Monday, 9 May 2011

9th May 1999 and three miracles take place in China

Actually, I had decided not to post on this subject, it's rather personal and it's also rather lengthy but, after Saturday's meeting with a group of excellent fellow Catholic bloggers, where we were encouraged to share good stories involving the faith, I have decided to publish and be, well not damned but maybe understood in respect that this post is not really about me - it's about the intercession of Our Lady and my Guardian Angel.
The 9th May 1999 may not ring any bells with you or, indeed, the date of the 7th May when it all began with NATO accidentally bombing the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. Three Chinese nationals were killed - a tragic accident of Bill Clinton's Presidency, or so we are told.

At the time I was in my bed in the Kempinsky Hotel in Beijing suffering from terrible jetlag. At 4am I watched the news unfold on CNN (then the only western channel available generally in China). It was to be a further two days before the Chinese Government allowed news of the event to be broadcast on the China networks.
Through my numbed senses I slowly realised that this could have serious implications for any American or European in China but I had little concept of how grave those implications were to become.
This was the start of a two week tour of China, recruiting students for British Colleges and Universities and I apologise now for the wordiness of this post but I think that a certain amount of scene setting is required.

All thanks to Our Lady, Queen of Heaven!
That morning I walked to the nearby Hilton Hotel where my first recruitment seminar was to be held. My Chinese Agent, Li Feng aka 'Edward' was a cultured and educated businessman who had gained an MA in English at a Canadian University. I told him the news on arrival at the Hilton and he, in typical fashion, looked thoughtful but said nothing. After the seminar we loaded our luggage into a very large black "Russian Mercedes" type of car and with Mr Wu, our chauffeur, set off for Zhengzhou City some 12 hours drive away. Mr Wu and the car had been generously loaned to me by a Chinese business contact; possibly as a result of my rash pronouncement that I would drive myself across China for this tour. Edward had asked me if I knew what to do if I accidentally knocked over a pedestrian. "Take him or her to hospital?" was my response. "No" said Edward: "You must reverse over him to kill him quickly." The reasoning being that if you injure someone in China you have to pay an annual compensatory payment of £1000 whereas, if you accidentally kill them you only pay a one-off sum of £1000.
After Edward absorbed my horrified response, our business associate quickly put his car and driver at our disposal.
Chinese motorways are even more tedious than British ones and I slept most of the way to our halfway house call at the city of Shijiazhuang. We broke overnight here and stayed at a Chinese run hotel which like all of their kind was pretty grim. We ate in the hotel restaurant eating jellied donkey, boiled duck's blood, boiled peanuts and hotel brewed beer which was cloudy and rancid - not a great start.
The following day we left early and, after six hours we arrived at the outskirts of Zhengzhou, a city of some five million.
We rapidly became gridlocked and all traffic in our direction was reduced to two lanes. Before long I became aware that Edward and Mr Wu were indulging in some animated conversation and from the back of the head body language I concluded that something was well and truly amiss.

"It's a demonstration" said Edward turning to me and, as he said thse words I saw the front line of demonstrators marching towards us some one hundred yards away. The noise was undescribable, a mob baying for blood. Even now, the full implication of what we were facing did not strike me; it was only when the mob drew closer and I could see just how violent was their protest that I became aware of how vulnerable and exposed I was. As they marched they attacked billboards and signage, ripping them up and used lengths of wood as staves that they then smashed against the ground as they proceeded. I asked Edward what they were chanting. He said: "They are saying, "Kill the Americans, kill the British, send their souls to Hell". That was a scrap of detail that I could have done without.
By now the mob were level with the car (we were in the outside of the two lanes and directly in their path).
It was then that the gravity of the situation hit me and I went into automatic Catholic mode and immediately made an Act of Perfect Contrition (I thank the Dominican Sisters of Burnt Oak for beating this into me). I had no doubt that I was about to be dragged from the car and torn apart. My next move was to surreptitiously, lock both rear doors, not that this would have kept them off for long but it was a positive move and I needed to take what little positive action was available to me. By now the car was surrounded with a rabid throng who appeared to be totally out of control; their eyes were blank but their faces were contorted and grotesque.
I then went into prayer mode but could not formulate a standard prayer, instead I threw myself on the power of Our Lady and a garbled prayer to my Guardian Angel, mentally apologising for neglecting him so often.
Now the first miracle that occurred was that I was totally unmoved by this threat. In fact I was energised by it, I did not wish for death but I had absolutely no fear of it and this was due solely to the intercession of Our Lady. Strangely, just as I could not compose a proper prayer so the words of a Marian hymn kept ringing through my head and they haunt me still today so that I cannot hear this hymn without getting a lump in the throat.

O purest of creatures! sweet Mother, sweet Maid;
The one spotless womb wherein Jesus was laid.
Dark night hath come down on us, Mother, and we
Look out for thy shining, sweet Star of the Sea.
And the banners of darkness are boldly unfurled;
And the tempest-tossed Church—all her eyes are on thee,
They look to thy shining, sweet Star of the Sea.

