Our September 2000 holiday
Overview Hong Kong Guangzhou Guilin Xi'an & Terracotta Army Shanghai Suzhou Wuxi Nanjing Beijing & Great Wall People Language Conclusion
“The East is a university in which the scholar never takes his degree. It is a temple where the suppliant adores but never catches sight of the object of his devotion. It is a journey the goal of which is always in sight but is never attained”.
Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India from 1898 until 1905
Three years ago, The Travel Collection [click here ]– a division of Kuoni Travel Ltd [click here]– commenced running a wonderful tour called “The Chinese Odyssey”. Roger & Vee saw it advertised in the “Observer” colour section and were immediately captivated by the full-page outline. In September 2000, we finally managed to make the trip and it proved to be the most exciting holiday of our lives.
Before the trip, Roger read “A Traveller’s History Of China” [for review click here] and “Wild Swans” [for review click here] and bought guide books and maps, but nothing could really prepare us for the wonders to come.
It was always going to be a magical experience, but we were extremely fortunate in our Tour Director who was with us every step of the way. Peter Hibbard had immense and intimate knowledge of China, having lived there, learned the language, and led over 70 similar tours. His enthusiasm for everything to do with China was infectious and he was rightly insistent that we should see the major sights at their best – that is, before all the crowds arrived – and that we should observe the real China – that is, the back streets as well as the famous landmarks. We are hugely grateful to him for his professionalism and efficiency.
In tour terms, it was a small group of 22. As a movie fan, Roger could not help but call the group “Peter’s Friends” (from the Kenneth Branagh film of 1992).
Besides Roger and Vee, there was Bob Marlow from Dorset, Anne Cunningham from Leeds, Dot Boley and her daughter Kath from Somerset, Arthur Isaacs & Jane Farr from Nottinghamshire, Denis Lindsell & Elizabeth Adams from Bognor Regis, Richard & Bridget Hall from Billingshurst, Tony & Anne Bray from Northumberland, Mike & Sally Bruce from Orpington, Gordon & Jo Shelton from Gerrards Cross, Barrie & Ann Wiseall from Billericay, and Scott & Michelle Rogers from Pinner.
Most, but not all, of the group were retired. The most senior members were Dot and Arthur at 75 and 74 respectively, while the youngest members were Scott and Michelle at 29 and 28 respectively. Denis & Elizabeth live minutes away from Vee’s twin sister Mari and Scott & Michelle live almost literally up the road from us. We all got along extremely well and we thank each of them for their warm companionship.
London to Hong Kong was 6,030 miles (9,650 km) and Beijing to London was 5,120 miles (8,200 km). We made four internal flights, three train journeys, and a long canal ride. Therefore the total distance travelled was at least 13,750 miles (22,000 km). We used almost every imaginable form of transport: Airbus and Boeing jets, various trains, different coaches, city transport including a double-decker bus, a tram and a metro, motorised and pedal-driven rickshaws, a funicular and a cable car, and all sorts of water vessels including a Chinese junk and a sampan. There was also a considerable use of ‘bus number 11’ (the Chinese way of saying ‘on foot’).
In his comprehensive tour notes, Peter painted a tantalising picture: “China is a fascinating, exhilarating and captivating country. The pace of change is phenomenal and modernity is hitting China with a vengeance - creating a spectacular contrast with what remains of the old. Meanwhile the timeless frenzy of street activity and the warm and friendly disposition of the Chinese people make for an unforgettable experience”.
He summarized the trip as follows: “You will be visiting nine cities, each one with its own distinctive personality. It’s a tour laden with vitality, variety and contrast – from the brashness of Hong Kong and Guangzhou to the tranquillity of Guilin, the breathtaking wonders of Xi'an, the glamour of Shanghai, the peacefulness of Suzhou and Wuxi, the warmth of Nanjing to the regality of Beijing”.
Now read on …
It was Tuesday when we flew from London Heathrow airport to the new Chep Lap Kok airport at Hong Kong in a British Airways Boeing 747-400. The flight lasted 11 and a half hours. In the previous couple of years, Roger had made similar journeys to Malaysia and Japan but, for Vee, it was her first visit to Asia and by far her longest flight.
Except for the wartime Japanese occupation, Hong Kong was British-owned from 1842 to 1997. Since the ‘handover’ of 30 June 1997, little seems to have changed and the only military presence we saw were two soldiers guarding the entrance to the army’s downtown barracks.
The name Hong Kong means ‘fragrant estuary’ and, of course, the city is dominated by its beautiful harbour. However, most of the populous live in Kowloon which means ‘nine dragons’ and indeed the district has the highest population density in the world. The total population of the city is some 7 million, 98% of whom are Chinese (there are only about 18,000 British residents).
It is a city of immense contrasts – fabulous wealth and extensive subsistence-level existence. Some 3 million of the 7 million population live in small, but cheap, government-provided flats and at times the concentration of so much activity and noise in such a small area is almost suffocating.
Our local guide in Hong Kong was Simon – all our Chinese guides had adopted an English first name on the assumption (no doubt, correct) that we would not be able to pronounce or remember their Chinese name. Simon’s exuberance was matched only by his ability to massacre the English language (it was a sometime before we realised that his references to “ratland China” meant “redland China”).
In Hong Kong, we stayed at the Stanford Hotel [click here] in the lively Mongkok district (the word means ‘busy at the corner’). This accommodation was more than adequate but, fact, the rooms were the smallest of the tour. Some of them had locked inter-connecting doors, but one of our group found her inter-connecting doors unlocked and, when she investigated the next room, came across a copulating couple.
We were left to our own devices on the Wednesday afternoon and evening, so – trying to ignore the jet-lag and the time difference - we explored the local area, including the famous Ladies Market. Mongkok is full of street-side food preparation and cooking so typical of Asia, but we had an Indian meal in a local restaurant that was no way as good as we would have enjoyed locally in west London.
Then, on Thursday we had our introductory tour of Hong Kong. In unusually bright and warm weather for the season, we took a double-decker bus down Nathan Road to the harbour where we boarded the famous Star Ferry for the short trip over to Hong Kong Island itself.
The Central area of the island – previously known as Victoria – is like a smaller version of Manhatten with many towering skyscrapers. One of them is the oddly-named "House of a Thousand Orifices". This is the 50-storey Jardine House , a trading house which has obtained its nickname from its 1,748 round windows. We visited the 43rd floor of the Bank of China which was designed by the famous Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei and towers up around 1,200 feet (370 metres). Here we had an excellent view of the legislative offices and all the finance houses. Then we strolled around the newly-created Hong Kong Park for an escape from all the bustle. The ponds contained terrapins and black-necked swans.
