The Revolution Is a Dinner Party

 

THE REVOLUTION IS A DINNER PARTY

Within the elegant courtyards and ornate pavilions of Beijing’s China Club,
the elite creators of modern China eat lavishly and well

By David Sheff

 

It’s a steamy Beijing evening, and I’m walking along vast Tiananmen Square.

Gaggles of tourists follow guides, children play tag, peddlers sell fruit

ice and watermelon, and newlyweds pose for photographs. After passing the

enormous Great Hall of the People, I turn in to a narrow hutong, one of

Beijing’s ancient alleyways, where shirtless men sit in their doorways

chatting, a woman in plastic sandals pours a bucket of dirty water onto the

street, and a group of boys, munching sticks of fried dough, listen to Billy

Joel’s “My Life” on a boom box. I turn down a second hutong, which leads me

to a gate flanked by stone lions and a uniformed guard. When I duck through,

I am transported to another world and another time.

The China Club Beijing is a rare place in China today, a reminder of

imperial life in a nation where most cultural artifacts were destroyed by

Mao Tse-tung’s marauding Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution (1966 to

1976) and where even the Forbidden City, the palace complex that was the

seat of Chinese power for 500 years, survived only because the army was sent

in to protect it.

Housed in a compound built five centuries ago as the home of Prince Pu Yu,

the 24th son of the emperor Kangxi, the club is a precious jewel of design

and history, with elements that evoke centuries past layered with some

straight out of the second half of the 20th century-like Mao-style velvet

chairs with lace antimacassars such as the Chinese bourgeoisie might have

owned had there in fact been a Chinese bourgeoisie during those years. And

the club’s kitchen serves a thrilling menu of classic Chinese dishes: spicy

Sichuan, delicate Cantonese, and rich Shanghainese, with refined versions of

Beijing specialties as well.

The detailed renovation of this landmark has made it far more beautiful than

even the Forbidden City (which will undergo a complete restoration in time

for the 2008 Beijing Olympics). The old palace is a “square house”, or si heyuan, a

grander version of the one featured in the 1991 film Raise the Red Lantern.

Palaces of this vintage have a series of courtyards surrounded by ornate

pavilions. The more courtyards, the greater the stature and wealth of the

palace’s occupant; and there are four main courtyards here, framed by gates

adorned with crests and gold trim, held aloft by lacquered beams. The larger

pavilions connecting the courtyards are now the banquet hall and dining

rooms. One pavilion holds the wryly named Long March Bar, resplendent with

gleaming mahogany. Another was once the old master’s inner sanctum and is

now the main dining room, the Tang Room, named for the club’s owner, David

Wing-cheung Tang. The room is finished in dark wood, with handsome Ming

dynasty tables, a polished stone floor, and the club’s signature scarlet

lamps, shaped like teardrops and decorated with the yellow star of China’s

flag. The pavilion near the entrance houses eight immaculate guest suites,

and the restaurant there is the only part of the club that is open to the

public. It is named after the palace’s previous tenant, Sichuan Fan Dian, or

Sichuan Restaurant, a favorite hangout of China’s former leader Deng

Xiaoping. The restaurant is much plainer than the other rooms in the club,

but the food-primarily Sichuan, as you’d expect-is from the same wondrous

kitchen that serves the members.

I was introduced to the China Club by Bo Feng, a dear friend whom I met a

decade ago when he was a student filmmaker and part-time waiter and sushi

chef in Marin County, California. In the most improbable career change since

Jesse Ventura’s, he is now a venture capitalist, or VC-one of the most

important VCs in his homeland, in fact. After being educated in the United

States, he returned to China to help lead the latest revolution to sweep the

most populous country on earth-a virtual revolution, devoted to bringing

free-flowing information and uncensored communication to a nation without

either. As a founding partner in Chengwei Ventures, Bo searches out and

funds entrepreneurs who are dedicated to building the Internet in China.

Compared with their U.S. counterparts, these young people work harder, sleep

less, and-as I’ve experienced firsthand-eat better. Far better. The nerdy

pioneers of the information revolution in California are known for their

devotion to Big Macs and pizza delivered at midnight. But with Bo and his

peers, I’ve sampled some of the best fare of a land with a cuisine far more

refined than Americans-most of whom think that Chinese food consists of

gluey sweet-and-sour pork and greasy egg rolls-can fathom. Chairman Mao once

said, “The Revolution is not a dinner party,” but this one certainly appears

to be.

Over the course of five years of visits to China to research a series of

magazine articles and then a book about Bo and his colleagues, I ate some of

the most extraordinary meals of my life. No, I never saw monkey’s brain.

