From the wonderful folks who brough you spaghetti, gun- powder, bureaucracy, and the Great Wall, now comes the largest exhibition ever to leave China. And the Chinese chose San Fancisco, said to have the largest Asian population of any city outside the Orient, as the curtain-raiser on this blockbuster show of more than 20,000 items, from ancient costumes and jade carvings to cashmer underwear and computers.
A decade ago, the United States and the People's Republic of China were trading nothing but insults. something as simple as a ping-pong match changed everything, and today the two countries are doing a brisk $2.3 billion in trade -- a figure expected to quadruple in the next five years.
Traditionally, China displays its export goods to foreign traders at its semiannual trade fair in Canton. This fall, in a rare marriage of socialism and capitalism, Chinese and American business people have brought a scaled-down version of the trade fair to the US. Americans can peek behind the Bamboo Curtain at technology ranging from Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) terra cotta to laser acupuncture, from delicate porcelain to heavy machinery. The exhibition left San Francisco on Sept. 28 and will appear in Chicago (Oct. 25, Nov. 9) and New York (Dec. 6-21).
A troupe of Mongolian acrobats, a team of master Chinese craftsmen, and three of Peking's greatest chefs accompany the exhibition and offer free samples of Chinese culture. A traveling branch of the Peking Post Office, painted in the official postal pea green, sells special commemorative stamps and medallions.
Much of the talk between Chinese and American business representatives over dim sum and orchid tea of "friendship and cooperation" between the two nations, of the "happy reunion of the dragon and the eagle." But the objectives the Chinese have in bringing the exhibition to the US are even more basic than that.
"The Chinese have two objectives here: to sell and to sell," says Robert Filep, the Los Angeles communications specialist hired to link american businessmen with the 25 representatives of chinese corporations sent to San Francisco. "This exhibition is a market probe for the Chinese. They're trying to run up the flag, and, if you'll pardon the Madison Avenue expression, to see who salutes. Before we opened the doors, more than 1,000 American business had made appointments to talk with the Chinese. That's everything from the mom and pop curio stores which are looking for a few jade pieces, to the large corporations looking into joint ventures with the Chinese," says Mr. Filep, who estimates the Chinese will generate at least $300 million of business in each of the exhibition's three host cities.
I spoke with Mr. Filep the day before official trading sessions began in the exhibition halls at Fort Mason, a renovated military base. The complex is situated on San Francisco Bay and now is under the auspices of tne National Park Service. Activity in the hall looked as frantic as it does on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Park rangers in their Smokey the Bear hats were directing traffic. A Plant rental outfit had set up a bucket brigade that shuttled potted shurbs into the hall. chinese construction workers in black Mao suits and slippers worked shoulder to shouder with their American counterparts in worn jeans and plaid lumberjack shirts. The Workers communicated with occasional smiles and the crack of their hammers. By midnight, the archway they were constructing would be the San Francisco branch of the Peking Post Office.
Overhead, workmen were furnishing a wide catwalk -- dubbed "The Bridge to China" -- with yellow curtains and card tables. They were fashioning a series of negotiating booths, a la Canton Trade Fair, in which American business people would go head to head in half-hour sessions with representatives from the Chinese corporations carrying tongue-twisting names like the China national Cereals, Oil, and Foodstuffs Export-Import Corporation and the Native Produce and Animal Byproducts Corporation.
As construction of "The Bridge to China" drew to a close, Mr. Filep admitted, "I have a pigeon problem." Apparently not all of the windows in the old military warehouse would close and he had just shelled out $700 to have plastic sheeting draped over the bargaining booth, for protection from the pigeons. Looking up toward the roof, he mused, "There must be an old Chinese proverb: 'May the bird of paradise bless your business.'"
Mr. Filep, who worked his way through college in the haberdashery business, was an orginator of the children's television program "Sesame Street" and is president of communications 21 in Redondo Beach, Calif. He sees trade between China and the US as essentially "a communications problem. If normal trade had taken place over the last 20 years, an exhibition of this sort wouldn't have to take place. But we have two of the world's largest markets which haven't been speaking to each other for the last two decades. Now they're learning each other's languages."
From the looks of the exhibition, the Chinese have a lot to learn about American tastes and Madison Avenue advertising. Nevertheless they are learning fast. While they are still marketing "Victory" roller skates, "Foreever" 10 -speed bicycles, "Friendly" tennis shoes, and "Eterna" hairbrushes, they have learned the hard way that Americans will not buy batteries called "White Elephant."
The Shanghai Garment Branch of Chinatex, for example, is learning that the traditional Chinise slippers (which look remarkably like a little girl's Mary Janes, except they're cloth) are very trendy in this country. The Chinese corporation has also discovered that silk, down-filled versions of the traditional Mao Jacket will sell in America if they are produced in shocking pink, canary yellow, and "lotus purple" rather than the drab, bluish-gray hue that hundreds of thousands of Chinese have worn for years.
