Sylvia and I were traveling with our father, Chester Ronning, who had been a Canadian diplomat in China. Invited by his old friend Premier Chou En-lai, he was making his first trip back in twenty years. Our main purpose was to visit Fanch'eng in Hupeh Province to pay our respects to the memory of Dad's mother, Hannah Rorem Ronning. She, like her husband, Halvor Ronning, was a Lutheran missionary and teacher. She died and was buried in Fanch'eng in 1907 at the age of 36, leaving her husband and seven young children.
The prospect of revisiting Fanch'eng was also exciting because no foreigners, to our knowledge, had been in the area since the Communist Revolution. For a month we could explore a broad segment of China. As things turned out, I actually stayed two and a half months and saw much more of China than I had dreamed possible.
Smiling Welcome at the Red Border
We began our trip by train from Hong Kong. At Lo Wu on the border, we got off and carried our bags across a railway bridge into Communist China. Red flags over the customs buildings were flying full in the wind. Two People's Liberation Army soldiers with bayoneted rifles looked at us curiously.
"Ni hao-hello," I ventured.
Their faces broke into wide smiles. "Ni hao," they answered and pointed the way to the customs hall. A large color portrait of Chairman Mao hung outside the door and a huge white statue of him stood inside.
We were met by a representative from the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, Chu Chiu-sheng, assigned to accompany Dad on his travels. After a gourmet Chinese lunch, we boarded an immaculate air-conditioned train for Canton, sank into reclining seats, and were served hot jasmine tea in rice-grain china cups.
My father, who last saw China in 1951, was amazed. "I remember," he said, "when Chinese passenger trains were more like cattle cars, and sanitary conditions were unspeakable."