Far East Odyssey


" It's 1963, the days when China was painted scarlet red with communist paranoia. "


I can't believe I'm actually sailing up the famed Yangtze River in China en route to docking in Shanghai - it's a mind-blowing concept. Why? It's 1963, the days when China was painted scarlet red with communist paranoia. I was 23 years old, and it was to be one of the most exciting travel experiences of my life as so few nationalities were permitted to enter China for purely tourist reasons.

I'm on a small British container vessel I boarded in Hong Kong which, of course, was a British territory at the time. The ship is carrying eight passengers; a mix of English retirees, a few intrepid American engineers with their wives, and two Australians. My mother had flown from Melbourne to Hong Kong (where I was an expat) for our trip to Japan via Taiwan and Shanghai. Captained by a Scotsman, the vessel meandered around small countries on an elastic schedule; loading and unloading various cargoes as we steamed along. Because we would be docking in Taipei (Formosa) and Shanghai, it was not wise to present our passports with their immigration stamps, so I was issued with a supplementary one with six months validity by a young Australian consular officer in Hong Kong who no doubt did not want to be involved in an international brouhaha should Chinese officials pull me up. Apart from the inconvenience for the Australian and Hong Kong governments if we were detained, it was considered dangerous and totally foolhardy to travel with my regular passport.

Several miles up the Yangtze, our ship was forcibly halted by a pilot boat for the routine security check. I was enthralled watching the thirteen officials all carrying guns in their holsters boarding our vessel. This frightening drama unfolding in front of me felt like a scene from a movie and we were the unwitting suspects! After two hours cooped up together in a small humid cabin waiting for immigration clearance, we were finally allowed out on deck at the behest of the ship's captain. At one point, I could see my mother's second passport protruding from her slacks as she played quoits on deck. The enormity of the situation did not strike me till much later as we would have been labelled 'spies' and detained if they caught her.

Formalities completed and local guides assembled, we were herded off the ship in downtown Shanghai with the assurance that we could go anywhere and take photos of anything that caught our fancy. Excitedly, we set off for the first highlight by mini bus and I can still recall the extraordinarily clean surroundings of the dock, which were absolutely spotless. The locals wore identical, unisex cotton pant-suits and fabric shoes. The economy was bravely struggling under the leadership of Chairman Mao and poverty was apparent even in their obviously patched shades of royal to faded blue uniforms.

Our route through the CBD was particularly memorable. I vividly recall the charm of the French Quarter with its European buildings and tree-lined streets. However, the fact that there were almost no other vehicles to be seen was surreal in itself. But as we approached every traffic light it miraculously changed in our favour, thanks to the operator sitting adjacent in a small tower. Talk about total VIP treatment!!

When we arrived at the department store (one of the prime tourist 'attractions'), I learned that the only other foreigners (a small pool of embassy staff and local elite) were permitted with tight security. It felt so strange to wander around racks of gorgeous silk cheongsams, cabinets of jade jewellery, and dozens upon dozens of antiques with scarcely another customer in sight. The locals were all outside with their noses pressed against the windowfronts, looking at us as though we were aliens. I was later told by the captain that the Chinese grew up believing that all caucasians looked like 'peeled bananas'.

Next up was another 'showcase'; a factory where the US engineers were met with automated stock replies to their curious questions. It was hard to keep a straight face as the interpreters quoted statistics proving that the Chinese had invented the elevator and other proud 'facts' as we rode in the clearly marked German lift.

We then decided to walk back to the ship via the famed 'Bund' with its iconic buildings and fascinating sight of hundreds of boats of all shapes and sizes. Guides were instructed to keep a safe distance and ignore us as we photographed everything to our hearts content. Although to our amusement, every time we turned a corner they would scurry to catch up and then casually walk the other way once in full view, like the Pink Panther.

We had expected to be in Shanghai for a couple of days but the labourers slaved all day to unload and reload our cargo, and in less than 24hours we were off again. Boarding the ship, smiling Chinese officials took great pleasure in nonchalantly ripping the film from our cameras (no digital in those days) and waving it in the sunlight to our despair. I have never seen grown men so distraught. The Americans in particular thought they had captured their dream souvenir on film as US-China relations were particularly tenuous at that time. We were all totally devastated at the duplicity of the situation.

Escorted to the estuary of the China Sea by pilot boat, we were now safely en route to Yokohama, Japan. The mood should have been one of delight reflecting our shared unique experiences, but we were all quite subdued by the incident and agreed we were totally outsmarted by the machinations of the Communist Party.