A China Experience


In the early 1970s, I decided to change my occupation from television production to another direction. After graduating from the university, I entered the United States Navy and served in both the U.S. and Japan. I spent almost a year assigned to a ship with duty in the South China Sea. I discovered that I loved the sea and ships.

So, after leaving television, I pursued a career in the cruise business. My first position was with a new startup company, Royal Cruise Line, based in San Francisco. I was a sales director for the western region. I learned much from the president, Dick Revnes, whose ideas still prevail within the cruise industry. This company was the first to build a ship with the same capacity as a 747 aircraft. We operated one ship at first, the Golden Odyssey, and in the summers, it cruised the Mediterranean and winters, transcanal voyages out of Los Angeles.

We were the first fly/cruise operation in the U.S. on a regular basis.

In the mid-1970s, I was offered and accepted a position with a Norwegian firm, Thorsen & Co., operating cargo and tanker ships throughout the world. They had also recently acquired the former Bergensfjord cruise ship from Norwegian America Line. My position was North and South American manager of the company with offices in Los Angeles and Singapore. We operated under the names of Thorsen & Co, Norwegian Asia Line and Cruise East.

In late 1975, the company was experiencing a lack of business with some of the cargo fleet laid up and the passenger ship operating out of Singapore through South East Asia was not making money. I suggested to the owner that I go to China and see what business we could garner from that country, which was just beginning to open to the Western world. He thought that was a good idea, appointed me chief negotiator for the company and proceeded to make arrangements through our Norwegian office for me to make the trip to Beijing.

A few days later he called to tell me the Chinese would issue a visa through their consulate in Tokyo and that I should proceed the next day from my base in Los Angeles. This I did and upon arrival there, took a cab to the Chinese Consulate to meet a Mr. Chen. It was a very cordial affair, with an assistant requesting my passport while being served tea and cookies. After some small talk, my passport was returned with the visa to enter China and I returned to the Tokyo airport. I flew to Beijing on Japan Airlines, which was one of the few non-communist carriers to be allowed into China in the mid-1970s.

Upon landing in Beijing, I was surprised to be met at the base of the aircraft steps by three official-looking men. One was a translator telling me to follow them through passport control. They made this very easy and I realized then I was being treated as a VIP. It was now midnight, local time, as the car pulled up to the Beijing Hotel, which faced Tiananmen Square and I was told the meeting would begin at 8 in the morning at a building just across the square. I was very tired, having no real sleep since I had left Los Angeles, except for a couple of naps on the flights.

I should explain that to deal with the Chinese in those days, I had to submit, in writing, the purpose of my visit and what I hoped to accomplish by the meetings. It was after approval that the Chinese agreed to a meeting and issued a visa for the visit. What I wished to accomplish was to employ our Norwegian cargo ships for the Chinese government to operate into Western world ports. After the Communists took over China, the Western world would not facilitate handling their ships.

China had been isolated for some 26 years, up to this time. The population all wore the "people suits" in drab gray colors, mostly with the Mandarin collars. I felt I had entered another planet!

The next morning I dressed, walked to the hotel dining room and was seated. No one took my order, which I thought was strange, but soon a waiter poured hot tea. Soon I was served a plate of two fried eggs, ham and two pieces of white toast with marmalade. I later learned that few knew English and they decided that all people from the Western world ate this meal for breakfast. It works for them and at least you know what to expect for breakfast each morning.

After my first meal in China, I walked across Tiananmen Square to the office building for my first meeting. I was escorted to a rather large room, which was set up with couches and chairs facing each other.

There were probably 20 feet between the two arrangements. I was alone, but the Chinese delegation consisted of at least eight persons. I was asked to state my mission and what I wanted to accomplish. Having done this, there were questions, which I answered. All was done by translation, which takes time. At about 10:30 a.m., the meeting was adjourned. I was shown an anteroom and served tea. The Chinese had departed for meetings of their own. At 11:30 a.m., our meeting resumed, at which time the Chinese stated their needs and what they wanted from my company. At about 1 p.m., we all walked to a dining room, sat on the floor and ate a sumptuous meal. Later in the day, more talks transpired and about 4 p.m., the meetings were concluded until the next morning. This continued for two more days.

If this had been in the States, the meetings would have lasted a half-day! It all ended to everyone's satisfaction. At night, I was hosted to wonderful dining at various restaurants around town. It was the custom at the time for the kitchen staff to appear at the end of a meal and thank the diners for consuming their food. One night, I made an ignorant mistake of asking the cooks if I could visit the kitchen. They beamed and guided the way into the facility. I looked back at my hosts, who had frowns on their faces. I had committed a terrible social error! The kitchen looked like a toilet! After, I had trouble eating food the rest of my visits to China.

The meetings had accomplished the placing of seven of our cargo ships at the disposal of the Chinese with our Norwegian crews, flag and experience. The Chinese also agreed to allow our passenger ship to visit China on a regular basis, carrying Americans and Europeans. The next year, we began operating the passenger ship there and it was the first time a cruise ship from the Western world would visit China in 28 years.

Our cargo ships began service from China three months after my first visit.

To accomplish the cruise ship visits, I was allowed to see many areas of China, in order to evaluate the suitability of destinations for tourism.

Shanghai and Beijing were the principal locations, of course. I did visit many interior sites, but most presented operational problems for the time. One cold January afternoon, I was driven to the Forbidden City in Beijing and dropped off at one of the entrances. My host and translator didn't even bother to go in with me. There was a chilling breeze, ice on the ground and it was very uncomfortable. I couldn't believe what I saw. This immense compound and buildings were more than one could imagine. No visitors, only custodians with brooms keeping the former palace clean. It was closed to the public.

I could write a book about my experiences in China over a period of five years. China was just beginning to open its doors to the outside world and it was my good fortune to experience it at a period when this was happening. In time, we employed additional ships for the Chinese and the passenger ship did very well, facilitating visits to an opening China.

Being a train buff, I particularly enjoyed riding their trains to various parts of the country and seeing people work the farms. As a foreigner, I rode in a rail car assigned to Westerners only and was not allowed to walk through the rest of the train. I had to obtain a visa to even visit a town or city close to Beijing or Shanghai and that was the way the Communists controlled the population. Some of the communes I visited, had as many as 40,000 inhabitants.

Machines were not plentiful and labor was the principal method of construction and farming.

I should say that the lead negotiator in the early China experience later became the president of the country and ruled for 25 years.

He never did speak to me in English, although I discovered early on that he was fluent in our language. I would crack jokes and he would immediately laugh before the translation. He asked many questions about our country and I would give him very straight answers. I remember one was how did we keep garbage collectors on the job? I responded with "we pay them good wages!"

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