It almost always begins in darkness, my memory’s trip back to the China where Terence and I meet.
In the first week of February 1983, I fly in to Peking to take up my post as the correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. I am looking out the window of a Pan Am flight as it circles, preparing to land. Below is the country’s capital, one of the world’s biggest cities. This is not the China of the Olympics, the futuristic seventy-story towers and magnetic trains, of stylish wealthy entrepreneurs and world-devouring currency reserves. In 1983, eleven years after President Nixon’s 1972 walk along the Great Wall, the country is still enmeshed in the shock and trauma of the Cultural Revolution and of the turbulent three decades since the People’s Republic of China was formed in 1949. It’s still easy to see the gashing wounds from years of isolation, poverty, and the political instability of the Cultural Revolution that has barely ended.
Peking—it is still Peking in those days—is the home of 9.3 million people, yet there is none of the exuberant burst of light that normally greets travelers flying into a big city. There are no ocher ribbons of highway spiraling out from the city’s center, nor do snakes of white headlights flow in one direction, red taillights in another. No massive office buildings flaunt shining squares into the night long after the workers have left for home. There are no cheerfully lighted houses either, no boxlike warrens of high-rise apartments fanning out to lighted loops of suburban cul-de-sacs. Instead, here in China’s capital in the early 1980s, most people still live in dark one-story brick or stone courtyards with public street latrines. Even in the center of the city, some families still raise chickens and small pigs. Many homes still have no electricity at all.
It is a dark and silent city. In 1983 the country still hasn’t recovered from the decadelong nightmare of the Cultural Revolution that pitted colleague against colleague, neighbor against neighbor, child against parent. The bleakness disturbs me. There are only a handful of cars—some owned by a tiny city-owned taxi fleet, a few driven by diplomats or journalists, as well as the hulking Russian-style Hongqi limousines favored by high-ranking Party officials. Someone sometime told someone that headlights burn gasoline, so only parking lights are used at night. The cars are ghostly shadows with tiny yellow cats’ eyes.
Almost all the necessities of life—food, clothing, shelter—are supplied by the factory or office. Stores have only recently begun to reemerge, but most shop windows are still boarded up or plastered over. For many weeks I don’t even realize that these darkened doorways are stores. It is a dingy, featureless wasteland.
For the first several months I live alone in an apartment that is also my office. While the telex clatters behind me, every night I stand on the twelfth-floor balcony looking down into the dark night toward the southeast of the city. I live herded together with the other journalists and diplomats in this walled compound of cinder-block buildings, guarded—and watched—by soldiers.
The winter air is bitter with the smoke of the soft coal briquettes that people use to heat their houses. Off in the distance I hear the wail of a train whistle. Directly below me, metal clops against asphalt as the horse-drawn delivery carts still allowed into the center city after sundown make their nightly rounds. Even late at night the streets pulse with bikers heading to work or back home or who knows where. Only the barest hint of color—a sleeve, a scarf, a ribbon—has begun to appear here and there to brighten the Communist-era Mao-style dress. Otherwise the bikers, both men and women, are all dark. Dark jackets. Dark trousers. Dark shoes. Dark hats. Dark bikes.
I stand on my balcony and think how lucky I am to be here at this historic moment—how excited, and at the same time how frightened, alone, and confused I am in this bleak, strange, unwelcoming place.
On Saturday, September 3, 1983, as midnight approaches I am still working. I work pretty much all the time. Just as I am starting to fade with exhaustion, New York wakes up with its barrage of questions and comments and demands. Working all day and then answering the phone through the night adds a kind of surreal, never-quite-awake/never-quite-asleep quality to my life in China.
Tonight I struggle with the story that just won’t fall into shape. Mikhail Kapitsa, a Soviet deputy foreign minister, is set to arrive in the capital. He is the highest-ranking Soviet to visit since China and the Soviet Union broke off relations in 1960. Because the two countries had split, few Soviet experts are left in China, at least ones willing to talk. I can find almost no one who understands the politics of both countries well enough to explain the significance of the visit. There is no Internet; I check the indexes of all the reference books I have brought and find nothing. My interviews have been next to useless.
