Insights into China (Part 3/3): A stay in a hotel

A budget hotel chain in Shanghai; the scrolling text beneath advertises a discount (all photos by Isham Cook)

Ramshackle inns and sailor bars

The first hotel I stayed at in China was the Seagull in 1990, across the street from the famous Astor House established in 1846 (now the China Securities Museum), in the former American Concession in Shanghai. It’s been a while and the only thing I recall about the hotel is having to hand my key over to a floor attendant manning a desk in the hallway whenever leaving my room. Also in the hallway was a rack with multiple copies of a booklet translated into English on the correct interpretation of the “Tiananmen Incident” in Beijing the previous year. Stationing attendants on every floor made it difficult to smuggle unapproved guests into your room, particularly Chinese nationals of the opposite sex. But apart from these quirks, even by then China could be said to have come a long way in bringing its hotels up to minimally acceptable standards.

It had only been a few years since individual tourists from abroad, as opposed to chaperoned groups, were allowed into the country at all. In fact, travel to China for either employment or tourism purposes had petered out back at the start of World War Two under the Japanese occupation. For over fifty years, until around the time of my visit, China was a closed country.

Seagull Hotel circa 2020, viewed from the former Astor Hotel

In the four decades prior to that, going back to the turn of the twentieth century, if you were not lucky or wealthy enough to reside in the foreign concessions of Shanghai and other port cities or Beijing’s Legation Quarter, conditions in the sailor bars and the few other establishments willing to put you up would have been pretty makeshift. The film The Sand Pebbles (dir. Wise, 1966), based on Richard McKenna’s naval sojourn in 1930s China as fictionalized in his novel of the same name, gives us a vivid idea of what these conditions might have been like. Another useful eyewitness account is the writer Qian Zhongshu’s catalog of ramshackle inns in his novel A Fortress Besieged (1947) chronicling protagonist Fang Hongjian’s journey from Shanghai to a university teaching job in Hunan Province in 1937. Travel conditions at the time were hardly less primitive than in pre-modern China. The scarcity of buses and trains meant it took weeks to cover the same terrain traversed today in several hours by high-speed train, and Qian satirizes the naivety of his pampered hero and his travel companions who failed to plan ahead and bring along enough cash. The colorful details, however, derived from the author’s own experiences traveling around southern China in those same years. Qian’s acutely observed descriptions are of documentary value and thus serve as a rough baseline for assessing China’s progress in its hospitality industry over the subsequent half-century. One inn is described as follows:

The two Chinese-style, single-storied buildings in the back were divided by wooden panels into five or six bedrooms. A tent, which served as a dining room, was erected on the bare earth in the front. The hotel relied on the aroma of wine and meat, the banging of knives on pans when the food was ready, and the cries of the waiters to draw travelers in to spend the night. The electric lights inside the tent were dazzlingly bright. The bamboo and mud-plastered walls were completely pasted over with red strips of paper on which were written the names of the best dishes of the house.

Another inn also had their kitchen set up in the entrance:

The front room served as the guests’ dining room during the day and as the bedchamber of the innkeeper and his wife at night. The back room was divided into two guest rooms which were shut off from the sunlight and exposed to the wind and the rain…All around the inn was the heavy stench of urine and excrement, as though the inn were a plant for which it was the guests’ duty to provide fertilizer and irrigation. The innkeeper was frying food on the street.

In one inn, tea and rice were sold on the ground floor, while guests accessed their rooms on the second floor by a bamboo ladder. To provide an extra bed for a third guest, “the waiter placed a door plank across two unpainted wooden benches.” The beds were infested with lice and bedbugs and mice scurried over the guests in the dark. In yet another inn, they “all slept in an unpartitioned room. There were no beds, just five piles of straw. They preferred the rice straw to hotel beds, which sometimes felt like a relief map and sometimes like the chest of a tuberculosis patient.” Not all was dreary, and entertainment of a sort could be had: “The walls of most Chinese inns are very thin, and though one’s body may be in one room, it seems as though one’s ears are staying next door. As usual, the inn had blind, opium-smoking women soliciting business from room to room and inviting guests to pick numbers from Shaohsing operas for them to sing” (trans. Kelly & Mao).