At this point, we all clambered onto a tram travelling east. It was so crowded that we all went upstairs and, in spite of the “No Standing” signs, we were stood shoulder to shoulder with other travellers. Suddenly Roger became aware that almost everyone in the tour group had left the tram earlier and it was only by a quick sprint and some luck that he was able to rediscover the others. The purpose of the tram ride was to visit the Windsor Restaurant for a delicious dim sum lunch.
Afterwards coach and funicular took us all to the Victoria Peak Tower at 1,300 feet (400 metres) for a superb view of the whole harbour. The weather was excellent and the scenes inspiring. However, here Roger experienced more trauma when he found that he was unable to load another film in his new camera and he faced the prospect of the whole trip without being able to take pictures (fortunately, in calmer circumstances back at the hotel, the problem was rectified).
Our coach then took us past the wonderfully-named Happy Valley and through a tunnel in the mountain to the south side of Hong Kong Island where, at Aberdeen, we had a 25-minute harbour ride on a small sampan.
Next stop introduced us to an experience which we were to relive many, many times on the trip: the compulsory visit to the government-owned shopping emporium. Peter had warned us that these visits effectively subsidized the tour and that “China’s basically one big shop”. Nevertheless it was a shock to find how closely we were shadowed by the numerous staff members and how much we were urged to look and buy. As the trip went on, we became more amused than irritated by such high-pressure sales tactics.
The final stop of the introductory tour was the coastal village of Stanley which is well-known for its market. Here Vee bought three tops that she was able to wear on the tour. For his part, Arthur – remember that he is 74 – purchased for himself one of the new-style micro scooters that are all the rage in Britain.
The evening was free. We looked around the famous and bustling Ladies Market near the hotel and had an indifferent meal at a Pizza Hut.
The whole of Friday day-time was free too. We started by walking the length of Nathan Road – locally it is known as “the Golden Mile” and it is a version of London’s Oxford Street with endless shops and stores. Towards the end of the road, we looked around Kowloon Park, a tranquil escape from the traffic, and, down at the harbour, visited the Hong Kong Museum of Art which has some beautiful artefacts as well as welcome air-conditioning. Then we took another trip on the Star Ferry to revisit the Central area of Hong Kong Island where we had a light lunch at a Délifrance outlet.
In the evening, we all went on an evening tour accompanied by a local guide called Roger who was in fact British-born.
Dinner was at Restaurant R66. A glass ‘bullet lift’ on the outside of the tower took us 700 feet to the 62nd floor where we ate in a revolving restaurant and marvelled at the myriad lights of Hong Kong harbour. We chose the buffet which enabled us to eat as much as we liked from a very wide selection. Those of you who know Roger – ‘our’ Roger, not the guide – will appreciate his love of desserts and here he was able to indulge his passion by consuming crème caramel, chocolate mousse, and – would you believe? – bread & butter pudding with custard. It was just as well that he did so – once in main-land China, there were no puddings at all.
Following a visit to the Temple Street market in Kowloon, the evening finished with a one-hour, night-time tour of the harbour in a boat modelled on the Chinese junk. The building lights sparkled, the advertising neon flashed, and the drinks were free and unlimited.
After two and a half days in Hong Kong, Saturday morning saw us leaving for China proper, travelling by train. The position of the former British colony in the new China is remarkable - Hong Kong retains its economic system and separate currency and there are tight restrictions on movement between Hong Kong and China itself. Yet when, after 40 minutes, we crossed into main-land China and the special economic zone of Shenzhen one would not have known had not we been told. Roger was struggling to decide whether, for the purposes of the arrival card, his occupation was that of "worker" when Peter advised him that the group did not need to complete this card.
After a journey of just over two hours, we left the train at Guangzhou (otherwise known as Canton), a city of some 4 million. Historically this is an interesting place which has witnessed two major uprisings: in 1911, when Sun Yat-sen led the revolt against the Qing Dynasty and, in 1927, when the Communists rose against the Kuomintang.
Every tour group to China has to use the government-owned China International Travel Service (CITS), but the guides we had were not only very knowledgeable and helpful, but surprisingly candid about the recent political history of the country. In Guangzhou, our guide was Jane.
As she took us by coach to the city centre for lunch, it was immediately obvious that the concepts of China held by many of us were very out-of-date. In many respects, China is still a Third World country but, in the cities, it is exhibiting a spectacular transformation with a rash of construction projects which makes many British cities look old-fashioned. Guangzhou, for instance, houses buildings as high as 81 stories.
Lunch was at the North Garden restaurant and set the style for the tour. We sat around circular tables – usually eight persons to a table – and helped ourselves from a successive of varied dishes placed on a revolving section. Roger & Vee ate almost everything except one or two of the more glutinous offerings. By contrast with Britain, the ubiquitous soup and rice arrived last and dessert was never more than the inevitable water melon.
The use of chop sticks was almost mandatory. This was no problem for Roger who became quite adept, but Vee was sometimes more fingers and thumbs than sticks. As for drinks, green tea was always the first to be offered and then a choice of Chinese beer (milder than British and quite refreshing) or mineral water.
After lunch, there was a feature of the tour which was very much of Peter’s making, as he positively encouraged us to wander the local back streets and for a while to savour the ‘real’ China – parked bicycles, men playing ‘mah zong’, and everywhere the selling and preparation of food.
The official tour of Guangzhou commenced with a visit to the Ancestral Temple of the Chen family. This was built in 1890-1894 and now houses the city’s folklore museum. It is especially notable for its magnificent wood carvings. Next stop was the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees. This was originally constructed in 537. The pagoda was covered in bamboo scaffolding (bamboo is preferred to steel on all Chinese construction sites), but we were able to admire the three large Buddha figures. Then we had to make a call on a state shop where we were followed everywhere by the assistants.
At this point, we were offered the option – which Roger took but Vee declined – to visit the Qingping or White Swan market. Peter described this to us as a place where one could find “everything with wings except aircraft” and “everything with legs except tables and chairs”. On this afternoon, we saw all kinds of birds, all sorts of fish, crabs and lobsters, eels and crayfish, wriggling snakes, the fattest of worms, tiny scrabbling scorpions (for soup), guinea pigs, and cats crammed into small cages – all alive, all waiting to be bought as fresh food. Also available – because the Chinese believe in the medicinal power of all kinds of things – were exotic vegetables, including huge brightly-coloured mushrooms and dried snake and lizard skins.
