The first time I visited China was in 1975. I was an alderman on Toronto City Council, travelling with Mayor David Crombie. Mitchell Sharp, then foreign minister, arranged our visas.
Mao was still alive then. His portrait was on every street corner and in most rooms. There were no commercial signs of any kind; it was very much a communist society. In Guangzhou the local revolutionary council held a banquet in our honour. Of course they served maotai.
It’s very strong liquor distilled from fermented sorghum, with none of the smoothness of vodka. Maotai is the standard toast at Chinese banquets. There were eleven toasts that night: “Gambai!” (down the hatch), toast. “Gambai!” toast. They toasted friendship and goodwill, between our cities, our countries, our continents. It’s difficult to say no. You try to climb into their heads to figure out what the point is. I tried to pace myself and managed to handle the maotai. Mayor Crombie was a small man and didn’t weigh a lot; by the time he had to make his speech he was exceeding mellow.
In his remarks Crombie announced I was raised by Norman Bethune’s sister! It was not exactly true – Bethune’s first cousin Grace had been our nurse when I was an infant – but it impressed our hosts immensely. Bethune’s name was sacred in Maoist China as the Canadian doctor who aided troops of the People’s Liberation Army. Every schoolchild was taught Bethune’s story in Grade Two. We were feted for days and flown to Beijing to see all the historical sites at their expense.
In 1984 Canada hosted the first-ever visit of a Chinese premier, Zhao Ziyang. Prime Minister Trudeau asked me to escort the delegation. We had to be discreet; the Taiwanese Kuomintang had a big presence in Canada in those years, and there were Parliament Hill protests over Zhao’s visit. Ronald Reagan had welcomed Zhao at the White House, but Canada did not want to provoke more demonstrations by hosting a state dinner at 24 Sussex Drive.
So I had Zhao at my house.
There were fifty guests. I hired two chefs and set up tables in different rooms of the house in Toronto’s Forest Hill. Zhao had worn the uniform of a Communist Party cadre that day, the blue Mao jacket, but that night arrived in a business suit and tie.
Zhao wouldn’t touch the food unless it had been sampled by a tester. All the guests waited 25 minutes till the food tester nodded that it was okay to eat. This wasn’t quality control; this was a precaution against poisoning! It struck me as strange but I wasn’t about to cross-examine them.
Beland Honderich, the late Toronto Star publisher, was a guest that evening. He asked Zhao, “Mr. Premier, would you write an article for my newspaper about what you think China could do for world peace?” Zhao replied, “Nice to see you; hello!” Honderich asked again; “Nice to meet you!” Zhao replied. After Honderich wandered away, Zhao whispered to me: “What’s the circulation of the Toronto Star?” He was a pretty savvy guy.
We ate well that night: smoked pheasant and fresh oysters; cold salmon; chicken in morel sauce; snow peas and saffron rice; Ramona cake and champagne. At the end of the evening Zhao posed for a photo by the front door and told us: “I’ve only eaten in two houses in North America, the White House and your house – and you have better food.”
(Editor’s note: the author is former deputy Liberal chair of the Senate rules and procedures committee. Smith retired from the Senate in 2016)