If we go back further in time to the Qing Dynasty, conditions for foreign travelers fell into two phases. In the first phase (1636-1860), from the Dynasty’s outset (and long before that) until the Second Opium War, foreigners were forbidden from setting foot in the country on pain of execution. A handful of Jesuit missionaries and foreign delegations on diplomatic embassies were the sole exception. Upon the conclusion of the First Opium War in 1842, foreigners were permitted to reside in the foreign concessions of five treaty ports, Guangzhou, Xiamen, Fuzhou, Ningbo, and Shanghai. In the second phase (1860-1901), from the Second Opium War until the Boxer Rebellion, foreigners were finally allowed to travel outside of the treaty ports and into China’s interior, though travel conditions were primitive and dangerous. Cities and towns were mostly walled and were typically loathe to let you in. You pitched your tent outside the city wall and hoped you wouldn’t have to resort to your guns if pelted by stones; to travel without firearms or hired guards was suicidal. If you managed to slip into a city you had the rabble to deal with. The English traveler Isabella Bird has dramatic accounts in The Yangtze Valley and Beyond (1899) of twice being saved at the last minute by local garrisons coming to her rescue from mob lynching — they tried to break right into her room in the inns she stayed in. Her main offense was being a woman, but all foreigners were subject to attacks. Inns were either wretched hovels with paper windows poked open by peeping Toms or dirt spaces shared with animals.

Budget chain hotel in Shanghai, 2023

To be sure, classier accommodation was available to local men of means, primarily for liaisons with in-house courtesans and prostitutes; there is a description of one such establishment in Pearl S. Buck’s novel The Good Earth (1931). And the concessions, of course, particularly in Shanghai and Beijing, had world-class hotels for the foreign elite.

After the atrocities against foreigners in the Boxer Rebellion, the Chinese Government enforced greater safeguards for travelers throughout the realm and things gradually improved. The history of travel, hotels and inns in pre-modern China has yet to be written, though I take a stab at it in my Chungking: China’s heart of darkness. In that essay I provide plentiful examples of the challenges that confronted foreigners on the road in the nineteenth century, which make China in our day and age, even back in the 1990s, a utopia to travel and reside in, despite one significant problem that distinguishes the Chinese hotel experience from that of other countries. In most of the world today, hotels do not discriminate against certain categories of guests. In China, by contrast, hotels perform a gatekeeping function and indeed discriminate against certain kinds of guests. This will be illustrated below as I take the reader on a tour of Chinese hotels over the past three decades.

“It’s for your safety”

To return to that initial trip of mine in 1990, after Shanghai, we headed for Nanjing (I was traveling with a male Japanese friend). Motorcycle rickshaws ferried us from our ferry at the Yangtze River pier to the only hotel in the city that accepted foreigners, or as they put it, the only hotel that was appropriate for foreigners, the Jinling Hotel at USD $80 per night, rather pricier than we had budgeted for. After being given the same unwanted royal treatment in our next destination, the Jinjiang Inn in Chengdu, we investigated the surrounding streets and found the equivalent of a backpacker hotel, though backpacking wasn’t yet a concept in China; scraggly backpackers looked to the Chinese like poor people, and they couldn’t understand where the vagabonds came from since foreigners by definition were rich. They agreed to put us up only because we caught them off-guard. Foreign travelers were still so rare that no rules or guidelines were in place and they didn’t know what to do with us. The room had a missing shower curtain and a stopped-up toilet (the maid handed me a plunger) but at only USD $4 per night we couldn’t complain. Late that night the room across from ours resounded with partying Chinese. They left their door open and in the morning we espied them asleep on the floor amidst empty beer bottles. (Hotel guests leaving their doors open at all hours of the day and night is a holdover from the dormitory era of previous decades when privacy was a bourgeois luxury.) We found a similarly low-end hideaway in Guangzhou (Canton), though that city was an exception in having a history of contact with foreigners: the hotel restaurant had coffee and a Western breakfast on its menu.

