Forty years ago, President Richard Nixon stood beside a helicopter on the South Lawn of the White House. He was going on a trip. “We must recognize that the government of the People’s Republic of China and the government of the United States have had great differences,” he told the crowd wishing him farewell.
Nixon was headed to the Street of Eternal Happiness. That’s where he and Chinese Premier Zhou En-Lai would sign the Shanghai Communique -- the first step in opening up trade between the United States and China.
They signed it at Street of Eternal Happiness number 175, the Jinjiang Hotel, an old brick building that looks the same today as it did decades ago. Qiu Huanxi was 24 years old back then. He worked the hotel’s service counter, a job that paid him $4 a month.
"Back in the early '70s, the rooms at the hotel were really cheap -- 20 cents a night," recalls Qiu. "It was the middle of the Cultural Revolution. Most of our guests came from other communist countries, like Albania, the Soviet Union and North Korea. The Jinjiang was the only hotel in Shanghai that could handle a big presidential visit like that one."
Qiu says he was lucky to have a job. The campaigns of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution had put China’s economy at a standstill.
“At the time, Mao had a slogan called “dig deep holes and hoard grain,” he says. "We had to dig bunkers where we would stockpile food to prepare for war and starvation.”
The bunker underneath the Jinjiang Hotel was a special one reserved for Mao himself.
Suffice it to say, in 1972 life in China was different from life in America. The number one song in the U.S. when Nixon left for China was a sappy little number by Harold Nilsson, "Without You."
Compare that to the chart-topper in Communist China the same year, "The People of the World Will Surely be Victorious!"
In the weeks leading up to Nixon’s visit, China’s government broadcast this song over and over. The lyrics were typical of Chinese songs of that era: “The east wind is blowing, the war drums are sounding, It’s not the people who fear American imperialism, but American imperialism that fears the people.”
Catchy -- and daunting -- for the first presidential visit to China ever. The pressure was on, and it showed. Nixon started the trip at the Great Wall, where he took a look around, turned to his Chinese counterparts and shared the shocking observation “I think you would have to conclude that this is a great wall.”
Nixon’s trip could only get better. It did, once he arrived to the Street of Eternal Happiness. In footage released by the Nixon library, Zhou Enlai toasts the president and his wife at a banquet at the Jinjiang Hotel. Qiu Huanxi and the other hotel wait staff were awestrusk by what they were witnessing. They stood nervously at the back of the room, unsure of how to act toward the American guests.
"Our superiors told us not to be overly friendly to them, nor overly cold. We had to keep our distance," Qiu says, recalling a particular encounter.
"At one point, an American journalist turned to the hotel barber and said: ‘In the U.S., we can protest a visit by a foreign president -- we’re very democratic. What do you think of Nixon’s visit?’ The barber answered ‘the leaders are negotiating, but the people of our two countries are friendly.’ What a fantastic answer! His name was Wan Guoqi. I’ll always remember him," Qui says, smiling.
Later on, as Qiu and his colleagues corralled journalists into the press conference room, Qiu says his boss gave instructions to serve tea to the African-American journalists first. An effort, he motes, to show solidarity with another group suffering discrimination under the American imperialists.
Qiu says there are a lot of things he’ll never forget from that week: Nixon’s room service order -- sand plate chicken, fried shrimp balls, and fresh mushrooms with broad beans; Pat Nixon’s coat: bright red. Above all, Qiu never forgot Nixon’s words that night, delivered after the signing of the Shanghai Communique.
“If we can find the common ground on which we can both stand where we can build the bridge between us and the new world," Nixon told his Chinese counterparts. "Generations in the years ahead will look back and thank us for this meeting that we have held in this past week.”
Qiu feels honored to have played a bit part in history. "Chinese people remember only a few U.S. presidents, but Nixon is our favorite. He threw off the airs of being an American, he came here to our China, and he and chairman Mao changed the world," Qiu says.
Qiu thinks it's amazing that he grew up as a young member of the Mao’s Red Guard, targeting America as the enemy. Then he helped host Nixon at the Jinjiang Hotel, ushering in a new era of relations with the U.S. "China and the U.S. are on the right track now. We can go to the U.S. to study and do business. I’ve taught my daughter we all need to contribute to Sino-U.S. relations," he says.
She listened to her dad. His daughter is grown up now, speaks English, and she works for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, doing her part to bridge the trade relationship between the two countries.
And now, 40 years later, the chorus of that sappy 1972 break-up song -- "Can't live is living is without you" -- sums up the economic relationship between the U.S. and China. The countries' leaders may have spats here and there, but our economies are intertwined and co-dependent.