by Imran H. Khan

On a drizzly cold night in Dec of 1965 I found myself traveling  with my father to see the Tienanmen Square from our Sinchou hotel located close to the old city. I had just arrived from Pakistan via Canton on an ex-PIA Viscount turbo-prop of CAAC, the Chinese airline, and it seemed that I had landed on an alien planet. Everything was different here. The bread was white (steamed bread), music was string percussion, no one spoke English and bicycles were everywhere. Traveling on a two piece electric bus that silently carried the huddled Chinese in their quilt coats was a novelty for an eleven year old. I had seen photos of the Tienamen Square, but experiencing it at night for the first time with well light anchor buildings was a sensory overload. This was my introduction to the Pre-Cultural Revolution China, where my sense of novelty was only matched by the curiosity Chinese around me. I later on got to realized that I was only a handful of foreigners in the city and country where  PIA’s Boeing 707 was the only jet servicing the whole country. Here was a dark kid with a pointy nose in a mass of not so dark and not so pointy nosed people.

The New York Times reports, “Once banned by Mao Zedong as a bourgeois activity, stamp collecting has become increasingly popular in China in recent years. While early collectors were from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the international Chinese diaspora, some important Mainland Chinese collectors are today ‘repatriating’ stamps, in the same way that others are bringing back Chinese artworks.

Early Experiences

China was an isolated country in those days. Nonetheless it had good relations with two Muslim countries of Pakistan and Albania because of their support in international forums.  Pakistan Chancery was therefore given priority to move to San Li Tun, which was designated as the new diplomatic enclave at the edge of the city. We moved to our new home in a new multi-story apartment that was lavish by Chinese standards. I had a unique opportunity to meet kids of diplomats from different parts of the world at a time when there was no TV, internet of iPod.

I was fascinated by the main bazaar serviced by Wang Fu Ching which was a larger version of Anarkali. It had all sorts of small shops and restaurants from different parts of China. A popular desert was apple on a stick dipped in sugar syrup. Water melons with yellow center seemed to accentuate the other worldliness of the place. Next to Wang Fu Ching was a store meant for foreigners, filled with Chinese manufactured goods that were not available to the masses. For some reason it was full of desk clocks. The covered bazaar behind that store was filled with antiques that my parents loved to shop. There were incredibly intricate pieces of art being sold at throw away prices. The huge meat shop behind the covered bazaar was full of hanging pork carcasses was quite shocking for a boy from Pakistan. My favorite restaurant was the Peking Duck restaurant where the entire meal consisted of  a specially raised Peking Duck. I can still taste the crispy skin for the appetizer.It took me a while getting used to eating Chinese style where they served one dish at a time. The soup was served at the end of the meal after you had watched sumptuous dishes go by as you had filled yourself by the fourth dish. My favorite park was BeiHai Park that had a large lake where I could row a rented boat. It was dominated with a large white pagoda on an island in the middle.

I found the Great Wall to be quite a disappointment. It is difficult for a kid to get too excited about a wall. The Ming tombs on the other hand were a case of Pharaohs combined with Sherlock Holmes.  The Ming tombs of the thirteen Ming emperors located about thirty miles outside Beijing contained their belongings and even food. The entrance of each tomb was secretly sealed and the workers were killed to keep it a secret from looters. When I visited them only three had been opened up. The Temple of Heaven had a circular platform where it was believed that the Emperor would rotate the earth with his feet as it was considered the center of the Earth.

The Forbidden City where the Emperors used to spend the winters was cold and stark. On the other hand the Summer Palace outside Beijing was a wonderfully relaxing place with large lakes and surrounding hills. The place was full of intricately ornate buildings and statues.  Larger house boats were there to take larger parties out on the Kunming lake.

Cultural Insights

I was struck by the extreme respect for elders and children in the Chinese society. I had thought that Pakistani society was not too shabby in this respect.  This respect was most visible when traveling in a bus. The buses were the main mode of transportation and they were invariably full. But no matter how full a bus was, if an older person or a person carrying a child got onto the bus, he or she was assured a seat.

