The Time I Showed Shirley MacLaine Around Beijing

MacLaine meets Deng Xiaoping at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, May 1973.PNG

In the classic 1960 movie “The Apartment,” Jack Lemmon tells Shirley MacLaine, “That’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise.” Just over a decade later, things were not crumbling well career-wise for Ms MacLaine. Then came a surprise offer, writes Jonathan Sharp


In the early 1970s Shirley MacLaine was at a low ebb. The Hollywood legend had suffered her first professional disaster, an ill-begotten TV series that by her own admission was terrible. In a second disappointment, her impassioned campaigning on behalf of US presidential candidate George McGovern in 1972 was a lost cause. He was drubbed by incumbent Richard Nixon in one of the biggest landslides in American electoral history.


With her abundant star quality intact, MacLaine could hardly have been surprised when she received an invitation to join a lunch in New York held in honor of the recently arrived Chinese mission to the United Nations. But what must have come as a bolt from the blue was an invitation from the urbane Chinese mission chief, Qiao Guanhua. She could visit the People’s Republic, Qiao said, and not just by herself. She could take along a party of 12 women, including a crew to film what they saw. The only specification was that her party should be made up of “regular” women, not celebrities like herself, or radicals or a group of doctors.


Nowadays, celebrities touring China rate hardly any media attention. After all over 140 million visitors troop through the Middle Kingdom each year. Just being a film star rarely scores headlines.


But in 1973, China was a very different place and MacLaine’s visit with her eclectic band of “regular” sisters was a big deal. It made such an impression on MacLaine herself that she wrote an entire book about it.


Like many a first-time visitor to China her reactions to the Communist country were conflicted, a mix of awed and alienated. But one impact was positive health-wise. On the second day of her trip in a land of notoriously heavy smokers, she quit smoking.


Her book is called “You Can Get There From Here.”


If that title gave the impression that China at that time was reachable if one tried hard enough, then it was misleading. In reality, only very few people could “get there.” As a Chinese travel website now baldly states: “Between 1949 [when the Communists came to power] and 1974, the People's Republic was closed to all but selected foreign visitors.”


And the People’s Republic was very, very selective.


The world’s most populous country was then in the latter stages of one of its frequent, seismic political upheavals. This one was called the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. However it was less about culture and more about attacking anyone or anything deemed reactionary, old-fashioned or out of line with the ideology of revered leader Mao Zedong. The turmoil exacted a terrible human and historical toll.


By the early 1970s the worst of the mayhem was over and China was coming out of its shell. Most dramatically, it hosted President Nixon on his visit in February 1972, described by him as “the week that changed the world.”


China was also allowing some expansion of the tiny corps of Beijing-based foreign correspondents.


Which was why I, one of those correspondents, and Jim Pringle, my colleague in the Reuters news agency bureau, were at Beijing airport that April afternoon to meet MacLaine (we are mentioned in her book).


She was happy to accept our invitation to show her around Beijing, initiating her into some of the features of a country which, despite its self-inflicted catastrophes and dreadful human rights record, was regarded by quite a number of blinkered zealots in the West as a model of genuine socialism.


Touring the streets, one obvious first impression was how quiet the city was, in fact the polar opposite of what it’s like today. There was no clogged traffic, and none of the flashy modernity and brash consumerism that marks out Chinese cities now.


The main street sounds in 1973 Beijing were from unending streams of bell-tinkling cyclists.

Motorized vehicles were few. Privately owned cars were unheard of – as indeed were private property and much else besides. So in that sense, China was indeed living up to Communism’s egalitarian ideal.


The sparsity of traffic meant that Beijing was a paradise for parking. Drivers could just stop, virtually anywhere they wanted. Even, as we did with MacLaine, in the middle of Tiananmen Square. Unthinkable today.   


Stranglehold on information


What MacLaine wanted most to find out from us was not what was going on in China. Instead she craved news about the dramatic events unfolding in Washington. The Watergate scandal that was to topple President Nixon was at its height.  It was over this thirst for information that the world of Shirley MacLaine really did bump up against the realities of the world of Chairman Mao. Jim and I were unable to enlighten her much – we didn’t have access to the day’s latest happenings in the US capital.  Even in the Reuters Beijing office we could not receive the agency’s 24/7 file of real-time news. Instead we were handed a pirated paper copy the following day.


But at least we knew a lot more than the vast bulk of the Chinese population.


As in other autocratic command-and-control countries, access to information was severely circumscribed.  That meant – as may be hard to believe in the internet age – that most information about what was happening in the world, now a finger’s tap away, was then out of the reach of almost everybody in China.  


Another aspect of the Communist government’s total control and micro-management of its people: Jim and I would have liked to have introduced MacLaine to Chinese friends. But we couldn’t because we didn’t have any.


That was because Chinese people were under pressure not to engage in meaningful contact with foreigners. Anything other than innocuous exchanges with them seemed to be out of the question.


This was an efficient way of ensuring we could not find out, and report, what life was really like in Mao’s China.


Inside the Beijing Bubble



Such rigorously enforced separation, and China’s high degree of isolation, meant that the foreign community in Beijing was a source of endless curiosity to ordinary Chinese people.  

It was an odd everyday experience: when walking along streets, crowds of staring Chinese would part in front of us, as if we were in a bubble, and close up again after we passed.  Children gaped, pointing at us and repeating “Waiguoren” (foreigners) over and over.


MacLaine experienced this bubble-like environment when we took her to a restaurant on Beijing’s main shopping street. The place was full but on seeing us waiters immediately freed up a table for us by brusquely ousting a group of Chinese diners in mid-meal – despite our protestations. For us foreign residents, that was a typical, embarrassing experience.


A `scoop’ from Shirley MacLaine


MacLaine’s visit lasted through May 1, a public holiday. Out of the blue during the celebrations, she telephoned us to report that she had been accorded the honor of a meeting lasting several hours with Deng Yingchao, wife of Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and a senior figure in her own right in the political establishment.  


At a time when US-China relations were at a fragile gestation stage, such a display of friendship by a leading figure in the Chinese hierarchy towards a Hollywood star was a precious nugget of news for us fact-starved reporters.


While not a game changer, MacLaine’s visit was another sure sign that Sino-US relations were on the move.


However not everyone in America was adjusting themselves appropriately to this geopolitical shift.   


In the small Illinois town of Pekin – whose founders thought it had an affinity with China – the high school’s football team still called itself the “Chinks.” The team was complete with mascots “Chink” and “Chinklette” who dressed in traditional Chinese silks and banged a gong whenever the team scored. It was not until 1980 that political correctness asserted itself and the team was, very reluctantly, renamed the Dragons.