Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Breaching the Bamboo Curtain

I was going through some old photographs over the weekend and uncovered these two old washed-out group pictures from almost 32 years ago, taken at Badaling and Ting Ling respectively. Badaling is where tourists normally go to visit the Great Wall while Ting Ling is the site for the Ming Dynasty Tombs.

At first, I was upset at the quality of the photographs. Time had spoilt them. The colours had run and no amount of computer graphics retouching could recover them sufficiently. But soon afterwards, fond memories came back of not only my first trip out of the country but also a very significant trip behind the Bamboo Curtain.

I still remember the date for both photos: 11 Apr 1978. At that time, not many Malaysians could visit China as special permission was needed from the Malaysian government. Thus, it was a great wonder that all 11 of us Malaysians made it there, more so as official guests of their government.

The invitation came because of China's appreciation of Malaysia's role in sponsoring their entry into the World Chess Federation in 1974. So this was an official trip to the People's Republic of China. I sneaked in because my name had been proposed together with the Penang Chess Association president, Fang Ewe Churh, but while permission was not granted to him, it was given to me. Most probably, it was because I was still an active national player then. Nevertheless, Fang did get his chance to visit China a few years later when the Asian team chess championship was held in Hangchow.

I still remember that on the eve of our departure, we had to endure a briefing at the Ministry of Home Affairs where we were told how privileged we were to be able to enter China, what we could do and what we couldn't do, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. We would be accompanied by two Ministry officials, one of them would be the head of the Malaysian delegation. They didn't need to tell us but everybody knew that they were there to keep an eye on us. They weren't chess players, they couldn't tell a bishop apart from a pawn. Why, were they afraid that we chess players were so weak-willed that we could be indoctrinated simply because we breathed the Chinese air and walked the Chinese soil? Mmm...such fear, such narrow-mindedness from the government of the day.

There was also an old man at the meeting. A person whose identity was unknown to me at that time. He spoke atrocious Bahasa Malaysia and yet, he commanded a great deal of respect from the government people. It turned out that he was supposed to be the 12th person on the official trip to China but he was pulling out at the last minute. The government officials were curious. They kept asking him why, why was he pulling out and would he like to change his mind? But no, he kept apologising for his decision, giving the reason as "gua tak senang, lah". Later, I learnt that both his name and his wife's name had been submitted to the government for approval but his wife was not allowed to join him. So, he decided he wouldn't want to go either. His wife was more important to him that the rare chance of visiting China! Who was this man? Turned out that he was a sponsor for the Malaysian delegation (RM10,000 in those days was a lot of money) and his name was Lim Goh Tong. That was my first and only brush with the famous man of Genting fame.

Our point of entry into and exit from China was through Sham Chun (Shenzhen). We entered Sham Chun by rail from Hongkong on 1 Apr 1978 and proceeded to Canton (Guangzhou). At that time, Sham Chun was just a small agricultural town accessible from Lo Wu (the northernmost station on the Kowloon railway line) by a footbridge over the Sham Chun River. As we walked across the bridge, we felt like in a goldfish bowl. All around us, we were constantly under the quiet gaze - psychologically oppressive - of the armed soldiers of the Chinese army, their eyes following us. They only relaxed when eventually, we reached the main building and were greeted by some Chinese officials. From there on, it was VIP treatment all the way until we crossed this bridge again.

From Canton, we flew to Shanghai, detoured to Hangchow (Hangzhou) and Soochow (Suzhou), and finally continued onwards to Peking (Beijing) before flying back to Canton, a trip of some 16 days. Our internal flights in China were by courtesy of the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) air service, at that time still run by the People's Liberation Army Air Force. I think they were either the Soviet-made Ilyushin aircraft or Trident or at least the Lockheed that we boarded. Don't count on luxury with CAAC, though. It was all very basic travel needs and the only items served on board for each flight were sweets. Yes, Chinese sweets! No drinks. But at least, they provided towels before the descent.

The people in the photographs below consisted of the Malaysian chess team (including MCF president Tan Chin Nam and MCF secretary Victor Vijiarungam), the two Ministry spooks and representatives of the Chinese Chess Association, including their two official interpreters who spoke impeccable Bahasa Malaysia. I wonder where most of them are now.

Great Wall, Badaling

Back row: Chan Swee Loon, Chinese official, Subramaniam Ramiah, Chinese official; Middle row: Christi Hon, Yusuf (I think that was his name, from you-know-where), Chinese official, Wan Ahmad Radzi (also from you-know-where), Chang (Chinese official), Tan Chin Nam, Victor Vijiarungam, Ms Chao (junior interpreter), Mdm Hu (senior interpreter); Front row: Hu Yu Kuang, Chinese player, me (of course), Abdul Rahman Ahmad, Tan Bian Huat, Chinese player

(Christi and Bian Huat were both wearing the horrendous dark blue MCF batik shirt made specially for this occasion. Subra was all zipped up but beneath his wind-breaker was also the same batik shirt. Mine is already misplaced somewhere but I'm not sorry for losing it.) 

Spirit Way leading to the Ming Dynasty Tombs at Ting Ling

On the stone camel: me (again), Chan Swee Loon; Standing: Mdm Hu, Tan Chin Nam, Chinese official, Wan Ahmad Radzi, Chang (Chinese official), Yusuf, Victor Vijiarungam, Abdul Rahman Ahmad, Christi Hon, Ms Chao; Squatting: Chinese official, Chinese player, Hu Yu Kuang, Chinese player, Subramaniam Ramiah, Chinese official, Tan Bian Huat


stephen said...

Oh the glorious past.I couldn't place you as your hairstyle was a little different then!!

Wan Ahmad Radzi said...

I read with interest your write up about the tour of China by the Malaysian Chess Team in 1978. However, I would like to make some comments.

Based on the cultural agreement between Malaysia and Communist countries (then), any delegations (including sports) to visit each other must be lead by a senior Government Officer so that the delegation could be accorded proper protocol.

I led the chess delegation (and many other delegations) as I was then the Director General of Sports in the Ministry of Youth, Culture and Sports.

I hope this explanation will correct your wrong preception of my duty as Head of the Delegation.

For your information, during the same visit, I also visited several sports training centers in Shanghai and Beijing and observed their activities in sports development. Some of the new ideas were presented to the Government on my return from China. I am happy to note that those ideas were accepted by the Government.

I am now retired (75 years old) but still love and involved in sports activities. I am still however, keeping in touch with Datuk Tan Chin Nam.

However, thank you for bringing back nice memories.

Quah, Seng-Sun said...

Dear Wan Ahmad Radzi,

Thank you for your note. Your clarification is most appreciated! And, I'm also very glad to know that you are surfing the Internet in your happy retirement.