Finally we all had a look at Shamian Island by the side of the Pearl River which in 1861 was ceded to Britain and France and retains some of its colonial charm.
After the best part of a day in Guangzhou, on Saturday evening we had our first internal flight to Guilin, around 250 miles (400 km) north-west. The aircraft was a Boeing 757 and the flight was only 50 minutes. The crew did their best with English, but we were at first concerned about the announcement that we would be looked after by “fright attendants”. At Guilin, we stayed in the splendid Guishan Hotel [click here].
The name Guilin means’ forest of cinnamon trees’. In Chinese terms especially, it is only a small town – the population is around half a million – but it is one of the main tourist attractions in the country because of the spectacular local scenery.
In Guilin, our CITS guide was Susan, a lovely woman with whom we quickly established a close relationship. Susan has never travelled further than Hong Kong and told us that it was her dream to visit Britain. Roger & Vee are going to do all we can to make that dream come true.
Our first day in the Guilin area (Sunday) involved a trip down the Li River from outside Guilin to a place called Yangshuo, a distance of some 52 miles (83 km). The area has inspired generations of painters and poets and been the subject of some magnificent photographs. Hanyu, a noted poet of the Tang Dynasty, wrote that: "The hills are like emerald hairpins and the water is a winding beautiful jade ribbon".
The weather was glorious and the scenery was sensational. On either bank, for almost the entire journey, there are bizarre rock formations covered in beautiful greenery. This landscape was formed over a period of 200 million years when the sea still reached this far inland. Layers of chalk, formed from fossilised shells, were deposited and then shaped by wind and water to produce wonderful shapes and numerous caves. Along the way, there were women washing clothes, children swimming naked, and water buffalo retreating from the heat.
Lunch was served on the boat, but all of us declined the option to purchase a special local aperitif. It was snake wine and the bottle had a coiled snake in the bottom. Some potential new experiences just have to be forgone.
The adventure was far from over when we reached Yangshuo. As soon as we landed, all of us took motorised rickshaws – a driver and two passengers to each vehicle – on a tour of the local countryside. In some senses, it was comical: a cavalcade of 12 vehicles kicking up clouds of dust in a scene reminiscent of an old Keystone Cops movie. But in fact it was magical because it gave us a chance to see rural China.
We visited two tiny villages called Aishan (meaning 'small hill') and Kan (meaning 'swallow'). Life here was as primitive as you could imagine. In one, an 80 year old women sat in a bare and darkened room shredding bamboo leaves to make rope. There were many scenes of rice fields and water buffalo and everywhere we were beseiged by small children seeking to sell us postcards or trinkets.
Back in Yangshuo, we had some free time to wander the streets of this backpacker town and then we all had dinner in a local hotel before a coach took us back to Guilin. Still it was not over. For those of us who wanted to pay for the option – and Roger & Vee took advantage of every option – Susan took us to see a demonstration of cormorant fishing.
As our boat slowly proceeded along the river, we were shadowed by a small vessel carrying a fisherman and his four specially trained cormorant birds. At the front of his boat, the fisherman had bright lights to attract the fish and the cormorants would dive alongside the boat searching for the fish. When they found the fish, the cormorants would grab them with their beaks, mount the boat, and seek to swallow the fish. However, each bird had a noose around his neck, loose enough to allow breathing but tight enough to prevent the swallowing of all but the smallest fish. It was a fascinating display and we applauded each time the fisherman gently squeezed a fish from the bird’s mouth into his basket.
On Monday morning, Roger & Vee – taking the opportunity of another option – had another unique venture, in the unlikely setting of the snappily-named Guilin Hospital No 5. It was a one hour foot massage which has to be experienced to be appreciated. The Chinese believe that each part of the foot is related to a part of the body and the massage was slow, thorough, and at times quite painful, but the end result was a wonderful feeling of tranquillity. It might have been the soporific nature of the exercise or her inability to carry out basic mental arithmetic, but Vee was persuaded to purchase a range of alternative medications that would be sufficient in volume to stock a small pharmacy. We are still waiting to see the effect!
That afternoon, the whole group went on a tour of local sights in the Guilin area, First stop was the Reed Flute Cave, located to the north-west of the city across the delightfully-named Peach Blossom River. The cave is 790 foot (240 metres) deep and contains a mystical collection of stalactites, stalagmites, and grottoes. Susan invited us to use our imagination as she spun fanciful stories around many of the grotesque shapes surrounding us. Outside the cave, Peter led us on one of his walkabouts to acquaint us further with the style of living in local villages.
Then we drove over to a location known as the Mount of Unique Beauty. Once we had survived an encounter with yet another shop, those of us with the strength or the bravado – which, of course, included Roger & Vee - were able to climb 306 steep stone steps to the mount itself which is 500 feet (152 metres) high. If the weather had been clearer, it might have been worth it. Last stop was the Fubo Hill Park back in the city centre.
XI'AN & TERRACOTTA ARMY
After two wonderful days in Guilin, we were off again. On Monday evening, we flew by Airbus A310 from Guilin to Xi'an. This was a flight of about 700 miles (1,100 km) so it took us one and a half hours. Since the flight was delayed and there was a coach journey from the airport to the city, we did not reach the Garden House Hotel until 1 am and our luggage did not arrive in our rooms until 2 am. As we had an early morning start, that night Roger & Vee only had about three and a half hours sleep. This was certainly an intensive tour.
Xi'an is one of China’s six historic capital cities. From 1027 BC onwards, eleven dynasties chose it as their seat of government. Previously called Chang'an and Daxing, Xi'an adopted its current name, which means ‘peace in the west’, in 1369. Its city walls – the only complete ones in China – date from this period, making them some 600 years old. Today the city has a population of 2.3 million.
In Xi'an, our guide was Nina, one of the few who had travelled outside China – she had been to the USA and Australia. She had an most unusual sense of humour. She told us a story about criminals tied to lampposts as a visiting dignatory mistook them for welcoming citizens and she almost cried with laughter.
What really puts Xi'an on the tourist map is the world-famous terracotta army which is, in fact, located some 18 miles (30 km) north-east of the city. The army was constructed on the orders of Qin Shi Huangdi who reigned as emperor from 221-210 BC. They were discovered accidently by three farmers digging wells in March 1974.