Not long after starting my job as a university lecturer in Beijing in 1994, I was invited by a female student and two male friends of hers on a trip to Harbin in northeast Heilongjiang Province. I accepted, eager to explore a new part of the country. We arrived at dawn after twenty-two hours on the overnight train and breakfasted on beef noodle soup in the restaurant of a hotel that wouldn’t accept me because I was a foreigner. The next five hotels we tried also wouldn’t accept foreigners. We finally found a state-run hotel that wanted to charge me four times the local rate. The receptionists were sufficiently impressed with my “Foreign Expert” card (provided by the government to foreign teachers with at least a Master’s Degree) that we were able to bargain the price down somewhat. Our female companion, however, was not allowed to room with us and we had to pay for two rooms. (She incidentally years later became a notable news talk show host on national TV; for reasons of anonymity you’ll have to take my word.) They insisted on holding on to my passport for our entire stay, for the sake of my “safety.” This was actually unlawful on their part, I later found out, as foreigners were required to carry their passports on them at all times. These safety measures in any case didn’t apply to our rooms, as ours was broken into during the night and 400 yuan lifted from one of my companion’s wallet.

Five-star international chain hotel, somewhere in China

There are three phrases foreigners in China quickly learn: “There is not” (mei you), “Not okay” (bu xing), and “For your safety” (weile nin de anquan). We heard these phrases a lot, especially the first two; sometimes they were the only responses we could get from the service staff. Upon arriving in our next city, Changchun in Jilin Province, the first few hotels we tried again wouldn’t accept foreigners. Typically, a receptionist would disappear into a back office to speak with the boss (who wouldn’t deign to deal with us directly) and return after an inordinately long absence — fifteen, twenty minutes — but always with the unimaginative reply, “bu xing.” The northeast was looking pretty grim. I have to give my companions credit for their patience, as they then called every hotel they could find in the phone book at a cigarette stand with a public phone. We were about to give up in despair when the man running the stand pointed to a small unmarked building across the street, an unlicensed hotel, which accepted us without so much as checking our IDs. A tiny foyer served as the lobby and had a refrigerator, a train timetable tacked on the wall, and the famous Richard Avedon poster of a giant boa wrapped around a naked Nastassja Kinski on another wall. The friendly proprietor put us together in a dormitory-style room with bunk beds for USD $12, after asking the three women occupying it if they wouldn’t mind moving to a smaller room. They were clad in tight jeans and attractive and one of them gave me the eye as they squeezed passed us with their towels and toothbrush kits. I suspected they were itinerant sex workers and this hotel was where they stayed when they weren’t with customers. We had better luck the next night in Shenyang in Liaoning Province. A private hotel operator greeted us as soon as we exited the train station and led us to a nearby hotel, no questions asked.

Later that year I toured Xinjiang and Gansu Provinces in China’s northwest with Ming, a new female Chinese companion. This was an enlightening experiment in another form of hotel gatekeeping: two people of opposite sex rooming together. In Kashgar near the Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan borders in Xinjiang’s far west, we took a chance on the People’s Hotel. They accepted me but predictably wouldn’t let us room together. The bunks in the dormitory rooms were only USD $1.80 each, with a single grimy shower room down the hall (hot water available only between 9-10 pm). Ming had a lower bunk in her room; a rat fell onto the woman in the upper bunk. The next day across from an enterprising outdoor patio restaurant for backpackers, John’s Cafe, which had acceptable banana pancakes, we discovered the Seman Hotel, where foreign travelers were more in evidence. But they were absolutely not going to allow us two to room together. A strange dialogue with the receptionist ensued:

Steampunk-themed lobby with cafe in Ningbo hotel, 2023

“Are dorm beds available?”

