At the Friendship Hotel

Beijing Friendship Hotel

After the Cultural Revolution, when foreigners were first allowed to come and work in Beijing, they were all housed and watched over in the so-called Golden Fortress, a bulky gray compound behind a wall, a gate, and a guardhouse. I stayed there when I first arrived in China in 1984. In Hong Kong a year and a half later, Anna talked about her experience when she went to Beijing to teach English at the school inside the Xinhua [New China] News Agency. She arrived in 1979 as one of the first Foreign Experts. Much of her experience was typical for people living in a foreign ghetto. The crackdown on dancing she speaks of foreshadowed the 1983 Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign. 

The buildings of the Friendship Hotel were started in the 1950s by the Russians and built in the Russian style with thick walls, similar to the Great Hall of the People. I was in the hotel proper, with two rooms and a bathroom. I didn’t mind not having a kitchen. Going to the dining room for meals enabled me to meet almost everybody there. I suppose this is how the friendships in the Friendship Hotel start.

I grew close to other foreigners. It’s now five years after I left, and we’re still in close contact. Because we were living in such an enclosed situation, we saw each other more often than you do in the normal world outside, and the relationships were more intense. We depended on each other more, and we found security in numbers. At parties I would stand by the door and count twenty-two or twenty-three different nationalities in the room, but there were no Chinese. Normally the authorities would not let the Chinese mix with us.

The French, the Italians, the Germans, the Americans all had their own groups, but there were very few British people in those days—two out of five hundred foreigners—so we merged with other groups, mainly with Latin Americans, Africans, Pakistanis and Indians. We had to make our own entertainment. There was a library, but the most recent writer was Dickens. Television, of course we didn’t have. We had film once a week, but we never knew what was on. Every Saturday we would party in someone’s place, dance all night and on Sunday ask where the next party was. There were several Latin Americans who had guitars and sang very well. Someone would sit down on the steps of Building Number One with a guitar, then someone else with a guitar, then everyone. Every spot on each of the twenty-five steps was filled. In the summer the singing would go on until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. The Chinese who worked there just couldn’t believe it.

All the outings were organized. Suddenly we’ve got a phone call and they’d say, “Tomorrow we’ve got a ticket for you to the Peking Opera.” Or sometimes it was the same day. Absolutely everything—tickets to the football match, the symphony, the ballet—was provided through the work unit, which in our case was the Foreign Experts’ Bureau, a body so obsolete Chou Enlai wanted to abolish it.

Sometimes I wanted to get out on my own, but there was nowhere to go. The restaurants closed at 7:00 or 7:30. Beijing was enormous, and Youyi Binguan was so far away from everything. I never worked out the public transport. We had these cars. You jump into a car, and they’d take you there, but it was always a problem getting back. You’d tell them to come at a particular time, and that was never understood. You could buy dinner for the driver, but he couldn’t eat with you.

We started planning the Christmas party in October, working out all the details. Most of the people on the committee were Muslims, so instead of ham we had two sheep which we brought cheap from Xinhua. The dinner was in the hotel dining room. We reached an agreement with the hotel cooks for them to do the sheep. Then because we didn’t want to fiddle with cakes, we had a great big caldron of fruit salad. There were about eighty adults and sixty children. Everybody contributed 10 yuan [$7-$8 then]. We contributed some foreign money also and bought whiskey and wine and made an enormous big punch. We had a music program as well. The Chinese had never seen anything like that.

