On Friday, I was called at 0130 and went on the poop as we were entering the Huangpu river, a tributary of the Yangtze, leading to Shanghai. At the time, I was not aware of the historical significance of the Shanghai-Holt’s connection: the company’s earliest outward cargo had been Lancashire cotton destined for that port. At the time of my visit, I got the impression that they were just trying to maintain the link in the hope of better times in the future.
After we had anchored at 0240, I turned in until 0445 and went back on the poop for moving to the berth. So... my first real visit to the People’s Republic, rather than a distant view from an anchorage. Diary states: “As we headed up river, it seemed to be just grime, soot, smoke, factories. Loudspeakers blaring forth music all over the place. At 0600, I heard a woman’s voice broadcasting the Chinese version of Hup 1-2-3, Hup 1-2-3... a physical training session for anyone within earshot (which must have covered a wide area).” I couldn’t help being reminded of Winston Smith in his bathroom in Orwell’s ‘1984’.
The feeling of being in a strange, alien environment was accentuated by the fact that we were incapable of communicating with the outside world. The radar set remained off, the radio transmitter shut down and the radio room locked. Even the bridge telescope and binoculars were secreted somewhere and although cameras were not confiscated, no one dared use them. (I did hear stories of a Holt’s officer who used to photograph Chinese naval craft from his cabin window, later sending the film to the Foreign Office).
As a grey, damp dawn struggled reluctantly into being, I could make out trilingual (Chinese, Russian and English) slogans painted everywhere, including the front of steam locomotives. Three I remember were: “Long live the Great Leap Forward!” “Workers of the World Unite!”
“The East Wind shall prevail over the West!” Meanwhile, hordes of workers were pouring off ferries, and everyone of both sexes wore the same heavily padded blue coat and had the same monasterially short hair (seen when they removed their fur hat).
At 0700, the 2nd Mate and Griff went to the poop, myself to the starboard gangway. We passed a dredger and several Russian and Chinese ships, the latter mostly small, dirty and dilapidated.
At first, I thought the wharf where we tied up had recently been bombed, but it was merely that Chinese workers were swarming all over it, laying the foundations for some sort of building.
It looked like a labour camp with columns of labourers arriving and being lined up for a political harangue and pep talk. Although there were some modern machines standing here and there, almost all the work was being carried out by human muscle-power, for example, moving a mountain of sand by wicker pannier... even though a sort of JCB stood nearby. And all the time, the loudspeakers blared Chinese classical music interspersed with exhortations and announcements. Despite all this exhilarating encouragement, the workers seemed lethargic, leaning on their shovels for lengthy periods. (Perhaps, I noted in my private log, they had been trained by British road workers).
After making fast, we were called to the lounge at 0745 for the inevitable muster which took an hour and a quarter. At one end of the room, Chinese officials sat at a table along with our own hierarchy of Master, Mate, Chief Engineer and Purser. Each crew member was individually brought before the august tribunal, scrutinised and finally presented with a flimsy shore pass. As a result, breakfast was delayed until 0900.
One shoreside gang started work at noon, loading 400 tons of frozen fish and 56 tons of general cargo.
After lunch, as there didn’t seem much shipboard activity, I risked accosting the Mate (I’d heard no rampaging sounds) and obtained permission to go ‘shoreside’. The conditions were: no camera and agree with everything anyone Chinese said. If only I’d had a movie camera with sound to record this unique Oriental visit for Dad. Task one was to get past the end of the gangway. The armed guard scrutinised the pass minutely before giving it back to me. I had only a general idea of where the fabled seamen’s club was, but determined to wander and see as much of the city as I could... and avoid creating another ‘incident’. I struck away from the wharf, noticing ahead of us, a Norwegian ship and a Polish one. Down a narrow alleyway, past a guard post and into a rather dingy street.
I only had a hazy idea of Shanghai’s pre-war past, but knew vaguely that it had been European controlled and a lively, exciting city, eventually becoming more important than Hong Kong for foreign business and, according to an English lord, avoiding the colonial snobbery of HK. He commented: “Shanghai was international with people who had an international outlook. Hong Kong was very British. Who were the British? They were small shopkeepers in their mentality... If Shanghai was London, then Hong Kong was Hastings.”1 Now, however, the buildings seemed universally old and dilapidated, most needing a good coat of paint. There were very few shops – and those I passed were small and poky with virtually nothing on display. Nor were there many types of shop: a grocer’s, a few greengrocers and a bag and suitcase shop. In the bigger streets, there were one or two stalls selling calendars and cigarettes. I passed only one shoe shop, for example, and many pedestrians seemed to have made their own footwear.