“Yes, but they are for the foreigners.”

“How much for the men’s dorm?”

“We only have one dorm room since it’s the foreigners’ custom for men and women to sleep in the same dorm room. So I’m afraid you’ll have to sleep there together.”

The dorm space was a spacious and sunny corner room looking out on greenery. Twelve thin futons were laid out on the blue-carpeted floor. We placed two of them side by side to form a single bed. The other occupants were male backpackers from the U.S., Canada, and Australia, and one guy from the UK bed-ridden with a case of giardia picked up in Pakistan. Most of the Western backpackers were en route to or from Pakistan via the scenic Karakoram Highway. A few Pakistani merchants kept to themselves in private rooms. The shower stalls were clean and hot water was available all day, though as they were located in the men’s washrooms, female guests had to clear us out before locking the door behind them.

In Kuqa, a Uyghur-predominant city near the Kirzir Buddhist grottoes where cannabis grew wild in the streets, we were allowed to room together. In the grape-growing oasis of Turpan, the sole guesthouse we found had issues with our cohabiting, so Ming tried a new tack and simply asserted that we were married. They asked to see the evidence. She said she didn’t have it on her. They shrugged their shoulders and gave us the room. In the Hui Muslim city of Linxia in Gansu Province, the receptionist of the third hotel we tried, once we had tracked her down, couldn’t be bothered with paperwork and gave us a room without even registering us. In the Tibetan-predominant city of Xiahe, a mini Lhasa also in Gansu, the Labrang Hotel was clean and attractive though prim, and they put us in separate rooms. Laura, a Chinese-American doctoral student researching traditional Chinese medicine we met on the bus tagged along and agreed to share Ming’s room. We partied it up in my room with a bottle of brandy I bought from the hotel bar. Laura decided to hit the sack early. Ming stayed in my room. We forgot to bolt the door and in the morning the maids barged in. It may not be the custom for many people but I only sleep naked and so do the women I shack up with. I’ve never understood how people can sleep with clothes on. Anyway, at the sight of me, the maids vanished before I even made it to the door to lock them out. Later that day we decided to make a united front at reception and demand we be allowed to room together for our final night. They confronted us first, only to ask us if we wouldn’t mind rooming together since they were short of rooms and wanted to accommodate a new guest.

From top: Friendship Hotel (front building), 1994; the author’s wing, living room, and bedroom (twin beds instead of a queen-size bed were provided seemingly to prevent any improper behavior)

The Friendship Hotel

Foreigners working in Beijing had long lived in the Friendship Hotel, where the authorities could keep a friendly eye on them. The sprawling hotel complex, co-built with Soviet help in the 1950s, was featured in the memorable film M. Butterfly (dir. Cronenberg, 1993), based on the true story of a foolish French diplomat (played by Jeremy Irons) who falls in love with what he believes to be a female Chinese opera singer but who is actually a male Dan (female) role performer, as well as a Chinese spy who betrays him. The story is set at the outset of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) when most of the remaining foreigners living in China were declared personae non gratae and deported; the handful allowed to stay were a select group of regime-friendly writers and media personalities. Foreigners began to trickle back into China in the 1980s. The Friendship Hotel is where my university put me up in the mid-1990s. It’s an instructive case of what a longer residence in the country was like during those years. It was in the early ’90s in fact that visiting rules slowly began to ease. Prior to my arrival, I was told, visitors to the hotel had to register twice, first in a guard post at the outer gate where they were queried on the purpose of their visit and again at our building’s entrance.

