for another seminar. The lecture hall had large windows on two sides which would be impossible to cover satisfactorily, so I didn't even try to use the computer. But we were treated to a marvelous lunch at a nearby restaurant, which was certainly the high point of the day. Lunches can last as long as two hours in China–the workday seems to be from 8-12 and 2-4.
Our 747 from Shanghai to Beijing was 4 hours late, so most of the day was spent waiting. The national airline CAAC had been broken up into several regional airlines, but the service has not changed. With the rapid expansion of air travel, not enough trained pilots were available, and there have been some serious accidents in 1994.
We stayed at the Great World Hotel, part of a complex which included an exhibition hall and conference center. Accommodations were plush, at a cost somewhat less than we payed in Shanghai. I had difficulty recognizing the old neighborhood until we walked a few blocks to the Toronto-Beijing, which was by now a second-class hotel. It was a warm spring night, so there were many people lining the streets, including sidewalk vendors, which I hadn't seen there before.
One thing that disturbed me was the sight of women seated along the sidewalk encouraging their small children to rush after foreigners, begging. I had seen children begging before, in Saudi Arabia, Rome, and Mexico City, and learned that it is foolish to give them anything. If you do, you will be quickly engulfed by a mob of them, each expecting something valuable. When you can't satisfy them, the scene quickly grows nasty. And here, two- and three-year-olds were being encouraged to beg by their mothers who sat and waited for returns. These children will grow up expecting that a living will be given to them, rather than having to earn one.
Lectures the next two days in Beijing went particularly well, with all equipment functioning. After the last one, we walked a short distance to the Beijing zoo to see the giant pandas. There were several to be seen, and they were every bit as large as black bears. We also saw another variety of panda, more like a racoon in size and appearance. There was also a huge silverback gorilla which caught my attention. The rest of the zoo was rather sparsely occupied by animals, and not very clean. We had seen all we wanted in less than an hour.
On Saturday, we were scheduled for another seminar at a design institute in Tianjin, about two hours drive toward the coast. The customary work week had just been reduced from six to five days, so those attending were to be there on their own time. We traveled in a small van past fields being planted. This is a broad stretch of fertile plain between the mountains and the sea, quite dry and dusty this time of year. A few people could be seen working in the fields, but mostly isolated from each other. The few buildings we passed in villages along the way were in poor repair, similar to what I remembered from my trip to Yanshan.
Tianjin is a very large city, which we approached through an industrial area. Foundries and factories of various kinds, along with garages and other small business, lined the road. All were extremely dirty, and all kinds of wastes, rubble, and construction debris were strewn about. Many buildings seemed to be abandoned and in an advanced state of decay. Canals along the road were clogged with debris and black with silt. Mile after mile of this depressing scenery made me long for the green fields of home.
The seminar went well enough, along with the customary two-hour lunch, followed by product presentations until four. Then the long drive back to Beijing past all the same dreary scenery. But this experience was only a taste of what was to come the following week.
The Summer Palace
On Sunday, Lian and I took a taxi to the Summer Palace of the Mings, on the outskirts of Beijing, over an hour's drive. We passed row after row of drab apartment buildings as we had the day before. The only distinguishing feature of the buildings were balconies on each level, most of which were enclosed with glass by the dwellers. The glass enclosures definitely were not original, for they differed from each other in style and the color of the window frames. They were used to give a little extra living space, which was at a premium all over China, to store goods and plants, and to hang laundry. But they certainly did not make the buildings more attractive.
The Summer Palace was quite crowded on this fine spring afternoon, and our taxi had trouble finding a place to park. It had to be retained while we were there, to be sure of a ride back to the city. Sidewalk vendors hawked food and drinks, and also film, as everyone was taking pictures.
The entrance opened from a walled garden to a lake perhaps a mile or so in diameter. The favorite activity seemed to be renting a pedal-boat and enjoying a picnic lunch on the lake, as there were many craft afloat. We bought seats aboard a motorized dragon-boat to the far shore, where we disembarked to walk along the quay. There was the original "stone boat," built by an emperor from stone to entertain his guests; being unable to float, it could not sink or cause sea-sickness. (There is a replica of it in a Chinese garden in Singapore.) The walks were crowded with people, perhaps half foreigners and half Chinese.
We found a restaurant and inquired about lunch. They had only one large table left, which we took, but promptly surrendered when a large party of Chinese arrived. Somehow, Lian talked the hostess into opening a small private dining room for the two of us, where the accommodations were much better. Among the dishes served were fried scorpions, whole with all their legs and stinger. This is where I drew the line–I would not eat fried scorpions!
After lunch, we strolled through the various buildings, and climbed the hill to the palace and temple. The architecture was magnificent and the workmanship skilled. Much rebuilding had to be done because of destruction by British guns during the Opium Wars, but it was all very well done. It's too bad the rest of China couldn't be as well cared for as its imperial treasures.
The next day we flew to Wuhan, a city of perhaps five million people, due west of Shanghai over 400 miles as the crow flies, on the Yangtse river. It had a two-gate airport that was rusting apart, with outdoor baggage pickup. (I was told that a new airport was under construction on the other side of the river.) After some haggling, we found a taxi driver willing to take us to our destination, which was unknown to me.
Leaving the airport, we wound our way through narrow, crowded streets, muddy and broken. The neighborhood was seedy and rundown, yet this was the way downtown. When we finally arrived downtown, the driver had to stop at his station to add a spare tire. Lian directed us to the best hotel in town for lunch. It was a real oasis in a dingy, dark city in the rain.
After lunch, we headed to our destination, the Chengling refinery in Hunan Province to the south. Leaving city traffic across the Yangtse, we dodged potholes and bicycles at breakneck speed and passed heavily laden trucks, one after another. I could remember someone at home asking me whether they drive on the right or left in China–in fact, they drive on the right, left, and in the middle, as required to get through!
On a single two-lane road, we passed through village after village of rundown buildings, unpainted in years, with windows broken or missing, and surrounded by heaps of rubble and garbage. Residents often would be sitting idly out front, perhaps cooking over charcoal, while litter lay all about the front of the property. Poorly dressed children could be seen playing in the mud, in the rain. I had attributed the lack of pride over appearance to be endemic to the communist system. People could be afraid to improve the appearance of their dwelling lest they be singled out for revilement by neighbors or local officials. Or they saw no reason to improve property they didn't own.
This depressing scenery went by hour after hour. To relieve my eyes of these eyesores, I tried to sleep, but to no avail–the careening of our taxi was too wild to permit it. Eventually we came to a halt in the middle of a small village where the pavement had been stripped from the road preparatory to replacement. (There is no telling how long it had been that way, as public works projects in communist countries are not spurred by competition or citizen protest.) A trailer truck had skidded off the road into the soft shoulder, with its front wheels half buried and the trailer blocking most of the road. It was not going to be moved soon, so the traffic had to inch its way around it. We were stopped dead for awhile, as no one seemed to be directing traffic around the obstacle and both lanes of traffic were vying for passage. I began to despair–this was no place to be stuck overnight. The local inhabitants all came out to look, and as no authorities appeared, some young men began to unravel the mess. Eventually we crawled through ruts of red mud out of the village and on our way. I only wondered which failure mode was most likely: stuck in the mud, broken axle, flat tire, out of gas, or stalled interminably in traffic.
After over four hours of this, I concluded that I would be very happy when we finally arrived at the refinery. But I would be even happier when we left the refinery two days hence. I would be still happier arriving in Wuhan after negotiating this road for the second time, and happier again on leaving the Wuhan airport. My fifth happiness would be leaving Shanghai on United Airlines for home, and my sixth happiness would be arriving there. This must be the origin of the Chinese traditions of multiple happinesses.
