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The airport was about fifteen miles from central Beijing. Arriving in the evening, we found out that Beijing pretty much rolled up the sidewalks after dark in those days. Having grown up in the shadow of the Cold War and heard much about Communist countries, to actually be in one was a very strange feeling as we made our way to the Bejing Hotel.
Narratives such as this spend a lot of time on travel amenities, accommodations, and the like. To get some idea of what travel in China was like in those days, you can take a look at the brochure the Society of Petroleum Engineers put together for their 1982 exhibition in Beijing (which well talk about later.) Theres one thing that needs some explanation and photographs, and thats the Beijing Hotel itself.
In Imperial Beijing, the centre of the world was the Forbidden City, where the Emperor made his abode. One thing that was forbidden was to build a structure that actually overlooked the Forbidden City (a restriction not dissimilar to the height restrictions around the Washington Mall.) After the Boxer (literally in Chinese, the Righteous and Harmonious Fists) Rebellion in 1900, when European and American forces occupied the capital, this restriction was done away with, and the first structure built to violate it was the original Beijing Hotel, built by the French.
The view from the Beijing Hotel looking west. On the right is the southern end of the Forbidden City. On the left is Tian an Men Square and the Great Hall of the People. The street running towards you is the Chang An Avenue. Just over the roof line of the hotel is the place where, eight years later, the lone Chinese faced off the tank after the Tian an Men Square demonstrations were stopped.
That part of the hotel became the old part of the hotel. With Soviet assistance two additions were made, one on each side of the original structure. Our first rooms, however, were in the old section, and in good Communist style few changes had been made since 1 October 1949, when just down the street Mao Zedong announced that the Chinese people had stood up. The rooms were cavernous, with all of their fancy brass plumbing and tubs with feet (we joked that the Chinese could refurbish the hotel with the proceeds from the antique sale of the plumbing.)
The Beijing Hotel, from the street. The three divisions of the hotel are clearly seen; the original hotel the French built in the middle, the newest Soviet section towering up in the centre, and the other section between them.
For us foreign devils (to use another old Chinese expression,) the Beijing Hotel was more than a hotel; some of its rooms became offices for foreign firms in a city with no rentable office space. Amtech used a suite in the hotel for their offices, using the room they had for their personnel in and out of Houston. The Japanese trading companies had very large suites; every time we went to the elevator we were reminded of the large Japanese presence in China. Next to their offices were the stations for the floor boys that serviced the rooms. We used a room in the old section for our negotiations.
Having traveled extensively in the oilfield, Vulcan personnel did not expect grand accommodations, and I was fine with the old section. But neither Amtech nor the Chinese thought it worthy for the President of the company to stay there, and I was subsequently moved to the new section. This at least gave me my best photo of the Forbidden City after I opened the motorised window curtains, but at 195 cm of height the Chinese bed proved a potential challenge. Ian demanded that the hotel management deal with this problem, so the day I moved they placed a table at the end of the bed and made it up with the bed.
After I was whisked away to privilege and status in the new section, Jesse Perry (left) and Lloyd Berwald were left in the old one, as you can see here. Rank did matter in the "dictatorship of the proletariat," but their digs weren't bad either.
After all of our preparations, we arrived at the meeting room and our discussions started at 0900. The Chinese present at the first meeting (most of them during the remaining technical sessions as well) were as follows:
Mr. Chen was not present during most of the discussions. Mr. Tang was their lead interpreter. He Ping had learned English while attending a mission school in Tianjin before 1949; Mr. Zhu also spoke some English as well.
So weand that included myself, Jess, Lloyd and Iansat down across the table from these people, sitting in the lace-draped chairs and with tea service out of nowhere, as John Fraser would say. We were completely speechless, not knowing where to begin. Finally Ian turned to me and whispered, Why dont you ask them what they would like to discuss? This seemed like a sensible suggestion, and I did. The threefold response is what came back, and that began our discussions.
The slide presentation--and these were literal slides, of course--was the first of its kind I had ever given for Vulcan, and I'm not sure anyone else from the company had ever used the medium.
Menck was our usual German competitor offshore, based in Hamburg. The previous October my brother and I went to Hamburg and got to see their non-facility for manufacturing (they farmed everything out.) Mencks hammers used the steam expansively, as a regular steam engine would, which both a) allowed more energy to be extracted from the steam, and b) slowed the hammer down. It also complicated the valving system, which reduced its reliability with economical (rubber-lined) steam hose.
IHI was Mencks licensee in Japan. They also had sold and built the derrick barge that the Chinese had purchased to install the platform with. That gave us the first clue of the Japanese weaknessthey were overconfidently assuming that, since they were well entrenched in Tianjin and had sold them the barge, that the hammer was forthcoming. Our rapid responses were critical, but also critical was Amtechs strong position as well.
But yet another plus for us was the fact that we were actually facing the end user directly, and not having to deal with Machimpex. Because of their priority for energy development, the Chinese had allowed the Oil and Gas people to deal directly with the potential suppliers. Not a few American business people with whom we had contact in China were envious at our position.