Dancing was not illegal then. We started off in the spring of ‘79 immediately after the Chinese New Year with a dance organized by the Foreign Experts’ Bureau. The poster outside the hotel dining room said, “Your Chinese friends will be invited.” We couldn’t pick our own guests. The following Christmas and New Year—the solar and lunar new years—we had more dances organized by the Bureau, and our own Chinese friends were invited. I even managed to invite my students, but of course they had to be vetted first. Eventually three girls and two boys came. I met them at the compound gate. They wanted to come to my place before we went to the dance hall, and I thought they just wanted to see it. But they had these little bundles with them. They disappeared into bathroom and took off their uniforms and put on these lively jumpers [sweaters]. All my Latin American friends were nice and would say, “Dance with this girl or she’ll die.” They had a whale of a time. The old Chinese people know how to dance—most were from Shanghai, China’s most sophisticated city. They were always the first on the floor, and they knew the steps from before Liberation—foxtrot, and tango and waltz. I used to dance very well. At the first waltz, an old gentleman spotted me and asked me to dance. This was a big hall, and for some reason he thought he had to cover all of it. So we went from one end to the other, turning all around and around, and oh my God he wouldn’t stop.

The band was incredible. A jazz buff said it sounded like music from the Big Band era. He asked the players, “What have you been doing all these years [since Liberation]?  You sound good, but obviously you’re a bit rusty.” The guitarist said, “Well, we haven’t been doing this, that’s for sure.” That was the only time we saw those musicians. I don’t know what became of them. Maybe they got better and went public.

In 1980 on the anniversary of Liberation, we had dances in the Big Hall. That was the first time I saw young Chinese couples without their uniforms and in tight jeans hugging their thighs and tight tee-shirts. They were performing like belly-dancers. After that the big squeeze came. My boss said, “Apparently people dance all night long and don’t go to work the next day. This is why the dances have been banned. People get too tired to be productive.” At that time I’d had a good look at the offices in Xinhua with nine people to a desk, no one working. I thought, If you have dances, and three people don’t show up because they’re tired, the other six can still sit down and read the newspaper.

Only a few foreigners had Chinese friends and contacts outside the hotel. They all spoke Chinese. It was very difficult without the language, but even for those people it was very risky. Nobody was supposed to know about their Chinese friends. There was a girl who got involved with a Chinese guy. She was had long, blond hair, so when she went to his place she put a great big padded coat on and a cap and a mask and hoped everybody would think she was Chinese.

People had to have written permission to come to see us, even our own interpreters. When my interpreter was still at my place after 8:00, the fuwuyuan [maid] would talk to him. He would say, “She’s worried about me. She thinks I should go. It’s late.” Once when I was laid up with my back, one of my students decided to visit and see how I was. It was January, and it was bloody cold. That kid cycled a couple of hours to the Friendship Hotel and wasn’t let in.

Sometimes we just thought they didn’t approve of our morals. When I was recuperating, people came to see me. If it was a male visitor, the fuwuyuan would invent reasons to come every quarter of an hour—change the hot water, bring the laundry, take the laundry, look at this, look at that. Whether that was curiosity or whether they were keeping an eye on me, I don’t know. There were quite a number of mornings when I didn’t want them to come in and clean the room. I would put up a sign, but they would barge in anyway.

We couldn’t visit anybody unless they had written permission to entertain us. My boss invited me, and a couple of teachers were there, and also a neighbor. A very nice lady from Xinhua asked me to her home. Her whole family were there and another couple of people from Xinhua and a neighbor. There was always a neighbor, so I thought it was probably a street committee person or someone like that.

I had a good bicycle, but I was terrified of the traffic outside the compound. Traveling in the car three hours back and forth to work, I invariably saw some disaster on the road. The only time I rode it outside the compound , my teachers came and took me in a convoy, one in front, two beside me, and one or two in back. We went to a park about ten miles away.

The daytime employees in the hotel were moved around a lot so they wouldn’t get too close to us. Despite all that, I got on extremely well with one of them. We always had a joke. When I was ill she looked after me. Through a foreigner who spoke Chinese, she told me that two or three days before, her son had been walking along the road, and someone threw something from a building opposite and hit the kid in the eye. The eye had been operated on, and they had had to take it out. She was devastated. She was hoping he could go to the university, but now she knew he would not be able to go [people with any sort of handicap were not admitted]. The second worry was that the hospital wasn’t totally free. Food and other things were quite expensive, and she didn’t know when she could pay for it. The third thing was that her bike was out of order. The hospital was very, very far out, and it took such a long time to get there, taking first one bus and then another. I said, “Take my bike.” At first she was reticent—no, she couldn’t. I persuaded her, and she was very grateful. Four or five days later she returned it. Someone had reported her for fraternizing with foreigners, so she was returning the bike. Shortly after that she disappeared from the floor.

