Receptionist recounts Nixon's visit to China in 1972
Published: Feb 28, 2022 12:12 AM
Editor's Note:

2022 marks the 50th anniversary of President Nixon's visit to China and the issuance of the Shanghai Communiqué, the first joint communiqué issued by China and the United States, which established the guidelines for the development of bilateral relations, especially the one-China principle. It has become the political foundation for the normalization of China-US relations and the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

The Global Times interviewed five Chinese witnesses based in Shanghai recalling their involvement in the visit by Nixon five decades ago.

Here is the story of He Zhaofa, a receptionist at the Jin Jiang Hotel where Nixon stayed in Shanghai.

He Zhaofa Photo: Feng Yu/GT

He Zhaofa Photo: Feng Yu/GT

85-year-old He Zhaofa, receptionist at the Jin Jiang Hotel who served then US President Richard Nixon in 1972 in Shanghai, shared with the Global Times some details of the encounter. 

"Upon knowing about the visit of the US president and the reception task, people were divided in greeting a US president under the background of then China-US relationship," recalled He. "Some claimed that we Chinese had suffered so much from the imperialist countries in the past 20 years by being estranged by the West politically, economically and militarily. How should we treat in a friendly way the head of the most imperialist country? Others said that we should do as told as it was the guidance and strategy of Chairman Mao Zedong," He added.

"The working group persuaded most of us to embrace the task and challenge by saying 'you're not serving Nixon but completing the political task commanded by Chairman Mao,'" He recalled.

Quite a number of people were screened out to greet and treat the US delegation to ensure things would go smooth, considering the discrepancies. Then, new members from other top hotels in Shanghai, like the Peace Hotel and Shanghai Mansion, were chosen to be part of the reception team at the Jin Jiang Hotel, which served about 300 guests from home and abroad related to the Nixon visit, He mentioned.   

With the principles of "being neither humble nor arrogant," "being neither cold nor hot," and "friendly treatment," He and his colleagues served Nixon on several occasions in Shanghai.

"The feeling was a mix of fear and awe," He shared his first face-to-face encounter with Nixon when the latter arrived at the Shanghai Hongqiao Airport and waited in the VIP lounge.

Following the protocol of "three arrivals" where the arrival of the guest should be followed by the arrival of tea and warm towels, He and his colleagues served two Chinese snacks and tea, together with a creamy cake and walnut crisps even though the American delegation brought with them water and other foods from the US.

"President Nixon and his wife tasted the cat ear (fried dumpling) and glutinous rice ball covered with grinded sesame powder, and they liked them both," He said. 

On his second time serving President Nixon and his wife at the Jin Jiang Hotel after the president's trip to Hangzhou, in East China's Zhejiang Province, then 35-year-old He "was not nervous or afraid."

"Food prepared by the US side was displayed on the north side of the table and the Chinese food was on the south side so that the president and his wife could choose. With the help of the translator, we introduced the food we prepared. I remembered clearly that they tasted our food, of both sweet and salty dishes. They had steamed dumplings, fried frozen egg white with a special flour covered with grinded sesame, a sweet dish which is yellow and crispy outside and white and soft inside, and omelet with tomatoes and fresh mushrooms."

During Nixon's stay, He witnessed the changes between the Chinese people and American delegation members. "At first, the American personnel did not drink Chinese water or eat Chinese food, but later, they drank the tea we offered them. We had a little interaction. We were both support staff."

He shared with the Global Times the story of the Persian cat embroidery. The Jin Jiang Hotel renovated and redecorated the presidential suite for Nixon, which Premier Zhou Enlai inspected twice after the predominant decoration inspired in the Cultural Revolution was replaced. He and his colleague purchased an embroidery piece of a Persian cat from Suzhou, in neighboring Jiangsu Province, which is famous of its particular style embroidery. He and his colleagues noticed that Pat Nixon loved the piece very much and reported this to the leaders. Later, Premier Zhou Enlai decided to give it to the first lady as an additional gift. He said that it cost more than 10,000 yuan ($1,575) which was an enormous sum of money in 1972. 

"We could feel the change of mood of President Nixon before and after the Shanghai Communiqué was issued," He revealed, adding that "after the issuance of the communiqué, Nixon was relaxed and with his wife paid attention to the objects and decoration in the suite. They noticed the Persian cat and fell in love with it." 

In 1983, He Zhaofa and his former colleagues once again met with Nixon when he visited China with his family and asked Chinese side to arrange a meeting with those who greeted him in 1972. 

Before being assigned as part of the reception team for the Nixon visit in Shanghai, He worked in Beijing for five years, mainly greeting foreign guests in the Great Hall of the People where he worked even before the it was officially put into use. He still remembers how Premier Zhou Enlai paid attention to details in greeting foreign guests both in Shanghai and Beijing.

He said that, although he had visited some countries in Europe, he has not been to the US. 

He retired as a senior manager with the Jin Jiang Group and is living in Shanghai with his family.