We finally approached the city where the refinery was located, in Mao's scheme sufficiently remote to discourage an attack by foreign troops. A new feature of the landscape was an occasional cylindrical heap of white stones perhaps ten feet high and of similar diameter, held together with steel bands. These turned out to be primitive lime kilns, with charcoal fires in the center to calcine the limestone.
We seemed to be getting closer and closer to our destination, as the driver had to stop more often to ask directions. We circled the city and turned up a muddy road which couldn't possibly be right. Sliding along an uphill grade, we barely made it to the top, where pavement reappeared and opened to the center of the city. A few more blocks and we reached the refinery gate, where our man from Shanghai was waiting for us. He directed us to the guest lodge where rooms and dinner were prepared.
The guest lodge at Chienling was a big improvement over the place I stayed at Yanshan–my room was larger and carpeted. The first amenity I looked for was hot water; there were two taps, all right, but both were cold. When I inquired about hot water, I was told that winter was over! We had our own dining room, with beer and a typical Chinese dinner. Before bed, I found NBA basketball on television–the commentary was in Chinese and the game taped six weeks earlier, but there was nothing else to do but sip jasmine tea.
The next day started with a typical oriental breakfast of rice porridge, pickled peppers, and white buns that were slightly sweet, served on the stained tablecloth from the day before. It would not be changed for the five meals we ate there. The seminar went well, but during a break my attention was called to a tap-tapping noise that had been going on outside. It came from a man sitting in the street, breaking concrete with a hammer and chisel. That evening, we were given a banquet complete with Mao Tai. Our host sent the local beer back and insisted on Tsing Tao (Ching Dao), China's best and largest export brew. We drained the Mao Tai in conviviality, and prepared for next morning's departure.
After breakfast, a driver appeared in a brand new 1994 Chevy Lumina van, cinnamon red. He knew a way around the stretch of broken road where traffic was stopped by the derailed truck on our way to the refinery. The road was narrower, and the scenery different, but we made good time. We seemed to pass through more farmland, where men plowed rice paddies with water buffalo–there were no motorized plows to be seen on the entire trip. Some villages had a pool table under a canopy downtown, with men shooting pool. Some people seemed to work very hard, but others not at all. The scenery was as depressing as that of two days earlier.
Suddenly we came to a roadblock, where a uniformed officer wanted to see the driver's credentials. We waited a half-hour before being allowed to proceed. Lian said the officer was looking for a bribe–I don't know how it was settled. We reached our hotel in Wuhan around 1:00 P.M., in time for lunch. Our flight to Shanghai was not due to leave until the next day, and we were unsuccessful in trying to move it up. So we relaxed the rest of the day–I needed that hot shower. After dinner, Lian and I sipped cognac in the revolving bar on the 30th floor, above the dingy grey apartments of the masses below. It all seemed so strange–would China ever make it?
We spent much of the next day at a park where vacationers took their children for amusement, and men idly fished in the lake. A concert was held in an old building on the top of a hill at hourly intervals, with oriental music played by a large group of men and women in ancient dress, on an interesting array of gongs, bells, metal plates, and stringed instruments. Their final selection and the only tune I recognized was "Auld Lang Syne." For the most part, my mind was preoccupied with getting out of Wuhan. We returned to Shanghai the next day, where I bought cashmere sweaters made in Mongolia for my wife and daughter. On my last evening in China, I insisted in ordering dinner (Lian had ordered every meal previously) to avoid dishes having fishbones, splintered chicken or pork bones, clam or shrimp shells. I simply was tired of picking debris from my food. Then finally, on the following day, with a sigh of relief, I departed for home.
Taiwan was known as Formosa when occupied by the Japanese prior to 1945, but its native population was principally Chinese. General Chiang Kai-shek was driven there from the mainland during the communist revolution, where his remains are honored as few others in history anywhere. The Republic of China (ROC) was recognized by the United States until President Nixon's overtures to the communist People's Republic of China (PRC) in the 1970s. While my naval service during the Korean war never brought me there, I remember watching two P-47 Thunderbolts bearing the yellow sun of the ROC circling our destroyer in the Formosa Strait. My first trip to the island, however, did not come until 1983.
This was my second trip around the world, this time heading west in May of 1983, with the first stop being Tokyo. After a seminar there, another was held in Seoul. The next stop was Taipei, where I was met by our company's representative, Mr. Chin, a jovial man known for entertaining well. He dropped me off at the Shangri-La hotel, where we would have dinner that evening. My afternoon was free for walking about the city.
Being a Saturday, I inquired about church services. There was a Catholic church not far away, with an afternoon Mass scheduled, so I called a taxi to take me there. Along the way, I noted every turn the driver took, expecting to walk back. Arriving at the church, a wedding was just finishing, and the Mass schedule I had seen was no longer in effect. By the time I realized this, the taxi was gone, so I began walking back. The church was farther from my hotel than I expected, so the walk back would be long. After half an hour or so of strolling past shops where mechanics fixed motorcycles and changed tires, the surroundings didn't look familiar. Had I missed a turn somewhere? I retraced steps but became more confused. Signs don't help when the alphabet is unreadable. Finally I gave up and called a taxi, showing him my hotel key. It was a little embarrassing to be driven only three blocks to the hotel, but it might as well have been three miles, lost as I was.
At dinner, I was introduced to the staff of the local company office, and we toasted with Taiwan sake. Japanese sake is a clear rice wine served warm for maximum effect. Taiwan sake is an aged rice wine served at room temperature, with an appearance and taste much like sherry. It serves the same purpose as mao-tai does on the mainland, but being a wine, has much less effect. From my hosts, I learned to pick up two to three peanuts with chopsticks–it was not particularly difficult since I had been using chopsticks for several years. And we drank oolong tea, the specialty of Taiwan. My host was amazed that I knew about it, and later sent about five pounds to my home–enough to last a lifetime.
The next day we watched the changing of the guard at the tomb of Chiang Kai-shek, a white marble monument of immense proportions where newly-weds posed for photographers. We also visited museums and shops until I was saturated. The next day we flew to Kaohsiung, for a seminar at the Chinese Petrochemical Company.
Kaohsiung is located on the west coast of Taiwan, not far from its southern extremity. Its weather is extremely hot and humid in May, and the port is steamy, reminiscent of Shanghai. After our arrival, Mr. Chin hosted a dinner for selected engineers from the plant, featuring countless toasts with Taiwan sake. Afterwards, a few of us retired to the home of the chief engineer of the plant, for a taste of well-aged oolong tea prepared in the traditional way–and scotch.
A small teapot is packed with dry tea leaves, as many as it will hold. Boiling water is added and swished about for only a few seconds, at which point it is thrown away! Then more boiling water is added and allowed to steep. Finally the tea is poured into small preheated cups and served. This was some of the best-tasting tea I have ever had, but it was strong, too. The teapot was refilled with boiling water several times, and kept warm between refills. The cups were so small that topping off was frequent, and I had no idea how much I had consumed. As the evening wore on, our host brought out some 25-year-old scotch which we sipped between cups of tea. It was a rare privilege for a foreigner to be invited to a Chinese home–this is the only time I had the chance.
The next morning I felt awful. While Mr. Chin was enjoying his breakfast, I couldn't look at it. Kaohsiung is a dreary enough place, and in the gloom and mist of that morning, it looked drearier than ever. The seminar went very well even if I didn't, before a large group of Chinese engineers who spoke English fluently and asked very penetrating questions. We finished with them posing a problem with a distillation column which I was able to analyze and provide a solution for. They were quite pleased with the result.
