A Fistful of Yuan 6: An Oil Show, an Inspection Trip and an Engineering Contact

While the Vulcan 560 hammer plied the seas on its way to Tanggu, other developments were taking place that, although weren’t directly related to the contract and the equipment, were certainly part of Vulcan’s experience in China.

The SPE International Exhibition and Technical Symposium

Vulcan certainly wasn’t the first American company to do business with the Petroleum Corporation; it wasn’t even one of Amtech’s larger clients. Nevertheless China’s demand for foreign goods and services to develop its oil and gas resources was developing to a point where the Society of Petroleum Engineers decided to hold their first exhibition in China 16-24 March 1982, in conjunction with the Chinese Petroleum Society. When this became known, Vulcan made a preliminary decision to exhibit there.

Vulcan’s decision to do so was based on two factors: a desire to further the relationship with the organisation in Tanggu, and an attempt to open up one with the offshore construction organisation in the South China Sea. Vulcan’s relatively narrow market made offshore and oil trade shows problematic; most of its relationships were developed either with the large U.S. Contractors such as McDermott, Brown and Root, Santa Fe, etc., or through reputation for foreign organisations. For Vulcan, a trade show was good to reinforce relationships and to disseminate information amongst geotechnical engineers who designed the platforms.

The Society of Petroleum Engineers was no novice at organising shows such as this. They are one of the lead organisations for the Offshore Technology Conference, the premier event in the offshore oil business and Vulcan’s favourite trade show during the 1970’s and early 1980’s. My brother and I had visited one of their shows in London the fall before the first call to Beijing. But the SPE recognised that China was a place apart, and so on 7 October 1981 they held a preliminary meeting in San Antonio to present the show’s concept and outline what they thought would happen. I was at that meeting, which cemented our decision to go there. (Many involved still think it was a singular event, as the recollections of the SPE Presidents at the time will attest.)

SPE’s preparation of both the show itself and the travel arrangements was its usual thorough job. It opted to use a travel agent (actually two, one in Texas and the other in the UK) to book group rates and hotel rooms. You can view SPE’s travel information brochure (along with some additional comments,) which is as good a summary of business travel in China during this time as one could want.

Vulcan’s intention was for Jesse Perry, my brother and I to all go to the show, but the start-up of the Vulcan 6300 hammer (the largest it ever made) in the North Sea diverted Jess, so it was just Pem and I. The schedule for the show is shown below.


Pem and I both arrived in Beijing on Saturday, 13 March. We met in Tokyo, stayed overnight, then went separately (for safety reasons) to Beijing. Pem drew the short straw and flew CAAC, which made an emergency landing in Shanghai when they nearly ran out of fuel. We opted to stay in the Friendship Guest House, which was considerably cheaper, and also not far from the Beijing Exhibition Centre where the show took place. The Guest House was in many ways like the old section of the Beijing Hotel, but we had a suite with a refrigerator and a view of the courtyard, where we could watch the People’s Liberation Army (which presumably guarded the place) go through their drills and inspections. We were very content with our quarters, which was good since we had a great deal of time to kill.

The SPE had allotted a great deal of time to enable exhibitors to set up their booths, make sure that everything they had shipped to the show was there, and train their interpreters and explainers. Because we had a small booth and Amtech had done some advance work, we didn’t need that much time to get up and running. We had one young woman to act as both interpreter and explainer, and since the product was rather simple, it didn’t take long to get her up to speed either.

The show’s beginning finally arrived with the opening ceremony Wednesday morning, in a theatre. We know things were getting going when a man came out applauding, which was our signal to follow suit and welcome the dignitaries. It felt like the opening of the National People’s Congress, with all of the grandiose speeches and protocol. The feeling that this was a great international event was reinforced by the reception that evening at the Great Hall of the People.

The Great Hall of the People
The SPE/CCPIT Reception Invitation Card

Like so many things in China, the Great Hall was just that: huge. I have never been to a reception that large before or since, with long tables full of excellent food. Most of us oilfield people were bug-eyed at the grandiosity of the whole thing. The Chinese, always eager to impress, had outdone themselves.

The show itself was unique. As we had been warned, the Chinese curiosity for foreign technology was broad and uncritical. When it was time to pass out literature, we just got a handful, went to the front of the booth, just about everyone who passed took one, the handful disappeared, we waited a while, and the cycle started again. We did get to interact with some of our clients, but just enough to arrange a trip to Tanggu to inspect the equipment, which had arrived.

At night the SPE arranged trips to various cultural events, and I got to take in actual Beijing Opera, which was back on stage after the Cultural Revolution. On the downside Amtech, which had been concentrating on their larger clients that needed more attention, finally figured out that we were staying in the Friendship Guest House. Mike Pearce insisted that we relocate to the new Jianguo Hotel, which was supposedly nicer, but a very sterile (and not nearly as roomy) environment.

