2012 Asia Date Food Geography Interest

The Chinese Onion

Flag of the People's Republic of China

I spent four days in Beijing last week. I was there with Nathan, a friend and work colleague, to attend a series of board meetings for a local gas project, in which the company we work for is a partner.

Beijing was covered in a light snow, and the air was crisp and cold. The city was in the grip of pre-Christmas madness, Asian-style (see my previous post Meri Kurisumasu). Twinkling fairy lights lit up every lamp-post, an ornament-laden Christmas tree stood in every office lobby, and the concierge at the hotel we were staying at was, rather ridiculously, wearing a red Santa hat.

Worst of all, Jingle Bells seemed to follow us wherever we went in Beijing – an ever-present background soundtrack to our visit. This included following us one evening to dinner at what is possibly one of the city’s oldest and most famous Beijing Duck restaurant (or Peking Duck, as it is often referred to outside of China).

So there I was, scoffing down this most quintessentially Chinese dish of roast-duck pancakes, not far from the Forbidden City, while at the same time listening to an English Christmas carol about reindeer, dashing through the snow. And for a few seconds, somewhere between my third and fourth helping of duck, I had “a moment”, where it all began to seem just a little bit surreal.

Indeed, whenever I travel to China I often have these moments, usually when the incredible contrasts that the country presents almost punch me in the face: East and West, old and new, modernity and centuries-old tradition.

From this trip, two such moments especially come to mind.

A Visit to the Wall

Nathan had visited Beijing on previous occasions, but had not had a chance to see the Great Wall of China. Which I thought was a pity, because the Great Wall is genuinely awe-inspiring, undoubtedly one of the greatest ever feats of human creativity and ingenuity.


I decided therefore to arrange a quick excursion for us to the Wall. We only had a half-day free, so to make the most of our limited time we set off early, at 7am. Our destination was a section of the Great Wall at Badaling, 80km northwest of Beijing. A four-lane ultra-modern freeway runs almost the whole way there, so this is the easiest access point to the Wall, if you’re coming from Beijing.

The other upside of Badeling’s proximity to Beijing is that the section of the Great Wall there has been meticulously restored for the benefit of tourists. It affords a real sense of the Wall’s stark magnificence, and how formidable an obstacle it would have seemed to the Mongol hordes, centuries ago.

The downside is that you can dispense with any romantic notions of a quiet, meditative moment while ambling peacefully over the Wall’s weathered stone-steps. Visit the Great Wall at Badaling and your experience will be something shared with, oh, let’s say, about fifty thousand of your closest Chinese friends.

I am not exaggerating. My first visit to the Great Wall was with Linda several years ago, where we travelled to a much more remote section, and even there it was impossible to avoid the tourists. But it was not until my second visit to the Wall, at Badaling, that I fully experienced the true horror of Chinese mass-market tourism.

It starts when you arrive at the vast, all-concrete parking area, jammed to overflowing with smoke belching tour buses, taxis and cars. You then join literally tens of thousands of people ascending and descending the wall (either by cable car or foot), in wave after never-ending wave, like so many faceless soldier ants on the march.

Around you, people shout, smoke and spit relentlessly. After a while your ears begin to hurt from crowd-control instructions and rasping Chinese music that constantly blare from loudspeakers. And if that weren’t enough, swarms of stallholders and peddlers surround you, grab at you, and aggressively try to sell you all manner of crap that you neither want nor need. (Mind you, if you are ever in the market for an “I climbed the Great Wall” t-shirt, mug, cap, plate, key-ring, letter opener, shot glass, decorative wall hanging or toilet-seat cover, Badeling is exactly the right place).

My first visit to Badaling had, however, been in the spring time, whereas now it was winter. Two days before a cold snap had dumped fresh snow across the Beijing region, and the temperature had plunged overnight to a less-than-pleasant minus 12. A ferocious, bone-chilling wind was blowing, so hard that within a minute I couldn’t feel my face or hands. But even so, despite the conditions, I was happy – at 8.30am, the early hour coupled with sub-arctic conditions meant that there was not another tourist around. Plus the snow storm had cleaned the air, and scrubbed the sky a brilliant blue colour.