At regular breaks, a secretary would serve tea, which I thanked her for, but couldn't finish. I was able to eat a little lunch, and that helped my afternoon. Finally the secretary expressed dismay that I didn't drink much of my tea, after she had given me several different kinds. I could only apologize for my intemperance of the previous evening, but it was probably the tea more than the alcohol that affected me. After flying back to Taipei, I took dinner in my room and felt better the next day.
The next day's seminar was held at the National Taiwan University, where several professors knew of my work. Most were educated in the U.S., and one confessed that the most enjoyable aspect of his tenure was playing basketball with the students. That evening, Mr. Chin hosted a dinner at the Grand Hotel, a magnificent place built for Madame Chiang Kai-shek. A central atrium is surrounded by enormous red columns, where hotel rooms occupy the upper six floors. The first floor accommodates reception and restaurants.
The food in Taiwan was similar to what I remembered on the mainland, but in my experience, not quite as good. The people were as friendly, but with far more initiative and independence, and of course a much higher standard of living. On the mainland, I enjoyed food and accommodations which few of the population ever see let alone partake of. In Taiwan, all are better off, and many are wealthy.
Mr. Chin had a very profitable business, a chauffer, and expensive drinking habits. Instead of Taiwan sake at the Grand Hotel, he was drinking Courvoisier V.S.O.P. cognac, which I like but cannot drink in quantity. After dinner, he took me to a night club where he was well known. A young lady came right over to our table with a fresh bottle of black label scotch. To his disappointment, I couldn't wait to get out of the place. Next day, it was off to Bangkok.
Return to Taiwan
I returned to Taiwan in December of 2003 to participate in the startup of a nuclear power plant. My trip had been originally scheduled for May, but I refused to go because of the SARS breakout. However, there were twin power plants, so my presence was requested for the second plant in December.
This trip started off bad and progressively got worse. Betty and I left home at 5:30 AM on 12/2 on roads that had a light accumulation of snow overnight. I expected them to improve as we continued south, but they grew worse. When we reached the tolls south of Concord, I-93 was covered thickly with packed snow and traffic was backing up. At the I-293 exit south of Manchester, the ongoing traffic to Boston was completely stopped. I-293 was stop-and-go, but surprisingly, the Brown Ave. exit to the airport was completely empty–this after a five-car pileup had been reported there earlier. We breezed the rest of the way to the airport, arriving at 7:30 for my 9:20 flight to Detroit, which was listed as on-time.
However, a plane bound for Minneapolis was parked at the gate, its crew having been delayed by traffic. Finally it boarded, but had to be towed away for deicing, and departed an hour late. My flight followed suit, departing an hour late. Arriving at Detroit, I had only 30 minutes to reach my flight to Tokyo. I made it, but my luggage did not, I would find out 14 hours later in Tokyo. I had lost my business-class seating because of a late change in departure date, and that 14 hours were spent in a middle seat in row 61 of a 747.
Upon arrival at Narita airport, I filed a claim for my luggage, and followed directions to take the shuttle bus to the Tokyo Central Airline Terminal. My hotel was right next door. My Japanese contact was waiting at the hotel. I quickly showered and put the same clothes back on. We met two executives from Chiyoda for a delightful dinner, sock-foot of course.
Next morning, I took the shuttle back to Narita and flew to Taipei, where I was met by Jackson Chiu. We drove from Chang Kai-Shek International Airport to his office downtown, where we caught a taxi to the domestic airport. We then flew 40 minutes south to Kaohsiung, where we rented a car for the two-hour drive south to Kenting on the ocean.
We stopped for dinner at a local restaurant, and then checked in at the Cesar Park Hotel on the shore. We then went directly to the power plant, arriving at 8 PM, and worked till 2:30 AM, putting the first level of controls into satisfactory operation. Arriving back at the hotel at 3 AM, Jackson said we would have to return to the plant at 9. I protested, but with no effect. I couldn’t sleep anyway, through a combination of jet lag and tea.
We returned to the plant at 9, fine-tuning the next level of controls to the satisfaction of the staff. We left the plant at 5 PM, and I was so tired that I went to bed as soon as I reached my room and slept for 11 hours. Next day I felt better and bought some fresh clothes, leaving the others to be laundered. My bag had by this time reached Taipei, but was held in customs. A copy of my passport was faxed to our Taipei office, where an assistant took it to the airport to claim my bag. It was then sent by courier to Kenting, but it didn’t arrive until noon the next day.
Not being required at the plant the next morning, I walked through Kenting National Forest–a pleasant diversion. We then returned to the plant at 6 PM, working till 1 AM. Our work being finished, the next morning, Sunday, we flew to Taipei, and I checked into the Grand Hotel in time for lunch. The place was built under the direction of Madam Chang Kai-Shek, and it truly is grand. She had died the previous summer at age 106. I had a huge suite with balcony on a corner of the hotel, overlooking the city. From my window, I could see the world’s tallest building under construction.
The success of my work at Kenting shortened the time I was needed there, only to make me free for more work in another power plant in Keelung, an hour’s drive northeast of Taipei, on the coast. (My ship approached Taiwan during the Korean war, probably in this area, and was greeted by two Republic P-47 Thunderbolts bearing Chinese National insignia.) This was a completely new challenge of which I had no warning or preparation. I was expected to make a control system work which I had not designed. For three 10-hour days, I fretted in the control room, surrounded by Chinese, speaking I knew not what and expecting me to perform miracles, but none were forthcoming. The designer of the control system must have been either a genius or a maniac, because I couldn’t understand it, and was not very successful making it work. At the end of the third day, performance was considered marginally acceptable, and I was allowed to leave. But I had learned what Purgatory is like–a power plant in Taiwan.
Next day, I taxied to the local airport and flew to Kaohsiung, where I was picked up by one of our engineers and driven to Kenting. There we had dinner with the plant staff, and spent the following morning addressing some minor problems. That afternoon was spent sightseeing along the south coast, on a cloudy and very windy day. The most interesting sight was a natural gas fissure which fueled a fire in a ring of stone, where an old man was cooking eggs and sweet potatoes to sell to visitors at the park.
I spent the weekend alone and bored, the weather continuing cloudy and windy. Saturday morning was spent walking around Frog Rock park, and later I climbed around the coral beach in front of the hotel. Saturday evening, I walked to a nearby Catholic church for 8:30 Mass. A car pulled up in front of the church–which was just a room in a small white building–and out stepped a priest, a seminarian, and a nun. I waited outside for others to arrive, but no one did. I was the only person in attendance, and so Father said the Mass in English, while I was lector. He was a young man from Spain, the seminarian from Honduras, and the aged nun from Switzerland–no Chinese. This seemed odd, in that all the hotels and restaurants were decorated for Christmas 12 days hence, and every loudspeaker was blaring Christmas carols (in English).
Sunday was spent with more walks along the beach, etc., finished with dinner with returning colleagues. Monday was an all-day seminar, and on Tuesday I returned to Taipei, with another suite at the Grand Hotel. There is a high hill behind the hotel, accessed by several steep trails, with stairs. It is well forested, but terraced in places, with picnic areas located there, and badminton courts, and even some eating establishments, closed for the season. Half-way up is a small Buddhist temple, where I heard chanting. At the top was a residence with a large garden in which tall poinsettias bloomed. I climbed the hill a couple times on both trips to Taipei.
Wednesday was another seminar, followed by dinner with colleagues in Taipei. And Thursday morning, I left for the international airport. I managed to get a business-class seat as far as Tokyo, but for the long flight to Minneapolis I was stuck in an aisle seat in the back of a 747. At Minneapolis, I had a taco salad and a Corona–a welcome change from Chinese, but began to feel ill on the flight to Manchester. As soon as I landed, the intestinal flu struck–the start of a week-long bout. Fortunately, Betty didn’t catch it, but she had enough trouble while I was away.
