THE NOISE FROM the biplane that rumbles over the Tung Fang Hotel in Canton. China, waking guests at 6:30 a.m. these days, might incite a tourist revolution anywhere else in the world. In Canton it is like the sound of one hand clapping - which is to say "no problem."
It's no problem because most visitors have already been in bed a full eight hours or more. They have been in bed because there's very little else to do at night in Canton. And Canton, experienced travelers will tell you, is China's liveliest city. On occasion, you can even find a movie house letting out as late as 10:30 p.m.
Like bamboo. U.S. China relations range from hard to pliable. However, present indications are that the Chinese are being increasingly responsive to American visa applications. The fact that more and more cruise ships passengers have been allowed "inside" is regarded as a particularly encouraging sign. But it's still not London or Las Vegas in the sense that would-be tourist know to expect.
"A trip inside China is the nearest thing you can think of to a school excursion," a repeat customer says to sum up the experience.
Most visitors who come for "tourism" are admitted as part of a group and get essentially similar trips. Of course, a China tour comes as a mystery package. It's a seller's market and the Chinese Commnunists prefer not to clutter up the sale by spelling out details. Groups and individuals are told price, arrival and departure dates, and - usually - cities that can be seen. Programs - what they'll see, what they'll do, where they'll stay - are generally revealed to tourists not after they've prepaid the whole trip but after they have arrived to commence it.
A two-week, three-city tour appears to be the most common "package." Generally it starts in Peking, then takes in Shanghai and Canton. "Peking is glorious for sightseeing," says a recent visitor. "But you have to 'work' for the good sights by visiting factories and communes and constantly taking part in elaborate 'discussion' periods."
One visit to the Ming Tombs and one visit to the Great Wall are fairly standard, but so are sightseeing excursions to places like an electric fan factory or a frozen food plant. Mixed in with most outings is what one visitor calls the "newly refined Chinese water torture," a drip-treatment-like series of friendly get-togethers with your hosts.
"First, before you visit a commune or whatever, you're taken to an uncozy tearoom for a ceremonial cup and some mutual smiles," reports a European visitor.
"Then, one of the Chinese tells you how happy they are to see you, how happy they are to be forming friendships and building bridges to understanding. Then the chief of your delegation - you choose one early - responds by thanking the Chinese People's Republic for its cooperation and its demonstrations of friendship and expresses the group's admiration for the achievements all of you are about to see. After that you make your tour.
"Of course, after you get back together and say the same things, more or less just changing into past tense. Unfortunately, after you do this three or four times a day, 10 days in a row, it becomes a little boring."
Others note that it is also time-consuming. But your schedule is therefore full enough that most visitors don't miss the missing night life. They are grateful to go to bed directly after dinner.
Normall, however, there are some great dinners. If there are food shortages in China, seemingly no foreign visitors have to suffer them. At least one evening will be taken up with a mind-boggling Chinese banquet - a multicourse meal overflowing with meat, fish and fowl, Tsingtao beer, hot Chinese rice wine and delicate teas.
Another evening may include entertainment in the form of excerpts from a revolutionary opera and recitals by musicians playing traditional Chinese instruments. According to a resident foreigner, if you're lucky you'll also get to see a few acrobats - "and they are magnificent."
Then home to bed. With some exceptions, a tourist's hotel home in China is a boxy, Soviet-built highrise, not perhaps clean enough to suit the fastidious but reasonably well equipped with private baths and air-conditioning. Sarcastic guests describe rooms in Canton's Tung Fang Hotel as "fractionally less than the Peninsula," comparing the place to the elegant Hong Kong hotel that picks up arriving guests in a Rolls-Royce.
Some, though are less charitable.
"The place is filthy, the cockroaches are the length of your finger, and in the middle of the night we woke up and saw a rat running across the room," goes one traveler's tale. "Worst of all, I forgot to use the mosquito net, so of course by morning I looked as though I had chicken pox."
The Tung Fang's 10th-floor restaurent-bar is dubbed. "The Famous Nigth Club" and foreign guests who've been there before (primarily annual Trade Fair-going business people) usually settle in after an early dinner to play cards and hustle their own drinks from their own bottles, since the hotel reportedly serves only beer or wine. They also take plenty of their favorite foods, like cheese, sliced bread, foreign coffee, sausages and snack items that are scarce - if not noneexistent - in China.
The Peking Hotel, a relic of the bad old days, is probably the fanciest in China, but some guests criticize it, too. "Why should you get your predecessor's cigraette butts?" asks one, flashing a look of remembered annoyance.
Actually, there may be a reason. A guest who made some mild inquiries after having to make his own bed foru days in a row was told that each floor has a housekeeping time allocation. If a guest, then, happens to be occupying his or her room when th eschedule calls for it to be cleaned, the hotel's rules say the host-like thing to do is pass on by and just leave the linens by the door.
Theoretically tourists can wander out of the hotel and sightsee on their own, but few reportedly even try. All visitors are assigned guides and interpreters and probably woudl be lost without them.
"There is a wall around the Peking Hotel and we were asked to check out at the exit, tell where we were going and when we'd return. They say it's because they're afraid you might get lost. And of course there's not one sign you can read or one person you can talk to," reports a visitor.
Others, though, tell of occasional conversations with Chinese, even free-spoken ones who use English. And English is often known by students who serve as hotel staff as well as by medium-to-big big shots. (Other big-shot tipoffs: leather shoes, patch pockets with flaps on better-tailored, better-quality, Mao-style suits.)
Slipping off to supper at a local restuarant is something few of the mroe adventurous visitors try, but their appearance apparently causes more consternation and alarm than the joy that normally overcomes restaurant proprietors when they sight nice, new "live" customers. And live these are, if Ameicans or West Europeans. The People's Republic practices its Marxism with a sliding scale of prices, reserving rock-bottom rates for ALbanians and other "friendly" nationalists, more elevated tabs for others. Americans, of course, are among the most highly thought of when the bill is presented, and a $10 dinner check can materialize even for the simplest meal. visitors say.
There are "special" shopping prices for foreigners, too. And collectors should know that reportedly it's forbidden to sell antiques more than 180 years old. By most accounts, looking is better than shopping in that many travelers have found much more variety and significantly lower prices in the Communist department stores of Hong Kong.
But if Life is drab and disciplined, travelers say it is also exhilarating to see so many healthy-looking people and so few beggars. It is exhilarating as well, of course, to flirt with the "forbidden," to go inside a still tightly controlled country. Contrived scarcity may a capitalist ploy but apparently it has its uses even in the land of Maoism.