Americans who visit the traveling exhibition but aren't interested in buying canned litchi nuts by the gross or ordering a five-ton universal thread grading machine can stroll through the retail "friendship stores" run by San Francisco's Emporium, chicago's Carson Pirie Scott & Co., and New York's Bloomingdale's. (The term "friendship store" is an ironic twist on the term used for souvenir shops for tourists in China's major cities. They are off limits to Chinese citizens and designed primarily to accumulate foreign currency. The USSR's counterparts to the "friendship stores" are called "little birch tree stores," -- "dollar stores" to tourists.)
At the San Francisco exhibition's "friendship store," you could purchase a $ 40 jade necklace, a $6 kite, or a Great Wall down comforter (twin bed, $170; queen-or king-size, $290).
In the last several years, buyers for Bloomingdale's have made about 130 trips to the People's Republic of China and purchased a total of $10 million in Chinese goods that went on sale in September at its 14 stores from Boston to Washington. Its store on Manhattan's Upper East Side is reconstructing a series of Chinese dwellings: a bedroom in Peking, a Cantonese farmhouse, a modern Hong Kong apartment. Bloomingdale's White Plains outlet will have an authentic Chinese junk, and some 20 ancient costumes never before seen outside the Forbidden City. Many of these imported Chinese products were specially ordered and tailored with the Bloomingdale shopper in mind.
"Yes, we're now designing to the specifications of our foreign customers," says Lu Fengchun, vice-chairman of the China Exhibition and the man primarily responsible for organizing the Chinese part in what he calls "a traveling Canton Trade Fair." Like most of the other Chinese officials at the exhibition in San Francisco, Lu left his gray Mao jacket back in Peking and wore a necktie, white shirt, and gray business suit, which looked roomy enought to fit his bigger brother.
"The market we are selling to in the US is mostly consumer goods, very few of the industrial products. Arts and crafts seems to be where the interest is."
While the Chinese have brought representative samples of their heavy machinery and computers as a symbol that they are well down the road to modernizations, much of their technology on display has the sophistication of American machines of the 1950s. They are basic and bulky. While Chinese officials like Lu admit that the China will never become a great power by relying on well-engineered arts and crafts, one doubts whether Chinese heavy machinery will tempt the American market.
One buinsessman in Brooklyn is interested in purchasing some of China's heavy machinery, said Mr. Filep, who added that the lion's share of the appointments with the Chinese corporations, however, were in the fields of crafts, textiles and light industry (toys, musical instruments, athletic equipment).
One hurdle that all of the Chinese products must overcome in the US is current import regulations. On each day of the exhibition's negotiations, American businessmen will be briefed by government officials from the Occupationals Safety and Health Administration and the Food and Drug Administration, as well as the Department of Commerce and the Department of Agriculture. As a foretaste of complications that can occur, customs officials in San Francisco refused for two days to let ashore the Chinese shipment of fireworks to be used in the opening ceremonies.
In all, the Chinese have shipped containers weighing 350 metric tons to the US for use in the exhibition. In a joint effort between the Department of Commerce and the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade, the Chinese paid for gathering, shipping, and assembling the exhibition, while the US rented the halls, paid for security, labor, promotion, and insurance. Collected from all over China, the various exhibits were totally assembled last spring during a "dress rehearsal" in Peking. In front of the Fort Mason exhibition stood a three-story, three-portaled red and yellow gate that was shipped in 300 pieces from China and nailed together in San Francisco. The gate will travel to Chicago and New York.
Behind the branch of the Peking Office and the wells Fargo Bank booth is a miniature museum containing treasures from China's ancient Silk Road and from the collectionsof China's great emperors. Among the terra cotta, costumes, and scroll paintings is an ancient artifact that was of particular interest to San Franciscans. It is a rather ornate bronze urn devised in the 2nd century BC as an earthquake predictor. Chang Heng, a famous Chinese scientist and mathematician, designed his "seismograph" so that early tremors would activate a pendulum apparatus in one of the eight dragons on the side of the urn. At the time of an earthquake, the dragon's mouth opens, dropping a copper ball into the mouth of a corresponding toad at the base of the urn. while the device shows the compass direction of the quake's epicenter, It cannot measure its strength.
At the moment, the Us clearly dominates trade with China. Between the "ping-pong diplomacy" of 1971 and 1979, when official diplomatic relations were established, the US exported a total of $4.5 billion worth of goods to the People's Republic while China exported only $1.6 billion to the US.
In Chinese society and business, there is hardly a principle more time-honored than reciprocity. It applies to personal friendships with the Chinese as well as in international trade the Chinese can't understand why, if they buy raw cotton from the US, American businessmen won't buy from China an equal amount of finished goods. It is a tricky business but an essential part of learning each other's vocabulary.
As John King Fairbank, a Harvard professor and leading China authority, writes in an advertising supplement promoting the exhibition: "You must be careful with Chinese friends to remember the great principle of reciprocity. If you give them a gift which it will be beyond their power to repay in equal measure, you put them in a serious bind. In the reciprocal relations of the old society, It was believed that any gift should be returned equally in order to keep a proper balance in things. This means in turn that if you casually receive a gift, you are taking on a responsibiliity to pay something back."