Wind had blown the rear storm door off its hinge, so that it had to be tied shut. The deck was piled high with snow. One garage door broke a cable and wouldn’t close. The TV remote stopped working. And a sump pump had been running for four days continuously, after a heavy rain had fallen on top of snow. Betty had to shovel off the bulkhead in the rain to see what the problem was, but couldn’t fix it–the float was hung up, which I was able to correct. But with all the problems each of us faced, I decided that I had taken my last long business trip–I would not leave Betty home alone like that again.
"Contentment is the greatest wealth"
Thailand is a fascinating place to visit, but stay clear of the traps–they are all over. The government is corrupt and everything else as well. You will be solicited from the moment of arrival until departure. The only way to be sure of not bringing anything home is just say no!
The most interesting features of Thailand are its Buddhist temples, sublime places decorated in gold leaf. During my first trip in 1983, I could only visit a few, within the city. But the incongruity of it all was amazing. One of these beautiful structures, gleaming white with red and gold trim, sat nestled between a Burger King and a Kentucky Fried Chicken. One that I visited featured a reclining Buddha about 30-feet long and covered with gold. My host bought lotus flowers, incense sticks, and sheets of gold leaf about 4 × 4 inches from a vendor there. The gold leaf he pressed on the statue over countless layers already there.
Our agent in Bangkok was wealthy enough to own two Mercedes sedans, one his wife's, where import fees amount to as much as the cost of the vehicle. When I arrived at the restaurant for dinner, he was already there, not with his wife, but with a nineteen-year-old girlfriend. He then introduced me to the owner of the business, also accompanied by his nineteen-year-old girlfriend. It was no coincidence–all wealthy men have young concubines as well as a wife that stays home and lives in luxury. During dinner, the men talked business while the girls, ignored, chatted among themselves.
As in Taipei, black-label scotch and cognac are the most common drinks among the wealthy. Thai food is mostly hot, but some is really hot, ostensibly to cover the taste and smell of rotting meat. But the cuisine is quite varied, and I tried all of it, finding only the curries not to my liking.
My first seminar was held for the chemical and petroleum industries at the Ambassador hotel in Bangkok. No translation was necessary, as Thai engineers understand English quite well, most of them having been educated in England or the U.S. Their own language is quite interesting, consisting of an alphabet much like ours, with some of the characters having similar shapes but not necessarily the same sound. This results in words which often look familiar at first, but really are not. There was no language problem in hotels, restaurants, etc., as English was familiar among people who worked in these places.
The Rain Forest
The free day I had set aside on my first trip became preempted by a request for a seminar at SiamKraft Paper Company (recall that Siam is the former name of the kingdom), located further north in the rain forest. We left the hotel before daylight for the two-hour drive. Along the way, I commented on how many of the homes along the countryside were raised on stilts, often with a small boat under them, still quite a distance from any river. This was in May, probably the hottest month in Thailand, before the monsoons start in June. I was told that once they start, rain falls almost continuously until about October, flooding much of the land. The elevated houses we passed would be surrounded by water much of the year, when boat transportation was the only option.
The paper mill was located deep in a rain forest–essentially a tropical jungle of tall trees hung with vines. All the office buildings were on a raised platform several feet above the jungle floor. Before ascending the stairs to the platform, however, we had to remove our shoes and leave them there, with the warning to inspect them before putting them on again in case a scorpion had decided to hide there. Not having eaten yet, we went to the dining hall for a hearty breakfast of eggs, rice, meat, and fruit, before the seminar.
This was a new experience for me, lecturing sock-foot, skating about the floor between the lectern and the screen. The results were most satisfactory, as the mill engineers were interested in my presentation, and I was able to respond to their questions. Leaving the platform that afternoon, our shoes appeared to be free from any infestation, so we put them back on and proceeded to the car.
On our return trip to Bangkok, we stopped at a wayside stand for a chilled drink consisting of a coconut with a straw in it. The milk was very refreshing, and after draining it, one could scrape out the sweet meat from the shell. (Later, I discovered the same offering on Isla Margarita off the Venezuelan coast, under the label of "Coco Frio.") Afternoon rush-hour traffic was miserable, with the air pollution as thick as I have seen it anywhere. Much of the traffic consisted of motor scooters and bikes powered by two-cycle engines (which burn oil), leaving trails of white smoke to supplement the black smoke from diesel trucks. My eyes and throat were burning by the time we reached the hotel.
My flight home in 1983 went through London, completing my second trip around the world. However, it didn't leave until midnight, so my host insisted on taking me to a famous seafood restaurant before departure. He ordered some of virtually everything on the menu, preceded and followed by copious quantities of scotch whisky. There were enormous oysters on the half-shell, and prawns of various sizes prepared with different spices. Other shellfish and finfish complemented the dinner. When we finally left for the airport, my host's driving was a little erratic, his Mercedes weaving about a road that fortunately was nearly empty. I had to maintain a running conservation simply to keep him awake.
While in the city, I had been unable to find any silk bathrobes with dragons on them that the officers in M*A*S*H wore. But vendors at the airport had them, for as little as $12 each–I bought several to bring home to the family. My Thai Airlines flight stopped in the middle of the night to pick up passengers in New Delhi. Indians wearing turbans streamed onto the aircraft, pushing and shoving and cramming their bags and parcels into every available space. As we left the ground, flight attendants passed out cards bearing the following message:
YOU HAVE JUST LEFT A CHOLERA-RISK AREA. IF DURING THE NEXT THREE DAYS, YOU DEVELOP SYMPTOMS INCLUDING DIARRHEA AND NAUSEA, CONSULT A PHYSICIAN IMMEDIATELY.
During my layover in Heathrow, I ate a salmon sandwich, and then proceeded to my flight to Boston. Soon after we took off, however, diarrhea began. And it continued throughout the flight. When I finally arrived home late Saturday afternoon, I was really washed out, everything passing through me–even water. The usual remedies on hand had no effect. Finally late in the evening, my wife called the doctor, who advised going directly to the hospital. Soon after arrival, an intravenous feed was begun, and my blood pressure was monitored closely as it was quite low. It was an hour or more before a doctor was able to examine me and I could explain about the cholera warning. He said that there hadn't been a case of cholera in the area in decades, and he didn't expect this was one. Then he inquired where and what I had for dinner last night. When I told him, he had no sympathy whatever: "You deserve whatever you got for eating raw shellfish in Bangkok! But this looks like it will run its course in 24 hours." Soon afterward, the crisis past and I began to feel better. By 3 o'clock, we were back home, with only $450 worth of hospital costs and memories of a bad night. No more raw oysters in foreign ports for me, at least in less-civilized foreign ports. Australian oysters would be Ok.
Second Visit, 1987
My second visit to Thailand originated from and ended in Singapore. This time I was placed in the old Erewan Hotel in an unfamiliar part of the city. The morning after my arrival, I felt the need for some exercise, and any jogging had to be done early, for in May the midday heat was extreme. I left the hotel at dawn, turning left on a hunch and continuing down the street at a brisk pace. After about four city blocks, there appeared a large park already populated by others loosening up. Some were using the Chinese Tai-chi method, others were stretching, and many others jogging like myself. About twice around the park and I had covered the requisite two miles before returning to the hotel for a shower. Later in the week, I explored other directions from the hotel, but this park turned out to be the best place for jogging.
After my seminar, my host appeared at my hotel-room door with gifts. The first was a bottle of Napoleon brandy. The second was a ticket for an all-day sightseeing tour for the next day. After expressing my appreciation for his gifts, I discovered their purpose. Would I mind bringing 2000 Singapore dollars to Mr. K. at out factory in Singapore when I returned there? How could I refuse? (The limit allowed to be brought into Singapore was $5000, so I would be not violating any laws.) So I accepted the money, and dutifully delivered it to Mr. K. in Singapore, who seemed to know what it was all about. Imagine my surprise when I saw my host from Bangkok at our Singapore factory that same afternoon. Had I become part of a money-laundering scheme?