This was the only verse that kept repeating within my head, it just seemed so apt, especially, 'the banners of darkness' element.
Now the mob was rocking the car so great was the pressure of bodies as they walked past. I sat in the rear seat and looked resolutely ahead, not wishing to make eye contact which would have been fatal. I am not good with estimating numbers but this mob took up six lanes of an eight lane highway and they processed past for at least ten minutes. 80,000 to 100,000 would be my best guess but it could have been double those numbers. Now Mr Wu's resolve cracked and, as the inside lane traffic moved, only a few feet, he accelerated and flung the car to the right to try to occupy the inside lane and so put a line of cars between ourselves and the demonstrators. What actually happened was that he swung the car over at 45 degrees and was then blocked at proceeding further. This was critical as I was now face on with the mob; they did not have to look sideways to see me they could see me by looking straight ahead. This, to me, was the second miracle, it was as though I was the Invisible Man, the back seat of the car was vacant as far as the mob was concerned. Still I was calm and relaxed. I remember thinking how bad it was going to be for my wife, not knowing what precisely had happened to me and not having a body to bury. Finally, the crisis vanished as quickly as it had materialised and we carried on to our hotel. After suffering the hardships of a Chinese hotel the previous night I had insisted that Edward phone and make a fresh booking in Zhengzhou for me - at the Holiday Inn. Now I recalled that this was an American Hotel Group and this could also be a target but it was too late to change anything, we needed to get undercover as quickly as possible.
As we arrived the manager came running out and ushered us into an office. We checked in in secret and he made me swear that I would not leave my room under any circumstances for the next three days, the duration of our stay. All seminars and meetings were cancelled and I ensconced myself in my room to begin my period of isolation.
As far as both Edward and I could tell, I was the only westerner in the hotel. Later that evening after a quick tour of the city, Edward reckoned that there were only 20 or 30 westerners in total left in the city, most had jumped on a plane for elsewhere.

The following day was boring to the extreme, only Chinese television was available (needless to say, with no coverage of any demonstrations) and I had left my paperback collection back in Beijing. So I prayed and concentrated on emptying the mini bar at regular intervals. One day I would do the gins and the vodkas, the next I would do the cheap whiskies and then the malt whiskies, and so it continued. After three days my liver had begun to harden!
By midday I heard in the distance what sounded like an airliner taking off; a slow roar of noise that rose to a crescendo of sound and then quickly faded. It carried on gradually getting louder throughout the day. I discounted the local airport, that was 35 minutes away by car. What could it be? I watched intermittently from my sixth floor bedroom window and then, after 20 minutes the noise took on an immense volume. It was an inhuman sound, like 20 jet engines revving up simultaneously and  I realised that it was the mob again, in full tongue. It would not be over egging it to describe the noise as demonic. Slowly the front lines came into view and I started to work out a plan of action as I felt certain that the hotel would be a focus of their attentions. Would they demand a printout of guests' names? If so it would not be long before they would be on their way to my room. Should I take off now and hide in some laundry room? I discounted that as being too shameful, fancy being discovered hiding under a pile of sheets and then hauled out unceremoniously and lynched - just not me!
My best chance, I decided, was to stay put and barricade myself into the room. Some 40 ranks were now in sight and the wide entrance to the hotel was about to be breached. With almost military precision, the mob executed a right wheel and entered the hotel grounds. Now I had a telephone at my disposal and I desperately wanted to phone my wife to say all the things one would wish to say in your last five minutes of life but that would have meant (obviously) telling her of my predicament and causing her no amount of anguish. I elected for a no call and looked out of the window again, as they marched towards the hotel entrance two security guards ran to meet them, their arms outstretched in a 'no entry' sort of position. To my surprise the mob did a smooth left wheel and left the premises, without breaking or faltering step or pace in any way. How could two security guards effect such a massive change of plan? Only with the help of the Mother of God.
The reason for the noise rising and diminishing in volume became clear. Zhengzhou, like many Chinese cities, is built on a grid system so, while the mob was half a mile away walking in a direction parallel to the hotel, the noise sounded like a jet engine warming up, but when they turned down a street facing the direction of the hotel it was exactly as if a jet was taking off.
That then, was the third miracle - a mob seemingly intent on trashing a hotel and sniffing out any western residents turned back by the hand of God.

The Beijing US Embassy after attack by
a mob following the NATO bombing
That really is the story; I returned to Beijing by air on the third day to find the city empty of westerners. I ate a solitary breakfast in the one hundred yard long breakfast bar at the Kempinsky and packed up my gear to return home. Later I learnt that a German tourist had been lynched in the Embassy Quarter and was only saved by some British Embassy guards pulling him to safety.
The British Vice Consul and his wife in Chengdu had to flee at night across their back lawn as a mob torched the Consulate and every McDonalds and KFC outlet was wrecked and plundered throughout the whole of China.
But I escaped, unafraid, unscathed and unharmed, thanks be to Almighty God and His Mother and His Angels and His Saints!


  1. Hi
    Any chance you could re-post this in a font size adequate for 50 year old + eyes to read? The font is too small for me to distinguish the letters and I would so love to read this. In the meantime, I'll search for my reading specs.

  2. Sorry about that Joyce, I have upped the font size.

    Gareth - you are way too "wordy" :)

  3. I think it is the unafraid bit that amazes me!Did you, by any chance, have a Rosary in your pocket?

  4. A CCH - I'm ashamed to say that I can't recall. I often used to take a rosary with me on my travels but they invariably got lost along the way!

  5. TLW - please let me know if there is an improvement, if not I will put it in 18pt !

  6. Thank you, this font is nearly perfect. My aging eyes thank you as well.

    What a riveting account of Our Lady's intercession on your behalf. The part where the two security guards fended off the angry mob with some gestures was truly miraculous, like the loaves and the fishes.