But I didn’t have to spend too much time there. Late in the week I received a frantic call from Chattanooga that the 6300 wasn’t doing well and Jesse needed my assistance. Now for the challenge: getting out of China in a hurry. Amtech sent me in a cab to CAAC’s office to enable me to purchase a ticket for Hong Kong, where I could have a better selection of flights to get to Aberdeen. CAAC, however, could not accept my American Express travelers cheques, so I had to attempt to communicate to my cab driver (who spoke no English) to get me to an exchange bureau. I spent several tense moments in the parking lot getting nowhere until someone came up and explained to the cab driver what I was looking for. Then things got easy: right across the street was the Overseas Chinese Hotel, where I exchanged my money, took my new fistful of yuan (Foreign Exchange Certificates, really) back to CAAC, and purchased my ticket. On Sunday, 21 March, I was on my way to Hong Kong, and from there via Bombay and London to Aberdeen, leaving Pem to finish the show and make the inspection trip to Tanggu.

Inspection Trip to Tanggu

Pem made the trip after the close of the show. His account was as follows:

25 March 1982 traveled from Peking to Tanggu in the company of Mr. He Ping from the Offshore Branch, Petroleum Corporation of China. While en route to Tanggu, we had the opportunity to discuss many topics. The high points of our conversation were as follows.

The Offshore Branch is now planning to start-up the equipment in August or as late as October. After the initial use of this equipment, negotiations for a second contract will begin. Mr. He Ping expects negotiations to start in December of 1982. The real reason for not ordering two the first time, was a simple matter of not enough Renminbi in last years budget.

The question of price for a second contract arose, (this question had been discussed previously by Don and myself previous to the trip). My reply to Mr. He Ping was, ‘barring any unforeseen events we felt confident that a second contract could be negotiated for the same price as the original’. The new contract will be another 560 package, spares, minus a Johnston Boiler.

After being met in Tanggu by Mr. Zhu Li Cai and arriving at the offshore base the inspection began.

The hammer, leads, pipe cap all arrived in excellent condition with no apparent damage to any. Again, my congratulations to all plant personnel and especially to the Florida division for an excellent effort. Both Mr. He Ping and myself were very impressed by the welding job done on the leads.

The inspection of Vulcan spare parts went very well with only one part missing (22FO126). Parts arrived all in good order free from rust or corrosion. I assured Mr. He Ping that part would be replaced.

The Johnston Boiler arrived in good condition with only one piece broken, (low water alarm located on control panel). Mr. He Ping and I opted not to uncrate the boiler because it was to remain on supply barge out in the weather. I recommended that a tarp be placed over the crate to eliminate any water seepage. Lloyd Berwald should thoroughly inspect boiler prior to commissioning.

The condition of the Johnston boiler parts did not arrive nearly as well as had been expected. Many parts had considerable rust or were found unusable. Attached is a list of the parts that should be replaced prior to commissioning. Further, many of the parts were not marked as to what they were, which made identification difficult.

During the noon break, I discussed with Mr. He Ping, Zhu Li Cai and Yu Pu You the placement and installation of the boiler, feed water pump, service tank and pre-heater, (which they are to supply).

Attached is rough diagram of what Mr. He Ping has in mind. This should be passed on to Johnston so that they may make their own recommendations. As far as piping and positioning of the boiler and equipment.

I had the opportunity to view the barge while in Tanggu and concur with Don’s and Jesse’s opinion that after being loaded out it will be a “wet” barge in anything but a moderate sea.

Over-all, the inspection tour went well, with the exception of the boiler parts. Mr. He Ping and company seemed pleased with the inspection, particularly with our part of the operation.

Left Tanggu for Peking late afternoon, was met by Mr. Paul Speltz.

Attached is the list of faults found and memo from Mr. He Ping confirming our findings.

Pem’s long marine experience held him in good stead on this inspection. In addition to our family’s long heritage on the water (with the occasional mishaps like this and this,) he was a veteran of the United States Coast Guard.

An Engineering Contact with a Surprise

About three months after I returned from my ‘round the world adventure, I received a letter from Dr. Tang Nianci, Professor of Geotechnical Engineering at the Nanjing Institute of Technology. This opened up yet another avenue of contact with the Chinese, albeit of a different nature.

Without going to the many details surrounding the science, part of the use of pile driving equipment is the estimation of how quickly and effectively the hammer selected can drive the pile. The specialty is referred to as pile dynamics, and it involves the application of the wave equation to piling, along with many other aspects. Although there were and are consulting firms that specialise in this kind of activity, true to form the Chinese wanted to develop this kind of capability on their own (entirely sensible if you consider the large number of Chinese engineers and scientists inside and outside of China.) So Dr. Tang was gathering information, and disseminating this kind of information was part of Vulcan’s marketing effort.

This correspondence went into the fall; however, the contact didn’t end there. In 1988, at the third stress-wave conference (the premier event in this scientific discipline,) my wife and I had the pleasure to meet Dr. Tang and a delegation from China who were attending this conference. In that encounter we found out that he was a delegate to the Seventh National People’s Congress, China’s highest legislative body.


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