Less than two minutes later that happiness came to an end, when we were set upon by a pack of souvenir vendors, like two startled rabbits being attacked by hunting dogs. Inclement weather or not, some things never change, and it seems that even the prospect of freezing your balls off won’t deter those who sell tourist knick-knacks at the Great Wall.

Still, it was really, really cold, and we were really, really ill-prepared for the cold. So we quickly succumbed to the relentless pleas of the peddlers. Within minutes we were decked out in newly acquired gloves and replica Chinese military hats. Flaps lined with fake fur hung down over our ears, and a big red was star smack-bang over each of our foreheads.

comrade eytan

Looking like a pair of wanna-be Red Army Comrades, we set out to explore the Great Wall of China. Only to discover that on account of wind and ice, the cable car to the top section was shut, and entry to the lower section was also not possible until much later that day. Bizarrely enough in a country where I have seen some workers scaling scaffolding in their bare feet and without so much as a safety rope, ice on the steps of the Great Wall was deemed to pose an unacceptable safety hazard.

I mean, come on. Surely winter in China is a reasonably predictable annual event? And couldn’t the very same Chinese ingenuity that built the Wall in the first place devise some system to deal with icy steps in the winter? I tried to explain my point of view on this subject to the security guard who was  barring the entry gate, but he stared at me blankly, and then responded very eloquently yet loudly, in what I can only assume was Mandarin.

So after all that, the only thing left for Nathan and me to do at Badeling was drink a couple of horribly expensive coffees and snap a few photos of the Wall snaking its way up and down the surrounding mountain ridges. Although even from a distance it is still a wondrous thing to see.

To kill the time we had left, as well as to shelter from the cold, we popped into a souvenir shop. There we acquired for our respective kids a small suitcase worth of the aforementioned “I climbed the Great Wall” t-shirts. We spent fifteen minutes bargaining fiercely with the store owner, where the price for our trove of tourist crap rapidly fell from 1,800 RMB to 400 RMB. (Helpful hint for those who might one-day find themselves bargaining in a Chinese market: never, ever, ever be first to suggest a price, and once the vendor finally quotes you a price, there is no shame at all in making a counter-offer at 10% of that. Then sit back, relax, and enjoy the theatrics……).

The scene: we are less than twenty feet away from the Great Wall, the most iconic, instantly recognisable symbol of China and its millennia long, proud cultural history. We are wearing Red Army hats, and bargaining for all we are worth with a local shopkeeper, Asian-style. A red Chinese flag – the emblem of communism – is fluttering high above us in the icy wind. It is early morning on a bitterly, cold yet brilliantly clear day; the ground is covered in ice and clumps of snow. Everything is shut, and apart from a few weather-hardened security guards and souvenir-sellers, none of whom speak a word of English, there is no-one about. Certainly there is not another tourist, much less another Western tourist, anywhere to be seen. And we’re thinking that we might want a bite to eat.

In this scene, I would hazard a guess that the last thing you would expect is the rather grandly titled California Beef Noodle King USA. Or even worse, a few metres further along, the smiling face of Colonel Sanders, inviting you to step into a KFC outlet that is colourfully festooned with stars-and-stripes in the Christmas spirit, so that you can enjoy some good-old, American-style fried chicken.

california noodles

Quite literally, remember, in the shadow cast by the Great Wall of China.

From Noodles to Pasta

The evening after visiting the Great Wall, I met Mic, an Australian friend, for dinner. Mic has lived in China for more than a decade, where he runs a large manufacturing factory that we jointly own.

