Author Chris R. Pownall writes about his trip to Shanghai in 1967
I first visited Shanghai in July/August of 1967, whilst serving as a junior engineering officer aboard the S.S. ‘Talthybius’, belonging to the famous, Blue Funnel Line. ‘Talthybius’ was a Victory Ship built in 1944 by the Permenente Metals Corp (Shipyard No 1) located in Richmond California. She had a gross weight of 7,671 tons, a length of 455 feet, and a beam of 62 feet. Her service speed was 15 knots, and she was powered by a three stage Westinghouse steam turbine. She was a type VC-SAP2 Victory Ship, and she was launched as the S.S, ‘Salina Victory’ for the United States Maritime Commission in 1944.
After WW2, ‘Salina Victory’ was acquired by the Dutch Blue Funnel line and renamed S.S. ‘Polydorus’. In 1966 she was transferred to the British Blue Funnel line and again renamed, this time to S.S. ‘Talthybius’. All Blue Funnel ships were named after characters from Greek mythology. We sailed from Birkenhead in June 1967, and because the Suez Canal was closed following the six day war between Israel and Egypt, we had to take a much longer route via South Africa and the ‘Cape of Good Hope’. We made numerous stops in the Far East before setting course for Shanghai. As we entered the estuary of the Yangtze River, we were boarded by a number of ‘Red Guards’ who were to escort our ship for the duration of our visit. Prior to entering Chinese waters, our Captain had briefed us on how we should conduct ourselves and to remember at all times that we were representing our country; therefore, if we were to encounter any hostilities, we should always conduct ourselves like officers and gentlemen. We were instructed to leave everything inside our cabins unlocked, including our porthole that would normally be tightly secured, whilst we were in any port. All personal possessions had to be left inside a draw and we were assured that nothing would be stolen, whilst we were in China. Our personal radios and cameras were collected by the Chief Steward who locked them all away until our visit was completed. We would not be allowed to communicate with our families or friends, and we were asked to inform our next of kin that we would be incommunicado for at least five weeks.
From the Yangtze we steamed up the Huangpu River, where we were to lay off at a mooring buoy outside the port of Shanghai. We spent a couple of weeks before receiving a signal to go alongside to discharge our cargo of tin plate, which we had shipped from a steel mill in South Wales. When the ship berthed we could hear the sound of a loud voice coming from speakers attached to telegraph poles on the quay side. In very clear English the voice was making propaganda statements about the British such as “Down with British imperialism”. A sentry box was positioned at the bottom of the ships gangway, where a soldier stood to check the credentials of everyone boarding or leaving the ship. We were advised that shore leave would be permitted, but we would only be allowed to visit either the Seamen’s Mission or the Seamen’s Shop, located in nearby Shanghai. There was a procedure for leaving the ship, which involved advising the deck officer of the day that you wished to go ashore, and he would then request a car via the Chinese soldier on the quay-side. The car was always a black saloon provided free of charge by the Chinese authorities. I first visited the Seamen’s shop where you could buy wonderful things such as camphor wood chests and many items of craft ware. I purchased a couple of fine looking harmonica’s as presents for my two young nephews and I would have loved to take home a splendid blanket chest for my mother, but I had insufficient room inside my very small officers cabin in which to store one.
My next visit ashore was to the Seamen’s Mission, which boasted the longest bar in the world. It certainly was a very long bar, but all we could purchase was Shanghai beer, which was poured from pint sized bottles. It tasted very good but left me with a terrible headache, when I woke up the following morning. Having visited the only permitted venues ashore, I decide that once was sufficient and I would now look forward to our next port of call in Japan where there would be lots of nice girls to chat up!!
We had been in Shanghai for over a week, and I had just come off watch at 08.00am in the morning, when I was summoned to the Chief Engineers cabin. He informed me that I had been nominated along with three other officers to be guests of the Chinese government who had offered to entertain us for the day. I was very tired having just come off watch, as it was extremely hot down in the engine room at the height of the Shanghai summer. I had lost a lot of weight and was generally feeling quite weak. All I wanted to do was have a few beers, a good meal and go to my bed. The Chief would have none of it, he said I should go and get smartly dressed in civilian clothes and prepare for their arrival at 09.00am. The four of us stood at the top of the gangway, when our hosts arrived, surprisingly in a coach capable of carrying, I guess 20 to 30 passengers. We boarded the coach and we were invited to sit alongside each other on the rear seat. There were two or three Chinese hosts who shook our hands and presented each of us with a copy of Mao Tse-Tungs famous Red Book. We were also given several Mao lapel badges, which we were asked to pin onto our shirts.