I planned to skip the party that John Broder, the Chicago Tribune correspondent in the next building over, is throwing. I must get this piece written! But I am worn out, lonely, and discouraged. I leave the yellow sheets in the typewriter and wander over, intending to stay for only a few minutes. John Broder is a witty, lively, guitar-playing bon vivant. His wife is beautiful and dark-haired with a wisp of an exotic accent—Israeli? Their party is an event.
The bow-tied man on the sofa across the room is wearing horn-rimmed glasses. He looks a bit out of place, maybe even a bit out of time. He’s older than the others. Stouter. More formal.
When he motions me over, I settle in next to him and begin to tell him the subject of my troublesome story. His eyes light up. Sino-Soviet politics are his specialty, he says. In fact, he is here in Peking as a Fulbright scholar, on a one-year fellowship to China precisely to study the relations between China and the Soviet Union. We begin an intense conversation about the personal and professional hostilities between Mao and Stalin that had led to the countries’ rift in the 1950s. The terrible economic price China had paid for the split. The effect on world politics of the two rivals, and the change in balance of power when the United States opened its arms gingerly again to China. It is a masterly discussion. Just what I have been missing. Just what I need. I am not so much of a geek as to bring a notepad to the party, so I try to memorize as much as I can before, close to 3:00 a.m., I say good night and walk home alone. I live only two buildings over, inside the compound surrounded by soldiers. By the next morning I remember the substance of the talk but not the man’s name.
That afternoon I call our host. The Fulbright scholar? John is stumped. People just show up at his parties. He didn’t know half the people in the room. I make a few other calls, but no one seems to recall the proper middle-aged man with the owlish glasses and bow tie. Without a name to pin the observations on, I’m not comfortable writing the story, so I let it go and chalk it up as another disappointment.
A few months go by. I have almost forgotten about him in the press of work. Then, without warning, I spot him again at another staple of 1980s China social life—a bank reception. A big American bank is opening its office here. It has rented the courtyard of a lovely old prerevolutionary home. The space is filled with the usual assortment of businesspeople, journalists, and Chinese officials in Mao jackets. There are drinks and hors d’oeuvres and endless speeches about friendship and cooperation. He is standing alone.
“I’ve been looking for you,” I say.
“I was going to call,” he answers. “I’ve been traveling.” This time, at a business occasion instead of a party, he automatically hands me his card, as I just as automatically hold out mine.
Terence B. Foley
American Soybean Association
“Soybeans? I don’t understand. You said you were a Fulbright scholar. Studying Sino-Soviet relations.”
He shrugs. “You’re cute. You’re a journalist. I wanted to talk to you. Journalists are always working. How long would you have talked to me if I told you I was in soybeans? You wanted to talk about China and Russia, so I made up a person who could talk about China and Russia. I knew you’d find out sooner or later.”
Made it up?
I stare at the card.
“You asshole!” I finally blurt out. “You could have gotten me fired!” I stamp away.
And that is how we met.
Years later, this becomes our signature story, a kind of stand-up routine for both of us. When our children are old enough, we tell them the story at least once a year.
At his funeral, I stand up and tell it alone.
I don’t see him again until about three months later, on Febru-ary 2, 1984. It’s Chinese New Year, the first day of the Year of the Rat. I spot him in a boarding lounge in Tokyo, both of us heading back to the city that by now has been renamed Beijing. I’m on my way back from my first home leave. He’s coming back from who knows where. He is in business class and doesn’t see me turning right into coach.
There aren’t more than a dozen people in the cavernous rear of the plane. All commerce and diplomatic work stops for the New Year holiday, and no sane tourist goes to frigid, polluted Beijing in February, which a colleague once described as like being stuck inside a vacuum cleaner bag inside a freezer. Exhausted from a full day of upright flying back from my leave in New York, I lie down across three seats and fall asleep.
When we arrive in Beijing at midnight, the airport is more dreary than usual. Even in broad daylight the Beijing airport is a depressing place, cold and barren and more like a military hangar than a modern commercial airport. Even at its bustling peak, there is no food. No publicly available phones. In those days before cellphones, once inside the airport, you were nearly cut off from the rest of the world.