We went to a restaurant in Sanlitun, a part of Beijing popular with ex-pats, perhaps because it was once famous for its sex shops and grimy strip clubs. These days, however, Sanlitun has been gentrified almost beyond recognition, and although the seedy element can still be found in back alleys it has largely been shopping-malled over. In place of girly bars there are now cutting edge glass and steel buildings. Designer boutiques, hip restaurants and cool drinking dens are set amidst well-paved pedestrian strips, futuristic art installations strategically placed here and there.

The restaurant we ate in was the epitome of über-cool designer chic: polished stone and oh-just-so muted lighting, an open kitchen with hard-at-work chefs on display, and gleaming silverware on pressed white table-cloths. We were attended to by a brigade of incredibly attractive young wait-staff in neat black uniforms, gliding around whisper-quiet and able to effortlessly describe that evening’s specials, in both Mandarin and English.

There was nothing even close to a Chinese dish on the Mediterranean-inspired, pasta-heavy menu. So we ordered sautéed shrimp and veal carpaccio with truffle oil, followed by thick, juicy sirloin steak that had been air-flown in that morning, from Australia. A steaming, fresh-baked bread loaf was brought to the table, with olive oil and balsamic vinegar for the dipping. Mic selected a Pinot Noir from New Zealand off the extensive international wine list. Really, we could just as well have been in New York or London or Sydney.

I looked around the room. There were a few other Westerners about, but the crowd dining that evening was predominantly made up of local Chinese, both young and old. At the tables around us were elegant, in some cases strikingly beautiful, Chinese ladies, immaculately coiffed and made-up, turned out in the latest Parisian fashion. Accompanying them were Chinese men in sharply pressed Zegna suits, Rolex or Patek Philippe watches discreetly peeping out from beneath jacket cuffs, making a subtle, yet very clear, statement: “hey, look at me, I am a big time guy in the new China”.

The bill for our meal came to 3,000 renminbi, or about USD$500. Which according to Mic classifies as up-market, although certainly nowhere near to the top of Beijing’s dining stratosphere. He told me of business meals in similar restaurants where it was not uncommon for the bill to go over $1,000. Not in total, but per head.

Now, roll the tape forward fifteen hours.

The following day, after a full schedule of business meetings, I hopped into a waiting car and drove forty-five minutes to Yanjiao, a township on the edge of the greater Beijing metropolitan area, and a place so insignificant in the greater scheme of China that it often doesn’t feature on any maps. The factory that Mic and I co-own is located there, which I try to visit whenever I am in town. Nathan, my work buddy, came along for the ride.

At the factory we manufacture agricultural conveying systems, which are exported to over thirty countries around the world. We employ about 120 workers. Hanging above the reception desk are multiple plaques and certificates, awarded to our business in each of the last five years, by the local Yanjiao government authorities. They proclaim that ours is a “civilised communist business unit” and an “efficient tax-paying organisation”, not to mention a “model employer of noble Chinese workers”.

Which might sound a bit ridiculous in the translation, but is testament to our business’ reputation in the local community as being compassionate, ethical and socially responsible, something not often the case in China’s manufacturing sector juggernaut. I am genuinely very proud of these awards.

When the factory first commenced operations in 1997 (Mic and I acquired it in 2006 from its retiring Canadian founder), Yanjiao was an economic back-water. Apart from a few poverty stricken villagers working sparse vegetable fields, there was nothing there. The local authorities literally gave away the land on which the factory was built – one of several in a mid-sized industrial park – and offered huge incentives and tax-breaks so as to attract jobs and investment to the area.

But change happens fast in China – blink and you might miss it.

Today, Yanjiao is essentially an outer suburb of Beijing, street after street of new hi-rise residential towers. The township is commuting distance from central Beijing, and the newly mobilised Chinese middle-class has poured in, attracted by property prices that are half of those in Beijing proper. There is a park, an artificial lake, and even a golf course (seriously). A Wal-Mart super-store opened last year. IKEA might follow soon. The industrial park in which our factory sits is increasingly coming to look like a fish out of water, surrounded on all sides by thirty-story high apartment blocks.