I used to kid our Pakistani help by the name of Walayat Khan who would always get to sit as he would be carrying my sister Ayesha shown on the left.  I can only imagine how hard it must have been for the Chinese to implement the one child policy given their adoration for their children. I saw many older Chinese women who had trouble walking as their feet were kept artificially small using foot binding. Apparently it had been fashionable at one time to have small feet. I was fascinated by the Chinese fairy tales narrated to me by Wang, our Chinese help. China has a large collection of fairy tales with Fox spirits that can change forms.  Living in a diplomatic enclave gave me an opportunity to interact with kids of my age from a number of different countries.  Watching Beatles movies in the British embassy in the heart of pre-cultural revolution Beijing was a culturally a shocking experience.

The May 1st.  Labor Day is celebrated as one of major holidays. The central event is a huge parade in the Tienanmen Square with the biggest firework display that I have ever seen. I got to see it in an enclosure next to Chairman Mao Zedong. The fireworks happen concurrent at three levels. The lower level is generally an on going firing of dense fireworks from the square. The second level is higher altitude from an area surrounding the square, and the third level of fireworks were actually fired by anti aircraft guns and exploded at a fairly high altitude. The complexity of fireworks was further enhanced by the synchronized dance of anti aircraft lights mounted around the city. It is difficult to describe the visual art created by the synchronized luminance of constructs slowly gliding down the sky gently nudged tangentially by the wind in the back drop of a millions of humans marching in front of you.

Cultural Revolution

At times the course of human affairs takes on an intensity and complexity of such proportions that it takes decades to understand it. Cultural Revolution was one such event of the human era, and I was lucky to see it from the front seat without being scarred by it. It was a clash of mega proportions that erupted in an instance. The sleeping Chinese Dragon was waking up after being colonized but was not sure about its new values. The old guard saw in its weakness as an opportunity to assert itself, but the new power elite was not going to let it take China back to the old ways which had failed to protect it from being exploited by the foreign powers.

“Although the bourgeoisie has been overthrown, it is still trying to use the old ideas, culture, customs, and habits of the exploiting classes to corrupt the masses, capture their minds, and endeavor to stage a comeback. The proletariat must do just the opposite: It must meet head-on every challenge of the bourgeoisie in the ideological field and use the new ideas, culture, customs, and habits of the proletariat to change the mental outlook of the whole of society. At present, our objective is to struggle against and crush those persons in authority who are taking the capitalist road, to criticize and repudiate the reactionary bourgeois academic “authorities” and the ideology of the bourgeoisie and all other exploiting classes and to transform education, literature and art, and all other parts of the superstructure that do not correspond to the socialist economic base, so as to facilitate the consolidation and development of the socialist system.”

I was enrolled in a missionary school of Convent of Jesus and Mary, which was the only English medium available for the foreign children. I had enjoyed learning about world geography and history. But one fine day when I turned into the road where the school was located I was surprised to see a large number of young Red Guards occupying the school and was turned away. I later learned that the nuns and priests were charged with spying and the school had been permanently closed. This was a huge setback for all the children who were enrolled there.

Four million high school and college graduates and sixteen million students were sent to the farmland where they ended up working the farms and performing manual labor.

The art teacher who used to come to our house to teach Chinese art to my mother also vanished and we learned later that he was considered a revisionist. Anyone charged as being a revisionist was publicly disgraced by being paraded on a truck around the city with a placard of his counter revolutionary acts hanging around his head. These were very bewildering times as eleven million Red Guards paraded around the city. The speakers located on most central public roads blared national songs and propaganda. The result of listening to those songs is that I still know two of the songs even though I made no attempt to learning them. One of the songs is “The East is Red” that can also be seen below.

Freedom

With no school and parents busy in their diplomatic activities, I found my self in nearly complete freedom. With a brand new Chinese bicycle in possession, I set out to see Peking from one end to the other.  My favorite destinations used to be museums, parks, sports events, movies and theatrical shows. My friends had a competition to find interesting places that were off the main areas and trade these secrets with each other.  I  watched each and every table tennis, gymnastics, volleyball and badminton games played in multi-day competitions.

The Military museum had artifacts dating back to the communist party struggle against the Nationalists who were much better armed with planes and tanks. What struck me were the grass samples that the communist leaders and others ate during their Long March. It drove home the point that when the people are motivated, it is the spirit that can overcome the deficiency in weapons.

