Sugar, Spice and Everything Nice

 

Let us rejoice, my friends – bakeries and cafes, desserts and breads have arrived at the Middle Kingdom!

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In 2006, by the end of a two week trip in China, I was experiencing a severe bread and dessert deprivation. The restaurants in the mighty cities of Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai and in the magical land of Guilin countryside generously fed me with the best fish of my life, freshly grilled lamb, spicy and crunchy fried green beans and delicate glass noodles. On the other hand, they stubbornly refused to yield to me as little as a soggy croissant or a slice of a stale coffeecake. The only sweets available were sticky rice buns with sweet red beans inside; they tasted like boiled mud with sugar. The buns probably inspired Brian Maxwell to create Power bars.

Restaurants, food stalls and markets were everywhere; cafes and bakeries were more difficult to find than a bloody slab of meat in a vegan restaurant. There was no place to sit down, leisurely sip a cup of coffee, eat a slice of tiramisu, write some notes, watch people and enjoy life.

Eight years later, the tree of life was blooming with coffees and desserts. For two months we’ve been traipsing around from the ancient towns of Yunnan and canal villages of Jiangsu to the metropolises of Nanjing and Xiamen. Almost everywhere, we saw bakeries selling sweet and savory joy made out of wheat, butter and eggs. We sampled their fare, we chatted to their bakers and to their customers. We learned how baked goods spread through China at a supersonic velocity and conquered the most populated country on the planet.

Nobody carries more responsibility for the changed fate of one billion and three hundred million people then a forty four year old Szechuan man. Twenty years ago, Luo Hong couldn’t find a proper birthday cake for his mother. Frustrated, he bought a whole bakery and made sure that their desserts satisfied his mom. Today, Holiland bakery chain controls 85% of Chinese market.

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We have seen dozens of them all over China. The bakeries sell sweets and sandwiches based on soft buns and white sliced bread. Cold thin crust pizzas are not up to New York standards but they are better than Domino’s. Tiramisu, chocolate and fruit mousses, flans, sponge rolls, strawberry shortcakes and wafer cookies taste much better than their cousins from American supermarkets. The flaky pastry from their croissants and egg tarts is getting close to the French standards.

We also saw many local bakeries and smaller chains happily ripping off Holiland repertoire. Some started specializing in particular items, like egg tarts and cream puffs. They serve locals and they charge between fifty cents and two dollars per piece. It took us four dollars per person to gorge ourselves on food that most American cities still sadly lack.

Yvonne remembered that two or three years ago the pastry quality was considerably worse. A Holiland chef in Suzhou confirmed her observation; right around that time the boss pushed the chain more towards the Western pastry standards.
Recently, Holiland bakeries started serving coffee and tea, also at the prices aimed at locals, from seventy cents to two dollars a drink. They don’t make much money on the drinks; most of their income comes from their specialty cakes. Multi layered sponge cakes with whipped cream and decorated with carved fruits can cost as much as thirty dollars. They taste fresh, simple and fruity. Holiland cream comes out of a cow rather than out of a bottle with nitrogen oxide and their fruits don’t taste like cardboard.

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Western-style cafes serving deserts, coffee and tea are not as ubiquitous as Holiland bakeries, neither are they as affordable. Most items cost between three and five dollars. They sell classic European desserts, sometimes with a light Chinese twist, like a green tea mango mousse next to a dark chocolate flourless cake. Their gelatos are on par with Italian ones; you can see a stinky durian sorbet next to a black currant one. The coffee, from espresso to cappuccino, tastes the same as it would in a random café in Rome but, unsettlingly, it costs twice more. Some cafes obtain frozen desserts from local bakeries; others run their own kitchens.