My sightseeing tour was to depart next morning from the Orient Hotel on the river. This hotel was awarded the honor of being the highest-rated in the world the previous year. I had breakfast there in a large open-air dining area overlooking the river, in the morning twilight–it was a beautiful experience. Our tour was split into two groups, my group proceeding by bus and the other by boat to a rendezvous for lunch. Then we would change places for the return trip.
Valley of the Temples
The tour took us to the summer palace of the King of Siam, and to the Valley of the Temples. The summer palace was not that impressive, certainly not like that near Beijing. But the temples I found particularly fascinating. The first temple we visited was still being used by Buddhist monks who lived in small cabins surrounding it. Small signs were attached to trees spaced around the compound, bearing aphorisms in Thai and English. Each proverb promised peace and contentment if we would forego the pleasures of the flesh and the anxieties of ambition. And each was true and representative of what we had learned from our parents and our churches, but had nothing to do with the Divinity. Buddhism is a philosophy, not a religion.
The temple rose in the center of the circle of dwellings, brickwork surfaced with plaster rising hundreds of feet high, forming a mammoth dome topped by a narrow spire. The weight of this column was enough to depress the center of the floor, so that all the paving was dished down in the center and up at the corners. Walks and steps surrounded the edifice, allowing the visitor to climb to higher levels and look down on the trees and flowers below. Here and there one would encounter a sitting Buddha, some huge, some life-size.
Many other temples stood nearby. All were symmetrical structures having a base of four sides surmounted by an elongated dome looking very much like a vase or deep bowl turned upside-down. On top of this was a tall tapered spire made of a series of disks rising to the sky. Some had stairways on all four sides leading up to the dome, where a doorway opened into an annular corridor. There was actually very little space inside the temples. Visitors were free to climb about them all, although we had only about an hour before our tour resumed.
One temple stood out from the rest, having a massive column rising as high as the spires on the others, but coming to a blunt point. Below the column, the structure resembled the pyramids I had seen in Mexico. Someone noted that this temple was of the Cambodian style. It was in an advanced state of disintegration, with some stairs missing and vines growing from its superstructure. Yet I was drawn to the place, and carefully climbed to a crumbling doorway halfway up; there was nothing to see inside, simply an empty cubicle. But it was now time for me to return to our bus, hot and sweaty in the noonday sun, but enchanted by the architecture of the ancient Siamese.
There were some modern temples in the area as well, but these I was already familiar with. They were rectangular white buildings, with red tile roofs sloping on all four sides, the slopes ending in graceful lifting curves. White columns supported the roof. There was no spire, and the level of the floor was only a few steps above the ground. Inside, the walls were usually red, where a gold Buddha could be found.
Returning to Bangkok
After lunch, we changed places with the other tour group for the boat ride back to the city. The boats plying the river were typically long and narrow, with a roof for protection from the sun, and capable of carrying from a few to as many as 30 passengers. The propulsion system was most unusual: a V-8 automobile engine mounted on a two-axis joint above the stern, directly connected to a drive shaft perhaps 12-feet long and the marine propellor. This power drove the boat ahead at 30 miles-per-hour or more, making for exciting river travel. The operator handled the heavy engine just like an outboard motor, able to lift the propellor out of the water whenever necessary to clear it of weeds, a common problem in these waters.
As we were approaching our landing at the Orient hotel, I noticed a church with twin bell-towers a few blocks inland. Since it was late Saturday afternoon, it might be possible to attend Mass. Arriving at about 4:45, the faithful were already assembling for the 5 o'clock Mass, mostly women and children (common everywhere) dressed in their Sunday best. The Mass was celebrated by an English priest entirely in Thai, so that I understood none of it, but knew what was going on anyway because the Catholic Mass is the same everywhere. The people sang beautifully, and it was a pleasure to be part of their celebration. After Mass, my path crossed that of the priest, so that we had a chance to exchange greetings. Not all of Thailand was corrupt– there was hope.
"Providence conducted me...to a place called Raffles hotel, where the food is excellent, as the rooms are bad. Let the traveler take note. Feed at Raffles and sleep at the hotel de l'Europe."
Singapore is a city-state and an island located at the tip of the Malay peninsula and surrounded by Sumatra and other islands of Indonesia. On a clear day, land can be seen in virtually every direction. It does not have a lengthy history, so you will find no ancient monuments there. The population is about half Chinese, but includes large minorities from Malaysia, India, Thailand, and Burma, along with the occasional Australian and Englishman. As a British protectorate until 1963, its official language is English. Much of its Chinese population, called "Straits Chinese" by those who live elsewhere, cannot speak any of the Chinese dialects. Movies on the hotel TV were often in a language I could not understand, with subtitles in two other languages which I could not understand.
Singapore fell to the Japanese in February of 1942, who formally surrendered on September 5, 1945, with the release of political prisoners from Changi prison. The father of a friend of mine who was born in Indonesia died shortly after being released from the prison. It is now a memorial to all who died there during the war. Many of the island's British garrison had been taken to Burma to work on building the railroad which would move Japanese troops, a venture immortalized in the movie "Bridge on the River Kwai." One of the prisoners surreptitiously photographed activities at the labor camps; his photos are on display at Changi, now a museum.
Being almost on the equator, the place has no seasons to speak of. I was there in August of 1982, May of 1987, and April of 1991, and the weather was always hot and humid. My hotel was not far from the botanic gardens and park, where I could jog through the shade of the rain forest. It had an extensive orchid garden as well. Singapore is noted for its orchids, and you may pick up a package of them at the airport on departure. Although you must declare them for inspection by the agriculture agent at customs on entry to the U.S., it is worth the effort, for one package can make several beautiful bouquets which will last for weeks.
Singapore's most famous landmark is the Raffles Hotel, where a tiger was shot under the billiard room in 1902 (it had escaped from a circus, but the story has been embellished to a wild tiger shot under the billiard table). The Raffles has been frequented by famous people throughout its history, notably authors such as Kipling, Somerset Maughm, and Noel Coward, and the rooms where they stayed have been named after them. Stop for a Singapore Sling at the long bar even if you cannot afford to stay there. Another landmark is Fort Siloso, located on an island to the south and intended by the British to defend the harbor from the sea. The Japanese instead attacked from the peninsula to the north. The fort is now a public park, accessed via cable-car from the city.
Singapore is the most densely populated nation on earth, and is completely indefensible. Its small standing army has no room to practice maneuvers at home, and so must train in New Zealand. As a trade center, it has no equal in all of Asia, and its standard of living is second only to Japan. Its refineries process far more petroleum than is consumed locally, shipping refined products to Japan.
Singapore's success, in my view, stems from the winning ways of its people. I have never met anyone from Singapore whom I didn't like. Without exception, its people dress neatly, are polite and considerate, and respectful to foreigner and local alike. Theirs is an uncommon courtesy in this modern age of the ragged, unkempt, and foul-mouthed. Signs on street corners encourage courteous behavior–a reminder that is either carefully heeded or completely unnecessary. Children seem well-behaved and happy as they walk to school in their uniforms. Due to the heat and humidity, coats are not worn, but businessmen and workers alike are neatly attired. Women there are better-dressed than anyplace I have visited–their gossamer gowns catch the eye like orchids and butterflies. Yet they are not proud or ostentatious, but seem to delight in looking their best for the people they meet at work or in school or traveling about the city. Crime is very low, but penalties are severe, e.g., capital punishment for trafficking in drugs.
