A First Look at China
Text and photographs by Steven Montgomery
The world was on the cusp of a new decade in the spring of 1980. Depeche Mode had just formed as a band, but had not yet released their debut album; the Rubik’s cube made its international debut; and Cable News Network (CNN) became the first 24-hour television news channel. In politics, the Nixon-era engagement with China was just beginning to open the door for Americans into a nation that had effectively been in self-imposed isolation from much of the world since 1949. As one of a group of seventeen students from Ball State University, we were the first students of architecture from the US to travel to the People’s Republic of China.
Travel for Americans to China in 1980 had to be arranged through the US–China Friendship Society, which would consolidate individuals and groups from throughout the US for specified travel dates from gateway cities (there were no direct flights from the US to China at the time). The trips were completely pre-planned and regimented to include a full spectrum of contemporary culture. Extensive advance planning and establishment of local architectural contacts by Marvin Rosenman, the professor who led our group, allowed some latitude within the agenda of the trip for visits to two schools of architecture, a private tour of the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square, and an official reception in a building reserved for heads of state within the Forbidden City. In a nation of bicycle riders, we felt like visiting royalty riding in mini-buses. Even in large cities, our group often attracted crowds of onlookers, curious to see what we were doing and what held our interest. We were reasonably convinced that we were the first people to play Frisbee in Tiananmen Square, attracting a large group of Chinese onlookers and a few participants.
Mao suits were effectively the only fashion option for adults, although they were available in an array of four to five colors. Young children tended to be the living palettes for creative expression in the Chinese fashion world. In the more conservative north, the Mao suits tended to neutralize gender, lending an even greater sense of homogeneity to an already overwhelmingly homogenous population (very few foreigners were in China at the time). In the south, Shanghai in particular, the same Mao suits were worn, but belts were used to give the bodies some shape, and accessories made more of an appearance (typically for women) that softened the bluntness of so much sameness.
Visits on the standard tour agenda included schools (both elementary and high school) where we witnessed five-year-olds in a musical presentation, older elementary students playing violin, and mandatory eye exercises for a high school group. The regimentation and submission, especially from high school students, was both impressive and mildly disturbing for someone from a western and more democratic bias.
Our tours to the architecture departments at Tsinghua University in Beijing and Nanjing Institute of Technology revealed a student population that was technically proficient (including watercolor and hand rendering skills), modest and self-effacing, and fascinated with the atria and reflective glass cylinders of John Portman, who was waning in popularity in the US, but who had clearly made his mark in the world.
We also visited factories and power plants, which appeared to be from the 1950s, but may have actually been newer. They were fascinating in their own right: the silk factory impressive for its reliance on the hundreds of workers and the astonishing blend of manual and automated functions; and the power plant which was disturbingly unsafe because of the complete absence of guards or similar protective measures. One member of our group had her rain coat pulled into the exposed belt drive of a piece of equipment, and had to be pulled from it forcibly, shredding part of the coat, but avoiding injury.
And of course, there was the food. Most of us were willing to try anything that was served to us, which was a wide range that included sea slugs and thousand-year-old eggs. In Shanghai, a visit to the market exposed our group to the farm to fork movement in a visceral way that preceded by decades its somewhat less literal arrival in trendy restaurants in the US. At times we would wince as we speculated that the skinned animal hanging from the hook might be something that we would keep as a pet, rather than prepare for dinner. The market also afforded us a chance encounter with the uncle of notable Chinese-American architect I. M. Pei, who simply overheard our group speaking English and engaged us in conversation.
Our trip gave us the extraordinary opportunity to experience, to a limited degree, the everyday life of a country that had remained inaccessible for three decades. A number of us who made the trip in 1980 have recently begun to discuss a group return in 2016 to witness first-hand the changes that have occurred over the past thirty-four years. It would be fascinating to see all of the new buildings and infrastructure improvements which splash across journals, magazines, and the Internet; to see the interface between the new and the old; and to experience the new ordinary of China today.
Steven Montgomery is an architect with Harley Ellis Devereaux in Chicago where he focuses on special needs and senior housing and care environments. He is a 1983 graduate of Ball State University and is one of 17 architecture students who were the first from the US to visit The People’s Republic of China in the spring of 1980.