Sunday, January 25, 2009

Bible Running, Part Two

Teresa in the lobby of the Far Eastern Hotel (a good place for clandestine activities)

Rebecca, an English teacher in Beijing who hung out with us for a few days

The next morning the tour group had a traditional dim sum breakfast in a picturesque garden restaurant. The food was really delicious, and this was supposed to be a leisurely time for us to say good-bye to our tour friends, but all Lynne and I could think of was how we had wasted our church friends’ money by losing the Bibles. Our guide had told us that all contraband was burned by customs officials once a week. We were too mad and upset with ourselves to eat anything or make farewell speeches. We finally cajoled the guide into getting us a taxi back to the waterfront so we could redeem our bags of Bibles and take them back to Hong Kong. He wrote a paper with the pier name on one side, marked 1, and the railroad station on the other side, marked 2. We got to the harbor without any problem and redeemed the Bibles very easily. Then as we were trying to get a taxi back to the railway station, we learned that some high-ranking cadre was arriving at the harbor and all roads had been sealed off for several blocks. We lugged our very heavy duffel bags of books out to a road where traffic was flowing. Then we had trouble finding a cab that would take “foreigners’ scrip.” In 1983, foreigners used a different kind of money in China than overseas Chinese and natives used. Only cabs licensed to take scrip could pick up obviously foreign people. We finally found a cabby who had connections on the black market and who was very happy to take us to the train station. We only had 20 minutes before we needed to board the train, but he assured us he could make it in 15.

We were relieved because we didn’t want to get our tour guide in trouble. But just as the cabby put the pedal to the metal, the crowded bus in front of our taxi hit a bicyclist who was carting 20 cages of chickens to market. All traffic stopped in both directions as bus driver, passengers, passers-by, cyclists, and drivers of all the nearby cars poured into the road to chase the chickens and grab free food for dinner. It was bedlam. No traffic moved for at least 25 minutes. By that time our train had gone. Our driver got us to the station as fast as he could and dropped us off at the wrong end of the depot. We had to push our way through hordes of people waiting for trains until we found our tour guide sitting dejectedly on our suitcases at the edge of our platform. He was quite relieved that we had not disappeared into China with our contraband. He was even more relieved to learn that we had reservations at another hotel that evening, and he was thrilled to learn we had a flight out in three more days because Guangzhou was literally full to the bursting. If we had not had those reservations, he did not know what to do. He hugged us and thanked us. We gave him the difference in cab fare between foreigners’ rates and black market rates as a tip, and he was even more ecstatic when we added a couple of our precious US dollars. He personally escorted us to our new hotel and helped us get checked in before he said good-bye.

The bell-hop took us to our room, where we dumped our bags before running out to go exploring. We were so relieved to not have to look over our shoulders any more. We visited a huge park in the middle of Guangzhou and wandered the streets around our hotel. We went back to the hotel about 4 pm, and as we were walking in the door, we met the wife of the Hong Kong man who had sold us the Bibles. When we did not get off that train in Hong Kong, and when the guys from the previous evening contacted our hosts, a lot of people got very worried. The woman’s parents lived in Guangzhou, and she had a special pass allowing her to drive between Hong Kong and Guangzhou to visit them because her father had a terminal illness. She was so relieved to see us. She walked with us to see our room, but she wouldn’t let us discuss the Bibles inside just in case the room was bugged. She asked us to walk her to her car, and out in the middle of the parking lot, she told us to meet her for dinner in the hotel restaurant at 7:30. In the meantime, we were to break the customs locks off the bags, smash them, and flush them down the toilet. Then we would sit in the garden courtyard outside the restaurant with our bags on the ground behind the bench. She would arrive late, and we would “forget” the bags in the courtyard. After we walked into the restaurant, people would take our seats on the bench, pick up the bags, and take them to Christians who would distribute the books. We were quite relieved that after all our near misses we were not going to have to pass out Bibles in the parks as we had originally thought we would. Our DC friends had heard that American and Australian Christians in the mid-70’s had entered China with Bibles and been able to give them to whomever they pleased. But that was not the case in 1983.

Our remaining free days in Guangzhou passed without incident. We really enjoyed exploring and revisiting some of the places that we had rushed through on our tour. We met a woman who was in China as an ESL teacher at a college in Beijing. She helped us get into places that were not normally open to foreigners because she had a resident specialist pass and could go to places reserved for Chinese citizens and overseas Chinese visitors. Those places were not as expensive and definitely not as nice as the places we had seen on the tour. On the third day, we took a plane back to Hong Kong, where we spent one more day before returning safely to Taiwan.

We were not entirely done with espionage, however. Taiwanese intelligence agents had learned that we were returning after spending six days in mainland China without coming out when expected. They came and questioned the deacons at church and our teachers at school. Fortunately, there were a number of retired soldiers and government officials at church who vouched for us. After school started, my teacher made all her students give a speech on “What I did Over Winter Vacation.” When I told her about smuggling Bibles into Communist China, she questioned me carefully to be sure I was not engaged in espionage. Then she vouched for me with Taiwan Intelligence in glowing terms and told Lynne’s teacher to vouch for her. I was surprised to learn that Taiwan was not as free as I had thought. In 1983 Taiwan was still under martial law, and there was only one political party. We had been warned in America never to discuss politics with our Taiwanese friends, and we finally learned the reason for this warning. In those days, not even “free” Taiwan was really free.


Barrie said...

This is fascinating.

Linda McLaughlin said...

Yes, quite fascinating. I'm glad you and Lynn had a chance to spend some unsupervised time in Guagzhou (sp?) and enjoy the country, and that the Bibles got passed along. That's quite a story. I can just picture the accident with chickens flying all over the place. :D


Teresa said...

Hi Barrie, it makes a good story with the filter of time. We were pretty frightened through much of it because we were not 100% sure we would get out safely.

Linda, that was one of the most amazing scenes I've ever seen. It was bedlam. There were fights. Then they all had to pick up bicycles, get back on buses or into cars. Of course, the poor guy going to market was trying to retrieve his chickens, beat off thiefs and chew out the bus driver for hitting him. It was like the Three Stooges, but magnified.

Guangzhou was fun. It is an interesting city. There is even a museum about the Opium War and the history of Chinese European trade because it used to be the only port in China open to Europeans, and that for only 6 months of the year. We couldn't get into the museum until after we met Rebecca and had a "resident specialist" chaperoning us. Some of the exhibits were quite critical of the Opium War; I guess they didn't want to anger tourists and discourage them from spending their scrip and US dollars.

murat11 said...

Okay, it's both chilling and amusing at the same time: Mr. Fleming could not have written as gripping a story, Ms Bond.

On the darker side, I'm saddened by the effects of such persecution; I thought of worshipers down the centuries (of all faiths) who have had to endure horror for something so beautiful and private as their devotions.

Teresa said...

I totally agree with you, Murat. Persecution for religious belief is horrible in any age, in any place, and in any form.