Our original quotation of a 1000 hp boiler was based on a) our desire to give the customer the chance to use larger equipment without having to upgrade the boiler and b) some confusion in our specifications. However, the 560 was perfectly capable of full operation with a 750 hp boiler behind it, so we used this opportunity to get some economy in our package.
Ians new Chinese assistant was in reality the Taiwan-born wife of an American representative for Computervision in China. Her role would grow as the negotiations proceeded.
The Chinese system of business hospitality is very straightforward: they give you a banquet when you arrive, and you give them a return banquet when things are concluded. A lot of time is spent dwelling on the toasts and the mao-tai, but Id like to focus on another itemthe fish stomachs.
These are a delicacy in the Bo Hai region. The Chinese esteem them highly. Personally I think they have the taste and texture of a sponge. But being something of an omnivore, and not wanting to offend, I did eat this food. But Jess, he would not eat the fish stomachs. The Chinese were quite concerned about this but Jesse stood his ground, and probably got away with it because of his age (he was 63 at the time of the voyage, Lloyd was 56.) The Chinese respected their ages; they referred to them as the senior gentlemen, and that made up for my lack of seniority.
Many years later, a young woman got up at my church and recounted her time in Tianjin. She, like Jess, would not eat the fish stomachs. After this speech she sat down. When taking up the offering, I leaned over and said to her, I did eat the fish stomachs in China.
Some mention should also be made about the business of chopsticks. They were pretty much the only utensils offered, either at the banquets or in the hotel. I had two choices: I either learned how to use them or starve. Since the latter was unacceptable, I laboured with these, and the Chinese found my technique interesting.
In all of my years involved with this kind of equipment, I have never encountered a customer that wanted so much detail on the functioning of the parts of the hammer. We patiently went through all of this. It was here that we were able to present the simplicity and longevity of our equipment, which was and is its strongest asset. Jesse routinely stated (with justification) that many of the parts could last 20-30 years or more, something the Chinese had a hard time believing. After hearing this for one part after another, a skeptical Zhu Li Cai finally said, I hope you are right.
In some ways, this was the real turning point in the negotiations from a technical standpoint. The Japanese were way behind us on this, especially in a cold climate such as the Bo Hai. Johnston boilers are used in schools and industrial heating systems with all kinds of fuels, including pulverised coal and trash.
The ability to play trans-oceanic ping-pong with the telex is comparable to using email today, although somewhat more expensive. Without it our ability to negotiate properly would have been seriously crippled, even if we had had a decent voice phone connection (which we didnt.) The spare parts quotation referred to is an itemised list, which the Chinese required.
The whole business of boiler and steam consumption ratings is a fairly arcane subject, and was so even then. The more flexible water quality requirements were yet another plus for Johnstons system.
It was probably in this session, however, that one of the lighter moments came in the negotiations. Boilers are furnished with manholes and hand holes to enable cleaning and maintenance. The Chinese, asking everything, asked Lloyd, Can a man really get through the manhole? Lloyd was about to answer this question when Jesse interrupted him.
Wait a minute! Jesse said. Your personnel, they can get through, but Lloyd, he is too fat, he cannot get through. Tan Jun Feng dutifully translated this and the Chinese got a good laugh out of it.
It wasnt the only light moment in our discussions; both Jesse and Lloyd were affable men and cracked quite a few jokes, avoiding off-colour humour. It was a plus that American negotiating teams had over their Japanese counterparts. Evidently nothing is funny with the Japanese. This endeared us with the Chinese, who dealt with their frequently Kafkaesque society with a good dose of humour, as you could see just going down the street.
After the end of the sessions I sent telexes to Johnston and VIWI Chattanooga for more parts and technical information.
During the day Thursday Chen Gui De announced to us that we would be attending a folk ballet that evening. Jesse was decidedly unenthusiastic at this proposition, but we went. What we were treated to was the Silk Road Episode, a recently composed piece done in traditional Chinese style with costumes and orchestra/instruments to match. It was presented by the Song and Dance Ensemble of the Ministry of Coal Industry of China, which was interesting since we were negotiating with their counterparts in the oil business.
We were blown awayeverything about it was gorgeous. It was my first exposure to traditional Chinese style of music and dance, and it was enthralling. It should be noted, however, that such a piece was more than just entertainment. In the program the description of the Epilogue is ended by the following statement: The traditional friendship between the people of China and other countries would flourish forever. Friendship in official Chinese parlance generally means foreign trade and other like contacts. By putting together a traditional Chinese ballet on a part of Chinese history where the Middle Kingdom wasnt so isolated from the rest of the world, the Chinese were both signaling their desire to reinvigorate their culture after the Cultural Revolution and to end their economic isolation as well.
The only downside to it was that Chinese theatres, like many things in China, werent designed for people as tall as I am, and my knees certainly felt the pain of that. After this we returned to our hotel to continue to make our own Silk Road Episode a reality.
It is interesting to note that on this day Mao Dun, the famous Chinese author, passed away in Beijing. It was not until the following year when I was able to purchase a copy of Midnight at the Friendship Guest House and appreciate what a brilliant novel it is.
Johnstons coming through with their information opened an opportunity to reduce the price, but until now we had not had time to assimilate it into our proposal. In any event, our last dinner with Ian allowed me to first sample one of Chinas real delicacieslychee.