Lo Wu station border crossing, even today, it’s the last bastion of civilization and the first breath of pure relief when entering and exiting China. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve crossed that border, probably hundreds, if not more, and each time I enter China there’s a certain amount of trepidation that circulates my whole being and then each time I return to HK, I’m blessed with such a feeling of overwhelming joy that I’ve returned safely back into the bowls of western society once again. The transition in 1980 was more intricate than it is today. Back then there were so few people trying to cross into China that when we arrived at the customs check point which signified the beginning of that great divide between west and east, I could count the people entering with us on one hand. Today however there’s a huge station on either side of the border and trains arriving every 4 minutes filled with thousands who then swarm in or out of China, depending on their pleasure. It’s far more lax, and even though travel restrictions still exist on the Chinese side for those with ‘real’ China passports, when I first crossed it was impossible for anyone with Chinese citizenship, other than diplomats, to travel. No one had a passport and no one knew what a passport was. 1 billion people, land locked. It’s always hot and muggy and the actual border line is a river with an enclosed bridge that’s always navigated with one eye on the HK side as you leave and the other aiming defiantly towards China, all thoughts on what might happen as soon as you leave the safety of everything you’re used to. You know you have to cross, you don’t want to, but you know you have to. Again, that is now, but back then, 1980, I was so excited to escape and explore this mainly unexplored country, that leaving HK mattered not. Gung-ho into the breach, as we exited the west and entered China, all 6 of us, led ably by our HK guide who was soon to vanish into the murky world of dingy roadside restaurants to gouge his appetite on dog and cat and all sorts of crap that we would surely not want to be a part of. Our new guide, Fong, was introduced to us as we left the safety of China customs. A tall chap, thin and very well-educated with a fluency in English that surprised us all. Fong quickly learnt our names, and then ushered us out into blazing sunshine that would remain our nemesis for the next 8 hours.
My very first impression, other than searing heat, was the stench of acrid sewage that filled the air. It was vile, it was overwhelming and it was there, never to leave and never to get any better than it was at that particular moment. There were very few people around, but those who were seemed extremely keen to find out who we were and why we were there. We were surrounded by curiosity, from those who wanted to smell us, to some who just stood and smiled, we were the focus of all their attentions, their eyes transfixed. We would smile back, but that just provoked an even greater reaction and one that included looks of complete disbelief from the locals, making us feel like aliens from another planet. We could have arrived from Mars and the reaction would have been exactly the same. Small people, lightly tanned, slightly yellow, some with no teeth, some with a few and some with many, all however, polite and very interested to come and talk. “Hello” was the one word they all seemed to know. Repeated regularly with a familiar grin in the hope we would stop and allow them to explore us. Nerve-racking at first then amusing after that, it never stopped. this was an education that no schooling could ever give. Entering a world that was untouched and backwards, at least backwards in my mind and completely alien to anything I’d ever seen before.
Fong was in a hurry, ushering us onwards at every moment. Answering our questions, and yes, we had many, and then moving on once again. We passed fruit stands selling fruit that had already been half eaten, we passed all sorts of meats being mutilated by the largest knives I had ever seen. We passed duck, chicken and dog, all on spits, gently roasting in the early morning sun. There were vegetables everywhere, green and yellow and red and all of a variety I’d never seen before. We saw fish, alive and in tanks, lying dying on the roadside, and sometimes being cooked right in front of our eyes. There was what seemed to be a tsunami of bicycles, and very few cars. Donkeys, rats, cats, and all things vermin. I even saw an alligator with his nose all taped up, sitting in a box, ready to be purchased then eaten. It was an eye-opening experience of all that’s good and bad in life. there was time to see a park, a fishing boat and someone’s home. We toured for three hours and then it was lunch, served in person by Fong and his wife. During lunch I ate rice, rice and rice. I didn’t trust any of the meats or the fish, and with all the best will in the world, those who did, did so at their own pearl. After lunch we walked some more, touring this small fishing village, which has now become a huge metropolis. It took all afternoon and at 3 PM, Fong called a halt and told us we had to head back to the border. I asked him, as we arrived at the end of our tour, “what would you like me to send you from the UK?”, and his answer, “magazines, we need to see what’s happening in the world. We need magazines”
Bidding goodbye, with I have to say some sadness, we were offered back to our HK guide and bus driver Tommy. Tommy by now had his fill of all the delicacies Shenzen could provide and he looked like he’d put on 10 lbs by the time we were reunited. We exited China, back into HK and at that time, British territory, and sped back towards the sanctuary of our 4 star hotels in Hong King. I recall siting on that bus as we drove the 45 minutes back towards Kowloon and thinking how lucky I was not to have been born in China. It was such a shithole, (sorry, but it still is, and my previous article confirms that feeling), but the people were so nice and warm and friendly. Unfortunately over the next 20 years as Shenzen grew, along with the rest of China, things changed dramatically, as they always do, and crime along with the populace increase, started to mount. I can say with absolute certainty that my first trip across was gently mind numbing, but thereafter every trip I made became more tedious and certainly more uncomfortable.
This is the border crossing as it was then and as it is now. and also a picture of Shenzen as it is now, which is indicative of how China has progressed over the last 30 plus years. It looks wonderful and marvelous and certainly modern, but I can assure you, it comes at a price. As you have probably heard before, “you can change the place, but you can never change the people” China has changed and so have the people, but not for the better, in my opinion. China and especially Shenzen, is filled and brimming with everything that’s wrong in our world. Crime, pollution, and a complete disregard for humanity. Perhaps one day things will change there, though I fear it will be change for the worse and not the better. In the meantime, I still cherish my passport stamp, one that means a lot to me personally, and the experience, if only brief, that I had when crossing over the border back in 1980.