At a banquet one evening, I sat next to a man who had escaped from Burma before the communist takeover there–a story similar to what I had heard from Chinese escaping that country. He still had relatives in Burma who continued to suffer under the oppressive regime–stories as ridiculous as some I had heard from eastern Europe. Others at the banquet had lived in Malaya under Japanese occupation, and told how their schools were taken over and all their best people were led away to concentration camps. The Japanese particularly targeted a school in Penang (an island off Malaya's west coast) which produced most of the leaders of southeast Asia. Many of the men attending the banquet had been educated there. It was a most interesting evening.
On my last day there, I went jogging through the rain-forest with a colleague. At one point, I was surprised by a group of monkeys in my path, feasting on some fruit fallen from a tree. They didn’t pay any attention to me.
After my first two visits to Singapore, where I had participated in international conferences in the chemical industry, I was invited to join their Economic Development Board. While flattered by the invitation, I could not accept. It did not make sense to participate regularly in an official activity taking place regularly, half-way around the world.
"Now in Injia's sunny clime,
Where I used to spend my time,
A-servin' of 'Er Majesty the Queen..."
My only visit to India was in September of 1988, and I am not inclined to return. The trip ended in illness, but fortunately not long-lasting like some I have experienced. There is just no desire to repeat the experiences recounted here.
This trip took place not long after the disastrous release of methyl isocyanate at a Union Carbide insecticide plant killed over a thousand people and blinded many others in Bhopal. Reports on the cause of the accident were conflicting, but neglect and mismanagement were to blame. All the plant supervisors were in the canteen at the same time, in violation of the rules, and rubber hoses on temporary rigs were being used to transport the dangerous gas, also against the rules. Safeguards such as a refrigerated condenser and scrubbing tower were ineffective in containing the release because there was no refrigerant in the system and no caustic in the scrubber. This turns out to be typical of practice in India, though officially denied.
Arrival in India by air from the west is always in the wee hours of the morning. Fortunately my host was waiting to smooth the way to my hotel. The following day was spent at rest, trying to overcome jet lag. My hotel was on the outskirts of New Delhi, where I could walk about freely, although it was hot and dusty. The most remarkable aspect of the scenery was the ladies in their silk saris floating up and down the streets.
India bears the stamp of 19th-century British bureaucracy, with all the titles such as "high command," and its socialized industry. While my visit was organized by the representative of our company in Calcutta, it required coordination through some government office in New Delhi, which arranged my seminar. Communication with India is very difficult, and not just because of the time difference. Achieving a telephone connection is just about impossible, for reasons I found out later. But our first stop in New Delhi was at the government office. And the first thing the government official tried to do was talk me into a long-term contract for consulting there. But already my exposure to the filth and failures of the Indian system turned me off.
It amazed me how in India, low-level technology such as telephone service was neglected, yet the latest trends in advanced technology, such as the expert systems I was invited to present, could be so popular. There was nothing remarkable about the conduct of my seminar in New Delhi that is worth retelling. My experience in Calcutta, however, was quite another matter.
Arriving in Calcutta in mid-afternoon, I hailed a taxi to my hotel. The taxis in India remind one of England, being all black Morris Minors of the same style, although smaller than those I remember in London. They drive on the left, and Calcutta traffic is terrible, including many animal-drawn carts. Shortly out of the airport, my taxi began to lose power unaccountably, and the driver promptly pulled to the side of the road. He seemed to identify the problem at once, for before lifting the bonnet (hood), he first withdrew a small braided cable from the glove compartment. In a few minutes, the broken throttle cable was replaced and we were again on our way. I could only conclude that this was a very common failure in that type of taxi.
We wound through narrow streets crowded with people and heaped with garbage. On some streetcorners it was piled 3 or 4 feet high, and constantly rearranged by dogs, pigs, and chickens. Water flowed through the gutters alongside, supplied by the occasional open water pipe at the curb, where people washed in public. The buildings lining the streets seemed attractively designed and skillfully constructed. Yet without exception, they were badly deteriorating. Moss and vines loosened the mortar, bricks were missing and roof tiles as well, garden walls fallen in, electric wires hung loosely, trees overgrew cracked windows and entrances were blocked. The streets were in the same shape, with holes everywhere whose depth was anyone's guess when full of muddy water.
One of Ghandi's accomplishments was the elimination of the "untouchables," the lowest class in the Indian caste system. It occurred to me that these were the people who carted away the garbage, cleaned the streets, repaired pipes and roofs, etc., which jobs were no longer being done. Maintenance and cleaning tasks seemed beneath the population. Now when a pipe leaked or a drain clogged, it was simply shut down and the user went to the next available source for water. A civilization that was built up by the British Empire was slowly declining again. This was confirmed for me by an Indian professor I met the next month on a shuttle bus at a trade show in Houston. I mentioned having visited Calcutta, which was his home. Being in his 70s, he remembered when Calcutta was "the second greatest city in the British Empire," and I could believe it.
There were a few vestiges of the Empire remaining, one being the white marble of St. Paul's cathedral surrounded by a carpet of green lawn. Another was my hotel, the Park Royal. The hotel stood like an island in a sea of humanity, protected from its environs by a 12-foot wall of white stucco. Inside were palm trees, white walks through beds of flowers and shrubs, a fountain and swimming pool. The rooms were spotless and cool, the restaurant clean and the food appetizing.
Shortly after my arrival, two professors arrived from Jadavpur University where my seminar was to be held next day. They wanted to be sure all would be in readiness, and to confirm the timing of the event. We seemed to agree on every point, leaving me confident that everything would work out well–a confidence that turned out to be misplaced.
Next morning, my taxi arrived on time and we proceeded to the university, but hesitatingly, through heavy traffic. It was already sweltering, so I opened my window fully to catch whatever breeze there was. This was a mistake as I discovered after we pulled alongside a bus at an intersection–when it started again, the tailpipe belched black smoke right in my face. The buses there look like they went through a war, with windows, grills, and body panels missing, covered with dents and held together with bailing wire. People leaned out the windows and hung from every door. And I'm sure they burned soft coal to produce smoke so thick!
Notwithstanding our prompt departure from the hotel, we arrived at the university with no time to spare before the scheduled start of the seminar. Yet my professor friends would not allow me to proceed directly to the lecture hall–we must visit the chancellor first. We hurried to the chancellor's office over broken concrete, through corridors with cracked windows and missing lighting fixtures, and past lifts (elevators) that were out of order. The chancellor had three telephones on his desk, only one of which was working.
After the formalities we hurried to the lecture hall, already packed with over 100 people waiting for nearly half an hour. While being introduced, I looked in vain for the promised 35-mm slide projector. I agreed to begin the lecture while my hosts found and set up the projector. When it finally arrived, I stopped long enough to hand someone my stack of slides, indicating which side was up, which side was toward the screen, and which slide was first, and so they loaded the carousel tray. Only the last instruction was followed, as the first slide came up on the screen, but upside down and backwards. It was a title slide, so the error was obvious, but the fix apparently not. Five Indians gathered around the projector, discussing how to turn the slide. Soon it reappeared, upside down and frontwards. Discovering their mistake, they then made the image turn sideways. On the fourth attempt, they got it right, but this was only the title. The next slide promptly came up upside down and backwards. At this point, I called a brief recess and rearranged the slides myself. They wanted to learn all about expert systems, but couldn't load a slide projector!
The morning session was based entirely on slides, and eventually, it was over. The afternoon session would use a computer screen projected before a more select audience, and I could only guess the problems to be encountered, but lunch was next. My hosts had arranged for a chicken sandwich prepared at the hotel to be my lunch. The rest of those attending partook of a buffet lunch served under a tent on the campus. A long table was loaded with local selections in large stainless bowls, each with a serving spoon. Each person spooned a helping from each bowl on a large stainless plate; most ate without utensils, scooping their food with pieces of bread. Flies were all over the table, and dogs under it. When people finished, they dropped their plates on the grass under the table, where the dogs licked them clean.