The coach set off and we turned several corners before it pulled up alongside a nearby Dutch vessel. A party of about twelve Dutch Merchant Navy seamen boarded the coach and I was amazed to see that a number of them had cameras slung over their shoulders. We had been informed by our Captain that photography in communist China was strictly forbidden that’s why all our cameras had been locked away, whilst we were visiting the country. Our Chinese hosts paid no attention to the cameras and following the welcoming formalities for the Dutch sailors, we set off for wherever they were to take us. We travelled out of the built up areas and into the surrounding countryside. We passed by a cotton plantation and then visited a number of paddy fields. It was very picturesque and interesting, but really hot on the coach and of course, there was no air conditioning in those days. We headed back towards the city, whereupon we were taken to see an industrial exhibition intended to show the world some remarkable technical achievements in China under the stewardship of Chairman Mao. I had seen this exhibition featured on UK television, when United States President, Richard Nixon had been in attendance, during his state visit to China.
We saw a shiny red tractor that looked remarkably like a Massey Ferguson and a micron beam telescope through which we were invited to view a human hair. Needless to say the hair looked liked a tree trunk under such powerful magnification. We were then shown some steel pressure containers used to store high-pressure gases and a cigarette-manufacturing machine, which was discharging packets of twenty by the dozen. Finally, we were assembled in a conference room and given a presentation about the technical achievements in China during Chairman Mao’s term of office. It was very boastful and Mao’s name was repeated in almost every spoken sentence.
Following the presentation we were given a cigarette, which tasted awful and a glass of water that was heavily chlorinated and quite offensive to the pallet. We felt we should have to drink the water so as not to offend our hosts, but a colleague muttered in my ear “don’t empty your glass otherwise they will fill it up again”. Eventually, with great relief, we were back on the coach and told that we would now be returning to our respective ships as the tour was finished. On our way back to the dock area, we passed a recently constructed stadium that was a spectacular site with red flags hoisted all the way round the top of this impressive oval shaped structure. Our Dutch companions were learning out of the coach windows getting some splendid shots with their flashy cameras. Again, I couldn’t believe my eyes in view of the fact that photography was strictly forbidden, particularly so, at the height of the Cultural Revolution. We passed beyond the stadium and we were approaching the entrance to the docks, when we heard the sound of claxon horns and very soon, we were overtaken by a number of military vehicles, which forced our coach to pull over and stop at the roadside. Soldiers with rifles were positioned around the coach, and our driver plus our Chinese hosts were physically man handled and driven off in another vehicle. A soldier came onto the coach and sat in driver’s seat but said nothing to any of us. You could hear a pin drop on the coach as it was obvious that we had been caught up in some awkward situation over which we had no control. Cigarettes were being lit one after another as we sat there wondering what would happen next. I was getting more and more anxious as it was beginning to get dark and I was due on watch at 17.00pm, but there was nothing I could do to return to the ship. We could see ‘Talthybius’ in the distance and as darkness descended, you could see the funnel lights illuminating the famous black topped blue funnel. One of my colleagues went to the front of the coach and asked the soldier sat in the driver’s seat, why were we being detained. The soldier just waved his arms, suggesting that he should return to his seat. We were now very concerned about how this situation would end. All our cigarettes had now gone, and we were in desperate need of the toilet. I guess in total we were held for several hours including at least one hour in total darkness. We then noticed a large saloon car pull up along side and four men in long coats got out and walked towards our coach. They came onboard and one asked if there were any British Officers present, to which we four on the rear seat shouted “here”. One of the guys approached us and asked if we were in possession of any cameras and of course we said “no”. He then apologised for our detention, and said we were free to leave and walk back to our ship.
We were so relieved to get away, and it was wonderful to be back on board ‘Talthybius’. We were debriefed by the Chief Engineer and the Captain and I said that there was no way that I would get off the ship again until we arrived in Japan. Several days later, we put to sea and I can clearly recall seeing the Red Guards leave the ship by means of the pilot boat. It was good to be free once again and now heading for some fun and freedom in a very different culture. Whilst I have been critical of the Chinese situation in 1967, I have been back to Shanghai numerous times in a business capacity. I have been fortunate to travel to many of China’s major cities and I now have a very different view to the one back in 1967. They are very nice people, hard working, and exceptionally innovative. Since my retirement, I have returned to Shanghai on vacation with my wife Pat. We had a wonderful time and hope to revisit at some stage.
Approximately one year ago, I received an email from a guy in New Zealand who said he had been searching the Internet and whilst browsing the ‘Blue Funnel Association’ website, he had seen my blog posting. He was the guy who was sat next to me on that coach all those years ago. He asked whether I remembered him, to which I responded, “Please read my memoirs ‘Funny How Things Work Out’ and you are in there”!! He reminded me of a catch phrase that I started on that voyage, and he quoted it in his email. I am in the process of completing a third and final biographical work, and the title will be that catch phrase ‘This is the Life’. It would be nice if I could meet up with him at some stage, as we now keep in touch. Having spent many hours trying to trace any fellow crew members on that memorable voyage, all to no avail, I was thrilled beyond belief when he contacted me. You never know what you’ll find in the inbox, and isn’t it exciting?