On a fast boat to China

April 21 1980

On a fast boat to China

April 21 1980

On a fast boat to China


Hong Kong

With hardly a discernible rattle, the Bamboo Curtain sheltering much of mysterious China from the gaze of the world parted, probably irrevocably, last October. Red tape was snipped as Chinese authorities quietly opened up their Kwangtung-Macao-Hong Kong borders to the same brand of mass market, daytripping tourism that a century ago transformed cities like Brighton, Atlantic City and Deauville from backwater communities to major tourist centres.

Since October, busloads of Instamatictoting day-trippers have been thundering through the red gate separating Macao from China for swift seven-hour look-sees of towns like Cuiheng, Long Rui, Hou-Huan and Shaqi. Never heard of them? Wait a couple of years. The crafty Chinese, their eyes ever on the hard currency that tourism brings, have plans to turn these villages into a Costa del Canton, complete with holiday hotels, rent-a-car facilities, swimming pools, plus a capitalistic golf course or two. And already Bank of China clerks have orders to honor the American Express credit card for cash advances of up to $1,500.

The Chinese border town ofSumchun, just over the railway bridge from Hong Kong, is also slated for a massive touristic renovation. Trainloads of Hong Kong tourists are daily arriving at the border, walking across the China frontier and being taken on quick sightseeing visits of this community of 300,000. Bullhorn-equipped guides show the visitors a local school and the community waterworks, poster displays and

Ming and Chang Dynasty art exhibits, the nonstop louring interrupted only by a six-course Chinese meal at the local Spring Garden restaurant.

What ’s new about this day-hop crossborder tourism from both Hong Kong and Macao is that China has, in a single stroke, slashed both the formerly hefty price tag and the formerly intimidating red tape for tourists who want a short, swift peek at what Peking authorities have to offer. Entry visas to China are now granted in Macao and Hong Kong in just 36 hours, free. And the cost of these day trips, including luncheon, transportation and guide fees, is less than $1*0. With some of the bus journeys covering 121* miles along China’s dusty roads, it's dollar-for-dollar just about the best tourism value in the world today. Free-lance writer Arturo Gonzalez recently took a regularly scheduled China Travel Service one-day tour, Hong Kong-Macao-China and back again:

The trip to China begins in a secondfloor office in downtown Hong Kong, a portrait of Mao Tse-tung beaming down as the travellers line up, 36 hours in advance of departure, to hand over passport details plus the price of the China trip to helpful, smiling English-speaking clerks. China’s red tape has shown itself to be short and sweet. The only nationalities barred: South Africans, South Koreans and Israelis. Taiwanese are admitted. The status of Rhodesians is being reconsidered. Two mornings later, the travellers gather in the Hong Kong dawn at the pier of the Macao ferry, Chinese guides speaking impeccable English greet them, shephèrd them through the outgoing immigration procedures and aboard a sleek red-and-white hydrofoil which will wing them across the chocolate-brown mouth of the Pearl River to

Macao. Promptly at 8 a.m., the whining marine engines rev up and the hydrofoil backs out into Hong Kong harbor, negotiating between slat-sailed junks, white-painted commuter ferries and rusting coal barges. The pilot sets his compass on due west and pushes the throttles forward. The boat-cum-plane climbs up on underwater wings and is soon speeding away from sunrise at 40 knots. Hong Kong’s skyscrapers quickly drop below the horizon to be replaced by the brown and green outer islands, the rustic scenery only occasionally punctuated by an apparently deserted, solitary Buddhist temple, Asian graveyard or dusty fishing village. In an hour and 15 minutes the throttles are cut back, the hull of the vessel slurps back down into the water and it purrs into the pier at Macao, the last vestige in Asia of a Portuguese empire that once spanned the globe.