In the winter it was extremely cold out. You could come back from the dining room through a network of basement passageways and not have to go outside. In one of the buildings there were lots of doors, and we didn’t know what was behind them. One day one was ajar, and I looked in to see reels and reels of what looked like—now this is the imagination probably—recording tape. Someone else passed by, and I said, “What do you think this is?”

“Jesus Christ!  This is where they’re listening to us!”

Then the theatrics and the paranoia set in. We’d sit in the dining room tapping the table, looking for bugs. In every single corner in every room we were looking for bugs. We knew our telephone calls were taped because we could hear the equipment click on. If we dialed outside the compound, we knew the call would be monitored. The people who were suspected of all kinds of things were bugged even when they were talking within the compound. They always knew. I never had any letters tampered with, but there were a number of people who had letters opened and pages missing.

There was one incident which showed me a bit of how the authorities dealt with foreigners. We had to have a general medical check-up, and only after that could we get swimming pool cards. The check-up involved blood pressure, hygiene, and—for the married women—a vaginal exam. They didn’t say “venereal disease,” they said “vaginal check-up,” but we could tell what they were doing it for. Only the married women—no men—were to be checked for VD. Several married women were annoyed and said, “For Christ’s sake, first of al, the single women are not really virgins—not the adults. The Chinese think we are as out-of-date as they are.” The single women were not very happy either, because they wanted their annual check-up and Pap’s smear.

I drew up a petition and put it outside the dining room, where it got hundreds of signatures, and  presented it to the Expert’s Bureau. A few days later I got a phone call requesting me to come to the Experts’ Bureau. There was an old codger who didn’t speak a word of English, but he was obviously in charge, and there was a young girl who was asking questions and interpreting. There was a woman who was taking it all down in Chinese, and there was someone else who was just sitting there watching the show. It took four hours. They were really shocked to find out what strong feelings women had about the issue. At the end they assured me that they now understood and that the women would be treated the same. We would all have to undergo the examination. But then the whole thing disintegrated into thin air.

People were battling windmills all the time. We had a laundry system where you put your clothes in a bag and they collect it. They sewed tags with the room numbers onto the clothes where they were really obvious—like on the collar. One person said, “If they have to sew on these tags, why don’t they sew them on where they don’t show? Then it won’t have to be done every time, and it also won’t damage the clothes?”  He drew up a petition and hung it up, but one of the foreigners said that was the fifteenth petition on that subject. Nothing ever happened.

In the winter we went to a place in the compound which we called “the club,” a big room with two table-tennis tables, a billiard table and a well-stocked bar. The television, which only the barmen and barmaids watched, was always at top volume, as is customary in China. The patrons would be a handful of foreigners, mainly journalists, who wanted to unwind with a few drinks. We couldn’t hear ourselves talk. The girls behind the bar were handpicked for their moroseness, unfriendliness, and hostility toward foreigners. No matter how you asked for a drink, they scowled at you. At half past eleven, even if only two customers were in the bar, they rang a bell that woke up the whole compound. After the bell rang you couldn’t get a box of matches, even though the matches were right there. We had quite a few incidents with the foreigners losing their tempers and smashing something or throwing a drink on a waitress. Immediately watchdogs from the Experts’ Bureau would appear, sit down and take notes and make a report. People who wrecked things just had to pay to get them replaced.

