All Aboard the ‘Gin & Tonic Express’


Now that the Express Rail Link has brought Hong Kong and Guangzhou to within easy reach of each other, it’s worth reminding ourselves of just how far we’ve come in integrating with mainland China – logistically, if not politically. It wasn’t all that long ago that the same journey took an awful lot longer – and was an awful lot more wearisome. Still, Jonathan Sharp recalls one leg of the trip had some redeeming features.

In the early 1970s, it was hard enough for a journalist like myself to get into China. But once in, it was also quite a slog to get out. For a Beijing-based correspondent, a bureaucratic and logistical obstacle course had to be overcome in order to leave, even for a brief vacation. The result was that it took more than a day to travel, by air and train, from Beijing to Hong Kong, one of the few exit points. The final leg of the journey was a leisurely jaunt by train – the “gin & tonic express” of the headline – through the then charmingly rural New Territories to Kowloon.

I was based in Beijing from 1972-1974 for Reuters news agency. It was a memorable and rewarding time to be in China as it slowly emerged from the worst horrors and self-imposed isolation of the Cultural Revolution. Crucially for me and the small band of Beijing-based journalists, the center-stage news story at the time was the U.S.-China relationship, evolving step by step in the wake of President Richard Nixon’s game-changing visit behind the Bamboo Curtain in February 1972.

Reuters, perhaps mindful that former Beijing correspondent Anthony Grey had been held in solitary confinement there for more than two years in the late 1960s, ruled that China was a hardship posting. For myself and my fellow China correspondent, this meant we were encouraged, if not mandated, to take leave every three months.

We didn’t need the encouragement. Living and working in China, while fascinating, was a distinctly weird experience. Key weirdness aspects included being effectively barred from having any meaningful social contact with Chinese people – no Chinese friends or sources –  and then having only one telephone number (55 55 05) to contact the entire government of the world’s most populous nation.

However, taking that leave was easier said than done. Hong Kong was the obvious destination, because that is where we, and almost every Westerner who was not Nixon or Henry Kissinger, entered and left China. But there were no Beijing-Hong Kong flights. Indeed, even phone calls from the mainland to Hong Kong were an on-off toss-up. The sole Chinese airline, CAAC, flew hardly anywhere outside the Mainland, and few foreign carriers bothered with flights into China.

However, CAAC did fly at least once a day from Beijing to Guangzhou – or from Peking to Canton as we called them then. So we took that flight, arriving in the afternoon at Guangzhou’s somnolent White Cloud airport. Minders from the China Travel Service then steered foreigners to the only hotel open to us, the Dong Fang. This was a gloomy, cavernous pile, much derided for its mosquitoes and poor ventilation. The overnight stay, while being a mere 60 miles from Hong Kong, was compulsory because the train to the border left in the early morning.  A variety of efforts by foreigners to beat the system and avoid the overnight stay – including a shock-tactic sit-in protest outside the hotel by a diplomat demanding a car to the border – were mostly to no avail.

Finally reaching the border, there was more form-filling to observe, including checks that one was not carrying Chinese currency into boisterously capitalist Hong Kong. (As a sign of how chronically underdeveloped the Chinese economy was, the highest denomination bills in circulation in China at that time were for 10 yuan.)

Having arrived at Shenzhen, then just a village, typically no more than a handful of travellers including journalists like myself made the short walk at about midday across the narrow railway bridge (pictured). This was the border between China and Hong Kong – two worlds, both Chinese, but poles apart.

On one of my periodic crossings, an Italian diplomat, over-encumbered with luggage, asked me to lend a helping hand. As I always travel light, I was happy to oblige, although I saw that his luggage was the Italian embassy’s diplomatic bags, the ones carrying confidential and secret materials. The bags – and I was surprised to see that in those days diplomatic bags really were just drawstring duffel bags – were hardly the sort of thing that a British journalist should be hand-carrying across an international border. But this flagrant security breach went unnoticed.

Mental Decompression Chamber

The welcome sight on the platform on the Hong Kong side of the bridge was a white-coated waiter carrying a tray of drinks. My drink of choice – and that of other travellers, I noticed – was a gin and tonic. In a feature story that I wrote for Reuters in 1974, I put this beverage preference down to the fact that in Beijing, where all Western drinks had to be imported, G&T ingredients were often in short supply.  

Drinks at the border cost HK$7 and change, not cheap in those days, but few takers seemed to care.

So the “Gin & Tonic Express” was the unofficial title bestowed on the train trundling from the border to Kowloon. In my feature I described the journey as serving as a mental decompression chamber after crossing from one of the most austere societies in the world into one of the most vibrant.

As Tim Pearce, my good friend and Reuters colleague in Beijing, now recalls, “Walking across the bridge, I was always slightly nervous in case some official runs after you to stop you for some obscure reason. Then, sinking into your seat in the Gin & Tonic Express and ordering that first drink, symbolizing freedom, escape, holiday, free enterprise,  colors, a break from the deadening bureaucracy and crushing of individualism that dominated the lives of millions of Chinese.”

To call the train an ”express”  was certainly a misnomer, as it took a non-air conditioned 75 minutes to saunter to Kowloon. But few passengers seemed to mind – it allowed time for more than one drink, an opportunity readily seized by many.

As Tim adds, “My main memories are of sitting beside Western businessmen as they knocked back stiff drinks and became increasingly talkative after weeks sitting in a hotel room waiting for calls from ministry negotiators to yet another round of interminable talks.”

The return journey from Hong Kong to Guangzhou was not quite so tedious. It did involve a two-hour layover in Shenzhen, but at least there was a flight to Beijing waiting in Guangzhou and you could be back in the Chinese capital on the same day.

I haven’t yet tried the Express Rail Link, and am anxious to do so, if only to find out: is there a G&T on board?

The first of AmCham’s 2019 GBA Delegation Series will take place in Guangzhou from Jan 17-18, 2019. Attendees will make the trip on the newly opened Express Rail Link. Contact [email protected] for information about upcoming delegation tours to China