Our Tour Director Peter was determined that we should not just see the terracotta army but view it in the best possible circumstances, so he ensured that we left our hotel at 7.20 am that Tuesday morning. We reached our destination in just under two hours, so that we arrived minutes before the official 8.30 am opening of the museum. This made us the first group there, just beating the Germans.
The main hall (No 1) is over three acres (1.26 hectares) in area and houses some 6,000 larger than life-sized terracotta warriors each with different facial features . As we walked into the hall – the only people there observing the serried ranks of statues some 2,000 years old – it was an awe-inspiring moment. We had been told that there was strictly no photography, but soon the actions of some local Chinese made it clear that the prohibition had been relaxed for the first time in Peter's long experience of the site. So we were even able to record our visit with photographs.
After visiting the smaller No 3 and No 2 halls respectively, we went into small museum housing two magnificent less than life-sized bronze chariots, unearthed in 1980, and finally watched a 360 degree film on the origin of the terracotta army. What many of us had not realised and what the film made very clear was that most of the statues were smashed by rebels immediately following the death of the emperor, so what we see in the halls today is the result of painstaking reconstruction, a process which is far from complete.
While we were at the museum complex, we met two very different characters. The first was one of the farmers who discovered the army in 1974. He signed a souvenir picture book for us. The second was a man that Vee used to work for as long ago as 1977. She worked for Doug Brooks at Hoover’s in west London. What a coincidence!
After two and a half hours at the museum, we drove off, past the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huangdi. The construction of the mausoleum involved a conscript workforce of 600,000 men. The grave has still not been opened so new treasures may still be waiting to be uncovered.
Back towards town and after some lunch, we had to endure another ‘emporium’, this time selling awful jade items. We were supposed to see an example of jade carving, but the staff were on their lunch break (things are becoming liberal when the workers are allowed meal breaks!).
However, then we had a fascinating afternoon visiting some of the sights of Xi'an. First, we mounted a section of the city walls built between 1368-1398. Then we visited the Qingzhen Si Great Mosque used mainly by the Muslim Hui minority.
Next we wandered around the adjoining muslim market, full of enticing smells (especially spices) and sounds (including caged crickets). Last stop was the Great Wild Goose Pagoda. This was built in 652 without cement or nails. Originally there were five storeys, then ten, and today seven – and of course Roger & Vee climbed to the top.
That evening, we went to a traditional Chinese evening of entertainment at the Tang Dynasty. It involved singing, dancing and music, but it was not to everyone’s taste and had Vee - aided and abetted by Scott and Michelle - in gales of laughter.
Next morning (Wednesday), we had another longish internal flight, as we were transported by Boeing 737 from Xi'an to Shanghai, a distance of some 800 miles (1,300 km). It was almost two hours in the air before we reached the unfortunately-named Pu Dong airport which is located some 40 miles (60 km) outside the city.
Shanghai is situated at the mouth of the famous Yangtze river and its name means literally ‘above the sea’. After China’s defeat in the Opium Wars, concessions were granted to various western powers and some of the resultant architecture remains. Roger was reminded at times of the film “Empire Of The Sun” which portrayed the city at the time of the Japanese occupation.
Today Shanghai is a city with 14 million inhabitants and seven million bicycles. It has been described as “the biggest building site in the world” and currently has some 17,000 construction sites, including a world financial centre which will have 102 storeys. Arguably it is the most westernised of Chinese cities and it is already proving to be a powerhouse in the development of the new Chinese economy.
Our guide in Shanghai was a larger than life character called George. He called the smokers in the group “chimneys” and referred to the toilet as “the happy room”. He had a remarkable theory to explain why women live longer than men – it is because they have longer ear lobes! It was not his fault that, after a week of excellent weather, we found Shanghai dull and overcast.
After lunch on a floating dragon boat called the Sea Palace, we were taken to the Oriental Pearl Tower. The total height of this construction is 1,535 feet (468 metres) and we went up to an observation deck at 863 feet (263 metres). From here, there was a clear view of the rash of skyscrapers taking over the centre of the city, the most prominent being the 88-storey Jin Mao Tower which is the world's third tallest.
Then we were driven to the area of the former French concession, distinguished by its pleasant plane trees. Here we visited the home of Sun Yat-sen, known as the father of modern China. He led the successful revolution against the last (Qing) dynasty and was briefly the first president of the new republic. Later he managed to retain the respect and admiration of both Nationalists and Communists and so, in spite of all the political changes since, he remains a national hero.
It was 5 pm when we reached our Shanghai hotel – the Jianguo – for the first time and we only had half an hour before we were due to leave again. It hardly mattered, since our luggage had still not arrived from the airport following a broken axle suffered by the vehicle in question. It is not surprising that, at one point in our hectic schedule, Arthur quipped to Peter: “There’s three minutes spare somewhere”.
After dinner in the art deco Yangtze Hotel, we moved to a new theatre to see an evening’s entertainment of acrobatics involving such esoteric arts as plate spinning, hoop jumping and chair balancing. It was hard to keep a straight face when two particularly agile young women managed to ‘fold’ their bodies and insert their rears in what looked like rather grand waste paper baskets. After the performance, we made a night-time visit to the harbour area known as the Bund (an Anglo-Indian word meaning ‘muddy embankment’). The people of Shanghai were promenading happily in a celebration of the new, relaxed and more prosperous times that have beset this part of China especially.
The following morning (Thursday) our suitcases had to be ready for collection at 7.15 am and in fact none of us had even bothered to unpack them. We started our second day in Shanghai by walking around the area of the former French concession viewing the home of the former mayor and a craft shop. Next we went to a carpet-making factory which inevitably had a large associated shop which equally inevitably had attendants pressurising us to buy.
Once we managed to escape, we drove on to the Old Town or Yuyuan where we were given free time. This was a fascinating area, bustling with shops and traders. One department store had a whole section devoted to various alleged aphrodisiacs including ginseng and antler horn – with vibrators in case all else failed. Roger & Vee had traditional green tea in the famous Huxingting Teahouse - the oldest in the city - set on a small lake and approached by a zig zag bridge (apparently evil spirits can only walk in straight lines) and then, in a store, bought some lovely cloisonné pill boxes.