While there was still time before our afternoon session, I urged my hosts for the opportunity to check out the computer and projector to avoid the crisis of the slide projector. We would do that, they promised, but first we must meet with Professor M., who was very interested in my subject. Professor M. turned out to be a woman who was very upset because some of her colleagues were invited to the session and she was not. After a brief introduction in English, she launched into my hosts in Hindi in an attack whose contents I could only guess. After 15 minutes of this diatribe, we departed for the conference room, again with no time left before the session was to begin.
To my amazement, an IBM computer and video projector were already in place and humming, so I began to load my software. "Stop!" I was told by the man in charge of the equipment, "The computer is not working properly–we will get another." I waited ten minutes or more, and none was forthcoming. At this point, I decided to load my software into the computer we had, and it loaded properly, with the title page coming up on the screen! So, I began my presentation. At this point, the man in charge arrived with another computer on a trolley. I told him my software was already running, but that made no difference–he pulled my plug and proceeded to start the other computer. But it would not boot-up properly, so we were back to square one. I thanked him for his help, unplugged his computer and started the one that already worked. From that point onward, the presentation went according to plan, but this had to be one my worst days in the field.
That evening I just wanted to spend alone in the quiet of my hotel with a drink and a good book. I had tried to obtain some Assam tea (my favorite) but was told that this was Darjeeling Province, so I ended up with a lifetime supply of Darjeeling tea. I did develop a taste for it, but still prefer the darker, richer Assam. Before leaving Calcutta next day, I decided to walk outside the walls of the hotel to do a little shopping. My excursion was short-lived, however, as I simply could not take the crowds and the filth. I walked around the block right back to the hotel entrance and waited for my taxi to the airport and on to Nepal.
Back to New Delhi
After a long weekend in Nepal, I was to return to New Delhi for some sightseeing to Agra and the Taj Mahal, but it had no more appeal. Instead, I remained one more night in New Delhi, invited for dinner at the home of a retired government official who had been active in my profession. All his family was there, including aunts and uncles and grandchildren. They were all very pleasant and accommodating, and it was a rare opportunity to see how the people lived. The ladies had prepared a sumptuous feast featuring many of the local delicacies. I tried a little of each, but still had not much appetite. My host assured me that all precautions had been taken–the water was both filtered and boiled. They were all very nice, but at that point, I just wanted to go home. I caught the next flight to Heathrow for a 12-hour layover before returning home.
Being a mountain fan, I was excited about visiting Nepal and being close to the Himalayas. This was to be one of the greater disappointments of my life. But getting out of Calcutta was a memorable event in itself. Imagine my dismay when I landed in Kathmandu at a 2-gate airport filthier than the one I had left.
Our company representative in Calcutta had promised to arrange a tour for me in Nepal through a local travel agent. Upon arrival at the airport, I took a taxi to my hotel, and then sought out the travel agent at the other end of the line. It was already late on Friday afternoon and the agent was anxious to leave. When inquiring about my reservations to Pohkar (near the Anna Purna range), the agent informed me that he could get me there, but there was no space on the return flight on Monday. He offered the possibility of a rental car, but after seeing the condition of the roads, I declined. The only possibility that remained was a weekend at "Himalayan Horizons" from which I could view Mt. Everest, which I accepted. The next morning, I was driven about 65 km (40 miles) north to a "new" resort hotel.
The hotel was a relatively simple brick building supposedly 2-years old but looking 120. After check-in, I inquired about the possibility of hiking around the area, and was placed in the hands of an English-speaking guide who worked there. The young man was well-educated and articulate, and I learned much about Nepal from him. When I asked about Mt. Everest, he pointed to a cloud bank on the horizon to the north. Sometimes one or two of the peaks might be visible for a few minutes at dawn or dusk, but if I wanted a better view, it was best to return in December.
My guide took me for a hike along some of the hills where we overlooked terraced paddies and deep valleys, but no mountains could be seen. There was but one road from Kathmandu to China (Tibet), built by the Chinese. It would take one partway to Mt. Everest base camp, but was presently washed out. I learned that to visit the base camp required either a charter flight to a remote airstrip followed by a four-day hike, or an eleven-day hike without the flight. In other words, allow three weeks for the round trip.
One of our hikes took us to the small village of Dulikiel, not far from the hotel. The town square was nothing more than a wide spot in the dirt road, with a nondescript monument wrapped in chicken wire that caught every scrap of litter blowing by. The only source of water seemed to be a spigot near the road that leaked, forming a muddy stream where children and chickens splashed. The children wore scant clothing, some none at all, and the little boys piddled in the muddy stream.
Opposite the monument was the Dulikiel Inn, door open so that one could look into the dining room. Bare tables had streaks of grease running down to the worn wooden floor. The smell of rancid grease was in the air, not only around the inn, but all over Nepal, gagging the onlooker as much as the view of the dining room. Chickens scampered in and out of the open door.
Leaving this pleasant sight, we passed a small cinder-block building with a corrugated metal roof and no windows. A guard stood at the closed door. The place seemed so strange, I had to ask about it. My guide told me that drug use was so common in Nepal–hashish, opium, etc.–and so destructive, that the worst cases were brought here. They were not being treated, but just moved out to this place where their screams and rantings would not bother others, until they died.
From there we climbed a hill to a Hindu shrine where the faithful had gathered for years. There we found a few stone carvings and a small building which didn't mean much to me. The most striking aspect of the site was how heavily it was littered with paper and plastic wrappers–how out of place for somewhere that people gathered for worship.
Appreciative of his guidance and commentary, I gave the guide a tip amounting to perhaps ten dollars. He gratefully accepted it, and quickly hid it from the other help at the hotel, for it amounted to several days' wages. The contrasts here were difficult to fathom.
Back to Kathmandu
The beer was good, and so was the tea, as I tried to avoid water that was not processed or boiled. I even brushed my teeth with Beefeaters gin. Still, my stomach was queazy by the time I returned to Kathmandu. The city was not as crowded or as dirty as Calcutta, so I went for a walk. One of the interesting sights was the large number of bats hanging from tall tree-tops all over town. My hotel was near the palace, where the street was wide and there was little traffic. Today, I turned in the other direction, toward the market.
The stalls were jammed with everything one could imagine, from food and clothing to housewares and hardware. Copper pots gleamed in the sun, and brightly colored spices and dyes were spread out on tables. Here the streets were narrow and foot-traffic heavy, with the occasional bicycle or motor scooter forcing its way through. An old temple in the middle of the market offered the only breathing space, where I began to enter. But here in the doorway, a very old woman dressed in rags lay asleep, her pillow the stone step. I had enough–back to the hotel for a bath and a rest.
Even a drink at the bar didn't restore my appetite. Dinner at a Chinese restaurant went largely untouched. Next morning, Royal Nepal Airlines took me back to New Delhi.
In June of 2000, I was invited to give a 3-day seminar in Malaysia, followed by a presentation of a technical paper at the annual meeting of the Malaysian control society (ICA). Never having been there, I agreed to go. Although there would be a four-day hiatus between the seminar and the meeting, some sightseeing was to be included, so I booked flights to arrive the day before the seminar and depart the day after the meeting.
