Monday, July 11, 2016

Life in the City - My first visit to China in 1979

A back street in Beijing in winter
I first visited China in January 1979, when Beijing was cold and shrouded in smog. The Chinese Government had chartered three Greek bulk carriers to load grain in Vancouver the previous summer, but the port was closed by a three-month strike and the ships sat idle.  Under the terms of the charterparties, the charters were responsible for demurrage (the loss caused to the ships by delay) except in the case of 'force majeur'. I had visited Edmonton and Calgary in the early winter with a representative of the owners to establish that there was no event at the point of origin that could be regarded as 'force majeur'. but despite many requests, the Chinese wouldn't pay. The amount at stake was about $1.5m. So I was asked to travel to Beijing and try and obtain payment.

'You'd better go and hire the 'Orson Wells', said my senior partner, Sidney Fowler - 'and take Prue as well as it'll be pretty bleak and you'll need some company'. The 'Orson Wells' that Sidney Fowler had himself hired on previous winter trips - usually with Terence Coghlin - to secure the Chinese fleet as members of the P&I Club,  turned out to be an enormous fur-lined overcoat with an oversized Astrakan collar that did indeed look like something the great movie mogul would have worn, and it certainly made an impression on the Chinese who were dressed to a man (and woman) in grey padded Mao suits.

We put up at the only hotel foreigners were allowed in - the Beijing Hotel - and were allocated an enormous suite - which the Foreign Office - who I had reported my visit to before going - as one did in those days - said was certainly bugged. This meant that Prue and I never discussed how the case was going at all and I wrote everything down - my arguments and the Chinese responses - without verbal comment. Our natural interaction was also curtailed by the risk of quite severe electric shocks caused by the extreme dryness of the air in the rooms.

Each day I would go off the headquarters of the China National Chartering Corporation and be faced by up to ten Chinese and would make my case. They would respond with their points but it was soon evident that a compromise might not be found. I eventually suggested dropping our claim for interest, to see if this provoked a corresponding offer on their side, but when it did not, I refused to make any other concession and the talks eventually came to an end without a resolution.

Each afternoon a large black car would arrive and take Prue and I off to some historic site - the Forbidden City, the Great Wall or the Summer Palace - for sightseeing, accompanied by female guides who rattled off the many fascinating facts about these amazing places till our ears were ringing. For respite, we had lunch and tea with the British ambassador, Sir Edward Youde,  together with other visiting British businessmen such as Sir Keith Stuart of Associated British Ports - who was one of the few people one could talk to who had ever heard of 'demurrage'. In the entrance to the embassy, there was a table with an enormous flowering azalea in a  beautiful Chinese bowl and I remember being astonished when they told me that it was repotted every few months.

The hotel had a rather alarming policy of closing off each floor in the evening so that one couldn't really leave one's room after a certain hour.  I made friends with an American woman who was staying in the hotel, who was a fur trader and who I later introduced to one of my American lawyer friends, Glen Oxton, and I think they went out for a while. The only other way of passing the time - which was about three weeks in all - was at a snooker table in a room behind reception where the foreigners gathered in the evening before the floor 'curfew' began.

As the case couldn't be settled in Beijing, I decided to return via Hong Kong and consult the Attorney-General, Michael Thomas, on the prospects of a London arbitration award being enforceable in China. In those days this was a very long shot and eventually the case was settled in the time-honoured way through the brokers with the owners securing further charters from the Chinese.