China opened itself to the world at the end of the 1970s. Slowly. First came the small steps of American tennis table teams. Artists like Yehudi Menuhin gave concerts and talks: sport and culture. Then the great political leap forward, with a visit by Nixon in February 1972.
For the West, the China of the 1960s and 1970s was somewhat like today’s North Korea. A sort of «hic sunt leones» that was only heard about via the eulogistic or provocative communiqués of the Xinhua agency.
So at the beginning of August 1970, when I first visited Hong Kong as part of a larger Asian trip, one of the must see sites was a little park in the New Territories, at the border of this Terra Incognita. From a luscious tropical hill, we could spy on a few fishermen’s huts, past a No Man’s Land that filled us with disquiet. We could make out a few figures, Red Guards or farmers, with a large plain criss-crossed by rivers and streams. And behind the plain, a small mountain range. A quiet landscape, too idyllic, even, considering the country’s isolated and isolationist reputation. Photo, drinks, discussion, and back to Hong Kong. I was a bit disappointed however, because it was obvious that we would not be able to see the whole of China from there. It remained an abstract concept.
I had forgotten about that hill in my many subsequent trips to Hong Kong. Until a day in 2008, when I met Huang Gao Qiang, secretary of Shenzhen’s municipal government, during a lunch in the city. I had arrived there by crossing the Hong Kong – China border like a VIP, in a vintage Mercedes with flags on its fenders. Apart from the border check there is a lane exchange with a bridge, as Hong Kong drives on the left and China drives on the right. It’s a very quick process, but looking back after crossing the bridge I could see the hills of Hong Kong as seen from China. Probably including the one I had been on to take that picture. I told the story to Huang Gao Qiang and his interpreter: it made him smile, this era that must have seemed so remote to him.
So I decided that I had to find this hill. In 2012, in one of those empty weekends between two connecting flights, I told my partner Francesca that we would have to go find this little hanging garden. We took the metro from Kowloon on a line that I thought went in the right direction, and we got to the border. We had to turn around, no way of getting through without a visa, so we returned to the previous station, Sheung Shui.
Outside Hong Kong there are small towns that look like Dutch or Belgian suburbs: cycle tracks, restaurants, public parks and…. a taxi rank. Lucky day – the first in line speaks English. But in order to explain my story I need more than just words… Jin Lian Huo is of the right age and has the guile of the Hong Kong Chinese. His brother in law is a border policeman. In 10 minutes he takes us to the border and takes a small road where a barrier miraculously lifts. A small stretch of mountain road, a 180 degree turn and we get to a car park: my 1970 viewing spot. Nothing has changed. Same drinks stall. Same plants, same view. Except that in front, instead of the plain and the fishermen’s huts, there is now Shenzhen, 2 million inhabitants. It’s another photo.