Lunch and the period immediately afterwards was spent in or viewing various art deco buildings in the area of the Bund: the Seagull Hotel, the Pujiang Hotel, the Peace Hotel and the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank. At the Peace Hotel (formerly the Cathay Hotel of the 1930s), we were able to go up to the roof garden and look out over the harbour as the weather became increasingly murky and wet. Unfortunately, by late afternoon it was raining quite heavily and rush hour was developing, so our last visit was dark and quick: the Jade Buddha Temple built from 1918-1928.
After a day and a half in Shanghai, it was on to the next city. A train journey of just 45 minutes took us to Suzhou. On the way, Jo decided to test the theory that statistically, in any group of 23 or more, at least two are likely to share a birthday. Amazingly the theory was validated when partners Denis and Elizabeth were found to have the same birthday.
In the 14th century, Suzhou was the second largest city in China. Today, in Chinese terms, it is a small city of around a million inhabitants. It has two particular epithets: the ‘Venice of the East’ because of its canals and ‘Heaven on Earth’ because of its gardens. In fact, although it is located on the Imperial Canal, Suzhou is nothing like Venice (nowhere is) and, although in the Ming dynasty it had no less than 271 gardens, today it only boasts around a dozen. Urban development has destroyed much of the charm of old Suzhou, but there are still some magical towns in the area.
Our local guide was Sue who, like many of our CITS contacts, has never left China. She was a schoolgirl at the start of the Cultural Revolution and told us how all learning simply stopped. In 1969, she was sent into the country to work on a farm and, like millions of others, found it a very tough experience.
On Friday morning, we visited two of Suzhou’s gardens. The Garden of the Master of the Nets was originally created in 1140. The Garden of Lingering – probably the most beautiful in the city – was originally created in 1520. Two of the gardens that we did not visit had enchanting names: the Garden of the Foolish Politician and the Garden of the Politics of the Humble Man. In between the two gardens that we did see, we called into the Silk Embroidery Research Institute. Suzhou has always been one of the most important centres of the Chinese silk industry and, at the Institute, Vee bought two framed silk pictures (that credit card again).
We had a marvellous afternoon when in sunny weather we took a coach trip out to the small town of Tongli, noted for its many canals and 49 stone bridges. A short pedal-driven rickshaw drive took us into the town centre and then, in groups of six, we boarded the Chinese equivalent of a gondola for a wonderfully serene glide through the old quarters. Back on dry land, we wandered through tiny streets dating back 500 years and past the local market where live frogs were among the many objects on sale.
The Chinese canal system was an historic marvel. It was designed to enable food and goods to be transported from south to north, while the rivers could be used for the route east to west. It was the year 605 when the first Grand Canal linked the Yangtze River with the Yellow River. The vast construction project used forced labour and eventually a total of 5.5 million people were compelled to participate. The Grand Canal or Imperial Canal is the oldest and longest in the world, and, in the 13th century, linked Hangzhou with Beijing a distance of over 1,000 miles (some 1,700 km).
We took a boat and travelled for three and a half hours down the modern canal from Suzhou to Wuxi. We were amazed at the amount of activity on the waterway. Every couple of minutes we passed a barge powered by a steaming, spluttering, and very noisy motor and carrying anything from coal to crushed stone to scrap metal. Many of the barges sat unbelievably low in the water and each seemed like a kind of home with washing drying on the line and a bicycle ready for dry land. It brought to mind the classic Humphrey Bogart/Lauren Bacall film “The African Queen”.
Wuxi – a town dating from the 11th century BC - used to be called Youxi which means ‘has tin’. When the tin deposits had been worked out, logically enough from the 2nd century BC it adopted its present name which means ‘without tin’. Today it is a city of over a million people.
Our guide in Wuxi was Yuan, a man of manic mirth. We reached the city in time for lunch and then Yuan took us on an afternoon tour.
First stop was a silk spinning factory where we observed the process of soaking the cocoons and drawing out the silk to form a continuous thread. No doubt this was something of a showpiece factory, yet the appalling noise and the hazardous working conditions would never have been tolerated in Britain.
Then we were taken to the old town and it was certainly ancient. By the side of a canal which is 1,400 years old, there is a stone bridge which is 500 years old and houses which are 400 years old. It was like peeping through the curtains of history.
We were sorry to leave Wuxi so soon, but another city awaited. It was a train journey of just over two hours from Wuxi north-west to Nanjing. On the way, we discussed the merits of a Chinese drink bought by Peter with the name of “San Bian medicinal liquor”. Among the many ingredients were dog penis, deer penis and fur seal penis (honestly!).
Nanjing (or Nanking) simply means ‘southern capital’ as compared to Beijing which means ‘northern capital’. Starting with the Wu Empire of 220-280, it has been the capital of various kingdoms over a period of 2,000 years. In 1368, the first Ming emperor made Nanjing the political centre of the whole empire for the first time and it became the largest city in the world in that period. In 1937, the citizens were the subject of the infamous rape of Nanjing by the Japanese when up to 300,000 were massacred. Today Nanjing is a thriving metropolis of 7 million.
The CITS guide told us to call her Cindy. Her real name is Ko Ching Fow which translates as ‘tall, music, flower’. During the Cultural Revolution, she was sent to the countryside and had to leave her two month old son with her grandparents. Today she has a daughter as well who lives in Paris.
On our first evening in Nanjing (Saturday), we were fortunate enough to be able to attend a short concert given by the Chinese Traditional Instruments Orchestra, one of the few professional folk instrumental orchestras in China. The fascinating traditional instruments used included the erhu or Chinese violin and the zhen or Chinese zither. One usually thinks of traditional Chinese music as serene to the point of sombre, but these pieces were joyful and exuberant. Roger & Vee were pleased to buy a CD of some of the orchestra’s performances.
Next morning (Sunday), at the comparatively leisurely hour of 9 am, we started a tour of the city’s sites. We started at the mighty Yangtze river, the third longest in the world, which rises in Tibet and flows 3,900 miles (6,276 km) to the East China Sea. Some of us took a one-hour boat river on the river – not the most exciting event of our tour because there was little activity and considerable mist.
However, the Yangtze River Bridge – which we all visited - was quite interesting, not least because of the huge statue of Mao Zedong in the foyer of the museum(there are few representations of the one-time great leader in modern-day China). The Chinese, who built this bridge between 1960-1968, are particularly proud of the construction because it was designed and built without any foreign aid. There are two levels: a railway bridge of over four miles (6,772 metres) and a road bridge of almost three miles (4,589 metres). In the inevitable shop, Roger bought seven books from a set on various Chinese cities produced by the Chinese Foreign Languages Press.
