Growing Up Pakistani in Peking, 1966-68 (Part I)

Posted on January 10, 2011
Filed Under >Imran H. Khan, Foreign Relations, Travel
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Imran H. Khan

(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.

Early Experiences

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.

Cultural Insights

I was struck by the extreme respect for elders and children in the Chinese society. I had thought that Pakistani society was not too shabby in this respect.

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.

Imran H. Khan blogs at ‘Planet Earth’, where this was first posted. The second part of this will be posted at ATP soon.

15 Comments on “Growing Up Pakistani in Peking, 1966-68 (Part I)”

  1. Owais Mughal says:
    January 10th, 2011 2:14 am

    A fascinating and captivating write-up. Thanks Imran.

    I visited Ming Tombs mentioned by you in 2008. It is said that a person goes to another world (world of the dead?) while visiting these tombs. On our way out we passed through a special door (possibly constructed for tourists) which supposedly brought every passerby back to the present world.

    And you are right that not all 13 tombs are open to toursits. We were also allowed to visit 3 tombs.

    Another fascinating part of Chinese society is how the elderly and retired people keep themselves busy. If one goes to any park in the morning hours – one could see hundreds of eledrly doing group exercises, playing flutes, playing table tennins, practising Tai-chi, throwing balls at eachother to practise catches. I saw such congregations of elderly in the Temple of Heaven that went well passed noon.

    In the Bei-Hai park mentioned in your post, I once saw an elederly guy using water from the lake to wet a big broom (similar to our phool-jhaaroo) and doing calligraphy on cement floor with it using water as ink. He was using tip of “phool jharoo” as a calligraphy brush. As he kept going on writing on cement floor with water – his older writings kept getting dried up and invisible becasue the water evaporated – but he didn’t care. He just kept doing calligraphy on the ground and kept moving on and on.

  2. HarOON says:
    January 10th, 2011 2:19 am

    What a wonderful set of memories. cant wait to read the second part. And hat was a historic period when you were in China. This is true witness to history!

  3. Samdani says:
    January 10th, 2011 2:41 am

    You made my weekend with this post, ATP.

    I never lived in China but I did visit it in the late 1970s and then again a few years ago. What a totally different country.

    My biggest memory from my first visit was a sea of bicycles in Beijing. My biggest memory from the recent visit was a sea of cars and a jungle of tall buildings. No society, I think, has changed as much and as fast as modern China.

  4. USMAN says:
    January 10th, 2011 3:03 am

    Must have been quite a thrill as a young boy to be in an exotic place like China which was then still so closed to most outsiders. I like the point you make about “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 have also noticed that, but always thought it was the 1 child policy that made them like children even more (i.e., scarcity). But seems like it is an older cultural characteristic.

  5. Jawed says:
    January 10th, 2011 6:50 am

    The very best time to learn about a different civilization is when one is a child. Afterwards the biases kick in.
    Excellent post!

  6. Brian says:
    January 10th, 2011 7:18 am

    “Watching Beatles movies in the British embassy in the heart of pre-cultural revolution Beijing”…. PRICELESS!

  7. Humaira says:
    January 10th, 2011 9:28 am

    Nice one.
    Actually, my reaction to the Great Wall was the same. It is really the scale of the Great Wall that is impressive, not the wall itself. And the fact that it was built when it was.
    But that is what is amazing about everything in China – the scale!
    Enjoyed reading this.

  8. Mohammad Amjad says:
    January 10th, 2011 6:48 pm

    I am so depressed these days that reading about anything does not appeal much right now. But I must say this and the Salimuzzaman post have given me a certainly calmness. There is a world beyond our woes in Pakistan and if we could only overcome them there is such great potential.

    But I did enjoy this post and its descriptions of China. I wonder if the author has been back since then, and what are the biggest changes he has seen in that country?

  9. Jabbar says:
    January 10th, 2011 7:19 pm

    Someone should also write about the history of PIA and China and how central that was to both China and to PIA in those days when, literally, all routes to Peking passed through Pakistan!

  10. Farrukh says:
    January 11th, 2011 1:09 am

    Enjoyed the post. It reminded me of my own journey to Europe as a kid about the same age and around the same time. Not quite as exotic, but certainly left images in mind that were equally deep and lasting. The memories of our childhood are indeed deep and lasting.

  11. Sami says:
    January 11th, 2011 2:54 am

    What a different time it must have been. A young Pakistani in a foreign country and no one looks at him as being dangerous and someone to keep an eye on!

  12. Farman says:
    January 11th, 2011 5:09 am

    I first went to China in the mid-80s. It was still a mostly bicycle place. At least in Beijing I saw more bicycles than cars. My other big memory was how many people did exercise and in public parks and squares. I was there 4 days and from my hotel window I could see a large park and early morning it was full of people exercising (the slow Chinese exercise). I found it odd and interesting then. But now I think it is positive social habits like that which eventually make a nation.

  13. Ali S. Khursheed says:
    January 12th, 2011 6:13 am

    This is a fine essay and I await the next part.
    Very few in Pakistan or in the international world realize just how important a role Pakistan played in the controlled opening of China to the rest of the world. Not only with USA but also otherwise. And the Chinese managed this very well and that is why the relations are still so deep.

  14. January 13th, 2011 9:53 am

    As an Indian I found this post very fascinating and also informative about Mao’s China. I am eager to read the second part. The comment by Owais about senior citizens was also fascinating.I am eagerly waiting for the second part.
    Thanks Imran and ATP.

  15. Mario Moreira says:
    January 18th, 2011 7:39 am

    Great read. I would like to hear more detail. What did the Great Wall disappoint? What was the intricate art work that sold at give away prices? Maybe there is a short story or a book in the making? Thanks!

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