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A Letter From China
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A Letter From China

My Son's First Visit to China

By Cynthia Muak

(All names have been changed to protect people’s privacy)

Born in Malaysia to Chinese parents, Cynthia contacted China Expats when looking to trace her ancestral home and any descendants. Over the course of exchange, she told us about her life and work in Hong Kong, which was before the era of 'Openness', when the British were still in charge.

Later, a change of employment saw her travelling regularly to China Mainland, where she saw much of the country, as it was in the process of opening up. These insights into a previous China are intriguing, and we hope this will be the start of several contributions.

I have taken the liberty of adding contemporary links to free music and film of that general era, although they may not be Cynthia's favourites. Links to film and music may change, as these are reputable suppliers, and comply with all external copyright issues. I hope she will remember some of the faces, the 'Stars' of her youth.


I left Penang for Hong Kong when I was 17. Being Malaysian, we were not allowed to visit china until 1989. As soon as the OK came, I told a friend to organise a tour so I could stand on the soil of my 'motherland'.

We got off the boat at Zhuhai and travelled overland to Taishan, Jiangmen, Shunde, Foshan, and Guangzhou. I was just in time for the last week of the canton autumn trade fair. I managed to buy a lot of 'samples'; items the exhibitors were more than happy to get rid of, otherwise they would have to lug them back all the way to Xinjiang, Ningxia or somewhere northwest.

Believe me, at that time these frontier regions were very much like western cowboy towns. You see, during lunch one afternoon that week, someone's friend from Xi'an joined our table. The man asked where he could change a lot of sterling pounds for RMB, he wanted a reliable contact, too large an amount was involved. His friend asked him how he got so much money. He said a tourist asked him to smuggle a few items from the terracotta warriors excavation site and he would be paid handsomely. He did and he was paid with a stack of 10, 000 Pound notes. I asked him to show one of the notes because I had never heard of notes with 10, 000 denomination. The man showed me and I felt so bad that I had to be the one to give him the news. Talk of Breaking Bad winning 5 Emmy's. This would take the cake. It turned out to be monopoly money, and to add insult to injury, that scoundrel tourist had given him photocopied notes.

Of course, the man, and some around the table, did not believe me. I took them slowly through, told them to look carefully at the face of the Queen. The tip of her nose appeared bulbous like that of a clown's. I told them to compare it to the printed head of the Queen on my Hong Kong dollar note. Even the Queen’s head on my dollar coin was very well defined with her clean features. Regardless they were photocopies. After some heated verbal exchanges, his friends agreed he had been taken for a very long and expensive ride. Pathetic and pitiful naivety; that was 1989, maybe now they are more worldly.

In Hong Kong I lived first at Ting Kau, a lovely and quiet seaside resort just after Tsuen Wan and before Sham Tseng famous, for roast goose and San Miguel brewery. After a few years, I moved to Sha Tin. Some time later, a Portuguese friend of mine returned to Portugal, and she rented her little house to me. That was a great stroke of luck because from famous roast goose I ended up with famous roast pigeon.

I worked in the garment industry, but it was way too stressful. After 15 years, I chucked it all and went to Hong Kong poly to study hotel catering and institutional management. Upon graduation I worked for a company that owned two service apartment buildings, plus about 100 furnished apartments scattered all over Hong Kong island and Kowloon peninsula. In time I left that to manage the Far East regional office of a international group that was just getting into the Chinese market. I travelled extensively throughout China. It was eye opening, but tough.

In those days China operated a two tier Chinese currency. For locals they spend RMB. For foreigners going into China we could only spend FEC (Foreign Exchange Certificates), these were about 30 percent above the RMB rate. These paper notes are always printed new and felt crispy, not at all like the dirty worn RMB notes. In effect, this meant that for us everything cost at least 30 pc more on top of the inflated prices they charged foreigners. No haggling. Not like now where there is free enterprise everywhere in China. I am sure the younger generation including those working in banks, have never seen or heard of FEC's. Many of the mainland Chinese made their fortunes that way.

I lived in Hong Kong for many years, but left in '95 when my son went to Uni in Melbourne. After he completed his studies, we came back to Penang. Since then I have visited Guangzhou, Shunde, Zhongshan, and Shenzhen about 4 or 5 times, the last time was in 2004.

Work Experience, China, 1990

Easter 1990: Our church youth pastor organised a field trip for the church youth members - to spend 4-5 days with the students of a Guangdong college training to be English teachers. He thought this would give the students the chance to interact with Hong Kong teenagers and practice English at the same time.

