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POSTCARDS from China : Death by Duck

June 15, 1993|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO

The closest I ever got to a scoop as a correspondent in Beijing was the day in 1980 that I chanced upon Death by Duck--the saga of American tourists dying to visit China.

One poor soul arrived lugging a heavy suitcase and went home inside it. His wife had him cremated and continued the tour with his ashes: He would have wanted it that way, she said.

I was tipped to the story by an American consul drowning in red tape as he battled to pry bodies and personal effects from the Chinese bureaucracy for shipment home. Tourism in China was physically and mentally rigorous then: hotels far below international standards, long trips on uncomfortable trains and buses, uncounted delays and hair-raising flights on unpredictable airplanes, mystery courses at unending meals in unpronounceable restaurants.

Still, China's opening to tourism after so many decades was irresistible for thousands of elderly Americans who had been everywhere else. Typically, the Duck would strike in Beijing toward the end of an exhausting tour--after a climb on the Great Wall and a long walk through the Forbidden City. Heart attack followed a lavish Peking Duck dinner. The food was not the villain, but Death by Duck it became.

Interested to see if the Duck still rampaged through ever-larger tourist armies a dozen years later--320,000 Americans visited China last year--I called at the American Embassy in Beijing.

In the old days, the embassy was a single cramped building. Now there are half a dozen. In one of them, an affable consul donned that irksome cloak of diplomatic anonymity and played taps for the Duck.

"Death by Duck has died a peaceful death," she intoned with a smile.

Eight to 10 Americans die each year in the Beijing consular district, but now they're more likely to be expatriates than tourist heart-attack victims.

"The stress of travel has eased. There's reasonable transportation, better medical care and more attention paid to the food and water requirements of foreigners," the diplomat said.

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