By the time I arrived, the rules involving visitors were in flux and involved perpetual guesswork. Visitors were no longer stopped at the guard post but could proceed directly to our section of the hotel. In the foyer just inside our building was a desk where one of the maids was usually on duty to monitor guests and duly recorded their ID number and contact information in a register. But they often weren’t there and guests breezed right in. There were times when the staff knew I had a female over in the evening and times when they didn’t know. I didn’t push things. As they gave me some slack by looking the other way, I observed a certain etiquette in getting any women out in the morning before the maids arrived to clean my room. One day I met a Chinese woman named Shasha who lived on the floor above mine with an American editor at an English-language Chinese press. They were not married. Only the year before my arrival, she had brazenly decided to move in with him. Cohabitating outside of wedlock was still more or less illegal, but the Chinese are wary of scandals involving foreigners and the hotel put up with Shasha for a week or so before summoning the police. It turned out she was something of a virago, already well known to the authorities for her pro-democracy activities, which included operating a democracy-literature bookstore cafe in the ’80s; she had been arrested during the Tiananmen Square crackdown and spent several months in jail. Her notoriety worked in her favor. Regarding this new business as petty, the police ordered the hotel to let her stay put. In other words, the era of relative freedom I encountered at the Friendship Hotel was largely due to the precedent set by Shasha.

Foreign guests, however, were a distinct species, officially on the books and you couldn’t sneak them in. It was illegal, and still is, for a foreigner to reside anywhere in the country without registering either with approved accommodation or the police. What this means is that if you have someone visiting you from abroad and want them to stay in your apartment, whether you are a foreigner or a Chinese, you are expected to march this person down to the local police station and humbly ask the cops for permission to let them stay with you, even just for a night. Nobody does this of course but it is the law. And it would put you in an awkward position if you were to actually do so, for the police might choose to make things difficult, say by requiring a letter from your workplace vouching for both of you, and until you get that letter your friend stays in a hotel. Or they might refuse outright on the grounds that you aren’t legally qualified to assume responsibility if your friend were to get into trouble. Thus when a Japanese female friend visited me for a week-long stay at the Friendship Hotel, I was in a bind. I wouldn’t have been able to pull off hiding Eri in my apartment, so I duly registered her with her passport at the hotel’s foreign affairs office. They told me she had to book a separate room at regular hotel rates. Moreover, I would not be allowed to stay overnight with her. This was needless to say unacceptable. That evening when we returned to my wing after dinner, several hotel managers were waiting at the building entrance for a showdown. I told them Eri was staying with me. They said she was not allowed. I got my supervisor at the university on the phone and he was able to resolve things (we are still good friends to this day). In fact, the hotel couldn’t have cared less about the morality of cohabiting, it was the breach of protocol that was the problem. When my supervisor agreed to assume responsibility for the arrangement, saving their face, they departed with a sigh of relief.

The next university in Beijing I taught at several years later was less relaxed about protocol. The Foreign Experts Guesthouse was on campus. All visitors had to sign in and out at the entrance and there was a strict 11 pm curfew. If it got close to the hour, they would knock on my door to inform me it was time for my guest to leave. An old male friend from the U.S. once visited me, and even though I had an extra bed they made him put up in a vacant suite and charged him the going rate of USD $30 per day, claiming with the usual refrain it was for my “safety.” Where our safety was not of much concern was the padlocking of the building’s front door every night. Although a guard slept in the office at the entrance, a hasty evacuation might not have been possible in the event of a fire or earthquake.

Flip sides of a prostitute service card. Left to right: “Holiday Leisure Club: fashion models / office ladies / hot men / custom recommendations / schoolgirls / 24-hr room service / printed receipts / safe, prompt, convenient. Call this hotline.”

