The Chinese and the Americans stood and raised their glasses. "Ganbei, ganbei ," said the smiling Chinese. "Ganbei, ganbei ," beamed the Americans.
"That means 'bottoms up,'" said a blue-suited man from the Chinese airline.
"It means 'dry glass,'" confided a man from Pan Am.
"It means . . . it means . . . actually I don't know what the hell it means," said an American recently returned from China, as he stood near the door.
His Chinese companion nodded and smiled, but said nothing. "I don't think he speaks English," said the American.
The bilingual backslapping at the Four Seasons Hotel Saturday night was in honor of the restoration of commercial air service between the United States and the People's Republic of China for the first time since 1949. "The Chinese say the doors are wide open," said a Pan Am officer. "They want us to come over and take a look."
Not to let such a momentous occasion ass without fitting fanfare, both Pan American Airways, the only American carrier that will fly to Peking, and CAAC, the Chinese airline, have been busy entertaining the Very Important Passengers on each other's official inaugural flights.
The CAAC inaugural delegation, 60 strong, included Shen Tu, China's director of civil aviation, several Chinese journalists, travel agents, a host of Chinese aviation officialdom, a dancer, singer and pianist, and, last and perhaps most important, one able-bodied, overworked translator.
Was Mr. Shen enjoying the visit?
"Yes," said the translator.
How was the trip from Peking?
"Very nice," said the translator.
What happened during the White House visit earlier that morning?
"He says he is afraid of journalists," said the translator, as Shen Tu closed his eyes in silent mirth.
Did he enjoy meeting the vice president?
"Why not?" said the translator.
The group has landed in New York on Thursday, and come to Washington in time for a two-minute audience with the vice president and an evening of celebration that included dinner, a Martha Graham dance troupe performance at the Kennedy Center, and a Viennese sweet table afterward.
"I've been to China, and I've flown CAAC," said Howard Cannon, the lone senator in the crowd, which included Boeing Chairman T. A. Wilson, and former transportation secretary William Coleman, who is now on Pan Am's Board of Directors. Cannon recalled one flight, on a Russian-built CAAC version of the DC-3. "All the luggage was overhead, the seats didn't lock into the upright position, and there weren't any seat belts," said Cannon. "They'll have to work on that, and they'll also have to build some hotels. And maybe we ought to learn some Chinese."
One of the first through the Pan Am receiving line was the Chinese ambassador, Chai Zemin. He greeted Pan Am Chairman William Seawell quietly. His interpreter hovered nearby. As the ambassador moved on, he spotted an ethnic dancer from the CAAC delegation. He eyed the long black braids hanging down her back as he spoke to several men. Slowly he extended his arm. Still talking, he grabbed a handful of plaited hair. He inspected it, turning the braids over in his hand, remarking, in Chinese, on their length and number. He twisted them a little, then dropped them. Conversation continued. The dancer never turned around.
Martha Graham herself appeared briefly, as Pan Am's guests made rapid inroads into the shrimp and oysters and giant crab claws outside the dining room. "It's so lovely to be here," she said, her diaphanous purple silk flowing royally behind her as she floated through the reception. She wore small black satin slippers. "Yes," she murmured, "modeled on the Chinese."
"We expect to see many more Americans in China now," said Lin Zhaonan, a first minister at the PRC embassy, as he sat at the dinner table. "And not just ministers," he said. "We hope to see the common people as well."
At approximately $3,000 for a round-trip fare, it remains to be seen how many of the common people will clamber aboard Pan Am's new fleet of Boeing "China Clippers," but Saturday night no one was worried.
"Sure it's going to be a profitable route for us!" said a Pan Am representative.
"We'd never do something like this if it weren't. Those days are gone forever."