China Diary, 1988: Mao Wore a Zhongshan Suit

In 1987–88, the Far Outliers, with their two-year-old daughter in tow, spent a year teaching English at a new community college in Zhongshan City, Guangdong Province, China. The following is one of a series of articles I wrote in 1988. I sent them to a Honolulu newspaper, but they were not interested. So now I offer them as a retrospective on coastal China twenty years before hosting its first Olympics. At the same time, I am scanning in a lot of our old China photos and uploading them to my Flickr account or to my WordPress blog to illustrate this series.

Zhongshan City is named after Sun Yatsen, better known as Sun Zhongshan in China. His birthplace, Cuiheng Village, is the major local tourist attraction. Tour companies in Macao do a brisk business in one-day tours of Zhongshan. The tourists walk through Dr. Sun’s house, a museum about his life, the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Middle School, and a model factory or two. Their lunch in the revolving restaurant of either of the international tourist-class hotels may include pigeon, a local specialty, but not dog, another local favorite.

Chairman Mao’s portrait overlooking TiananmenSun Yatsen is the most durable and universally admired national hero in China. He led the struggle to overthrow the Manchu Dynasty in 1911. He also created the style of clothing known in the west as the “Mao jacket” and in China as the “Zhongshan suit.” Almost every major city in China has a Zhongshan Road or a Zhongshan Park. Many also have streets named after Dr. Sun’s Three Principles: minzu, minsheng, minquan, “(people’s) nationhood, livelihood, and civil rights.”

Zhongshan has over one million current residents, and is also the ancestral home of half a million overseas Chinese. So the local stamp collectors already had plenty of the standard U.S. overseas airmail stamps that we received regularly.

Old wharves and new hotels, Shiqi, Zhongshan City, Guangdong, China, 1988Formerly known as Xiangshan, “fragrant mountain” (a good match for nearby Xianggang “fragrant harbor”), Zhongshan was once an agricultural backwater in the vast and fertile Pearl River Delta. It is still mostly countryside, with an urbanized administrative center at Shiqi.

However, in 1984 the region embarked on an ambitious program of industrial development and foreign trade. It is now officially a prefecture-level city directly under the province administration, no longer a rural county.

Getting local goods to major cities used to take a long time. But now, over the improved roads and new toll bridges, you can get to Macao in about one hour and to Guangzhou in under four hours. From Zhongshan Port you can reach Hong Kong by hovercraft in two hours.

The port can also handle container shipping, and you can occasionally see a huge container truck slowly threading its way among the bicycles down the old narrow streets of Shiqi.

The booming local economy is fueled by:

  1. Government investments in infrastructure, such as 1440 new bridges, over one million square meters of housing, direct-dial telephone lines to Guangzhou, Hong Kong, and Macao, and a brand new college affiliated with Guangzhou’s Zhongshan University.
  2. Overseas infusions of capital and expertise, such as the over $100 million invested in 98 joint Chinese-foreign enterprises.
  3. Earnings from exports of local food and industrial products, the latter earning $185 million in 1986, a fourfold increase over 1978.

Zhongshan City sundries shop, 1988Not all export earnings are reinvested in industrial development. Many private shops offer such imported consumer goods as Coke or Sprite, Marlboro or Kent cigarettes, Mateus wine or Remy Martin cognac, Nestles instant coffee or powdered milk, San Miguel or Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, Kjeldsens Danish butter cookies, Camay and Palmolive soap, Johnson’s baby shampoo, Pears lotion, Kingsford corn starch, even Sunkist navel oranges and California apples and grapes. Japanese tape recorders, stereos, televisions, refrigerators, washing machines, copiers, and motorcycles are also much in evidence. You can buy all of these items in local currency, but the prices are very high.

Construction is everywhere. Every roadside village seems to have a newly painted gate and several big, colorful new houses going up. The flat fields surrounding the town of Shiqi are disappearing under factories and apartment blocs. The noise of the pile drivers is more constant than the periodic bursts of firecrackers. Our two-year-old daughter studied closely all the details of concrete-making. She knows all the ingredients.

Gravel quarry, Shiqi, Zhongshan City, Guangdong, China, 1988On our college campus, we would wake up and go to sleep to the hum of bulldozers rearranging the landscape. Yesterday’s path to school might be covered with dirt or rubble today. Noon and evening meal times were marked by sharp dynamite blasts from the nearby quarry that is turning a rocky, grave-covered hillside into gravel. Dynamite, bulldozers, and a thousand picks and shovels have taken large bites out of most of the hillsides on the edge of town.

Similar changes are taking place in other parts of China, especially in Guangdong Province, which is a pacesetter for the reform policies and has spawned several special economic zones: Shenzhen, opposite Hong Kong, Zhuhai opposite Macao, and now the entire island of Hainan, which is becoming a separate province with much more flexible economic policies.

Most China-bound tourists come to marvel at the magnificent achievements of the country’s long history. Visitors to Zhongshan will be impressed much more by the direction and speed of change taking place in coastal South China, the bellwether of the country’s future.

UPDATE: The economic growth that was getting a head start in South China in the 1980s seems to be spiraling out of control as it spreads to more isolated parts of the country (via Arts & Letters Daily).

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