(Editors Note: This is the first of a two part post on the author’s reminiscences of growing up in pre-Cultural Revolution China. In this first part Imran H. Khan looks at the cultural and social aspects of the China that was and how they looked to a young Pakistani boy. In the second part he will look at the political dimensions).
On a drizzly cold night in Dec of 1965 I found myself traveling with my father to see the Tienanmen Square from our Sinchou hotel located close to the old city.
I had just arrived from Pakistan via Canton on an ex-PIA Viscount turbo-prop of CAAC, the Chinese airline, and it seemed that I had landed on an alien planet. Everything was different here. The bread was white (steamed bread), music was string percussion, no one spoke English and bicycles were everywhere.
Traveling on a two piece electric bus that silently carried the huddled Chinese in their quilt coats was a novelty for this eleven year old. I had seen photos of the Tienamen Square, but experiencing it at night for the first time with well lit anchor buildings was sensory overload. This was my introduction to the Pre-Cultural Revolution China, where my sense of novelty was only matched by the curiosity Chinese around me. I later on realized that I was amongst only a handful of foreigners in the city and country where PIA’s Boeing 707 was the only jet servicing the whole country.
Here was a dark kid with a pointy nose in a mass of not so dark and not so pointy nosed people.
China was an isolated country in those days. Nonetheless it had good relations with two Muslim countries of Pakistan and Albania because of their support in international forums. Pakistan Chancery was therefore given priority to move to San Li Tun, which was designated as the new diplomatic enclave at the edge of the city. We moved to our new home in a new multi-story apartment that was lavish by Chinese standards. I had a unique opportunity to meet kids of diplomats from different parts of the world at a time when there was no TV, internet of iPod.
I was fascinated by the main bazaar serviced by Wang Fu Ching which was a larger version of Anarkali. It had all sorts of small shops and restaurants from different parts of China. A popular desert was apple on a stick dipped in sugar syrup. Water melons with yellow center seemed to accentuate the other worldliness of the place.
Next to Wang Fu Ching was a store meant for foreigners, filled with Chinese manufactured goods that were not available to the masses. For some reason it was full of desk clocks. The covered bazaar behind that store was filled with antiques that my parents loved to shop. There were incredibly intricate pieces of art being sold at throw away prices.
The huge meat shop behind the covered bazaar was full of hanging pork carcasses was quite shocking for a boy from Pakistan. My favorite restaurant was the Peking Duck restaurant where the entire meal consisted of a specially raised Peking Duck. I can still taste the crispy skin for the appetizer.It took me a while getting used to eating Chinese style where they served one dish at a time. The soup was served at the end of the meal after you had watched sumptuous dishes go by as you had filled yourself by the fourth dish. My favorite park was BeiHai Park that had a large lake where I could row a rented boat. It was dominated with a large white pagoda on an island in the middle.
I found the Great Wall to be quite a disappointment. It is difficult for a kid to get too excited about a wall. The Ming tombs on the other hand were a case of Pharaohs combined with Sherlock Holmes. The Ming tombs of the thirteen Ming emperors located about thirty miles outside Beijing contained their belongings and even food. The entrance of each tomb was secretly sealed and the workers were killed to keep it a secret from looters. When I visited them only three had been opened up. The Temple of Heaven had a circular platform where it was believed that the Emperor would rotate the earth with his feet as it was considered the center of the Earth.
The Forbidden City where the Emperors used to spend the winters was cold and stark. On the other hand the Summer Palace outside Beijing was a wonderfully relaxing place with large lakes and surrounding hills. The place was full of intricately ornate buildings and statues. Larger house boats were there to take larger parties out on the Kunming lake.
This respect was most visible when traveling in a bus. The buses were the main mode of transportation and they were invariably full. But no matter how full a bus was, if an older person or a person carrying a child got onto the bus, he or she was assured a seat. I used to kid our Pakistani help by the name of Walayat Khan who would always get to sit as he would be carrying my sister Ayesha shown on the left.
I can only imagine how hard it must have been for the Chinese to implement the one child policy given their adoration for their children. I saw many older Chinese women who had trouble walking as their feet were kept artificially small using foot binding. Apparently it had been fashionable at one time to have small feet.I was fascinated by the Chinese fairy tales narrated to me by Wang, our Chinese help. China has a large collection of fairy tales with Fox spirits that can change forms.
Living in a diplomatic enclave gave me an opportunity to interact with kids of my age from a number of different countries. Watching Beatles movies in the British embassy in the heart of pre-cultural revolution Beijing was a culturally a shocking experience.
The May 1st Labor Day was celebrated as one of major holidays. The central event is a huge parade in the Tienanmen Square with the biggest firework display that I have ever seen. I got to see it in an enclosure next to Chairman Mao Zedong.
The fireworks happen concurrent at three levels. The lower level is generally an on going firing of dense fireworks from the square. The second level is higher altitude from an area surrounding the square, and the third level of fireworks were actually fired by anti aircraft guns and exploded at a fairly high altitude.
The complexity of fireworks was further enhanced by the synchronized dance of anti aircraft lights mounted around the city. It is difficult to describe the visual art created by the synchronized luminance of constructs slowly gliding down the sky gently nudged tangentially by the wind in the back drop of a millions of humans marching in front of you.