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In Wake of Turmoil, China Still Holds Surprises

July 16, 1989|ELIZABETH MEHRENBD Times Staff Writer | Mehren is on leave to write two books for Doubleday. Her husband, Fox Butterfield, is the author of "China: Alive in the Bitter Sea" (Times Books, hard cover, and Bantam, paperback)

GUANGZHOU, China — At a dinner party in Hong Kong on the eve of our departure, friends expressed surprise that we were venturing into China so soon after what they euphemistically called "the trouble" in Beijing.

Old China hands, our hosts had watched in horror the steady escalation of tensions. They shuddered at the May 20 declaration of martial law and grieved at the June 3 massacre in Tian An Men Square.

Now, less than three weeks after the explosion of violence in China, they marveled that we were preparing to saunter in like a couple of wide-eyed tourists.

"Americans are leaving China," one friend reminded us. "Are you sure this is the right time to go in?"

He had a point, certainly. U.S. citizens living in Beijing were evacuated within days of the massacre. And the State Department had strongly cautioned against travel in China. On my flight to Hong Kong I met several people whose long-planned tours of China had turned into hastily planned tours of Thailand.

A Naive Jaunt

But what we were proposing was neither a challenge to American or Chinese authorities, nor a naive jaunt to a combat zone. Fox, my husband, had lived in China some years earlier, before we were married. We'd talked since we met about traveling in China together. Now that we were in Hong Kong we were determined not to miss the opportunity.

My schedule was tight, so instead of traveling all the way to Beijing we decided to visit Guangdong, the province once known as Canton. Guangzhou, the provincial capital, is an easy train ride, less than three hours, from downtown Hong Kong.

Through a travel agent we got visas effortlessly. No one even blinked at the notion of two Americans traveling to China.

"This car is going to be very smoky," Fox warned as we settled into our seats on the train. It was a reasonable assumption. Many Chinese are enthusiastic cigarette consumers, and in the front of the car were three huge, multicolor ads for American cigarette brands.

But directly above one of the signs was a much smaller announcement: "No smoking."

That was the first of our surprises.

"In the old days," Fox said, "you would never have seen a sign like that."

Agricultural Statistics

In those same "old" days, maybe seven years before this expedition, the loudspeakers on the train probably would have blared communist propaganda, Fox said, or the latest agricultural statistics.

Instead--surprise No. 2--what we heard was the Chinese version of elevator music. And it wasn't even that Chinese. The first tune was a souped-up version of Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called To Say I Love You."

The train passed through Hong Kong's New Territories--a lush, subtropical region marked by dense forests of papaya trees. In their midst sprang "instant" cities, high-rise communities constructed abruptly to house upwards of 200,000 people in a single resettlement.

Bright patches of laundry of every size and color made a kind of abstract painting of the windows and balconies. But I wondered: In such steamy weather, how did the clothes ever dry?

Crossing the Border

Crossing the border at Lo Wu, the last vestige of Hong Kong, we entered Shenzhen, our first taste of China. As an indication of the expansion of Guandong's population, Shenzhen has grown from about 20,000 in 1980 to more than a million today. In turn, the province has swollen to 100 million.

Years ago, Fox said, we would have had to get out and go through customs and a rigorous luggage search. The process took so long that train passengers planned to have a leisurely lunch while they were waiting. Now all we did was fill out a short form to present to authorities in Guangzhou.

"Your first Chinese guards," Fox said, and pointed to two men in uniforms the color of split-pea soup. They looked young and watchful.

Around them a swarm of peasant workers in conical rattan hats and blue uniforms were clearing the land for more housing and industrial facilities.

Pink Hibiscus

Where shimmering green rice paddies had been stripped for new development, rich red soil peeked through. Giant pink hibiscus blossoms clung to the trees that had not been felled for construction.

Our friends in Hong Kong were not generous in their descriptions of Guangzhou. It's an unattractive, dirty, industrial town, they said. One guest called Guangzhou "the Buffalo of China." But another said that was unfair, that it was much more like Dayton.

But struggling for a U.S. comparison, Fox and I found ourselves thinking more of some place like Galveston, Tex.

Muggy and congested, the subtropical metropolis of Guangzhou is the most important industrial and foreign trade center in south China.

At least 100 U.S. companies maintain operations in Guangzhou, and the city's Chinese Export Commodities Fair attracts exhibitors and traders from around the world. Cargo vessels clog the Pearl River, a waterway that bears more resemblance to unset concrete than to a glistening gemstone.

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