Driving over to the east of the city, we first saw a surviving section of the city wall which used to surround the whole centre of Nanjing at the end of the 14th century. Each brick is individually identified by its builder. Next we looked at the “Sacred Way” element of the tomb of the first Ming Emperor (the other 13 Ming tombs are to be found to the north of Beijing). The way is lined with pairs of stone animals and figures.
Our main stop was at the Mausoleum of Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of the Chinese Republic who died on 12 March 1925. The mausoleum, which occupies an area of 20 acres (8 hectares), was built between 1926-1929. Roger & Vee climbed the 392 steps - one for each sentence in his defining political declaration - to the memorial hall, entered through a doorway over which is inscribed his famous aphorism: "The world belongs to everyone".
Close by was the Mei Ling Palace where we had lunch. Mei Ling – who is now 103 and lives in America – is one of three remarkable sisters: Mei Ling herself married the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek, Soong Ching Ling married the first President Sun Yat-sen, and a third sister married a banker. After lunch, we called into a pearl farm where we saw how they grow, open and use fresh-water pearls and Vee bought herself a pair of earrings.
The last stop was at the Nanjing Museum which contains a wonderful collection of earthenware, jade, lacquer and calligraphy artefacts, including a lacquered carved throne from the Qing Dynasty. All day we had been seeing around the city a collection of Americans in full clown costumes engaging in comedic antics with bemused locals. Here Roger was able to speak to one of them (a retired New York City policeman) who explained that they were a group of 39 on a ‘People to People’ programme visiting Chinese schools and hospitals. Their leader was the controversial Patch Adams who was played by Robin Williams in the recent film of the same name – very tall man with a long pony tail looking nothing like Williams.
We could have stayed longer in Nanjing, but there was another flight and another city – the big one, Beijing.
BEIJING & GREAT WALL
From Nanjing to Beijing was a flight of about one and a half hours and this time the aircraft was an A320 Airbus. Once again, we were surprised and pleased at the modern quality of the airport (obviously the airport tax of 50 yuan – about £5 – per passenger is being used to good effect).
What is now the capital city of China has a history of 3,000 years during which time it has been known variously as Ji, Youzhou, Nanjing, Zhongdu, Dadu, Cambaluc, Beiping (‘northern peace’) and Beijing (‘northern capital’), not to mention Peking (an earlier transliteration of the Chinese characters). Today it is a mega city of 15 million with no less than four ring roads and nine million bicycles. It has all the appurtenances of a western city including over 200 McDonalds.
Our guide in Beijing was Nancy, the youngest of all our CITS contacts, but an exceptionally bright and attractive woman. At the turn of the century, her grandmother – like most women until that time – had her feet bound from the age of four. In the late 1950s, her father was condemned as a Rightist and sent to the north-east of the country to labour in coal mines. This work caused him to contract an illness which killed him when Nancy was just 16. Like the overwhelmingly majority of Chinese – but remember this is a university graduate in foreign trade who is fluent in English – she has never been out of the country and does not even possess a passport.
Monday morning was scheduled for our trip to the Great Wall. This mammoth construction has a history of some 2,500 years. It was first built during the time of the Warring States Kingdom and eventually its completion required the work of a million men slaving for ten years. It has been periodically rebuilt, especially during the Ming Dynasty. Today it stretches for 3,700 miles (6,000 kms) and averages 20-26 feet (6-8 metres) in height.
Since most of the Wall is now in poor condition, only five sections are open to the public. Most visitors go to the Badaling section to the north-west of Beijing, but The Travel Collection believes that this section is now too commercial and takes its tours to the Mutianyu section to the north-east of the city. Mutianyu is a bit further away - 43 miles (70 kms) – so a two hour coach journey is involved. As with the terracotta army, Peter was determined that we should be at the wall early before the atmosphere was spoilt by too many other tourists. So he insisted that we leave the hotel at 7 am and, as a result, when we reached the wall we were the only ones there which most certainly enhanced the occasion enormously.
Given the logistics of the wall at Mutianyu – and, for that matter, at Badaling - one has to take a cable car up to the wall itself and Roger & Vee rode one previously used by former British Prime Minister John Major (it could have been worse). Once on the wall, one can turn left or turn right. Roger & Vee turned left (naturally!) and walked as far as the sign warning that the way was now problematic and on as far as the sign warning that one must go no further. The route involved some sharp declines, some steep climbs, various towers, and finally a set of extremely steep steps that rose almost vertically. Very few accomplished this final challenge, but Roger & Vee joined Scott & Michelle, Barry and Denis in doing so.
These two or so hours on the Great Wall of China were the inspiring highlight of a thrilling tour and one of the most memorable experiences of our lives. No-one can fail to be awed by the antiquity and magnitude of this construction, but to be there almost alone in weather that was simply glorious was almost more than one could endure.
There is a saying in China: “Nobody can be a true hero unless he has been on the Great Wall”. There are now 22 new heroes and heroines and Arthur and Gordon have the tee-shirt to prove it.
Like most tour groups, we combined our visit to the Great Wall with one to the Ming Tombs which are located 31 miles (50 kms) north of Beijing in a valley of the Tianshoushan Hill. The route there from the wall was west through the most beautiful scenery as the coach clung to the edge of some very steep hill-side roads.
The tombs – there are 13 of them – are approached through the Avenue of Stone Statues (1435) lined with twelve pairs of animals and six pairs of humans. One set of camels depicts them kneeling with the lower front legs bent forward – an anatomical impossibility. So far, only two of the tombs have been restored for the public and the one we looked at was the Changling Tomb, that of the third Ming Emperor Yongle (reigned 1402-1424) and Empress Xu (died 1407).
It was 5.15 pm when we arrived back at our hotel and we had to leave again at 6 pm. In the Quianmen district of the city at the Jianguo Hotel, we had dinner before attending a performance of Peking opera. Even for the Chinese, this historic art form is something of an acquired taste. The costumes were wonderful and the acrobatics impressive, but the singing resembled cats in pain and the electronic translations of the words were hysterical. On the coach afterwards, Peter invited us to emulate the singing that we had just heard and our performance could not have been bettered by felines of any number. Possibly because of his venerable age, Arthur created a sound of unsurpassed awfulness.
