WA China Watch Digest Special!

Interview: Discovering “new” Washington state-China history with George Duff

George Duff in his office with the photo of his granddaughterBy Wen Liu   Nov. 23, 2015

Over the years learning and researching about Washington state and China, I had come to believe that the first trade group from our state to go to China was WCIT, the Washington Council on International Trade, in May of 1979, followed by the first state trade mission led by Governor Dixy Lee Ray in September the same year. Alas, all the time, I had been missing a big story.

To welcome President Xi Jinping to the region last September, the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce had a short and quiet “Down Memory Lane” post on its website, stating that the Chamber had sent the state’s first business group to China in 1977. 1977? Two years before the normalization! What an exciting "find" of a "hidden" Washington-China story!

With the help of the Chamber, I got in touch with George Duff, the Chamber’s President Emeritus and president for 25 years, who had organized that 1977 trip. In his office at the Chamber, where he still goes most mornings, Mr. Duff told me the story he said he hadn’t told about in many many years.

After President Nixon’s trip in 1972, Mr. Duff began with some background, business groups all over the country wanted to go to China. The Seattle Chamber of Commerce, the Washington Council on International Trade, the Port of Seattle, the State of Washington Department of Commerce, and what was called the Washington State International Trade Fair, he said, all came together and started making requests to the Chinese liaison office in Washington D.C. to visit China. For two years they did that without any answer, nothing. Then in January 1977, a call from the liaison office came to the desk of the Chamber's young trade manager Carl Jesberg, saying that the Chamber could have twenty people to go to China in April. The caller emphasized that it was only going to be a friendship tour, not a business one.

No matter. In two months, Duff put together a group, including representatives from Boeing, Paccar, Weyerhaeuser, Frederic & Nelson, an upscale department store, one other company that made clothing, and two or three companies from East Washington that made agricultural equipment, along with six or seven spouses. Off they went, now in mid May 1977, flying to Hong Kong first and then went through Canton (Guangzhou) and onto Peking (Beijing).

They had ten days total, Mr. Duff said, and three cities, Peking, Shanghai and Wuxi. Two days in Wuxi, just tour and relaxing, and the other days were split between Peking and Shanghai.

They stayed in the old Peking Hotel. Waking up early the next morning, Mr. Duff told me, he went for a jog down Tiananmen Square. The road was filled with bicycles and the people looked busy, industrious. But, he said, he also felt like an animal when people would stop their bike near him and stare.

Seattle Chamber of Commerce web pageBesides sightseeing, such as the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, the group also visited small manufacturers in Beijing and fish farms outside the city. The manufacturing was very basic, Mr. Duff said, like what a kid in Detroit in the 1930s would see.

Every day they went out, the Chinese decided who would ride in which car, Mr. Duff said. The chairman of the group, Mike Berry, who was also the president of the SeaFirst Bank, and the vice chairman, Hugh Smith, the chairman of the Washington Council on International Trade at that time, were in the first car.

Every night, there was a banquet, with several courses of food. The Chinese wanted the group chairman to do a toast every time. At those dinners, the group would share with the hosts about Seattle and the business here in Washington. The Chinese treated us very nicely, Mr. Duff said, like a very special group.

In Shanghai, the group saw lot of the history, and the beautiful, old English buildings. They also toured the port facilities. It was during those tours, Duff said, they had more interesting conversations with the hosts. One person who understood some English, for instance, asked Duff about Seattle, what’s going on in the U.S., etc.

Why do you think the Chinese side insisted that it was a friendship tour? Was it because there was no formal relationship yet? I ask.

I didn’t think they felt they were ready to do much business, Mr. Duff replied, so they didn’t want to raise expectations or over-promise. But it turned out, he said, Paccar, Weyerhaeuser, Boeing all planted seeds that resulted in future business. It was especially so for Frederick & Nelson. Its representative got to visit a warehouse full of art objects, started a conversation that led to a deal and a big sale of different art objects, paintings, silks, at Frederick & Nelson.

“We were the first business group from the state of Washington,” Mr. Duff proudly pointed out. “I don’t know of any other states that got there before us, or so I hadn’t heard about it.”

Yes. Chamber was now definitely the first, not WCIT. So, what was your biggest impression about China on that trip? I ask.

“You hear about the size and population of China, but until you get there and see, it's overwhelming, the number of people. And it seemed to me, they were all very industrious. Running down Tiananmen Square, five o’clock in the morning, the road was filled with people on bicycles, presumably going to work of some kind. They were also anxious to know, or talk to us, with interpreters, to find out what was going on in the United States, specifically Seattle. Most of them had heard of Boeing.”

In subsequent years, Mr. Duff took a couple more Chamber groups to China. Comparing with the bicycles and low-rise buildings he saw in 1977, China was transformed, he said.

P.S. The only pity is that Mr. Duff did not have a picture from that trip. Hope someone somewhere has one and would share...

(For more information on major events in Washington state-China relations, go to WA China Chronicle.)