Postcard from Peking

"Connery is perfect for the part," said the man from California. "He even looks like Dr. Bethune." "It's been done," said the woman from Australia.

"Get in line," said the TV broadcaster from Canada. "A dozen companies are ahead of you. Everyone in Hollywood wants to be the first to make a film here."

We were in the Hotel Peking, sitting at a curious sidewalk cafe on the passageway between the old and new wings of the hotel. In looking at the people at the tables, it was not hard to tell which ones lived and did business in the Chinese capital and which were visitors.

"Isn't it exciting being here!" said the woman from San Francisco. She was a magazine writer, a visitor, and, like me, one of 10 journalists being shown around. As she glanced at the tables, a grin of elation became stuck on her face.

The woman from Australia regarded her curiously, then looked back at the man from California. "It's been done," she said.

She probably knew. She operated a secretarial service out of her rooms on one of the upper floors of the hotel and prepared business contracts. "The Chinese have already made a version of it. A Spaniard -- or maybe he was Italian -- played Bethune."

"But that was a Chinese version, right?" the Californian asked. "When you say 'Sean Connery,' you're talking international version. What could be better for them? They get their story to the whole world!"

The Californian, one of our group, had already gotten the travel pieces he would file from the trip. Now he was playing promoter -- even though he lacked the promoter's wild certainty that his schemes would come true. "Will they want script approval?" he asked.

"Of course," said the Australian woman. "He's a very valuable martyr. You think they're going to let Hollywood mess it up?"

"The Chinese want to modernize," said the German businessman, whose family lived in Tokyo and who renewed his visa every 90 days. "You can't modernize without foreign exchange."

The man from California sat back and shook his head.

"What do you think all these people dream about?" asked the Australian woman, nodding her head toward the tables behind her.

The sidewalk cafe served as the gather- ing place of Peking's foreign community. Large groups, almost exclusively men, circled the tables, talking like the Californian of deals they were promoting and obstacles they encountered. v.m e were in the place because the magazine writer from San Francisco had arranged to meet the broadcaster there. "Oh, it's exciting being here!" she kept saying. She looked out at the tables of foreign residents and kept asking the German businessman, who sat beside her, what their nationalities were.

"Those are the Eastern-bloc boys," he told her, pointing unobstrusively. "Those are the French."

"Can't you tell?" asked the plain-looking, plain-speaking woman from Australia. "They've all got those handsome French noses."

Someone asked the German what would happen in China. He jut shook his head. "How do they modernize their agriculture?" he asked. "Really, it's impossible! One harvester in one day can do the work of 1,000 people. If you put a harvester on a commune, you need a driver. But what do you tell the 999 workers that are replaced? Go play cards? There's unemployment as it is!"

"The problem is how to break out of traditional ways," the German continued. "It's so difficult to pay for the machines!"

The Canadian broadcaster said, "I think China has run out of luck." But perhaps he was just tired of the loneliness of his life, tired of repeating the same analyses to transients like us.

"people are starving on communes less than 30 miles from here," the German businessman said. "Some of them sneaked into town awhile back. Stood in front of the hotel, demanding food."

The broadcaster mentioned the resentment of students. "In Shanghai," he said , "I found myself defending Mao to a bunch of 19-and 20-year-olds. They thought he'd betrayed his own revolution."

"Wish I'd seen that," said the Australian woman.

The food writer from New York had persuaded the broadcaster to rate the best restaurants in Peking. This produced a story for her, and she was feeling good about China. "I'm rooting for them!"

"So am I!" agreed the magazine writer from San Francisco.

(Of all the places I've visited, I felt I understood China least. Perhaps I did not even really understand what was going on here. Still, it seemed to me that if I could capture the sound and feel of this place at this moment, I would have a word-postcard more meaningful than a photo. It would be a matter of the thousand words being better than the picture.

If I caught the talk right, I would remember that it was not important. The important thing was that we were all English-speakers, Western strangers in the East. And for a few minutes we could come together and nourish each other with blarney and putdowns and punditry and so assuage our sense nof not quite fitting in China. And we could then go back out there into it renewed.)

"I fell such a wonderful humanness and striving among these people." The magazine writer said. "It's exciting!"

The Australian woman raised a skeptical eyebrow.

"But it is! It ism exciting!"

"What's so exciting about it?" asked the Australian woman.

"Usually the world just goes along," the woman from San Francisco explained. "But every now and then there's a place where things are really happening, where decisions are being made, where the best people are. Right now that's this place. Right here!?m She looked around the table, grinning at each of us. "The people in this room are going to change the face of China," she explained. "That will change the face of Asia -- and then of the world."

"Well, well!" said the Australian woman. She craned her neck and surveyed the tables. "I'll have to remind myself of that!"

"You don't change China," the broadcaster said. "It's been here 4,000 years! I'm not even sure Mao changed it much."

But the woman from San Frnacisco was not really listening, for she had what she wanted out of China. "I've been wondering what my China story would be," she said, smiling. "It's here: this place, this moment. It ism exciting to be here!"

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