Once, before they put in that awful bell, there was a table of Westerners and a table of Africans sitting in the bar. At half past eleven the young man behind the bar wanted us out. He went to the table of Africans first, and then came to us. One of the African guys was very drunk, and he was incensed at what he thought was racism. He got up and started screaming and smashed the table and said things like “Why don’t you go and tell them?  There’s another table there and you’re not saying anything to them.”

The Experts’ Bureau watchdogs were on the scene very quickly because the relationship between Chinese and Africans was a very touchy issue. That night at one o’clock they rang up the senior African there, someone who had been in the country for a few years, and asked him to come over to discuss the incident. The senior man tried to smooth things over, “Look, he was obviously drunk. I know him. He’s not a racist, and doesn’t think you…” blah-blah-blah. He rang the guy up first thing in the morning and said, “For God’s sake, apologize as fast as you can. I don’t know what they might do. They might send you back home.” His wife and six or seven children were also there. The guy had sobered up, and he did apologize, and then he had to pay the damages as well. And that was okay.

We had some politically interesting people at the hotel. Radical people, revolutionaries showed up from countries with repressive regimes in order to seek refuge. We had some Bolivian fighters, some Chilean fighters, Peruvian, lots of PLO people. In those days the Chinese were only too happy to give them a renewable contract. But after the Chinese made friends with the government, they cut off their help to the leftists. I know that most of the PLOs went back, the Bolivian guy went back. The Peruvians who worked at the language institute were told that the Spanish departments were closing down, and they had to go back.

One of my best friends was a Pakistani radio journalist, a Buddhist supporter who had been persecuted at home. Each year his contract was automatically extended. He had a lovely wife and a couple of kids. In 1980, I think, diplomatic relations were opened up between China and Pakistan, and he was told his contract would not be renewed. He was devastated. He couldn’t go back to Pakistan. He was terrified to leave China. He came to Hong Kong for a while, but his English wasn’t good enough for Hong Kong. He went to Bangladesh. When his wife and children went back to Pakistan, he wrote and implied that I should write to his wife’s address. I wrote from England, but I never had a reply. I heard that he was in Washington working with the radio there. I don’t know about his family.

I remember a Peruvian husband and wife, both professors, and three kids. Their university had been closed down because it was too radical, so they didn’t think they would be employed as intellectuals if they went back. They were thinking of returning to Peru to buy a wheelbarrow and go around selling vegetables. I don’t know what happened to them.

At that time the authorities were also trying to weed out foreigners who had been witnesses to the Cultural Revolution and were perhaps pro-Mao. I think that was also true during the trial of the Gang of Four and when the first hints appeared that Mao might have been to blame for all kinds of things. A friend of mine had gone to China as a Maoist and taught English, German, and Spanish. When his contract expired in August, 1980, he was told his university couldn’t renew it. When he said he didn’t really have anywhere to go, they offered him a job at Xinhua News Agency as a “polisher,” a sub-editing job. It was a long step down. He was really very hurt. He came to Hong Kong, and he died here.

Personally, I think they also didn’t want the long-term foreigners anymore because they were instituting “self-management,” which put individual work units in charge of their own budgets. These work units wanted to keep more money for themselves by getting rid of all the Africans and their big families. The new contracts were less expensive and didn’t allow an Expert to bring a spouse and kids. I started off at 600 yuan a month [about $400 in 1979] for the first year [or about the same as Experts are making five years later, when it was about $300], and I made 650 yuan the second year.

In the old days, in addition to our salary, they took us around on holiday. During the first year we had six weeks’ holiday at Xinhua’s expense. They took us to Hangzhou, Shanghai, Suzhou, Huangshan, Wuxi, Lushan. We didn’t pay a penny for lodging, but we paid a little for food. All that was discontinued to save money.

At the end of my first year, most of the Latin Americans were going back home.  The new people, mostly from the States, came on different kinds of contracts, some specialized projects for six months. They kept to themselves. So in the last seven or eight months of my stay there, all the good times were past and gone. We used to talk about it, those of us who were left behind. “Oh, remember last year, oh, wasn’t it marvelous.”