Packed, ramshackle trams trundled past, full only when it was physically impossible to squeeze someone else in. I also saw an occasional modern trolley bus. The nearer I got to the city centre, the more imposing the buildings became, with traditional granite office blocks, no doubt relics of the commercial past. Entrances to many of the blocks was via a flight of stone steps towards ponderous doors, so massive they looked bomb-proof. There seemed little activity in or around these buildings; all was quiet except for an occasional figure entering or leaving.
For a city of such a size, the traffic arrangements were admirable – not difficult in that there were virtually no privately owned vehicles! Until I reached one of the main streets, I had not seen a car. There were one or two Mercedes, a few old Fords and Vauxhalls and even the odd home-produced vehicles, a sort of pale imitation of British models. Some cars were parked down the middle of the admittedly wide streets. Apart from a few petrol-driven lorries, all the noncommercial vehicles used methane gas for fuel. They looked really weird bowling along with a gigantic, floppy bag tied to the top of the cab, with a pipe descending towards the engine. I then realised why I had seen people pushing and rolling huge canvas bags along the wharf: they had obviously taken the bag somewhere for a replenishment supply of gas. I was told later it was a very cheap fuel, but 15% horse power was lost.
Everywhere almost, I came across fascinating reminders of the pre- Communist days. In the wall of one old building was a stone declaring ‘Union Church Hall, 1899’. The doors had obviously not been unlocked for years, but a passageway had been built through the side wall, enabling me to see that it was some sort of engineering factory. On the corner of the street stood another venerable building with a faded inscription: ‘General dealer, Ship’s chandler’. In another street, I spied on the wall of a dusty windowed old building, in faded paint, the sad legend: ‘Café and Ballroom.’ And the very bollards we had tied up to bore the inscription ‘Mollards Wharf 1932’.
I strolled along the famous riverside and, for luck, followed the Chinese custom of rubbing the paws of the gigantic lions still guarding the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank. After half an hour, I found the Club, more like a museum, having a grand flight of steps, pillars and a long, massive hall with a ceiling so far above me I assumed they had given up on the idea of raising the freezing temperature.
A little bewildered and overawed, and having nearly broken my neck twice after involuntary ballet moves on the slippery marble floor, I made my way into what had once been the longest bar in the world. Even in its truncated state it was an impressive length of dark, polished wood. I changed £1 into $6-82 Chinese currency and, feeling hungry, ordered some ice cream and cakes which, despite their slightly dusty appearance, tasted all right.
Crossing the ice rink again, I wandered into a sort of department store, selling practically everything – and everything of which there seemed to be an absence outside. There were pianoaccordions, rolls of silk, carved effigies, model speed boats, and all costing fabulous prices. I settled for some playing cards – normal ones except that the imperialistic monarchs (and knaves) were replaced by sportsmen; I also bought a lighter, two packets of biscuits, a fan, a piece of painted bark (showing the Madonna and child!) My receipt was written in quadruplicate and I was told the goods would be delivered to the ship. How do you know when we’ll sail? I naively asked. Not to worry, I was told, they’ll be there.
Near the shop was a reading room filled with Communist literature in many languages, including England’s very own ‘Daily Worker’. I found a corner selling postage stamps and, being a collector, plonked down a handful of coins and asked for as many stamps as they would give me.
Bare walls were too tempting, so the inside of the Club was festooned with banners and flags; the Workers of the World were urged to Unite, and to protest against the USA’s imperialist policies of war and aggression. (Some things don’t change...) There was also – of course – ‘Long Live the Big Leap Forward!’ and many others, all in Russian, Chinese and English.
On the way back to the ship, I passed a narrow alleyway guarded by soldiers with other young soldiers entering and leaving – perhaps a military school. In one of the main streets I came across a stately, imposing building surrounded by well trimmed lawns and neat flowerbeds, all behind a wall topped with a high fence. From a tall pole fluttered the UK Union flag and the ornate, wrought iron gates bore the royal coat of arms. Inside and outside the gates stood an armed Chinese guard. The consulate?
Back on board, I went down number 3 hold where they were loading fish. The wharfies, in their thick, blue padded outfits, reminded me of Michelin rubber men. I think they must have exceeded their work quotas for twice a band came along the quay to congratulate them. It consisted of two men holding a drum, the drummer himself, a cymbalist and a gongist...