by Beatrice Camp
Twelve years after President Nixon’s historic opening to China, President Ronald Reagan visited the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in April 1984. The visit was a vast undertaking with an enormous entourage – Ambassador Arthur Hummel was reportedly stunned to hear that the president’s party would number over 800. For a politician like Reagan who had repeatedly criticized President Jimmy Carter for establishing diplomatic relations with Beijing, it was a huge move. For the Chinese, it was a very welcome symbol of acceptance.
First lady Nancy Reagan accompanied her husband; some 600 journalists covered the trip. The Reagans toured historical and cultural sites in Beijing and attended a State Dinner at the Great Hall of the People before traveling on to Xian and Shanghai.
As a first-tour officer in the Press & Culture Section of the embassy, I helped prepare briefing materials for the cultural sites – researching details such as the correct length of a Chinese cubit used to describe the height of the terra cotta warriors in Xian. In Beijing, one of my responsibilities was making sure that The Wall Street Journal got delivered to the doors at the Diaoyutai State Guest House every morning, a task totally dependent on the unreliable flight from Hong Kong carrying the newspapers. Once Reagan and entourage moved on to Xian, the second leg of the journey, I flew to Shanghai to work in the press center for the third and last stop.
As with all presidential visits to the PRC, but especially for the first since the normalization of relations, every detail was a negotiation. One of these involved the “return banquet”. The Chinese system for state visits dictated that the hosts give a welcome banquet at the Great Hall of the People on the first night; the second night the visiting dignitary hosted a return banquet, also at the Great Hall of the People. The Chinese side chose the menu both nights but the foreign visitor paid the bill the second night. As it turned out, the White House, which is to say Nancy Reagan, wanted to feature Western food. With a new hotel, the Great Wall Sheraton, about to open, the White House decided to host the Reagan return banquet there.
Word arrived at the embassy that Nancy Reagan wanted to serve turkey. Having been warned in our Mandarin training at the Foreign Service Institute that Chinese don’t like eating turkey – the meat is unappetizingly dry; having knives at the table is barbaric, and so on – we sensed trouble even before the press got wind of the plans.
In the early 1980s, just over a dozen American journalists were credentialed in Beijing. Frequently frustrated by nearly daily struggles with PRC officials stonewalling their inquiries, this stalwart group of foreign correspondents tended to be cantankerous with officialdom. When they picked up the hot news tip that Nancy Reagan, who already had a reputation for extravagance, was flying in turkeys from California, this small press corps turned on the embassy. We became the stonewallers, under strict orders from the front office: “don’t say anything about the turkeys”.
Prudently, the embassy staged a practice banquet with some Chinese diplomats to test the menu that had been developed by James Rosebush, Nancy Reagan’s chief of staff. Rosebush had chosen to name the first dish “Panda Salad”, and decreed it would be topped by raw bean sprouts to provide an Asian touch to the Western menu. When a senior Chinese protocol diplomat at the practice meal observed in polite, British-accented English that “when we Chinese eat bean sprouts raw, we vomit”, the menu was quickly revised to replace bean sprouts with hearts of palm.
The banquet went more or less as planned, served Western style with the turkey and the potatoes and vegetables all on one plate. The Chinese guests at my table didn’t know what to do with the plated food; used to sharing multiple central dishes they found the idea of being served this way confusing.
They were probably also disappointed at not getting to enjoy a second state banquet at the Great Hall of the People, with sea slugs and all the exotic foods reserved for high-level events. In an era when cabbage and steamed buns was the basic Beijing meal, being deprived of the rare opportunity to feast on Chinese delicacies had to be a blow. They picked at the strange food on their plates. When the Panda Salad course arrived, now featuring soft brown hearts of palm, the ping pong champion seated beside me confessed he’d never eaten panda meat before.
Whatever else the Chinese guests thought of the menu went undiscovered. However, we got a small taste of the reaction a month later when my husband and I stood in for the ambassador at a banquet that the mayor of Beijing was giving for teenage students from Greenwich, Connecticut on an art exchange program. As we worked our way through the all-duck meal, a very polite 13-year-old asked us to “please tell the mayor it’s not that I don’t like duck tongue, it’s just that I’m not very hungry.” We seized the chance to chat up the Chinese officials about their experience at the Reagan banquet. As they loosened up to our conversation, the mayor allowed as how he had never had food like that before. “You know,” he said, “the problem with Western food is that an hour after you eat it you’re hungry again.”
Beatrice Camp began her foreign service career at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing in 1984, with subsequent assignments in Bangkok, Stockholm, Budapest, Chiang Mai, Shanghai, and Washington, DC.