The cosmopolitan metropolis of Shanghai seems to be the origin of the café epidemics, starting ten or twelve years ago. The cafes have spread far and wide, however, just over the last five years or less. They do not specifically cater to Westerners though; there just too few white people in China. The cafes serve to the young roaring beast raising its many million heads – the first generation of Chinese yuppies. They also take advantage of the single child family policy. Chinese parents won’t spare any luxury to their beloved only son or daughter. The crowds of college students and recent graduates swarm to the touristy destinations. Smartly dressed, cosmopolitan looking and with their own and parents’ money to burn, they must be the most coveted demographics of all the new businesses in China.

Ironically, Starbucks introduced the idea of a hangout coffee house in China and, then, failed to attract college and yuppie girls. They find Starbucks cafes too corporate and impersonal; they didn’t like the company of businessmen. Upstart local cafes rose to fill the void; one of them provided Yvonne with entertainment and myself with a lesson.

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Out of a personal incident and a demographic need, a new café chain rose, small but growing furiously. The owner opened the first café as a gift for his wife. The Shanghai and Suzhou girls approved; they found their paradise in the chain of Momi Cafés.

When Yvonne walked into one of them in Suzhou, she squealed in delight. Then, laughing at the confounded expression on my face, she condescendingly laid it out to me like a professional designer talking to a dumb and a blind male scientist. Apparently, the most important thing was space; there were at least six distinctly different sections to house at most twenty five tables. Stairs, curtains, sofas, different tables, different chairs and different lighting supposedly helped every girl to feel herself unique. Hundreds of postcards, books and coffee- related paraphernalia were carefully arranged in an apparently chaotic fashion throughout the café. Bob Dylan and his Chinese colleagues sang in the background. Every table had a glass with colored pencils and pens; every wall had writing on it. Everything was aimed to attract hipster college girls and younger women while not freaking out their accidental male companions.

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The café achieved their purpose. Since five years ago, when I worked on an art conservation project in Italy, I’ve not seen such a crowd of bright, animated, tastefully dressed and confident girls. Half dorky, half hipster, these girls would fit in anywhere from New York to Paris to Shanghai.
Yvonne and I spent five hours and ten dollars there; she was drawing and I was writing this story. Half a dozen girls were admiring Yvonne’s drawing and I was chatting with them about Shanghai, Suzhou, cafes, Western food and life. If I was a student in Shanghai, I would definitely come to a Momi café in search of a girlfriend. A cup of Italian grade Cappuccino with an Brooklyn style cheesecake would celebrate my success or sweeten up the taste of failure.

An Ode to Chinese Taxi Drivers (Inspired by a driver who loaned us money)

There were taxi drivers. They picked us up, turned on their meter, charged us money, dropped us off and drove away. They were everywhere.

There were obnoxious pushy hustlers that swarmed around us like dung flies, screeched like fishmongers and smelled like skunks. They crowded around large cities’ transport hubs. I wanted to spray DEET on them.

Then, there were a few taxi drivers that we will remember warmly every time we think about this trip. We met all of them in small provincial towns.

A Huangshan taxi driver knew history and loved talking. I wrote three pages of notes based on his stories. By the second day with him, we disregarded the advice from our three guidebooks and we asked the driver to pick our itinerary. He brought us to Huizhou villages much more interesting than what we would’ve found ourselves. When we ran out of money, he loaned us six hundred remnibi for entrance tickets. We paid him back of course, once we got back to an ATM. But we still feel that we owe him both for his kindness and for his knowledge.

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A taxi driver at Jishou train station drove us for an hour to Fenghuang. He helped us to find our hotel, hidden by construction and located inside a pedestrian zone not passable for cars. We didn’t like the place; he suggested a better one, drove us there for free and bargained them for a better price. In a day, he arrived an hour early because, “he didn’t like to be late.” He took care of us like mother hen protects her chicks. In return, he asked us for small foreign banknotes and coins for his collection. Now, in the town of Jishou there is a Chinese taxi driver who has Russian, Kazakh, Kirgiz, American, Thai, Cambodian and Taiwanese money.