Instead, at a Hangzhou restaurant, we dined on an otherworldly “like a

picture of spring” soup of local vegetables in clear broth, along with tofu

and daikon in vinegar, Chinese squash with bamboo shoots, goose wings, clams

in pepper sauce, steamed buns with red bean paste, and small black crabs;

the next morning we had tea under a red willow tree in a Qing dynasty

teahouse called Autumn Moon on a Calm Lake Pavilion, snacking on yam sticks

and olives with our freshly roasted longjing tea. In a private room in

Beijing, I sampled an “eye” snake, selected by Bo and his friends from a

terrarium, that was then grilled until crisp and served with vinegar-shallot

dipping sauce. I returned a dozen times to a stand near Bo’s Shanghai

apartment for my favorite Chinese breakfast-fresh wonton in broth,

pork-and-cilantro dumplings, and a glass of icy soybean milk.

But the most consistently delicious meals I’ve eaten in China have been at

the China Club Beijing, whose antique splendor provides a backdrop for

another, very modern kind of elite, the leaders of the country’s ongoing

political-economic transformation. While it’s no secret that there’s little

that’s “Communist” today about Communist China-a country now “as drugged on

business as it was on politics”, as Orville Schell notes in Mandate of

Heaven (Touchstone Books, 1995), his history of China in the early 1990s-the

China Club would horrify Marx, Engels, and Mao himself. Membership in this

private club costs an initiation fee of $15,000 plus $1,200 a year

(foreigners pay a flat $7,000). The price would be steep anywhere but is

astronomical in China, where the average salary is about $1,000 a year.

Nevertheless, the club has some 1,200 members, including Hong Kong and

overseas Chinese, high-up Communist party members, and local businessmen.

 

My first dinner at the China Club, five years ago, was with Bo, whose

company had a membership, and his father, Feng Zhijun, a scholar and

legislator representing the Ningxia region in the Standing

Committee of the People’s Republic. The Fengs, who are Shanghainese, turn up

their noses at most Beijing food-they consider it less refined-but find much

to appreciate on chef Fung Kai On’s menu for the Tang Room, which offers an

eclectic mix of regional dishes (and plenty of Shanghai specialties). “No

doubt we eat better than the old emperor’s son who lived here,” said Zhijun,

laughing.

The feast-there’s no other word for it-began with sips of maotai, a

sorghum-and-wheat-based liquor fermented eight times, and lively

conversation, with Zhijun and Bo discussing world politics and books (in the

course of which Zhijun quoted President Clinton, Mao, the early 20th-century

Chinese writer Lu Xun, and the New York Times). I had already learned that

fine dining in China is different from what we know in the West. In China,

numerous courses are served, each carefully designed to provide “balancing

flavors, nourishing the body with yin and yang”, as Bo described it. The

ancient Chinese concept of yin and yang-opposing forces that one should

always strive to harmonize-translates, in good cooking, into a skillful

pairing of contrasts: sweet-sour, light-dark, crisp-tender; a rich, braised

meat dish with a stir-fried green vegetable. When one is eating lavishly,

custom and prudence dictate that a few bites of any particular dish should

suffice.

We had tiny, crunchy Beijing cucumbers, sprinkled with bits of intensely

citrusy dried tangerine peel and rice vinegar dressing, and marinated beef

sliced paper thin, boiled in seasoned broth and then dried, so it looked

like shavings of amber. Next came white fish baked in rock salt, then served

in soy broth, and a bracing salad of cilantro and watercress tossed with

sesame oil, vinegar, and garlic.

More courses arrived in succession: tender deep-fried prawns with chile oil

and fruity Sichuan peppercorns, prawns in mayonnaise sauce, saut?ed prawns

with lemon and sesame; braised soy-ginger chicken with mushrooms, scallions,

fried tofu squares, ginkgo nuts, and chestnuts, a dish from old Canton; and

flank steak with long beans, drizzled with chile oil, minced pork, and

garlic. I was nearly overwhelmed by the complex flavors of the smoked duck,

cooked with camphor and tea leaves. It was served somewhat in the manner of

peking duck (Beijing’s most famous dish, an incredibly labor-intensive

preparation that is not listed on the club’s menu-though chef Fung usually

has a few orders on hand for special requests). This duck was sliced and

came with shell-shaped buns meant to be split open, drizzled with hoisin

sauce, and filled with the meaty, fragrant duck.