We have several paradoxes here. Foreigners were given star treatment in the best hotels, whereas ordinary Chinese would be stopped merely entering the lobby and questioned as to their business. Yet the strictest curfews applied to foreigners. Mostly these curfews were intended to shore up sexual morality — ostensibly anyway; a deeper, age-old fear was spying — yet most hotels had in-house prostitutes. The madam would receive word from reception of the latest male guests and call their room as soon as they checked in; others would go through a routine of calling every room one after the other (you could hear the phone ring in the room adjacent, followed by your room and the room on your other side). If a woman answered the phone, they hung up. Otherwise, it was, “How about a massage?” or “Are you lonely?” In other hotels, a prostitute followed you into your elevator and struck up a conversation. Or they simply knocked on your door out of the blue, sometimes a pair of them. Once in a Holiday Inn in Wuhan in 2004, I was having a drink in the hotel lounge and five women appeared out of a side room, surrounded my table and asked me choose one of them. When budget hotel chains such as Hanting, Jinjiang Inn, Home Inn, and 7-Day Inn popped up around the country later that decade, there was a crackdown on the more blatant practices and sex workers began to work more discreetly, though they were easily reached by their ubiquitous service cards slipped under guests’ doors.

The bathhouse revolution

Meanwhile, the bathhouse revolution had been gathering steam. This remarkable industry bears little relation to the benign camaraderie sentimentalized in the film Shower (dir. Zhang, 1999), which had a moderately successful international run. In the 1980s and earlier in the communist era, bathhouses served strictly as public showers when apartments lacked hot running water. In his City of Lingering Splendour: A Frank Account of Old Peking’s Exotic Pleasures (1961), John Blofeld depicted the more lavish trappings of bathhouses in the 1930s. In the 1990s, this tradition was revived. At first, they were two-story structures, with separate male and female bath areas on the first floor, the male section typically including a hot water pool, and a coed “public hall” (da ting) on the second floor where both sexes dressed in pajamas could mingle freely and sleep overnight on lazy-boy recliners while watching kungfu flicks on the hall’s movie screen. Waiters served tea, beer and snacks, and massage girls were on hand to do foot massage. There were also private rooms with varying numbers of beds, where individuals or groups could sleep in greater privacy, get a full-body massage with a handjob, and in some establishments, paid intercourse. The key thing was that there was never any registration process and anyone could occupy the private rooms (though the doors were not always lockable). They were thus the only place unmarried lovers could shack up; they also served as transient hotels for those who for whatever reason did not want their whereabouts to be known (see The old Chinese bathhouse, circa 2000).

From top: bathhouse in Harbin, 2000s; relief statue from the bathhouse’s facade at lower left (the uncharacteristically drab exterior of this bathhouse belies the luxuriousness inside); multi-story massage venue in Beijing catering to straight men, circa 2020.

Around the turn of the century, bathhouses grew in size and luxuriousness, elaborately decored with Greco-Roman themes and other iconography suggestive of Western decadence. One bathhouse I visited in Harbin in the 2000s (pictured) boasted, in the men’s bath section, a large hot pool lined with gold plating and several smaller pools of differing temperatures and colors steeped in a variety of medicinal herbs. In addition to the usual public hall, there was an auditorium with live northeastern-style bawdy vaudeville known as errenzhuan; one performance I saw hired scantily costumed Russian dancers. Buffets grew more sumptuous and compared favorably with those of five-star hotels. Some bathhouses were able to tap into underground hot springs. The Chinese are often stereotyped as lacking in creative imagination; not so the bathhouse industry. There is quite simply nothing like it in the West, except perhaps the great European spas, but the latter are only preserving a long tradition rather than inventing themselves out of whole cloth as in China. In the 2010s, bathhouses kept evolving into such rarefied exclusiveness that I found myself priced out of them. If you have extra cash to throw around, they would make a good research project to investigate now.

