M.V. Liu Lin Hai, first ship from People's Republic of China to visit U.S., docks at Pier 91 in Seattle on April 18, 1979.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 4/17/2015
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 1696

On April 18, 1979, the M.V. Liu Lin Hai docks at the Port of Seattle's Pier 91 at Smith Cove. The visit, the first in 30 years by a ship from mainland China to the United States, comes one month after the corresponding visit of an American freighter to Shanghai. The resumption of direct shipping after a three-decade hiatus follows the establishment of full diplomatic relations between the United States and the People's Republic of China. The U.S. had severed ties with China when the Communist government of Mao Zedong (1893-1976) came to power in 1949. Limited relations, including trade on ships flying the flags of other countries, resumed in 1972, with formal diplomatic recognition coming in 1979. The Chinese ship is greeted at Pier 91 by Washington U.S. Senator Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989), a longtime advocate of restoring ties with China; his senate colleague Henry M. Jackson (1912-1983); other officials; and a Navy band. It will depart 10 days later, after loading 37,000 tons of Midwest corn at the Port's Pier 86 grain terminal. U.S.-China trade will grow exponentially over subsequent decades, and the country will become the Port of Seattle's largest import trade partner.

Restoring Relations 

When Mao Zedong's Communist Party took control of mainland China in 1949, establishing the People's Republic of China, the United States refused to recognize the government of the world's largest country, contending that the Nationalist Party headed by Chiang Kai-Shek (1887-1975), which retained control of Taiwan, was the legitimate government. Trade between the two nations, which for the previous half-century or more had played a significant role in the economy of Seattle and the Northwest, came to an end. During the next two decades of cold-war hostility, Senator Warren Magnuson was one of the few prominent public officials to advocate consistently for normalizing diplomatic relations and re-establishing trade with China. He maintained, in the words of biographer Shelby Scates: 

"We can't write off 700 million (now more than a billion) people because they've been united under a Communist regime. We should bring them into the United Nations and make trade -- and pacify the Pacific Rim with commerce" (Scates).

Magnuson's views were vindicated after more than two decades, when President Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994) began the process of establishing ties between the United States and the People's Republic of China with a 1972 visit to the country. Magnuson made a visit of his own to China the following year where he met with Premier Zhou Enlai (1898-1976). President Jimmy Carter (b. 1924) completed the process in December 1978, extending full diplomatic recognition to the People's Republic of China effective January 1, 1979, and severing official U.S. relations with the Nationalist Republic of China government in Taiwan.  

Trade between the U.S. and mainland China resumed after Nixon's 1972 visit but, until the resumption of full diplomatic relations, shipping between the two was conducted in vessels from other countries, known as "third-flag" ships (Carter, "Long-awaited ..."). In 1978, U.S.-China trade exceeded $1 billion, with the U.S. achieving a trade surplus of $390 million by exporting $740 million, mostly grain, while importing $350 million in goods. (As trade expanded exponentially over the next several decades that balance would shift sharply in favor of China as it became the leading supplier of consumer goods to the U.S. market.) 

In 1979, with diplomatic ties in place, ships from each country could visit the other for the first time in 30 years. A U.S. ship made the first call, exactly one month before the Liu Lin Hai docked in Seattle. On March 18, 1979, the freighter S.S. Letitia Lykes arrived in Shanghai, where it was welcomed by schoolchildren with flowers, longshore workers dressed in silk and dancing to cymbals, and U.S. Ambassador Leonard Woodcock (1911-2001). The ship loaded a varied cargo that included honey, tea, and other food; textiles and clothing; and furniture and ceramics. 

Not long after the Letitia Lykes reached Shanghai the Liu Lin Hai departed for the United States, sailing empty with plans to take on a load of Midwest corn in Seattle. The 637-foot cargo ship was built in Norway as the Belnor. Acquired by China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) in 1977, the ship was renamed the Liu Lin Hai after the city of Liu Lin near Beijing (the captain of the Liu Lin Hai explained that "hai," a common ending for Chinese ship names, means "sea"). 

Seattle Port of Call 

The selection of Seattle as the first port of call for the Chinese-flagged ship was seen as honoring Magnuson and other area leaders who had long advocated normalization of relations, as well as recognizing the Seattle region's potential as a trading partner. Earlier in the year, when Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997) made a goodwill tour of the United States following the resumption of ties, Seattle -- where he met on February 4 with Senators Magnuson and Jackson -- was one of his stops.

The Liu Lin Hai reached Elliott Bay on the morning of April 18, 1979, and docked at Pier 91 in Smith Cove, between Magnolia and Queen Anne, at 10:30 a.m. The ship was welcomed by a crowd of 300, a Navy brass band, and speeches by dignitaries including Magnuson, Jackson, Washington Governor Dixy Lee Ray (1914-1994), and U.S. Transportation Secretary (and future senator from Washington) Brock Adams (1927-2004).

Although the welcome festivities took place at Pier 91, the vessel was loaded at the Port of Seattle's grain terminal at Pier 86 on the Elliott Bay waterfront north of downtown Seattle. The historic visit was expected to last five days but stretched to 10 as the Liu Lin Hai had to wait for other ships to load at the grain terminal, and then for the 37,000 tons of corn (nearly 1.5 million bushels, valued at more than $5 million) from Minnesota, Iowa, and Nebraska that it was taking aboard to be cleaned (the ship captain said he had expected the corn to be cleaned in Minnesota, not at the loading terminal). However, the delay allowed the ship's crew time for various sightseeing trips around Seattle and a table-tennis match against a local club.

Finally full, the Liu Lin Hai departed Seattle for China on the evening of April 27. Less than six months later, the ship was back in Puget Sound. The Liu Lin Hai made her second trip to the region in October, again to collect a load of U.S. corn, this time at the Port of Tacoma. At the same time, Port of Seattle executive director Richard Ford (1930-2013) and other officials were in China, formalizing a "friendship port" agreement with the Port of Shanghai. Soon thereafter, four Port of Shanghai managers spent a three-month training internship in Seattle, and returned to develop China's first container terminal in Shanghai. U.S.-China trade soared from $4.8 billion in 1980 (already four times the 1978 total) to more than $366 billion by the turn of the twenty-first century. And, like the first load of corn, a substantial portion of that trade passed through the Port of Seattle, with China becoming the Port's largest import trade partner.


"U.S. Freighter Arrives in China," The Seattle Times, March 19, 1979, p. B-10; Glen Carter, "Long-awaited Chinese Ship to Load Corn Here April 18," Ibid., April 6, 1979, p. B-9; Richard Zahler, "Top Officials Greet Chinese Ship," Ibid., April 18, 1979, p. A-1; Carter, "Band, Crowd of 300 Welcome Chinese Ship at Pier 91," Ibid., April 18, 1979, p. B-2; Carter, "Chinese Ship Sets Sail, After Delay," Ibid., April 28, 1979, p. A-9; "Freighter From China to Pay Second Visit Here," Ibid., October 6, 1979, p. D-21;"$750,000 Fine for President Lines," Ibid., October 21, 1979, p. C-16; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Magnuson, U.S. Sen. Warren G., and Relations with the People's Republic of China" (by Shelby Scates) and "Chinese Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping (or Teng Hsiao-ping) arrives in Seattle for a two-day visit on February 3, 1979" (by Phil Dougherty), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed April 17, 2015); Kit Oldham, Peter Blecha, and the HistoryLink Staff, Rising Tides and Tailwinds: The Story of the Port of Seattle, 1911-2011 (Seattle: Port of Seattle, 2011), 81-82, 89.
Note: This essay replaces an earlier essay on the subject.

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