Fall of the Bamboo Curtain

CLAIRE: Hard to believe that Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China was 50 years ago, during the last week of February 1972. Hard to believe because, as Nicki Chen describes in this article, we were simply used to mainland China being off-limits. Nicki’s visit to her husband’s hometown of Xiamen in 1983 was part of the inspiration for her first novel, Tiger Tale Soup. Her second, When in Vanuatu, was released in 2021. In this article, Nicki peels back the bamboo curtain for the first time, to discover … a chicken?

NICKI: When I was growing up, large portions of the earth were simply off limits to us—the Soviet Union, cut off by the Iron Curtain; East Germany, blocked by the Berlin Wall; and China, hidden from view behind the Bamboo Curtain. And we just accepted it. Didn’t bat an eye. Expected it to stay that way forever.

Until one day, Nixon flew to China. Ping-Pong diplomacy, we called it.


Bamboo, Gulangyu Island


China Out of Reach

My family was living in Manila at the time, only 700 miles from China, and yet even after Nixon’s trip, we couldn’t imagine going there. “Red China” was another world, more inaccessible to Americans than the moon. And it stayed that way for a while longer.

Then in 1983, we heard the surprising news that a travel agency in Manila’s Chinatown was arranging tours for the local Chinese to sail to Amoy.

Now known as Xiamen 廈門, Amoy was one of the Chinese cities closest to Manila and the ancestral home of most Filipino Chinese. It was also my husband Eugene’s birthplace. He and his cousin Andy didn’t waste any time. They hurried down to Chinatown and bought tickets for all of us. I suppose the tour operator assumed their wives and children were as Chinese as the men were.

Breaking through the Bamboo Curtain

Eugene was a bundle of nerves in the weeks leading up to our trip. He’d be returning to the land he’d escaped from when he was ten years old. All the stories that had seeped through the cracks in the Bamboo Curtain were about atrocities committed during the Cultural Revolution to landowners like his grandmother and intellectuals like his grandfather. Besides, his father had been a Nationalist officer. He might think Eugene was disloyal for setting foot again in Communist China.

His father surprised him, though. “Go ahead,” he told Eugene from his condo in San Mateo, California. “And when you get there, look for my parents’ graves. Pay your respects, take some photos, and if you can, bring back their bones.”

We flew to Hong Kong and stayed the night in a hotel. Since Xiamen would be cooler than Manila—almost any place was cooler than Manila—our three daughters and I would need jackets. We found something inexpensive at a store near the wharf. Quilted Chinese jackets in pink or navy.

The Chinese passenger ship we boarded was named after Gulangyu 鼓浪嶼, the small island where my husband spent his early years. It was our first encounter with the People’s Republic of China, a country that still believed in equality, heroic sacrifice and thrift. Our sparsely-furnished cabins definitely lived up to that ideal, as did our meals—rice we scooped out ourselves from an enormous communal pot and stir-fried chicken and veggies. In a nod to capitalism, some of us were allowed to buy first-class tickets, which in the dining room meant that we were given an apple or an orange on our way out.

A First Look at Xiamen

When we sailed into Xiamen’s harbor, it was overcast, the water khaki-colored, everything in sight, rusty and weathered. Where, I wondered, was the colorful land of my husband’s stories? I leaned over the rail snapping photos of junks with graceful, patched sails—a tourist in a land that hadn’t seen any in a generation and a half. At the time I didn’t appreciate my luck. I was seeing the landscape of a novel I would one day write, a novel that would be set in China in the 1930s and ’40s.

Our traveling companions, Andy and his wife, Jane, left us to stay with a relative Andy hadn’t seen in over thirty years. Eugene, on the other hand, had no relatives left in China. Even Andy was probably just a close family friend. So, we caught a taxi from the wharf to the hotel.

If I’d been disappointed by the view from the ship, I was equally dismayed at the view out the taxi window. The city of Xiamen must have looked much the same at the end of World War II, except with less moss and grime on the buildings.

The Overseas Chinese Hotel

Our taxi pulled up in front of the Overseas Chinese Hotel. Compared to everything else in town, our hotel was brand new. Not quite finished, in fact. The high-ceilinged lobby with all its polished granite and marble floors was strangely marred by large puddles of water. An invitation for a lawsuit, I thought. But then, this was China not the United States of America.

We side-stepped the water and made our way to the reception desk. The young women on duty straightened up and stared at my white face. Then one of them addressed my husband in a barrage of Hokkien. Since our three daughters and I spoke only a smattering of Mandarin and next to nothing in my husband’s dialect, we stood back and let him do the talking. Almost immediately, their conversation escalated into a shouting match.

As the exchange grew louder and more confrontational, the girls and I tiptoed back around the puddles and sat down. After twenty minutes or so, one of the women left, and as the other turned away to pour herself some tea, my husband joined us on the sofa.

No Room at the Inn

“They say you and the kids can’t stay here,” he reported. “The way they see it, this hotel is exclusively for overseas Chinese, not for their American families.”

“Let’s go someplace else then.” It seemed the logical choice.

“Sorry, honey. There is no other place for tourists to stay.” He stood up. “But don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.”

He strode back across the room to where a middle-aged man was frowning at us from behind the reception desk.

A few tense minutes later, we were standing by the elevator with our suitcases and two room keys. “This generation….” my husband grumbled stabbing the “up” button. “They’re no longer Chinese.” He glared at the elevator light, willing it to keep descending. “I quoted an old saying to them, and still they didn’t understand.”

“So what happened?”

The elevator doors opened, and Eugene picked up both suitcases. “The old man, the manager, had to explain it. ‘Young misses,’ he told them, ‘listen to Mr. Chen. He will teach you what it means to be Chinese.’”

“So …?” We stepped on board, and I pushed the button for the twelfth floor. “What was the saying?”

“Marry a chicken, follow a chicken …” (Image credit: blog.mandarinchineseschool.com)


“Just an old proverb.” He shook his head. “Something any Chinese should be able to understand: “嫁雞隨雞, 嫁狗隨狗, marry a chicken, follow a chicken; marry a dog, follow a dog.” A woman follows her husband no matter his lot.

I should have been offended, I suppose, to be compared to a chicken or a dog. But it was such a clever retort. And even a future writer can appreciate a good line.

This article first appeared on nickichenwrites.com in 2013.