Many of the young people attending our church went to the same school (if you were familiar with HK, you would have heard of King George V School) and I very happily paid the cost of the trip for my son. Sam was delighted too, he said, “It will be interesting to have the opportunity to befriend some Mainland Chinese girls.”

Very excitedly he went off to prepare a photo album to share with these new friends to give them some idea of Hong Kong lifestyles; buy his presents - one for boy and one for girl.

While Sam & co were in china, I contacted China Travel Services (CTS) and asked whether they could arrange a 1-day sightseeing trip for me to visit him. This was done, and on the day Pastor and the kids were supposed to return to Hong Kong, I told them I would come by their hotel to pick them up, spend the day sightseeing, sample some local food for lunch and dinner, before returning to Hong Kong via Lowu.

All happy. CTS even told me an important local businessman wanted to accompany us. I had told them the group was made up of young foreign students who had gone there specifically as volunteers, to help some trainee teachers with conversational English.

Throughout the day, this Mr. Huang was very impressed by our caring, our young people volunteering and paying for the privilege. When he realised I was the one bearing all the expenses for the sight seeing trip, he showed his appreciation by taking us to a friend's farm where he allowed us to pick tomatoes. When we left the farm, the farmer would not accept payment. When I invited him to join us for dinner he refused, but recommended a very good restaurant nearby. This was such a kind gesture that I could not get out of my mind.

So, during dinner I suggested to Mr Huang that maybe my son, Sam, could return to the town during the summer and conduct some English language classes. Sam would be starting college after the summer and he had July and August free. Mr Huang said he would speak to the education person in charge, and see whether a classroom could be made available so interested middle school students could join in. The school was not to worry about costs. Mr Huang simply had to ensure we could rent an apartment and have the services of a part time house cleaner. I would bear all expenses for Sam's 2-months stay; the lessons to be given free of charge. Mr Huang was ecstatic and said; “Sam should start packing as soon as he was back in HK.”

By June Mr Huang phoned and said he had been to see many officers of the education dept. They thought the idea A-1, but they had to refuse. "Why would this Mrs. Lou do something like this for free?" they asked. "Wasting her money and her son's time?" Eventually they concluded that I was a spy working for the US, otherwise why would my son, who was obviously a Chinese, be speaking English like an English or American.

Mr Huang was really pissed off and reluctant to give up such a golden opportunity. He suggested that Sam visit him as planned, stay at his place, and use the conference room in his factory to hold classes. His staff and many of his friends would send their sales personnel to Sam for lessons.

I asked whether he was joking. I knew the police would arrest my son (or us), if we showed our faces; we being marked by the education dept. as spies working for US. We never again visited after that. In those times, if a person was arrested on espionage charges, they would be imprisoned without access to lawyers etc.

But look at how times have changed; English language teachers flitting in and out of china, and housed in apartments comparatively at par with basic acceptable European standards.

Mr. Huang tried once more to get Sam back to help out with their export biz. We were not interested. A shame for all, as back then, all imports and exports had to go through an import and export house approved by the local government, who issued official permits. Nothing could go in or out of China except under these permits, during my time.

Regards Hong Kong during my early years there, an extra little something people may find interesting is the work of art house movie director Wong Kar Wai. The movie "In the mood for Love" does depict that early '60s era mood, flavour, and feel so well. In fact when I saw Wong's movie the first time, I was overcome by a very strong sense of nostalgia for those 1961, '62, '63 and '64 years. Some sense I can never shake off each and every time I watch that movie. That and one other movie Days Of Being Wild starring Leslie Cheung; are so very reminiscent of 'the first time I arrived in Hong Kong' sense & sensibility

This work including text and associated photographs is Copyright of Cynthia Muak and Jonno Morris (Unless stated otherwise), and may be reproduced for personal and private use under Collective Commons 3 Licence. An email would be appreciated in such circumstances, as would a reference.

You are not allowed to use this information to make money from my work - regardless of how fancy or well paid your lawyers may be.

The views and recollections expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily representative of those of China Expats. Some artistic licence has been used arbitrarily in some of these Letters, and whilst most facts are in essence correct, some personal and literary interpretation may have been employed to greater or lesser degrees.
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Image: Chinese Foreign Exchange Certificate Circa 1990 - Click to Enlarge

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Image: The school where my wife was educated; note the typical 'gate' - Click to Enlarge
1980's Hong Kong

Hong Kong was the hub of East Asian culture, where artists such as those below were moving the music scene, Teresa Teng and Shin came from Taiwan.

The perception of modern Mainland youth culture, was that "It was all happening in Hong Kong."

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