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.
When all of China converts to daylight savings time during the summer, Zhongshan stays on Hong Kong time. To people in Zhongshan, Hong Kong and Macau seem at least as important as Guangzhou and Beijing.
It takes about two hours by hovercraft from Zhongshan Port to Hong Kong. There are two boats per day to Kowloon and two to Hong Kong. They are always full. There are also larger, slower, and cheaper ferries between Zhongshan and Shenzhen, the Special Economic Zone directly across the border from Hong Kong.
So when you buy vegetables at markets in Zhongshan, you shouldn’t be too surprised if you find “Golden Boat Gift Shop, New Territories, Hong Kong” written on the plastic bag the vendor puts the potatoes in. (The fact that the vendor supplies the plastic bags is unusual enough in China.)
But there is even more traffic across the airwaves. Fewer than ten percent of households throughout China own TV sets, but it seems as if ninety percent do in Zhongshan. Many are tuned to Hong Kong. The special antennas and signal boosters needed to pick up Hong Kong cost extra money but are not hard to get. Televisions imported from Hong Kong have a special switch that toggles between the different audio channels used by Hong Kong and China.
Hong Kong stations present their weekly broadcast schedules on the air. So viewers who don’t read Hong Kong newspapers are still able to keep well abreast of upcoming specials. Rambo, First Blood was a big hit in Zhongshan.
The commercials shown during English-language broadcasts give a strange picture of the desires of English-speaking consumers, many of whom pass through Hong Kong, few of whom live there. A great many ads are for luxury products: cigarettes, watches, furs, cars, fashions, perfumes, electronics, the sorts of things advertised in airline magazines. And the ads themselves are glitzy and expensive-looking.
But if you watch the Chinese-language programming directed at residents rather than travelers, you can witness the Hong Kong equivalents of American low-budget ads for car dealers and furniture stores.
In October 1987, the government launched a campaign to discourage viewers, especially party members, from watching Hong Kong TV. The authorities didn’t want people tuned to Hong Kong while government stations were broadcasting the 13th Party Congress from Beijing in October or the 6th National Games from Guangzhou the following month. The campaign had some success. Everybody watched the National Games. The athletes from Guangdong Province won the most prizes.
In the months before we left, the provincial government was interfering with the Hong Kong TV signals and trying to bring in more clearly the provincial and national broadcast channels from Guangzhou. Some people told us that the officials in charge of public security thought Hong Kong TV helped keep people glued to their TVs and out of trouble, while those in charge of political education thought Hong Kong TV politically unacceptable.
Although Macau TV is less attractive, the city of Macau is even easier to get to. It takes less than an hour by bus from the center of Zhongshan City to Gongbei, the border town in Zhuhai Special Economic Zone. Every day thousands of people cross the border, carrying fresh food and Chinese medicine to Macau, and returning with as many goods and cigarettes as they can hide in their bags and clothing. Empty cigarette cartons litter the floor inside and outside of the restrooms that stand between the duty-free shops and Chinese Customs.
Officials responsible for political education are hard put to counter the allure of these two enclaves of rampant capitalism. A recent film, Escape to Hong Kong, deals directly with the issue. It tells of four people who escaped from Shenzhen during the Cultural Revolution. The only woman among them is forced into prostitution when no one will ransom her from the gangsters who hide the four in Hong Kong. Her husband finds work as a day laborer, they sleep in shifts, and he eventually kills himself. Another escapee finds respectable work as a chauffeur, and the fourth achieves some worldly success, but at the cost of marrying his boss’s idiot daughter.
Many Zhongshan schools bought tickets to this movie for their entire student body. The accompanying short subject had a complementary political message. It was a documentary—with plenty of bare skin and bulging muscles—about New China’s first-ever body-building contest, held in Shenzhen.