June 2016


by Robert Drewe

The bathplug dilemma

China since the other Malcolm

The first time I visited China, my accommodation was at the Minzu Friendship Guesthouse. The friendship offered there back in 1976 was rather austere. Mao’s China did not provide a lock on the door of my room, or a shower, or a bathplug.

The simple bathplug: so necessary a bathroom accessory under any regime. In lieu of a plug I would jam a pair of socks in the plughole. This enabled me to trap 5 to 6 centimetres of rapidly retreating water in which to bathe each morning. Or, more accurately, to dampen my buttocks and heels for a minute or so.

Extra tension was added to this shallow bathing experience by the sudden daily entrance, without knocking (no door lock), of Mr Shen. He was one of the official driver-spooks assigned to the press contingent accompanying Australia’s new prime minister, Malcolm Fraser, aged 46, and his mint-fresh foreign minister, Andrew Peacock, 37, on their first official visit to China.

Disregarding the official schedule handed out the night before, Mr Shen would barge into this young reporter’s room well before the allotted departure time, repeatedly shouting, “You come now!”

Mr Shen would then loom over the bath until, mustering the patient dignity for which Australian journalists are noted, I rose from the thin puddle of bathwater, stared him down, and faced the Chinese dawn.

Despite the daily bath confrontation with Mr Shen, I considered myself lucky to be in Peking, as we used to call Beijing, representing the Bulletin on the prime minister’s tour. China was a hugely novel experience for all of us Australians, and especially for Malcolm Fraser. In time, his tour would be judged a success, largely due to the advice and foresight of Australia’s first ambassador to the People’s Republic of China, the Gough Whitlam appointee Stephen FitzGerald. Whitlam broke the ice with China, but it was Fraser who established a foundation for sustainable ties based on common interests in regional security (such as a mistrust of the Soviet Union).

Relations between our countries blossomed and, just as our hosts predicted, orioles suddenly seemed to sing everywhere, and swallows darted.

The prime minister was momentarily rattled by an embarrassing accidental leak of his confidential talks with Premier Hua Guofeng. (The ill and aged Mao was bedridden and would die three months later.) However, the conservative and dour Fraser of those days was soon surprised and flattered by the welcoming crowds of clapping and singing children, workers, soldiers and peasants. Drums, flowers, streamers, gongs, chimes, bells and infant sopranos worked their magic.

Met by such vibrant scenes, Fraser quickly became an amiable, camera-toting Sinophile. With two, even three, cameras slung around his neck, and constantly seeking technical advice from Rick Smolan, the long-haired young American photographer (who the next year would join Robyn Davidson on her Tracks camel odyssey), the prime minister would frequently delay proceedings. We’d wait while he snapped off shots of the scenery, the populace, his guides, even the press party.

Whether at the Forbidden City or the Summer Palace’s Hall of Benevolence and Longevity – where he bemused his hosts by interrupting a luncheon of steamed pigeon breast and sea cucumbers to chat about lighting with Smolan, his unlikely new best friend – Malcolm Fraser was an avid tourist.

Seeking the elusive perfect photograph, sweating in his heavy Henry Bucks suit and removing his brogues to avoid slipping, he was possibly the first international leader to climb the Great Wall in stockinged feet. Socks of good Western District wool, he pointed out.

Meanwhile, knees pumping high, jogging ahead of Fraser and then back again in frustration at his leader’s slow progress was Andrew Peacock, suave in a blue-flecked gunmetal safari suit and matching sneakers. The foreign minister had been the only person in the 25-member Australian contingent to seriously consider beforehand the appropriate outfit for that day’s assignment: Hmm, Great Wall of China. Outdoor venue, steep slope, rough surface. Smart-casual and Adidas probably advisable.

Intermittently adjusting the Hongqi (Red Flag) sedan’s taping devices and spitting out the window, Mr Shen would grimly drive us to and from official banquets and photo opportunities. While we gawked at the cycling hordes and the Mao-suited crowds lining the streets, they goggled at the motorcade of aliens passing by.

We weren’t allowed out without Mr Shen and his security colleagues. Although an accompanied trip to a department store was eventually sanctioned, the fact that its first floor sold only bicycle seats, the second floor only vacuum flasks, the third saucepans and the fourth Mao caps curbed our shopping enthusiasm. Also, every Chinese customer was hounded out of the store, and the street was roped off.

If dismantling and interpreting official news releases was a difficult task, it was allayed somewhat by the succession of mao-tai toasts at the numerous banquets. At yet another Great Hall feast with the Chinese hierarchy, complete with traditional Chinese songs of heroism and harmony, Fraser demanded that the Australian press respond in kind. Peter Bowers of the Sydney Morning Herald and Ken Begg of the ABC jumped to their feet and led us in a stirring rendition of the Aeroplane Jelly song.