Around 2003, the government suddenly allowed unmarried couples to room together in hotels across the country, no questions asked, provided both registered at reception with valid IDs. This applied to foreigners as well. And then around the time of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, they clamped down on the freewheeling bathhouses and required all those staying overnight to register with their ID, just as in hotels. For a time, hotel receptionists were lax about tracking visitors who snuck in later to stay with you so that they wouldn’t have to register, while daytime visitors were trusted to vacate your room before bedtime. Then in the 2010s, hotels began providing electronic card keys, and you couldn’t go up in the elevator without swiping the card. At the start of the present decade, hotel registration tightened up considerably, sparked by Covid-19 epidemic measures. No guests or visitors could get past reception without a health code on their cellphone indicating they had tested virus-free within the past 48 or 72 hours, or had not traveled from a Covid hot zone. In post-Covid 2023, QR codes are dispensed with, but the registration process remains strict and uncompromising. All hotels now have a national ID scanner for domestic guests, who are also photographed with a webcam at the reception desk. Foreigners all have their passports carefully checked (visa as well as latest entry stamp), scanned and photocopied and their faces recorded by webcam as well. This applies to every person rooming together. As I discuss in Sexual surveillance in the Covid-19 era, though couples who are not married to each other are free to room together, the government now knows exactly which Chinese citizens are committing adultery, information which may be of potential interest to certain parties. Also, since the “group licentiousness” law was revamped in 2012, hotels may inform the police if three or more people not of the same sex occupy a room together (families excepted of course), if that is, the hotel allows them to room together.

A very special excursion

In November of 2022, while I was living and working in the southern Chinese city of Ningbo and travel-starved, my university hastily arranged a group excursion for us to the mountainous city of Ninghai fifty miles to the south. Many buses were involved, and we were informed by a community representative to be packed and ready to leave and wait for a phone call that evening. I didn’t get the call till 2:30 am and was then told to wait for another call to come a few hours later or sometime in the morning. I didn’t get the second call until noon: our bus was waiting at the gate. It soon filled up with colleagues living in my complex. The drive down to Ninghai was quite nice and what we could see of the city was green and attractive. The hotel was in an old building but the room was sufficient for the purposes of a week-long stay. Our tour of the city was confined to what could be viewed out the window. Except to retrieve our three daily meals and have our temperature checked twice a day at 6 am and again at 6 pm by workers in white hazmat suits, we were not allowed outside the door of our rooms. I’m used to daily walking, so I created an obstacle course of thirty paces around the room; 200 laps twice a day satisfied my exercise addiction. Alas, however, we were suddenly informed that our trip would be cut short and we were shipped back home after only three nights, though we were again forbidden from leaving our apartments for the next three days, and an electronic sensor was affixed to our doors to ensure this.

Ninghai hotel room and a boxed meal

Our bizarre little outing was carried out, as you may have guessed, as part of epidemic prevention measures. What triggered it was two students on campus who tested positive for Covid. The campus was immediately locked down and everyone connected to the university in any capacity, or who had been present on the campus within the previous two weeks — some 10,000 students, faculty and staff — were ordered onto buses and shipped to available hotels in Ningbo and surrounding cities (those living in the same building on campus as the two affected students were locked down in that building for a week). Married couples, inexplicably and unbelievably, were forced into separate rooms (their children were split up between them). Then just as arbitrarily, they decided that this massive relocation was unnecessary and we were allowed to go back home for self-quarantine. I’m glad I went through this instructive and enlightening experience, at least historically speaking, having a taste of what many millions of others around the country had to undergo more protractedly, such as the months-long lockdowns in Wuhan, Shanghai, and other cities. This period has now passed, but its effects linger and spark speculation about the future of China’s hospitality industry. As of May 2023, the government has yet to start issuing tourist visas to foreigners. They will come in due time, but I wonder if part of the reason for the delay is that they are deliberating about how exactly to treat the tens of thousands of expected foreign tourists and how the latter will take to being ordered to stare into a webcam lens fixed on the reception counter, and how they will feel being subjected to a greater degree of surveillance than what they are used to back home; how foreign mixed-sex groups of three or more will take to being advised not to break any Chinese laws by occupying the same bed (if they are allowed to room together in the first place); or what reassurances they can be given that their private information will not be stored by the authorities or shared with third parties.

