My first trip to Mainland China as a deck cadet was a real eye opener. Between the World Wars, Shanghai was considered the Paris of the Far East; a place full of fun and frivolity. Of the 100 or so countries I have visited, in none of them was there such a big difference between preconceived anticipation and reality. After a 35 day Pacific crossing from Chile with a cargo of fertilizer, we arrived in Qingdao on 1 October 1964. First of all, security was quite intimidating. While approaching the port, we were instructed to cover all the compasses and turn off the radar, because the Chinese Government was afraid we would take bearings of navigation markers and forward our findings to the American CIA. We were pretty flabbergasted about this paranoia.
Ashore we noticed extreme poverty. To our sorrow as mariners, women were virtually undistinguishable from men, because they all wore the same blue Mao suits full of patches. The more patches, the better Communist you were. Soap and toothpaste had been banned, because these articles were considered “Western Decadent Bourgeoisie.” Very few roads were paved and most people walked, due to lack of bikes. Only high government officials could use cars. The only paint you saw on buildings were red party slogans.
Anyway, the first impression of China was far from the Shangri La we sailors had expected. However, on the same day (1 October 1964, the 15 year anniversary of the Communist Revolution) it was announced that China has recently detonated their first atomic bomb. We were dumbstruck by so many diverging impressions.