Saturday, January 10, 2009

Chinese New Year Break: Hong Kong 1983

Lynne Phoning Home at our Hong Kong hosts' Apartment (In Taiwan at that time, we had to go to the Telephone and Telegraph Office to make international calls)

Junks in Hong Kong Harbor

The visa situation in Taiwan was rather strange in the early 1980s. As students, we were still on tourist visas, but with proof of school enrollment, we could extend our visas every two months for a total of six months at a time. We had to leave Taiwan for several days in February, and then we could come back again for another six months. Now there are regular student visas, and you can stay in the country as long as you are enrolled in a legitimate program of study.

Our Chinese friends from church in DC had given us money to visit Hong Kong and mainland China during our winter break. Our school was closed for several weeks at the time of Chinese New Year, as was the entire city of Taipei. Our Chinese friends had given us extra money for the express purpose of purchasing Bibles in Hong Kong that were written in simplified Chinese characters. In 1983, the only legal version of the Bible in China was the old Bible from the 1800’s. It was written in traditional characters, and most young people could not read it.

We asked the deacons who helped with the student center in Taipei to make arrangements for us to stay with church people in Hong Kong because we did not have enough money to stay in hotels there. We did get a good deal on round-trip tickets between Hong Kong and Taipei. We had come to Taiwan with two passports because at the time, relations between Taiwan and mainland China were pretty tense, and we would not be allowed to stay in Taiwan and study with stamps from China on our passport. We could not have entered China with the evidence of studying in Taiwan stamped in our passports, either.

We stayed in an apartment of single women in the same high-rise as the church hall in Kowloon, Hong Kong. The women were very nice, and they took us sightseeing on the Star Ferry to the Central District and the Peak Tram. We also visited the harbor and saw the junks. We did not have money to buy much, but Hong Kong was even more crowded than Taipei, and it was different from anything we had seen before. It was under British rule at the time, so there was quite a bit of English spoken and on street signs. We were also able to buy cheese and Western food for the first time in six months.

We went to the mainland Chinese visa office in Hong Kong and signed up for a three day tour of Guangzhou and Guangdong Province. We also got reservations in a hotel in Guangzhou for three more days. We had to finish the tour, and then we could go back into China the same day to spend time on our own since it would be our second visit. We were only allowed to stay at five-star hotels which were pretty pricy. But we were traveling on American passports and spending American dollars, so the Chinese government only wanted to give us the best. After making our arrangements, we spent all the rest of the money given to us by Chinese-American Christians to buy Bibles. We each had fifty or sixty pocket Bibles by the time we were done.

The Christians in Hong Kong who sold us the Bibles told us that we would either get through customs with our luggage unopened or we would be caught. They suggested that if the Bibles were confiscated, we should try to retrieve them and take them in on our second trip. We were planning to enter China on the third day of the Chinese New Year, so after making all our preparations, we went with our friends to celebrate the Year of the Boar in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is so tightly packed that each family cannot set off their own fireworks like they do in Taiwan. Instead, everyone runs like lemmings to the water to watch the fireworks over the harbor. All you can do is move with the crowd. If you try to fight against them and go the opposite way you will be trampled. It was a great fireworks show, and we certainly had our first experience with mobs. But no one was hurt. The entire city was out and about celebrating until one or two in the morning.

Late the next morning our hosts took us with them to visit friends for New Year. We put on nice clothes and took bags of fruit with us. Many of these people lived packed into tiny, tiny apartments. Most of the families had burned incense to their ancestors first thing in the morning, so the halls of every building were thick with smoke. Hong Kong means “Fragrant Harbor” in Chinese, and I wondered if the name came from all the incense. The apartments in Hong Kong were usually just one bedroom. There were bunk beds in the living rooms, and the kitchens were out on the balcony. Several generations were all crammed together in that little space. Lynne and I could not believe how much more densely populated Hong Kong was in comparison to Taipei.

Once again, we could not understand anything because the people in Hong Kong spoke Cantonese. Many of the better educated people had gone to English high school or college, but the majority of the Hong Kong Chinese just spoke Cantonese. At least, we had some familiarity with the Chinese characters, so between the English on the signs and our limited knowledge of Mandarin, we managed to get by. It was good to know that our hard work in Chinese class was paying off.


Joannalynne said...

what happened with the Bibles?

Teresa said...

I have more posts with the entire story. I didn't want any one post to be too long. I decided to see how leaving the story hanging like a serial thriller would work. You'll have to come back again on January 15th.

Linda McLaughlin said...

That's really interesting. I didn't know you could even get two passports!


Teresa said...

Linda, you can't get two passports without good cause. We had to show our acceptance to a school in Taiwan and then swear our intention to visit mainland China on the same trip. I think that the Senator I was working for gave me a letter, too. The lady at the Washington, DC passport agency wasn't too happy about it at the time. She thought we would be safer with one passport and coming back to the States between trips to Taiwan and China, as if we could afford trans-Pacific flights every three months fresh out of college (or even today).