Next day (Tuesday), we were in Beijing proper and unfortunately the weather was grey if dry. We spent the whole morning at the Forbidden City or - as it is more properly known – the Imperial Palace. Its origins date from the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), but it was Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty who had the palace enlarged to its present size between 1406-1420 after he had transferred the capital from Nanjing to Beijing. The complex extends over 861,120 square yards (720,000 square metres) and is said to comprise 9,999 rooms (only God in Heaven can have 10,000 - a special number for the Chinese – rooms). The palace was the residence of 24 Ming and Qing emperors and ordinary mortals were forbidden to enter which gave the location its usual name.
Most tours enter the palace through the main entrance which is the Meridian Gate on the south side. But, of course, Peter always did things differently and we entered through the Gate of Spiritual Valour on the north side, so that we walked against the main flow and had a quieter time. The palace is certainly impressive but, coming after the Great Wall, the visit was a little anti-climatic. Most rooms are visible only through glass windows and are extremely dusty and the place did not have quite the colour and splendour that one recalled from the Bernardo Bertolucci film “The Last Emperor”.
One advantage of seeing the palace from north to south is that we came out into Tiananmen Square. The name means ‘The Square of Heavenly Peace’, but of course all of us associate it with the terrible events of 1989. Peter was living in Beijing at the time and went to the square, so he was able to give us a very personal view of events.
He was convinced that it was a genuine mass movement with extensive support and not simply a student protest, but he felt that the demands were more economic than political. He doubted whether there were many deaths in the square itself, as opposed to the adjoining streets, and castigated the wild estimates of the number of deaths made by some western media commentators. However, he had no doubt that the Chinese authorities had exercised sophisticated media control over the presentation of events and that the whole episode had been the catalyst for the subsequent remarkable economic developments.
Tiananmen Square is simply huge and one has little difficulty accepting the claim that it is the largest inner city square in the world. Estimates of the number of people that it can hold vary between half a million and a million. On one side is an enormous portrait of Chairman Mao at the main entrance to the Forbidden City and on the other side is the Chairman Mao Mausoleum. One wonders how long these now rare commemorations of the Great Leader will remain.
In the square, we had an official tour group photograph with Mao smiling benevolently behind us. It was here also that we had the most frequent occurrences of the regular requests by the locals to be photographed with Vee. Peter said that it was something to do with her being “luminescent”, but we thought that it was her blonde hair that made her look classically western.
We had lunch just off Tiananmen Square and Scott & Michelle decided to take the opportunity to steal off to a local McDonalds for a change. They brought Roger & Vee back a couple of strawberry sundaes which tasted delicious (thanks, guys!). Afterwards Peter took us on a walk of ‘old Beijing’, the narrow lanes or ‘hutongs’ (the word comes from the Mongol for horse trough) that throng with tiny homes and market traders. Then he left us to explore the area alone. On three separate occasions, Roger & Vee were approached by young English- speaking Chinese who claimed to be students who wanted to take us to a nearby art studio – we smelt a ruse and politely declined.
The evening was a rare occasion to eat where we wished and Roger & Vee joined Peter and others at a small restaurant just opposite the hotel where we sat on the pavement had a delicious meal which included magnificent chicken in lemon sauce.
Wednesday was our last day in Beijing and our last day in China. It was the coldest day of all and jumpers and coats were required. Indeed soon it was raining and macs and umbrellas were dug out.
The morning was spent at the Summer Palace which is 9 miles (15 kms) to the north of the city. At 716 acres, this is the largest park in China. It has a history of a millennium which includes its burning down by British and French troops in 1860. Among its many features are the Long Corridoor (actually a covered walkway) which is almost 800 yards (728 metres) in length, the marble ship, and the enormous lake.
After the palace, we visited a cloisonné factory and saw how works are produced before entering the inevitable shop which in fact sold some of the most attractive material that we had seen in our tour. If there is one thing for which the British are noted, it is their love of animals and, by popular demand, we had lunch at Beijing Zoo so that we could visit the panda house. As a result of climate change, there are now only around a thousand pandas in the wild. At the zoo, we were able to see four of them and Kath bought three toy ones.
Last stop of the day and the tour was the Temple of Heaven. This dates back to 1420 and the main building has a characteristic blue tiled conical roof. The emperor – who otherwise led a pretty hedonistic life – had to abstain from sex and food for three days before ascending the Heavenly Altar to celebrate the winter solstice.
Our final night in Beijing involved a traditional Peking duck dinner at the famed Qianmen Quanjude Restaurant. All sorts of distinguished personages have eaten here and it can seat up to 1,000 people – which is a lot of ducks. At the end of the meal, we all gathered round Peter’s table and, on behalf of the group, Roger made a short speech of thanks and presented the proceedings of a collection. It was certainly no less than he deserved. We drove back through Tiananmen Square which was ablaze with illuminated buildings and coloured fountains. Was this really all for our group? No – that weekend the country would be celebrating its National Day and these lights were to mark the event.
After waking on our last morning in China (Thursday), Roger took a call on the hotel telephone and found a husky, female voice asking him: “Massage?” Others had the same call, but the one-word proposal was only made if the person who answered the call was male. Somehow, we suspected that what was on offer was not quite the kind of massage that we had enjoyed earlier in the tour at the Hospital No 5 in Guilin.
The flight home was on a British Airways Boeing 777 and lasted ten and a half hours. All through the tour, Roger & Vee had been making new friends and the flight was no exception. We met French air stewardess Alexandra, Kenyan Member of Parliament Zippie, and Chinese bio-chemical engineering student Cathy. They helped the time to pass before we touched down at Heathrow Airport and headed for home.
China is the third largest country in the world and the most populous. It is bigger than the United States and almost as large as the whole of Europe. It shares 9,000 miles of land frontier with more than a dozen other states.
The first thing to say about the Chinese themselves is that there are an unbelievable lot of them. Since 1900, the population has trebled to the present figure of some 1.2 billion or about one-fifth of the entire population of the globe. No wonder the authorities have imposed a one child per family policy.
Although the cities are rapidly industrialising, some 70% of the Chinese still live in the rural areas. While some 93% of the population is Han Chinese, 55 minorities are currently recognised by the government.
We were surprised and delighted at how happy and friendly we found the Chinese on our travels. Roger & Vee visited Czechoslovakia when it was still under communist control and the mood of the Chinese today bears no comparison with the sombreness and surliness we found there and then. The Chinese are open and warm and many of them are genuinely entrepreneurial.
