For most of the 30-year blackout in Sino-American relations, the only official U.S. representative in China was a man who speaks pidgin English and who never has strayed far from his home in this coastal city.
Zhao Wenjin began working as custodian at the U.S. Consulate here in 1926 when Chinese helpers were still called "boy" and Xiamen -- then known as Amoy -- was a center for American missionary and educational efforts.
When the last U.S. consul left Japanese-occupied Amoy in 1944, he asked Zhao to look after the American property -- a job that he did faithfully through decades of war, social chaos and bitter estrangement between Washington and Peking.
Now 77, he lives out his years comfortably in a four-room bungalow, collecting a $74 monthly pension that the U.S. government arranged for him after normalizing relations with China in 1979 and discovering Zhao on the payroll.
"I had a job to do, so I did it," he said during a recent visit to his home here. "The consul told me I had to stay behind to watch the building after everyone else left. He said, 'If you work, you get paid.' "
Since the United States had no representation in China until the 1970s, it funneled Zhao's pay -- $60 weekly -- through the neutral Swedes during World War II and later through the British Embassy in Peking.
For his wages, Zhao said, he walked down the steep hill from his house to the abandoned, two-story consulate, where he pruned the hedges, washed the green shutters, dusted desks and waited for the return of his employers.
He said he never missed a day, not when Chinese and American soldiers slugged it out in Korea, not when the U.S. 7th Fleet moved into the Taiwan Straits offshore of Xiamen and not even when radical Red Guards beat anyone suspected of U.S. connections.
"I liked the job, it was familiar to me," he explained in his curious blend of English and local patois. "I didn't care about the 7th Fleet. I just wanted to get the work done."
When Zhao was hired by the American Consulate 56 years ago, Amoy was a busy, exotic port city with 13 foreign consular offices, churches, Western hospitals, colonial-style houses and nightclubs.
Zhao began by delivering mail, arranging for travel permits and ordering local rickshaw drivers to transport the handful of American officials then residing in the spacious red-brick consulate. With his approximate English and solicitous manner, he soon became a favorite of consulate officials, who adopted him as a member of the household. Through the 1930s and 1940s, he acted as a kind of social secretary.
He helped prepare for the Saturday dances at the Amoy Club, a white structure with columns and sweeping veranda, where the expatriate community would gather in formal dress for the big-band sound.
"The consul would say, 'Hey, boy, I have seven or 10 guests coming to the club tonight. Make some beef steaks and fried fish and send them over,' " he recalled, smiling through his gold-capped teeth as if he could still hear the words.
After the Americans left, the Amoy Club was turned into a public library. The sprawling consulate now houses the Chinese Oceanographic Research Institute. The only American emblem left is Zhao's monthly pension check.
Zhao retired two years ago after a young U.S. consular agent traveled here to reward his loyalty with the pension, $6,000 in back payments and a visa allowing him and his wife to emigrate to America.
Zhao, who has relatives in California, said he is too old and infirm to see the land he has heard and dreamed so much about since he was a young man.
Instead, he rocks on his porch and reminisces for his grandchildren and neighbors, who regard him as a kind of honorary American. He keeps up the image by filling his shelves with Coca-Cola and American butter cookies.
"The Americans have helped me a great deal," he said, "but I worked for it."