Chinese guides wearing the customary Red Star emblem are on the dock and the visitors are ushered swiftly ashore, through the Portuguese customs facilities and onto an air-conditioned bus, which soon beep-beeps its way through the twisting alleyways of this quaint community toward Gongbei Gate and China beyond. Macao has all the sexy sinuousness of a sin town, which it used to be. But the brothels and the opium dens have long since been converted into apartments—decent housing in this six-square-mile patch of Portugal is today a lot more profitable than vice. Dominating the skyline and competing with the facade of the ancient cathedral, knocked down in an earthquake, is the round front of the Hotel Lisboa, Asia’s version of Las Vegas, where the gambling tables are packed cheek-by-jowl with Chinese odds-chasers until the wee hours of each morning.

The tourist bus snakes through the rickshaws and the pedicars and shoots down a straight stretch of road, past an upraised, red-striped frontier pole, and suddenly 20 travellers are through the Bamboo Curtain—Hong Kong just 100 minutes and two centuries behind them.

First stop, a huge airplane-hangarsized structure where a Chinese immigration official greets us. She looks as if she had stepped out of one of those massive propaganda posters: luxurious

black hair in two thick braids flowing out from under a military peaked cap with its Red Star emblem. She smiles when she asks for passports—in perfect English—doesn’t mind having her photo taken and makes pleasant, welcoming small talk with visitors.

Next stop: blue-uniformed customs agents who check down a list of what is being carried in (watches, tape recorders, cameras) so that the authori-

ties can be assured the same goods come out, and have not been sold. For those who can’t stand being away from booze for too long, four bottles per person is the legal limit, plus 600 cigarettes. By 10 a.m., the travellers have boarded the bus again and are on their way.

Every inch of this green, rural region of China is cultivated, swarming with families winging hoes, schoolchildren out en masse to bring in the harvest. The only sound along stretches of road is the jingling of handlebar bells—this

is bicycle country. When the very rare motor vehicle approaches, it is inevitably a truck or a bus—China is almost devoid of the private passenger vehicles that dominate Western roads. Every aspect of the countryside serves some purpose-even the usual roadside drainage ditches have been converted into freshwater fish farms or duck ponds.

But already, tourism is beginning to change this. At Sai Ching San a 60room tourist hotel will soon open its doors, 15 minutes drive from Macao. A restaurant, shopping centre, theatre and, of all things, a car park are on the drawing boards. There will also be tennis courts, a lounge bar and a patio suitable for setting off fireworks.

Image piles upon image. The red and white home that Dr. Sun Yat-sen, one of the great architects of modern China, built at the end of the 19th century, complete with the family furniture, photographs of himself and his parents, is a shrine visited daily by Chinese travellers and now those from overseas. In Shaqi City, a community of 150,000, there’s lunch at a worker’s rest house: rice, spicy side dishes, tea, a cooling, velvety white wine and a few big brown

bottles of the sharp Tsing Tao beer, all trundled out by smiling waitresses.

Almost no signs of surveillance. The visitors are turned loose on Shaqi’s streets to wander where they choose for a few minutes. It is vividly apparent that the foreigners are as unusual for the citizens of Shaqi as they are for them. Crowds of children follow each tourist,with the elders strolling a few respectful paces behind. Try on a cap or a Mao jacket ($7) in a shop and the locals break into laughter and applause.

Hand them a Polaroid photo of themselves and instantly there are gifts in return: pieces of candy, cigarettes, a glass of beer.

Back into the bus to drive to a local school. Kindergarten kids dancing and singing welcome. Children in the classrooms chant “What is this? Where is this? Who is this?” They are all learning English beginning in the third grade. Millions and millions of youngsters in this huge nation, all laboring to learn English. The mind boggles.

There is a quick visit to watch the Lung-Rui production brigade out working in the fields, and then the day in China is drawing to an end. Back at Songbei Gate passports are stamped with the bright red seal of Peking, about the size of a quarter. The same pigtailed girl at immigration smiles her goodbyes. The travellers march out past an immense photograph of Mao, climb back in the bus for the last time to motor through Macao to the ferry pier in time to catch the 5 p.m. hydrofoil back to Hong Kong. The journey lasted just under 12 hours. O’