Bo and I used to surf together in the Pacific Ocean. When he was a surfer,

he boycotted shark’s-fin soup because he worried about what John Lennon

called instant karma. Bo’s nightmarish version of that idea was that the

shark might seek revenge. Now he’s a golfer, which has no culinary downside.

I have had shark’s fin soup in the United States and never understood why it

is considered such a delicacy. The China Club’s version converted me. The

fin, reconstituted in water for two days, simmered for eight hours, then

cooked in a delicious chicken broth flavored with Yunnan ham, ginger, and

green onion, is smoky tasting and luxuriously creamy. It is, however,

undoubtedly bad for the shark, some species of which are endangered (see

box, page 50).

Chef Fung, with a staff of 30 cooks, prepares these and hundreds of other

dishes (including Western-style food upon request) for the club’s two main

dining rooms, the Long March Bar, and 14 private dining rooms. I’ve never

seen a r?sum? quite like Fung’s; it notes, along with his culinary

background, that he is “a pleasant, hardworking fellow, contentious but

humorous”. No doubt.

Fung created the menu with general manager Tony Chiu and club owner David

Tang, who also owns the original China Club Hong Kong, which he opened in

1991, and a China Club in Singapore, launched last year. Tang is a

flamboyant businessman with a range of interests, including investment

companies of his own, the Pacific Cigar Company, cigar bars in Bangkok and

Singapore, and Shanghai Tang, a department store specializing in kitschy but

chic items like Cultural Revolution place mats and Mao wristwatches, with

branches in Hong Kong, Beijing, Singapore, Bangkok, Tokyo, London, and New

York City.

Each of Tang’s clubs is designed to reflect its specific setting. Whereas

the Beijing club is mainly about the elegance of the long-ago past, the Hong

Kong club, in the old Bank of China building, is sleekly art deco, with

marble-topped tables and Tiffany glasswork, but also contemporary Chinese

art on the walls and waiters in collared Mao-style jackets-a gentle spoof.

The Singapore club, in the Capital Tower skyscraper, has pink chandeliers

and silk scrolls embellished with quotations from three Chinese leaders-Sun

Yat-sen, Mao, and Chiang Kai-shek-“to be fair”, says Tang. Although the

clubs have similar menus, each has local dishes; at the Hong Kong club, for

instance, you can get homemade Hong Kong-style noodles, and in Singapore,

beef redang, a spicy stew. Tang opened the Beijing China Club in 1996, after

spending $8 million on the renovation, with a party that felt more like

1930s Shanghai than stodgy Beijing; movie stars and royals-among them Kevin

Costner, Michael Caine, and the Duchess of York-came for the occasion.

Celebrities continue to drop in on Tang’s clubs, often in his company; he

recently stopped by the Singapore and Beijing clubs (his base remains Hong

Kong) with “some of my younger friends from London”, including Kate Moss and

Jude Law.

 

I’ve been back to eat at the Beijing club several times in the past few

years. I’ve sampled Fung’s Sichuan chicken with peanuts and whole dried red

chiles-a dainty assemblage of small, plump chicken morsels, peanuts, and

scallions, with just enough chiles to give it a kick. The club’s steamed

carp in black bean sauce, a dish I’ve eaten frequently elsewhere in China,

is the best I have tasted. Spinach with fried minced ginger is marvelously

light and invigorating. Fung’s pastry shells filled with chunks of

soy-marinated beef and pieces of crisp snap peas, decorated with carrot

slices cut in flower shapes, exemplify yin and yang in harmony. Of his

winter melon, carrot, and seafood soup, Fung says, “This dish is pleasing to

the eyes with its red and white colors and pleasing to the mouth with the

freshness of the seafood.” I agree. Equally pleasing is my favorite dessert

there: red bean cream, a rich dollop of mashed boiled red beans sweetened

with sugar. And recently, after running around Beijing during one of the

city’s wicked sandstorms, I soothed my parched throat in the Long March Bar

with a drink called Galloping Horse, a concoction of sugarcane, water

chestnuts, carrots, almonds, and ginger.

At the conclusion of my first China Club meal, I’d had all that food yet

didn’t feel full; instead, I felt elated. Feng Zhijun, Bo, and I walked

through the successive courtyards underneath a thin moon. Zhijun had his own

car, and Bo tucked him into it and we watched him drive off. I jumped into

the backseat of a taxicab, ready for rest, but Bo was heading out to another

meeting-more proof that he, like so many of his peers who are urgently

attempting to remake China, hardly ever sleep. “I can work hard as long as I

make time for a good meal,” Bo told me. “Food is the reward at the end of

the day.”