Tonight, the baggage handlers sullenly fling the bags onto the wooden pallets. Eager to get home for the holiday, skinny pigtailed girls wearing khaki green airport service uniforms scurry around flipping off light switches even before the plane is fully unloaded. I look around. The few people on the plane have been met by relatives, or by their work units, or by their drivers. My own driver is home with his family. I gave him the holiday off, thinking taxis would certainly be available. Tonight there are none. It is minus 14 degrees Celsius—not even 7 degrees Fahrenheit. There is an eighteen-mile-long deserted road fringed with linden trees between me and home.
Then I spot him over by a service desk, a telephone in his hand. He is a hefty man but even across the room he looks oddly puffed up like Santa Claus, a navy greatcoat ballooning around him. He has found an airport telephone tucked inside a service desk. I give him points for that. Still, I feel a faint wave of contempt. Of course he is going to need me to help him translate. I am no expert, but I have quickly made myself functional in the language. Older American businessmen, in my experience, have not.
I start across the room to offer to help, when a sudden torrent of rapid-fire, colloquial Chinese bursts out of him. He speaks so fast I can’t understand anything he says. He hangs up the phone and turns to me.
“I live in a hotel,” he says. “I’ve asked the desk to send a car to get us.”
I see I really haven’t much of a choice. We are the only two passengers left in the airport, and the last of the lights are going out. As we wait for the car, I watch in amazement as he begins pulling videotapes out from every wrinkle in his clothing. He is smoking, talking, and unloading all at once. His outside pockets. Inside pockets. Pants pockets. Inside his bloused-out shirt. His front waistband. His rear waistband. Altogether he stacks more than twenty cassettes that he had just smuggled in. The Quiet Man. All About Eve. Apocalypse Now. Lawrence of Arabia. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The Maltese Falcon. Vertigo. The Big Sleep. Dr. Strangelove. Bonnie and Clyde. Top Hat. They are all classics, and they aren’t illegal. It’s just that bored officials with no other entertainment have a habit of taking videos to check for subversive material and then “losing” them.
“I have more than five hundred movies in my apartment,” he boasts. “I tape them off TV in the U.S. and bring them in every trip.”
Despite his grin, it is clear that I was wrong in supposing that he hadn’t noticed me boarding. He is peevish.
“I tried to talk to you the whole plane ride home. I kept walking back and all I saw was your feet.”
“I was asleep.”
“I went back a whole bunch of times and all there was to talk to was Mel Searls.” Mel is the portly and kindly U.S. embassy commercial counselor. This is obviously my fault.
“I was asleep,” I repeat.
“I like Mel, but I can’t talk to him for five hours.”
“I WAS ASLEEP.” This guy is ticking me off.
“So now what’s going to happen is you’re going to come back to my place and we will watch a movie, have a drink, and eat some treats.”
Uh, I think, that is not even close to what is going to happen. I am going to go home to bed. Alone.
Jet lag is my only explanation for what comes next. It is 1:00 a.m. in Beijing, but my body thinks it is 1:00 p.m. in New York. On the drive home I confront the reality that back at my miserable apartment I will face at least six terrible hours in my empty cinder-block office/home standing on the balcony unable to sleep but unable to do much else either. So when the car pulls up to my door—the soldier waved us past when he saw the white faces inside—I drop my luggage in the apartment and rejoin him.
He lives down the road in the Jianguo Hotel, the first new hotel built in China since the 1950s. It is a joint venture modeled on a California Holiday Inn and it is a foreigners’ oasis with new carpets, polite staff, a private supply of salad greens grown without benefit of human manure, and a small restaurant serving hamburgers. Journalists and diplomats live in compounds. Businesspeople live in hotels. He has scored the Jianguo, the only one of its kind in China.
He opens the door on his home, a seventeen-by-seventeen room downstairs with a few steps leading to another room the same size upstairs. It is a standard-issue Holiday Inn hotel room, complete with a painting over the sofa of birches reflected in a pond. Except for one thing: It is stuffed like a warehouse from top to bottom. He opens the door to the downstairs half bath.