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07 February

Third Letter From Beijing

7 Feb, 2007

When I arrived at the Sichuan hotpot restaurant, my colleague had been there for over 20 minutes. 

A frequenter to this popular chain restaurant, she volunteered to come early and wait for table.  According to her, almost every customer has to wait, merrily.  In the lounge there is free flow of fruit, soya milk, games like cards and chess, free shoe-shiner, free nail-art, and free baby-entertainer as well.  Every one is waiting patiently and happily.  When it was our turn I even doubted whether my colleague actually felt hesitant to leave the lounge.

We were ushered into the crowded yet hilarious dining hall.  Before we started, I went to wash my hands.  In the restroom I was greeted by a mid-age servant.  He opened the tap for me, squeezed hand wash into my palms and then held the tissue waiting to dry my hands, meanwhile serving other customers in the same manner.  Honestly, I felt a bit nervous while I was scrubbing my hands: You don’t frequently have this kind of service, even in five-star hotels.  How much tips should I pay him?  But seems nobody does.  It’s simply his job.

(I know Aunty Linda will have something to say now:-)

When I returned my seat, I was for a while not able to locate my mobile till my colleague pointed to a self-sealed plastic bag which contained it.  The reason my mobile was pouched is to avoid its screen from getting blur by the steam of the hotpot.  I was still trying to understand this when the waitress handed me a piece of cloth: to clean my glasses in need.

Three of us enjoyed a decent hotpot dinner, ending with an entertaining noodle-making session: in front of us the cook made one single thread of noodle from a piece of dough.  The whole bill is slightly over US$15.

When I walked through the happy crowd still waiting in the lounge and left this restaurant, what’s in my mind was quite irrelevant: to survive in China, you’d better climb up the value chain.  You simply can’t compete in an industry like this.

*          *          *          *          *          *

Recently I often have meal at a diner near my company.  The reason is simple: food in the canteen is terrible, especially during the dinner time when there is few eater.

There are various horrific rumors about diners in Beijing.  One of them claims that they use oil re-collected (NOTE: not recycled) from drain.  Well, you can hardly blame them as they are simply practice cost-control. It was those who make and sell it that should be hanged.

When I first entered this diner, I was a little bit nervous too.  It was my fancy of eating at grass-root places that pushed me brave into this health-wise huge question mark.  I ordered two dishes: briefly-boiled mutton stomach and fried shrimp.  The taste was well worthy of the adventure.

As I get familiar with this diner, I realize that it’s rather a community centre than an eating place.  Each time I visit it, there is a big crowd gathering around two, or sometimes three, merged tables.  It’s not always the same group of people, but from what they talk I can tell they are all from this neighborhood, which is a deteriorating Hutong district (Hutong, meaning alley, is the vintage residence of Beijing).  Some of them have moved to new settlements far away from here, yet they come back to drink in this diner, including the owner himself.

Oops, it should be “themselves” since the owners are a couple.  The 50-sth years old wife seems to take main care of the business, while the husband is more often than not drunk.  When the neighbors gaily chat about their mutual memory, the golden past, the grey reality and the unknown future, this fellow always loll aside drooping his head like napping.

For once a MPV drew up and a young office lady came in, a rare scene in a diner like this.  The lady approached the drunk and asked him gently to go home with her.  The fellow shook his head and grumbled that he’s going to sleep here tonight.  One on-looking neighbor joked that how the wife can tolerate her husband to sleep here overnight with two waitresses, who became all flush on such nasty hint, while another compliments that the couple has such a good daughter that glorifies the whole family.  The wife then started to emphasize how important high education is to facilitate class mobility for a girl like her daughter.  A neighbor mentioned that his son is in the final year of high school and asked what the most popular subject nowadays is.  The wife talked some nonsense and eyed her daughter for rescue, but the latter obviously has no interest to join this discussion.  She gave a brief wave to the uncles and aunties, and disappeared with the MPV.  The drunk stayed unmoved and the chat among old neighbors went on.

I enjoyed being an observer of such community reunion sessions that keeps flowing every night.  Sometimes I even ask myself whether I am a member of it, or rather, whether I will become one.  Maybe in future, who knows?  But for the time being the owner hasn’t recognized me yet.

After each dinner, I silently rise from my table, smile to the waitress opening the door for me, and head into the darkness.  Further ahead shining in the skyline I can see the bright smile of Colonel Sanders.  The colorful modern life is embracing me back.  Yet my heart is still with the tiny diner in a shabby Hutong that seems frozen within the time machine.

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