The little children were adorable. Roger took with him magnets of London symbols which he gave to little boys and girls which he befriended before he took their photograph. The youngest children had slits in the front and rear of their pants, since Chinese cannot afford disposable nappies and do not want to be bothered with cotton ones.
The old people – who generally preferred not to be photographed - were delightful too. Early in the morning, they would go out to parks or other public placed to perform ‘tai chi’ exercises or tea dancing and, at any time of day, they would sit around a table playing the board game ‘mah zong’.
Many of the Chinese we met were as interested in us as were in them. Apparently the Chinese call foreigners “big noses”, but those that spoke English were keen to practice it with us and youngsters especially wanted to be photographed with us.
However, for all their friendliness, most Chinese do not like body contact and kissing – even simply on the cheek - especially is almost out of the question in public. So Roger & Vee, who are very tactile persons. had to moderate their behaviour to accord with the local norms.
As well as the friendliness of the Chinese, we will remember their persistence. Everywhere – repeat, everywhere – we went, people wanted to sell us things. Even in the countryside, whenever we stopped, they would appear, as if at a prearranged signal. They would shout out at us, repeating standard mantras: “Hello, hello!” “Just looking!” “One dollar, one dollar!” “Lookee, lookee!”. They could be very insistent, standing in one’s way and thrusting the objects under one’s nose. At first, we found this annoying, but soon we came to find it amusing.
Almost everywhere – and certainly in all the many markets – one is expected to bargain and bargain hard. Roger was temperamentally unsuited to this; Vee had a go; but unquestionably the bargaining champion of our group was Richard who would have bargained about the price of toilet paper in the public lavatory except that usually there wasn’t any.
We were interested to see just how incredibly superstitious are many Chinese, investing portent in all kinds of everyday objects or circumstances.
For instance, they are almost obsessive about numbers:
Similarly every colour has special significance. Red, not white, is the colour for weddings and white, not black, is the colour for funerals. And, of course, they have lotions and potions for every type of ill or ailment.
The Chinese horoscope has a real following. Roger was born in ‘the year of the rat’ which means that he is “loving and sentimental” as well as “charming and persistent”. Vee was born in ‘the year of the monkey’ which means that she is “high-spirited, full of fun and mischievous”. Her ideal partner would be someone born in the year of the dragon or the rat.
In a sense, there is no such thing as the Chinese language. This is because there are so many distinct dialects that are so different – and often unintelligible to speakers of other dialects – that they are almost different languages in their own right. What we think of as Chinese is in fact the Mandarin dialect which is spoken in the Beijing area.
For non-Chinese, speaking Chinese is enormously difficult and reading it is virtually impossible but, if one can manage to learn how to speak and write it, the grammar is incredibly simple.
The main reason why speaking Chinese is so difficult is that it is essentially a tonal language. Every syllable can be pronounced with one of four distinct tones:
The reason why reading Chinese is so impossible is that the language has no alphabet but instead uses a pictograph system whereby each word is represented by a specific character. To read everyday Chinese, one needs to know about 3,000 characters; a well-educated Chinese would know 6,000 or more; the current total is around 30,000; and, in the whole of Chinese literature from the earliest to present times, more than 60,000 have been used.
The one advantage of the pictograph system is that, whereas the pronunciation of characters has varied over time and now varies between dialects, the meaning of the pictographs does not change, so that any Chinese person can read a script of any antiquity and of any dialect.
If speaking and reading Chinese is a nightmare, the grammar could hardly be simpler:
The end result of all this is that we were virtually unable to learn any Chinese in our two weeks in the country. If we did manage to learn to say the word for something like ‘beer’, having mastered the pronunciation in one part of the country, next day we would fly to another region and find that the word had a very different pronunciation. So really we only learned to say ’hello’ and ‘thank you’ which are ‘ni hao’ (pronounced ‘knee how’) and ‘xie xie’ (pronounced ‘she-she’) respectively. Actually, there was one other expression that we learned: 'ma ma hu hu' which means literally 'horse horse monkey monkey' and is the Chinese way of saying 'so so'.
Fortunately all the young Chinese are learning English!
Capturing and savouring the myriad memories of such a wondrous tour is not easy. Roger made lots and lots of notes for his diary and this account and he took a total of almost 600 photographs. Also he bought a total of nine picture books and the autobiography of the last emperor Pu Yi.
However, this tour was not simply a magnificent holiday; it was a political eye-opener. No serious student of global affairs should under-estimate the pace of change in China and the implications of many of these changes for the international community.
One of our guides told us that, in 1980, the Chinese economy ranked number 120 in the world, whereas twenty years later it had risen to seventh. Many commentators believe that, at the present rate of growth, within a decade China will become the world’s largest economy (although obviously GDP per capita will still be much lower than most industrialised countries).
The 19th century was essentially the century of Britain; the 20th century was unquestionably the century of the United States; the 21st century might become the century of China. It depends on many factors.
It depends on the quality of the political leadership and, in the short term, Jiang Zemin is due to be succeeded by the younger Hu Jintao. It depends on the extent to which the economic changes are followed by political changes, including the development of a civil society with a free media, pressure groups, independent trade unions, and ultimately political parties. It depends on how capably and rapidly the economy moves from the bricks and mortar of the industrial society to the clicks and bricks of the information society. It depends on how China uses its growing industrial and military strength at home, specifically in relation to Tibet and Taiwan, and in the global marketplace.
One thing is for sure: China cannot be ignored and the more we all know about it, the better for us all.
Chinese history for beginners click here
History of China click here
Inside China Today click here
China Today click here
Great Britain China Centre click here
Ian and Wendy's site click here
On 18 November 2000, Arthur Isaacs and Jane Farr were married at the registry office in the West Bridgford district of Nottingham, following which they had a reception at the Automobile Association College at Widmerpool. Roger & Vee were invited to the wedding and Roger was asked to speak at the reception.
The members of the tour group got along extremely well and, towards the end of the tour, talked of gathering together once we were back in Britain. Roger complied a list of e-mail addresses and kept in touch with the group. Then, to mark the Chinese New Year, he organised a reunion in London's Chinatown.
The date was 27 January 2001 and the venue was the "Lee Ho Fook" restaurant in Gerrard Street. An amazing 19 of the 22 group members came along and the place reverberated with shrieks of welcome as one after another of the group members arrived. It was such a success that we repeated the event - although with smaller numbers - on 26 January 2002, 10 January 2003, 31 January 2004 and 28 May 2005.