What does not appear to be due for reconsideration any time soon — I will not mince my words — is the repugnant practice of discriminating against foreign travelers by only approving certain hotels for their use. You do not know the degrading feeling until experienced firsthand, being told you can’t reside somewhere because you’re a “foreigner.” I’m sure they have their rationales for this, namely, there are bad elements out there who are eager to take advantage of you and thus “it’s for your safety.” Only designating certain hotels for foreigners also makes it easier for the authorities to track us. Granted, foreign tourists who travel to China generally won’t be inconvenienced or even notice the problem if they book in advance or in a tour group since international travel websites already filter for approved hotels. It’s the idea of it, an idea with a long pedigree in China’s history. It’s inherent in the very word for foreigner, waiguoren, literally “outside country person,” that is, “outsider.” Imagine how your notion of this class of people would be shaped if you constantly heard them spoken of in your own language as “outsiders.” There is also the commonly used colloquial term laowai, literally “old outsider,” as in my “old friend.” Most Chinese know they shouldn’t use this term within earshot of internationals in their country because, while typically affectionate and innocent it is also slightly insulting and patronizing. Yet the officially employed term waiguoren is no less problematic. Can any language escape the othering effect of whatever term it employs for “foreigner”? In English, we may speak of “foreign tourists” to distinguish them from domestic tourists, but we don’t commonly use the term “foreigner” by itself. Our default assumption is that you are not a foreigner. When it’s discovered that you are in fact a foreigner, then you tend to be labeled by your country — a Brazilian, Japanese, Chinese, and the like — instead of lumped into the alien category of “foreigner.” This more humanistic conception ought to start being a part of the public discourse in China.

Lobby of a budget chain hotel in Beijing

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Other posts of interest by Isham Cook:

Insights into China (Part 1/3): A walk down the street
Insights into China (Part 2/3): A visit to a restaurant
Sexual Surveillance in the Covid-19 era
Chungking: China’s heart of darkness
Why Airbnb ain’t my cup of tea
The old Chinese bathhouse, circa 2000

5 replies »

  1. Isham, you miss out one of the most fascinating aspects of Chinese hotel design, although you have discussed similar themes in some of your other essays.

    The transparent bathroom.

    Only in China have I seen such amusing examples of transparent bathroom walling where the activities of the person in the bathroom are on full display to the fellow guest in the bedroom. I have heard a number of explanations for this: a need to keep a watch on prostitutes while showering, exhibitionism, and pure simple bad planning. I have seen some transparent bathrooms outside of China but China is certainly still the world’s leader in public defecation.

  2. I do discuss the transparent hotel bathroom in my post “Toilet Terror” but not wholly sure whether other countries have the same I hesitate to attribute it to China (I’ve been here too long!).

  3. Another great article thx. Your early experiences reminded me of staying in North Korea. If you want to see how far China has come I suggest the Puli in Shanghai (or The Peninsula), both world class I think. I also both sleep naked and dislike the term “foreigner” in China which usually just means ‘non-Chinese citizen’. It can reach bizarre levels when groups of ‘foreigners’ get together and use the term ‘foreigner’ about themselves even though of course Chinese are just as foreign to them as anyone else, an example perhaps of how the group think of one culture can easily infect the thinking and language of someone who moves there. It would be better perhaps to talk of Chinese and non-Chinese but then this would raise the problem of who is Chinese I suppose.

  4. This piece brings back many memories of my time spent in China. Train tickets and most tickets for public attractions or parks were more expensive if one dared to be a foreigner as well. When I often asked why the answer was always the same “because foreigners have more money”! The words for foreigners, “lao wai” is often spoken with a tone that imparts a feeling of disgust, and when I come across Chinese traveling in the U.S. I often call them “Lao wai” just to see the reaction and always brings an immediate response of “I am NOT a Lao wai!” There are also the terms “da gui Xi” which means Big Devil which usually describes Americans, and then there is “Xiao gui zi” Little Devil, which is cunningly reserved for Japanese. Hatred is not just passed down to children in western countries, once in a McDonalds a young Chinese boy of about 12 years old thanked me profusely for dropping a nuclear bomb on Japan! Shocked beyond belief I glanced at his mother who was grinning from ear to ear proudly.

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