A Gweilo in 1980s China pt. 2


Written by Tai Pan

If you haven’t had the chance to read part I, I suggest you do it before reading this.



Suddenly I was awakened by the voice of an airhostess who was announcing that the plane was ready to land in the Shanghai airport. I was having a very pleasant dream where I was negotiating with some of the representatives of the China National Textiles Import Export Corporation, together with Dirk Struan, the Tai Pan of James Clavell, who was helping me in the negotiation. While I was opening my eyes I was blinded by a ray of sunshine that was penetrating into the aeroplane through my window. I immediately panicked as we were approaching the Shanghai airport and I still remembered the bizarre landing I experienced in Hong Kong, but as I looked outside I instantly calmed down, but at the same time I felt like my stomach was going to explode. That feeling was definitely positive as when my eyes focused on the landscape that was opening up in front of me I could clearly see an immense and calming level ground: China!

Level ground around Shanghai

Level ground around Shanghai

My family had very strong roots in the textile business, my grandfather the first, and my father after him. My grandfather died in 1974, he was 91 years old, and my father unfortunately passed away four years later, at the age of 56. While I was walking down the airplane stairs I could clearly feel their presences accompanying me into this adventure, I could feel them encouraging me and telling me how proud they were of my achievements. They were proud of me for following the family tradition and entering the textile business like they did when their time came, but they were also particularly thrilled that I was the one to introduce our business abroad.


When I reached the airport I was welcomed by a group of very friendly and kind representatives of the China National Textiles Import Export Corporation, who specifically came to pick me and the other two Italians up. It was three of us in total and we were all part of the delegation of the Textile Merchants of South of Italy. We were driven into two cars to the International Hotel that was located right in the heart of Shanghai; do not let the name of the hotel mislead you, as it was actually anything but international…Indeed, at that time the international hotel chains were not allowed to be in China yet, and the hotel I was staying in was one of the oldest and most traditional in Shanghai at that time. The road where the hotel was situated was Nanjing road, considered the pulsating heart of the city. What I loved the most about my room is that it was on the 12th floor and from there I could see and scrutinize the never-stopping human flow that was constantly filling up the streets from all directions. The most amazing thing about that human flow was that it was so intense that it was impossible to spot not even a piece of the walking path!

Human flow covering Shanghai in the 1980s

Human flow covering Shanghai in the 1980s

The cars seemed part of a cinematographic set of a movie based in 50s, and the weak street lighting was also helping this vintage atmosphere that characterised the city at that time.

Nanjing road, 1980s

Nanjing road, 1980s

I thought that the shops were closed as I couldn’t see any illuminated sign or light in the shopping windows, but soon I realised that my perception of an open shop was wrong: I found out that Shanghai, like all the other Chinese cities at that time, was having problems with its electrical system as China was just starting to develop and the old and inefficient power stations were not able to support the power need of the Chinese people. This problem was so affecting the country that the textiles garments and fabrics factories did not can to be opened everyday, and also the people did not have enough electricity!

Shanghai Nkg Road

Believe me when I tell you that I felt like I was in another world, and not only because I was in another country and in another continent, but I wish you could see and live what I saw and lived at that time in Shanghai, that city had a unique charm that turned my trip the other side of the world into a time machine trip. I was so sure I ended up in the wrong era; I thought I was being catapulted in the 50s. By living in Italy I was constantly surrounded by every aspects of development, and because of this, it was absolutely magical to be plunged into a completely different reality.

Post-card of Nanjing road in the late 70s

Post-card of Nanjing road in the late 70s

These pleasant feelings and thoughts were accompanying me into a deep sleep on my first night in China. While I was letting these positive sensations flow through my mind, I began to close my eyes and fall into one of the best sleeps I had ever had, ready to wake up in the morning and be fascinated, one again, by what was happening in the square that I could see from my room window. But this is another story, and I will tell you about it soon.

2 responses to “A Gweilo in 1980s China pt. 2

  1. Pingback: Story of my life: A Gweilo in 1980s China pt. III | The Golden Scope·

  2. Pingback: Story of my Life: A Gweilo In 1980s China Pt. 4 | The Golden Scope·

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