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A Longyan taxi driver drove us around Tulou fortress houses for a day. There was a bit of haggling involved, true enough. But once we agreed on the price, the driver delivered. He sneaked us by an entrance point and he cheated the Chinese government out of our one hundred fifty remnibi. Later, he drove us to his town and gave us a tour of an abandoned Tulou fortress where he grew up. In the end, he brought us to his home for tea and more stories. We learned more about the life in Tulou houses from our taxi driver that we would’ve ever learned from a guide.

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These taxi drivers were excited about strangers from a strange land. They liked us and they took care of us. They went above and beyond their duty. And I can’t even recommend them to my readers because they only speak Chinese.

Wuyuan: the Birth of a Ghost Town.

As our bus is rolling across Wuyuan, I find myself staring intently around me, consumed by confusion, discomfort and curiosity. There is something deeply unsettling about the town but I can’t figure out what it is.

Wuyuan is shiny and new, like a freshly minted coin . Wide open streets have two or three lanes in each direction. Bicycle, scooter and pedestrian lanes are paved with tiles. Five foot trees have been planted carefully everywhere, all of them are the same age, height and appearance. White and spotlessly clean four and five story buildings line the streets. There are banks and businesses, stores and restaurants. I see doors and windows, balconies and AC units. I see a few people walking the streets.

That’s it! There are not enough people. It’s a Saturday noon in a Chinese town; the streets should be packed with people hustling and bustling. Bicycles, scooters, mopeds, carts and other semi-motorized contraptions should be moving in all directions and honking noisily, friendly and warningly alike. Shops and stalls, cards and restaurants should be offering food. Chinese towns have become cleaner, but there should be some trash leisurely rolling around in the breeze. Where is a city’s olfactory duet, the smells of refuse and sewage?

The gleaming wide boulevards are as eerily perfect as they are eerily empty. Where are the thousands of small features and minor differences that make a town feel real? Wuyuan feels like a Hollywood movie set, not a city. I am expecting the street to turn into a California desert or a parking lot and a cameraman’s voice barking “Action!” If I pull a door knob, will the whole façade fall down to the street baring an empty space behind it?

We get out of the bus. The station is the most lifelike place in town we’ve seen so far. Here is food, refuse, sewage, dust, mud and people, all right. My pregnant darling performs her customarily stint in a public restroom – she pees and vomits at the same time. Still, the bus station feels emptier than it should be for a town this size. Half a dozen buses stand on a parking lot where at least fifty of them could fit. Half a dozen taxi drivers assault us enthusiastically but politely. We pick the least pushy guy and load into his car. As we get out of the station and start riding Wuyuan’s sterile streets, the feeling of unreality assaults me again.

We pass a blindingly white concrete bridge with an authentic Huizhou style colonnade; it is built out of aged wood with a corbel joinery roof and two entrance arches. Even the aged wood looks new and shining; it can’t be more than two or three years old.

As we approach the edges of the city, we see more construction. The perfect buildings of the city center give way to almost finished houses, then to empty concrete half assembled husks, and finally to leveled ground plots.

Yvonne asks our driver about the town and the guy starts laughing. The central government, he says, has encouraged the local authorities to build more and more. The governor had the whole city laid out and built from scratch over the last three years. Now they are having troubles finding people and businesses to move in. The town should have two hundred thousand residents, but it barely has a third of that number.

The driver’s words explain it, but I still feel bewildered. Most human settlements have been born inadvertently, slowly, noisily, dirty, bloody, and chaotically; they’ve been born human. Now, I witness a whole town being born coldly, precisely and lifeless, like in a science fiction novel or a Corbusier architecture textbook.

Finally, the city ends and we are back in the bucolic Chinese countryside. Still, we can’t get the image of a sterile shining city out of our minds. We have been traveling in China for a month and we’ve see a frenetic frenzy of construction everywhere. How many buildings are left waiting forlornly for their residents never to move in?