At tour’s end, Ken Begg* was also to farewell Mr Shen with a droll version of ‘Danke Schoen’, the signature song of the Las Vegas entertainer Wayne Newton:

Mr Shen, darling, Mr Shen
Thank you for seeing me again
Though we go on our separate ways
Still the memory stays for always.
My heart says Mr Shen ...

Forty years later, I’ve just been back, invited to speak at universities, libraries and literary festivals in several cities. If I was slightly disconcerted to walk to the lectern each time to Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Sound of Silence’ (and once, seriously, to what my hosts may have presumed was the Australian national anthem, ‘Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini’), I was even more unsettled to be mobbed for autographs and photos. Such is not the usual lot of an Australian writer.

In Beijing this time I stayed in the gorgeous, five-star Opposite House hotel in Sanlitun Road. There is a coincidence here: its name derived from its proximity to where the Minzu Friendship Guesthouse once stood.

A classy emerald-green, glass-fronted building, the Opposite House provided a memorable hotel experience, partly because of its literally cutting-edge minimalism. The bathtub, shower cubicle and bathroom basin were made of sharply right-angled wood. There was a bathplug in my room this time.

Clearly, Chinese bathroom fittings had changed dramatically since 1976. Entire buildings likewise. With its grand stores of international luxury brands, and its multinational fast-food outlets, Sanlitun Road, like every commercial district in Beijing, Jinan, Xi’an and Shanghai, presented not merely as a super-chic shopping precinct but as a beacon of capitalism.

It’s hardly a novel observation nowadays, but it still seemed a massive irony for the trappings of extreme capitalism to be so proudly and blatantly exhibited. Around the malls and hotels, however, latter-day Mr Shens were still prevalent. They also turned up to dampen the international literary festival sessions in Beijing on ‘Journalism with Chinese Characteristics’ and ‘Women’s Rights Around the World’. At the latter, police threatened the moderator with repercussions if she went ahead. So she pulled out.

Local writers spoke of a newspaper colleague who wrote a soft lifestyle feature on ‘The Ten Best Parties in Beijing’ (“party” as in rich kids’ social gathering) and was sacked. He was told, “There is only one party!”

Then there was the English-language bookshop raided recently by police looking for books that criticised China. They confiscated every publication with China in the title, including a coffee-table book, The Porcelain of China. As one local writer said with a sigh, “We badly want to be seen as part of the modern world of culture and the arts, but when it comes to the point we just can’t do it.”

The recent ten fiction bestsellers (in English) at Beijing’s Page One bookshop, spanning centuries and ranging from Little Women and Moby-Dick to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, are an eclectic lot. Not so the nonfiction bestsellers, all Western finance and get-rich books. The Warren Buffett Philosophy of Investment leads the list, followed by The Success Formula: How smart leaders deliver outstanding value and The Great Escape: Health, wealth and the origins of inequality.

Mao is rarely mentioned these days. Some of the markets display Mao T-shirts, but only backpackers buy them. The cult of personality is over. While some older conservative Chinese might hanker nostalgically for the days of Mao, Confucius is becoming popular again, I was often told, especially in his home province of Shandong.

Many descendants of Confucius still live in Shandong today. Confucius’ family, the Kongs, have the longest recorded extant pedigree in the world, with the father-to-son family tree now in its 83rd generation. According to the Confucius Genealogy Compilation Committee, he has 2 million known and registered descendants, and an estimated 3 million in all, including many tens of thousands living outside China.

I like to imagine that Stanley and Cyril Confucius are quite possibly buying up Gold Coast real estate, or running Chinese restaurants in Chatswood and Brighton.

Of course I had to visit the Great Wall again. These days you need to leave central Beijing by 7 am in order to avoid the tourist crowds. A cable car takes you to the wall itself. Strangely, the slope of the wall now seemed almost impossibly steep, defying geometry, and also higher and more exhausting. The steps were of irregular height. I didn’t remember any of this. It would be a nightmare for occupational health and safety. At the base of the Great Wall a loudspeaker blared: not slogans but the Bee Gees’ ‘Stayin’ Alive’. There was a Subway and a Baskin Robbins, and free wi-fi, and $10 espressos, and $5 Cokes.

And beside the wall there was a lone trace of the old China: a bent figure picking up rubbish and sweeping the dust. A woman with the ubiquitous face mask was slowly brushing the dirt back and forth with a straw whisk. In front of her she spotted a scrap of paper. It was red, the colour of good fortune. Instead of picking it up, she dug a neat little hole and gently buried it.

* Ken Begg writes: As one of Robert Drewe’s fellow travellers on Malcolm Fraser’s 1976 visit to China I enjoyed his journey back in time, with one exception: The song I sang to the redoubtable Mr Shen may well have been droll but was it a Wayne Newton number? Never! The song was ‘Bei mir bits du scheon’ and the words? My own.

Robert Drewe

Robert Drewe writes novels, short stories, memoir and essays. His latest novel is Whipbird.

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