In the mid 1970s I was working as the chief negotiator for a Norwegian ship owner. The company owned two cruise ships and more than 70 cargo vessels.
Business had slowed in the earlier 70s and we began looking for new markets in which to employ our ships. In 1975 I told the owner, Arne Tagen, that we should talk with China. It had recently opened its doors to the West after meetings with President Richard Nixon. Norwegians were in better favor with the Chinese government at that time than the United States, so our owner approached the Chinese for visas so I could visit their country to discuss business possibilities.
In just three days after applying for a visa, I was informed that I had been granted permission to come to China, but was first required to go to their embassy in Tokyo. I was living in Los Angeles then with a company office based in the Westwood section of the city. The company traded under several names, one of which was Norwegian Asia Line. I was instructed that I must send to them the reason for my intended visit and to outline what I hoped to achieve by a meeting with their officials. I did this, and some three weeks later I was given a date for the visit.
I was instructed to arrive in Beijing and to check into the Beijing Hotel. The government would be making reservations for me. Soon, I was off to Tokyo on Pan American Airways and 12 hours later landed, collected my bags and took a cab into the city for an overnight stay. The next morning I followed the Chinese instructions to visit their Embassy and to see a Mr. Chen. This I did. It was almost like a 1946 black and white movie of mystery and intrigue.
Soon, Mr. Chen greeted me and I was escorted into his office. He must have been an executive just under the ambassador. After a couple of minutes of small talk, he buzzed for an assistant to come into his office at which time I was asked to give him my passport. This I did and as the assistant was leaving, a young girl came in with a tray of tea and cookies. More conversation and then some 10 minutes later the assistant reentered with my passport in hand which now had the Chinese visa. I looked at it, but there was no English, just official stamps and what appeared to be some dates.
We said polite goodbyes and I departed the embassy after requesting them to call for a taxi. It was now back to the Tokyo Airport and a flight on Japan Airlines to Beijing leaving late that afternoon.
In 1975, airlines that had been granted permission to fly into Beijing could not fly direct. They had to navigate over Shanghai, then head north to Beijing. I guess this was for Chinese air security. The flight then took some five hours. Today it would be much less.
We landed at about 11 p.m. The airport had only about two other passenger aircraft parked at the terminal. It appeared almost deserted. As I walked down the stairs of the DC-8 jet, I spotted some officials standing next to the stairs. They asked my name, I told them who I was and they said, “Follow us.” I thought, ‘Oh my God, what now!’ I was asked to present my passport to some other official, it was stamped, and the other two men escorted me to an automobile that was parked on the tarmac close to the aircraft I had landed in. The other passengers had gone into the terminal. My luggage had been plucked from the baggage cart and placed in the car. At this point, I was very nervous. Why was I being treated as a special person? Were they going to question me and then lock me up? After we were seated in the car, one man using very good English greeted me and said they were pleased I had come to China and that we would be driving to the hotel. They further instructed that my first meeting with the officials would be the next morning at 8 a.m. I settled into my room and by the time I got to bed it must have been 2 a.m.
Before continuing, I should say that after three or so hours in China, I felt as though I had landed on another planet.
There were hardly any automobiles on the roads, but zillions of bicycles. Everyone, I mean everyone, was dressed in the “Mao” suits or, as they called them, the “people’s suits.” This was a dark blue pant and mandarin collar top with long sleeves. There were no variations. No one appeared happy. It was a sad place to be in.
The people were controlled in almost every way. The way they dressed, their political lives and they were often told what occupation they could pursue. China had also imposed a one baby rule per family. I suppose this was one way to control the population growth.
Outside the cities, many resided in communes with populations of from 1,500 to 50,000 and more. The work on the communes consisted of farming to craft production to manufacturing, all controlled by the government. If a person wished to travel from one town to another, they had to get a government stamped visa even if the distance was only 20 miles.
Again, absolute control of the population. For me, as a foreigner, to travel from one city to another, I also had to have a special visa.
Let’s go now to my first morning in The People’s Republic of China. Since my meeting with the officials was set for 8 a.m. I arose at 6 a.m., dressed and went into the dining room for breakfast. Available were the choices of a Chinese breakfast consisting of nothing I knew, or the so-called European breakfast which included two fried eggs up, a slice of ham and two pieces of white toast with butter and marmalade. I was later to discover that the European breakfast was the only breakfast available for westerners in all hotels, no matter what city you were in. There were no variables. I’m sure it was because no one knew English at that time, so you pointed to the menu to place your order. The beverage was hot tea. Following breakfast, I picked up my briefcase and from the front desk got directions to where I was to go. It happened to be directly across Tianiman Square, the largest in the world. I entered the building and a man, a translator, greeted me and directed me to the meeting room.
It was a rather large, cold looking room furnished in 1927-style furniture, with fringe on the lamps and doilies on the back of the stuffed chairs and couches. I remember being introduced to about five or six men who smiled, but said nothing else. These officials sat on chairs and couches facing me, about 20 feet away. I had one stuffed chair with a table in front to accommodate my papers. The translator sat on the side near me.
The meeting opened with a greeting from them to me and I responded politely.
All conversation from them was in Chinese and then translated. I began with why I had come to China and that we hoped to charter a few of our ships to them for their international use. At that time, ships belonging to the People’s Republic of China were not welcome in western countries and dock personnel would not handle any of their needs such as loading or unloading cargo. Our ships were of Norwegian registry, flagged and crewed by Norwegians. We could go anywhere in the world and were welcome. The meetings dragged on for the most of three days and, at the end, the Chinese agreed to charter seven of our cargo ships. This later expanded to quite a few more. I also negotiated with them to allow one of our cruise ships to visit China on a regular basis beginning in late 1976. The ship was the former Bergensfjord, carrying 500 passengers in a luxury setting. We renamed it Rasa Sayang to better fit the Far East. We based it in Hong Kong and chartered a PanAm 747 to run every two weeks from Los Angeles to that city to board our passengers for their cruise into Chinese ports. In the later 70s many Americans were anxious to visit China. It was the “in” destination. I ran only one full page ad in the Los Angeles Times Sunday travel section and another in the San Francisco Chronicle Sunday travel section. From those two ads we were able to obtain enough reservations for one full year of cruising.
China had not really opened its doors until this time for Western tourism, so I was allowed to visit the important tourist sights within the country and pick those I felt would be good for inland excursions from our ship.
There is much more to tell of this interesting experience, so we’ll tell more in another article one day.