Medieval traders and explorers went to China looking for spice and treasure.
Gough Whitlam and Richard Nixon went to China looking for peace and acclaim.
I went to China to eat penis.
So on a sweltering summer evening a dozen years ago, I found myself trying to balance a small piece of gristle slathered in hot chilli sauce on the end of a pair of trembling chopsticks.
It looked like a witchetty grub that had been boiled the way my grandmother insisted on cooking her vegetables – long and hard until all the colour, flavour and vitamins were removed.
But the chef assured me that this tiny, glutinous lump of fat, which had once been dangling between the legs of a wild sheep known for its speed and agility, was nothing less than a nourishing dish guaranteed to improve my vigour and strength.
Down the hatch it went. Despite the spicy sauce, my suspicions were confirmed.
Its texture and taste was exactly like my grandmother’s fare – bland, lifeless and forgettable.
Still, it was far easier to swallow than the comments made last week by two Australian billionaires – Kerry Stokes and Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest.
But first, back to those other tired, wrinkly and tasteless offerings …
It was late in July in 2008 and in Beijing’s West Lake area another busy night was under way at Guolizhuang, China’s first restaurant exclusively dedicated to animal penises.
The menu was hardly Instagram-worthy.
Every dish – apart from donkey penis, which boasted a deep smokey flavour reminiscent of a fine aged ham – displayed little more than lumpy and wrinkled appendages better left hanging from their original owners.
Still, it was perfect fodder for a reporter desperately trying to fill a news vacuum before the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games.
Another opportunity for a curious westerner to reinforce all those cultural prejudices about the Chinese and their exotic eating habits?
But the Chinese themselves boast that they delight in eating everything with legs except a table, and everything that flies except a plane.
Proof of that came a couple of evenings later when I wandered through one of the city’s endless night markets eating deep-fried scorpion (nutty, salty, delicious), a bag of dried crickets and other insects (could have done with an extra thousand or two) and a skewer of ram testicles (tough, grisly, lacking seasoning).
But I’d be happy to go back and sample those meals again.
They left a better taste in the mouth than the sycophantic kowtowing to Beijing we saw last week from Mr Forrest and Mr Stokes.
The two Western Australian billionaires acted like starry-eyed members of the China cheer squad when they questioned Australia’s leading role in calling for an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus.
Here’s Mr Stokes: “If we’re going to go into the biggest debt we’ve had in our life and then simultaneously poke our biggest provider of income in the eye, it’s not necessarily the smartest thing you can do … If Beijing’s anger is not quelled it could have catastrophic consequences for the economy.”
Not the interesting use of the word “quelled”. One of its official definitions is that it means putting “an end to a rebellion … typically by the use of force.”
Let’s place the word in a more appropriate context: China quelled a push for democratic reforms – and an end to corruption within the upper ranks of its ruling communist party – by declaring martial law and killing hundreds and possibly thousands of demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Here’s Mr Forrest, a businessman who, like Mr Stokes, can also credit much of his fortune to his ties with China: “I don’t know if this virus started in China or somewhere else, and frankly I don’t care.”
That, surely, is one of the most astounding – and absurd – comments made by a so-called business leader in this country since … well, since Gerry Harvey boasted about the wonderful sales opportunity coronavirus had provided his company.
A virus infects close to four million people, kills more than 250,000 (so far), clobbers the world economy and Mr Forrest effectively says its origins and subsequent spread around the planet don’t deserve scrutiny?
Mr Forrest’s Fortescue Metals Group is the dominant player in WA’s lucrative Pilbara region.
Imagine if his company discovered all those rich iron-ore deposits had suddenly been contaminated and riddled with a highly-contagious substance?
Would he be so eager to shrug and look the other way?
Mr Stokes and Mr Forrest might be self-made men.
But they are also driven by self-interest and they exist in that moral-free zone so many of our business leaders embrace when it comes to dealing with China.
It is why so many have behaved so erratically during the current pandemic.
Better, they say, to appease the sleeping giant at any cost than poke it with a stick by examining how Chinese authorities covered up the early spread of COVID-19 and downplayed its threat.
The push by Prime Minister Scott Morrison for a neutral global inquiry has been a rare display of political backbone by an Australian political leader when it comes to our dealings with the Chinese.
And like any bully, China has already foreshadowed reprisals by trotting out its usual parade of spokesmen reading from the same script.
Chinese ambassador Cheng Jingye has warned of a possible Chinese consumer boycott of Australian products including wine and beef.
Hu Xijin, the editor of the communist party mouthpiece, Global Times, followed up with another Beijing-endorsed warning.
“Australia is always there, making trouble,” he said.
“It is a bit like chewing gum stuck on the sole of China’s shoes. Sometimes you have to find a stone to rub it off.”
But China is hardly in a position to conduct an all-out economic war with the West, either.
Its economy has a long way to go to recover from the coronavirus, and that recovery will partly depend on its reliance on our coal and iron ore.
Whether a global inquiry can be conducted without China’s co-operation remains to be seen.
But one thing is surely certain: We can never again take seriously the musings of any Australian businessman when it comes to our dealings with China.
Their devotion to the dollar and to Beijing means they’ll swallow anything.
Garry Linnell was director of News and Current Affairs for the Nine network in the mid-2000s. He has also been editorial director for Fairfax and is a former editor of The Daily Telegraph and The Bulletin magazine