The Peking Zoo had some of the most exotic animals. Some of them like the Giant Pandas, certain types of storks and oxens were indigenous to China.  While it was not a large zoo, it allowed spectators to get much closer to the animals than any other zoo that I have been to.

The public bus system of Peking was very extensive and if you had a pass you could go from one end of Peking to another without even changing the bus.  No school meant having the opportunity to do just that all day long.

Deification of Mao

Chairman Mao was the closest thing to God. Anyone who shook his hand, people would come and shake his hand. The communist party did a great job in using the medium of art to project their values and visions of the future.  The walls around the city had huge billboards with art work that showed how they wanted to see their country in the years to come.  It seemed that the country was bursting with energy like a stem cell, and the communist party was trying to guide that energy to a bigger and brighter future that was egalitarian.

The created many musical and theatrical productions to convey this message. I had the opportunity to experience the fervor that they created amongst the viewers.  This was also true of many movies that showed the successful struggles of masses against the oppressors, whether they were foreign or local.

Return to Pakistan

My parents decided that I have had enough fun and it was time to get back into the education system. The Principal of Cadet College of Hasan Abdal had mercy on me and admitted me even though I did not do well in Urdu. I flew out of Shanghai on a PIA Being 707 and happened to be the only passenger on it. On the way it stopped in Canton at 1 am in the morning. There were passengers from a couple of Ilushin turbo props from North Vietnam and Laos already at the airport.  The Chinese had organized a short cultural program for the passengers of these airlines. So they all waited for the single passenger from this huge plane to come down and witness the show. As the show ended, the single passenger walked away into his standing Boeing. Thus bringing his journey through the tumultuous  China to an end in a cultural crescendo that faded into the night as the Boeing climbed out of the clouds headed for Dacca, being fussed over by seven air hostesses and staff.

Pakistan China Friendship

The work done by members of the Pakistan Embassy in those defining times laid the foundation of Pakistan China friendship. The result of those efforts is that there are now approximately 10,000 Chinese workers  engaged in 120 projects in Pakistan, which includes heavy engineering, power generation, mining, and telecommunications. One of the high visibility project is the jointly developed JF-17 amongst many other defense related joint projects.

“The cause of such high prices of Chinese stamps is to some extent simply because that the regular China stamp has generally included a tremendous amount of fine detail and been manufactured under incredibly high standards. These high standards have acquired Chinese stamps extensive recognition amidst passionate stamp enthusiasts over the years, and it is easy to recognize the quality of workmanship and creativity that get into each and every stamp. Chinese culture has sustained for thousands of years. Its stamps are soaked in history, and easily tell a story that has lived with for generations without count.”

You can view some of my Chinese stamp collection by clicking on the image below.


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Comments

4 Responses to “Adventures of a Pakistani Boy in Peking, 1966-68”

  1. izaz haque on December 30th, 2010 7:23 pm

    quite fabulous! nice writing Imran.

  2. Ariba Khan on April 21st, 2011 1:48 am

    Imran Bhai very impressive work! Ariba

  3. Prakash Chatt on April 17th, 2012 2:48 pm

    I am an Indian residing in China. Your account of that time is well articulated and fascinating. It surely was an interesting time to have been in China. You were quite lucky to have witnessed an era very few got to see. Reading your account, I get the impression that China was a lot more open than North Korea is today. I see you took public transportation and moved about around Beijing on your own. Regarding those stores on Wangfujing, we’re they privately owned or state owned? I got the impression that everything prior to the 79 reforms was state owned. Were the people back then open to friendship with foreigners? How was your command of the Chinese language? Have you been back recently? I’d appreciate it if you would share some more of your day to day experiences and pictures of that era. Great writing and looking forward to more.

    imranhkhan Reply:

    China was not closed as Korea is nowadays. There were many foreign correspondents living there and reporting relatively freely. The sense I got was that the main restrictions were on Chinese themselves. Most big stores I believe were state owned but I think many of the shops selling art work and other items were privately owned. I could get most things done in Chinese which I just picked up through cultural osmosis. I plan to take my family to China next year.