The big man in town (and our former landlord) is a Chinese gentleman in his mid-fifties, known in Yanjiao simply as “The Beef King”. This is because his business empire was founded on some cattle ranches in Inner Mongolia. Pretty soon, however, like so many other Chinese entrepreneurs, The Beef King realised that China’s exploding property market was the quickest path to serious riches.

In the late 1990s and first half of last decade, he bought up vast swathes of industrial land across his hometown of Yanjiao, usually financed by compliant local banks. And since then he has systematically converted it all into high-density residential apartments. Along the way, The Beef King has many times over become a billionaire that you will never otherwise hear of.

Anyway, after walking around the factory for an hour, we got into the car to make the return drive to central Beijing. As we set off I realised, as is so often the case, that I was feeling a touch peckish.

Each day around lunchtime, rain or shine, along the kerbside just outside the gates of the industrial park, about a dozen food vendors set up small cooking wagons. In these impromptu restaurant kitchens they whip up meals for workers from the nearby factories, who eat on the pavement, sitting on small fold-out chairs.

It was already after 5pm, but fortunately for me one of the vendor’s was still there, and so we stopped the car and piled out. Within a few minutes, on a single-flame open-air wok and in sub-freezing conditions, he had prepared a steaming bowl of freshly stir-fried noodles, packed with egg and fresh vegetables and flavour. The vendor handed the bowl to me, and I handed over 5 renminbi. If you need help with the math, that is a whole meal for about 75 cents.

Street noodles

Nathan and I sat down at a pair of low stools on the snow-covered sidewalk, and tucked in. It was hot, hearty and completely delicious. And munching my way through mouthfuls of this simple worker’s meal, I looked up to the view: a forest of brand-new Beef King tower blocks, under construction.

Talk about having “a moment”. On the one hand, I had stepped for a few minutes into a China that hundreds of millions of workers call home. Where, after a hard day’s toil making most of the stuff in your comfortable Western living room, they get to eat 75 cent street-side noodles sitting in the snow. While across the road there live the Beef Kings and Noodle Kings and Clothing Kings, the newly minted super-elite of the new China, who can trade in those noodle bowls for $1,000 a head pasta restaurants.

In a nutshell, or perhaps I should say, in a noodle, that’s sums up the contrast of modern-day China for you.

You will find towering architect-designed office-blocks and grey Russian-style tenement buildings, row after endless row of them. Yet jammed right in between, you might stumble across a little group of traditional hutong houses, exactly as you would have found them five hundred years ago. Or you can drive along a four-lane 21st century super-highway, but turn off it and within seconds you might find yourself in a Middle Kingdom alleyway, barely the width of your car.

Chinese yuppies in designer suits share pavement space with white-haired old-folk in Mao suits and slippers; blue-collared factory labourers bump up against kids with nose-piercings and skin-tight denims, a mobile phone seemingly fused to their right hand. These same kids, mind you, will board a train at Chinese New Year and travel halfway across the country, back to their home village, to dutifully pay respect to their parents and honour their ancestors.

Spiffy malls, decked out in Christmas tinsel and boasting more Louis Vuitton and Gucci stores than you can count, stand alongside crowded marketplaces where hungry workers buy their produce at open-air stalls. You can join the working class for a street-side noodle meal costing 5 RMB. And just a few feet away on the other side of a thin glass window, you can join China’s nouveau-riche for a meal that will set you back more than 1,000 times as much, or the equivalent of three month’s wages for an average Chinese worker.

It is, as I sometimes refer to it, the Chinese Onion – an ancient people in an emerging society that is made up of many, many layers, most of which are not evident on first look. Peel away one layer, and you will immediately find another. China is an essential ingredient in understanding the world we live in, one which gives off a heady, enticing aroma, but along the way it may well make you cry a bit, too. It can be a confusing clash of secular materialism and age-old tradition; a place where the rampant modernism of the past twenty years is still figuring out how to co-exist with millennia of history and culture.

No wonder I both love and hate the place so much.


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