I wanted to arrive early Tuesday for the seminar beginning Wednesday, which would require a Sunday departure from LAX. But Air Malaysia does not fly on Sunday between Los Angeles and Kuala Lumpur (the capital), which complicated my scheduling somewhat. So I flew Singapore Airlines, arriving in Singapore at 1:00 AM Tuesday, connecting to KL on a 6:00 AM flight. The flight from LAX was over 19 hours, including a 2-hr stop in Tokyo. I was hoping at least to rest in the first-class lounge at Singapore during the night, but it was closed until 5:15 AM, too late to do me any good. It was a long night.
I dozed in one of the darkened lounges until some young men arrived, talking loud enough to drive me away. From there I found a small theater showing a 1939 movie, which entertained me for awhile. All the shops were closed, and there was nothing else to do. After the movie, I returned to the first lounge to find the TV on, rather loudly too. So I wandered about looking for a quiet place to rest, finding none. Eventually, the gate opened at 5:00. The flight arrived at KL at 7:00. From there, I was driven to my hotel, the Glenmarie country club in Shah Alam, a suburb of KL.
I managed to get some rest during the day, and met with my host for lunch. By next morning, my clock had been pretty well set, and the seminar began smoothly. When asked if my room was satisfactory, I complained that it was too cold and there was no hot water in the shower. So eventually I was moved next door to a suite that was much more comfortable and had plenty of hot water.
There were four Muslim women in my seminar, who wore shawls covering head and shoulders, but not the face, and the shawls were colorful, not black as in Saudi Arabia. The women were as quiet as mice, taking notes, but asking no questions. At the end, three days later, each asked me to autograph their books, and spoke English quite well, although in the softest tones. The men also spoke softly, so that it was difficult for me to understand their questions. The country is bilingual, with signs primarily in Malay, but many in English as well. Several TV channels were in English, including CNN and ESPN sports, along with a couple movie channels.
Not being a golfer, I felt like a prisoner at the hotel. It also had a fitness center, tennis courts, and two swimming pools, but no basketball court, and joggers were not allowed on the links. I was entertained on the weekend, but it was followed by two days off, which dragged. I booked a bus tour for the second day, but the first was to include a lunch meeting with customers, which was called off.
On Saturday, a local employee of Foxboro who had been assigned to entertain me, arrived with his wife. We drove to KL in his Proton (a locally made car), stopping at a museum (muzium). There, I learned about the Malay culture, and their intermarriage with the Chinese and Indian. KL is much less Chinese than Singapore. The museum included a stuffed crocodile captured nearby in 1997–it weighed 2750 lbs and was over 16-ft long. After the museum we went to lunch at an Indonesian restaurant (restoran). The strange spellings intrigued me–words like farmasi, insurans, polis, teksi, and aiskrim. The one that took me awhile to figure out was the ladies shop–butik.
From there we drove to the City Center, and went up to the observation level of Menara Kuala Lumpur, the fourth tallest communication tower in the world at 421 meters (1381 ft). (The CN tower in Toronto is the highest at 553 meters.) From there, we could look up at the world's tallest buildings, the twin Petronas towers (Petronas is the national oil company). We were at 276 meters above the ground, about even with their 70th story, with 18 more stories above, surmounted by a huge spire on each. The twin towers look like bullets, filigreed near the top, and joined about the 40th story by an enclosed bridge. We had intended to go up one of these towers later, but the queue for tickets was a block long, so we didn't try. My Monday meeting with Petronas people was supposed to be in one of the towers.
From the Menara, we looked down on many tall buildings–indeed I was surprised how well-developed the city was–there were even tall buildings on the horizon. But interspersed, even in the city center, there were tin-roofed shacks, vacant lots, and buildings under construction, some of which seemed to be abandoned when the economy went south a couple years ago.
At a food court in the complex, we stopped for a pineapple juice. Selecting a nearby table, we discovered one of the chairs occupied by a very large blue moth. It posed for a photo before wandering off elsewhere among the shoppers.
After walking around one of the city parks, we drove out to Petaling Jaya to a restaurant for tea. As we were finishing, I mentioned that I had hoped to get to church the next morning (Sunday), and asked if my hosts knew the whereabouts of the St. Francis Xavier church, whose Mass schedule had been give to me when I inquired at the hotel desk. My host's wife was Catholic, to my surprise. They said it was nearby, so we drove there to see which of the Masses was in English, and they all were. So they picked me up next morning at 8 for the 8:45 Mass.
The church had no walls–open-air, with a high roof, and fans blowing away. It was already mostly full when we arrived, and eventually the crowd spilled over into the back and sides, out from under the roof. It was a huge crowd, which again surprised me. And they sang loudly and clearly–some of the hymns were familiar but others not. But I had no trouble following them, as the words, and in some cases the music, were projected on the wall to the right of the altar. The priests were Jesuits, the celebrant Chinese and the homilist appeared to be Indian, very well spoken, who gave a brilliant homily of the Trinity (it was Trinity Sunday), as foreshadowed by the three angels who visited Abraham and Sara in the desert. An Eastern Icon was shown on the screen depicting the angels seated around a table upon which stood the chalice offered by Abraham, the scene which the medieval artist skillfully interpreted as the three Persons of the Trinity. It was a most enjoyable Mass, and it was a pleasure to share it with my hosts.
From there, we returned to my hotel to change into shorts for our day's adventure. We next stopped at Dunkin' Donuts for breakfast, where they had the strangest flavors: banana, pineapple, chocolate pudding, ginger, guava, orange, etc.–nothing familiar, but all good.
From there we drove to a park near Shah Alam, where we walked probably four or five miles in the heat and humidity, sweating all the way. We spotted the occasional monkey crossing the path ahead, and one closer tipped over a trash barrel, scrounging for food. A few feet from the path, a monitor lizard about two-feet long lay motionless in the grass. But, startled by the noise my camera made when opening the lens, it disappeared into the bush before a picture could be snapped.
We climbed the highest hill (bukit) in the area with a tower on top. from the tower, we looked down on Shah Alam, whose most significant landmark is a huge blue mosque, dome glinting in the sun. After stopping for a soft drink and some water, we entered the "four-seasons house," which currently featured winter. Inside was a real winter landscape, complete with snow and ice and temperature in the 20s! What a shock, coming in with sweaty clothes from the outdoors at 90̊F and 90% humidity! Children were squealing with delight, making snowballs, and shivering at the same time. We could only stay a few minutes as we quickly chilled, before returning to the oven of Malaysia, where my glasses immediately frosted.
Then I returned to the hotel for a swim and dinner, after which I strolled on the golf course, as there were no golfers, all the lights being turned off. On Monday morning, I dressed for business, before the call came canceling the meeting with Petronas. Then I booked the tour of Melaka for the next day.
The city of Melaka lies on the western coast of Malaysia, on the Straits of Malacca, about 25 miles across from the Indonesian island of Sumatra. It was founded in 1410 by a Portugese sea captain engaged in the spice trade, and became the hub of that trade for the next hundred years. The ruins of a citadel (formosa) stands atop a hill in the city center. It was originally the Church of the Annunciation, built by the Portugese in 1523, and became the center of the missionary work of St. Francis Xavier in Malaya in the 16th century. He died and was buried there, but his remains were later removed to his home in Goa, a Portugese colony on India's west coast. His statue stands before the ruins, with one hand missing.
In 1614, the Dutch captured Melaka, and held it until the British took over in 1824. The Dutch retained control of the Dutch East Indies, which are now Indonesia. The Dutch were Protestants, and converted Xavier's church into St. Paul's Reformed Church, and later into the citadel.
Melaka contains the largest Chinese cemetery outside China, on a 100-acre hill, Bukit Chine. Our bus tour passed the hill, then stopped at the Catholic church of San Pedro, built in 1710, the saint honored as the patron of fishermen. The Festa (festival) of San Pedro is held by the Portugese colony there for a week every June. They speak an ancient dialect, unchanged in 600 years.