Asia-Pacific, Headlines

CULTURE-CHINA: Love a Peking Duck

Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, Aug 18 2008 (IPS) - Is the Peking duck winning the contest? The jury is out on which Chinese specialty is going to be crowned as the Beijing Olympics’ most favorite local product.

Qianmen street by night. Credit: Antoaneta Bezlova/IPS

Qianmen street by night. Credit: Antoaneta Bezlova/IPS

Sybarites and high-brow intellectuals have locked horns over the merits of mere delicacies as representatives of China’s ancient culture of refinement. But ultimately the decision belongs to the foreign crowds that have invaded the Chinese capital for the duration of the Olympics.

They have been sampling the fine brews of Chinese tea under the shades of long-eave roofs of former Manchu mansions in the old city. They have been thronging the stalls at Beijing’s Silk Street Market bagging Chinese cheongsams (or qipao) and pairs of miniature silk slippers. The more daring have opted for a true China experience by downing copious amounts of "bai jiu" – the fiery Chinese alcohol made of sorghum.

Yet the obligatory rite of passage for every visitor to Beijing – Olympic or not – remains the classic feast of Peking duck. Once an imperial dish prepared solely for the rulers of the Yuan dynasty, the treat is now one of the most popular national dishes. The succulent duck portions – roasted, glazed and wrapped in thin Mandarin pancakes – are served to equal appreciation at small eateries tucked in narrow Beijing lanes and upscale restaurants.

On the weekend it appeared that Beijing’s landmark dish was winning medals of popularity with the same ease that Chinese athletes were scooping up heaps of Olympic gold. Beijing games organisers announced they have had to double the athletes’ village supply of the famous bird to meet popular demand.

"We have increased the supply of Peking ducks from 300 to 600 a day," Deng Yaping, the four time Olympic gold medalist in table tennis and Olympic village deputy director said. "To be able to eat a typical Peking duck gives the athletes the most enjoyment," she told reporters proudly.

In line with the earnest attitude taken by Beijing hosts in matters related to the country’s image, the rise of Peking duck was duly noted by the official news agency Xinhua. "The famed Beijing duck is a hot gold medal contender for the most popular food in the host city of the ongoing Olympic Games," a report bragged.

Long before the games arrived in the capital, organisers had begun devising strategies to use the Olympics as a platform to "export" China’s famous products. They had studied the role of 1964 Tokyo Olympics in transforming Japanese sushi into a worldwide dining experience. They had also noted how South Korea successfully exploited the 1988 Seoul games to "package" its local kimchi as an international delicacy.

"Finally it is China’s turn," says Yang Guang, adviser with Zhengyitang Strategic Consultancy. "When foreigners arrive in Beijing they would want to do what Beijingers do. They would listen to what local people praise and introduce. This would be a most precious opportunity for us to propagate Chinese products".

Scholars of Chinese culture have resisted the urge to label a single "China specialty" as favourite emissary to epitomise the country’s finest traditions during the Olympics. Some have argued that unlike Japan and South Korea, which represent relatively unitary cultures, China is a multi-ethnic country with great variety of cultural gems on offer.

"The right attitude would be to ‘let a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend’," says folk customs expert Cui Puquan, citing an old line of Chinese wisdom. "China has such a rich and enduring culture that it would be a pity to promote some traditional products at the expense of others."

But with so much on offer the difficulties of mounting a successful marketing campaign of the perfect China specialty have multiplied, says consultant Yang Guang. From high-brand teas and fine porcelain to sandalwood fans and silk dresses Beijing is like a treasure trove of intricate Chinese handicrafts.

Aware that "made in China" is associated with low-end manufacturing products in many parts of the world, city leaders have opted to use the Olympics to showcase some of the country’s old traditional brands, says Yang, whose consultancy advised some of those companies.

"The popularisation of ‘laozihao’, or time-honoured brands, has been at the centre of our marketing campaign," he says.

The desire to globalise China’s traditional products and brands underpins a 300 million US dollar facelift given to Qianmen Street, one of the three landmarks of Beijing alongside the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Gate.

Qianmen, or "front gate", was once home to the empire’s most esteemed vendors of clothing, haute cuisine, tea and herbal medicine. A century ago more than 100 "laozihao", or time-honoured brands, thrived on the street, making Qianmen the busiest commercial and most prosperous area in the imperial city.

Those included Ruifuxiang – the silk store that made clothes for the mandarins in the imperial court and which created the first flag of the People’s Republic, ‘Tongrentang’ – the imperial court’s exclusive supplier of herbal medicine since 1723, and ‘Quanjude’, the doyen of Peking duck eateries.

Dereliction and destruction brought by the radical political campaigns of the late 1960s have combined to draw the curtain on the once famous commercial centre. But the choice of Beijing as an Olympic host in 2001 has made the city fathers realise the opportunities that an influx of tourists could help revive China’s traditional brands.

Totally revamped, Qianmen street was unveiled to a great fanfare on the eve of Beijing Olympic games. Developers said they wanted to capitalise on visitors’ desire to search for the "China element".

"Foreign tourists can buy famous silk products in century-old Ruifuxiang silk shop," offered Wang Chengguo, official with the Beijing Chongwen district where Qianmen is located. "Or they can look for a pair of embroidered shoes in Neiliansheng shoes shop, one of our most noted traditional shoemakers".

With its rows of bright traditional buildings, birdcage-style street lamps and the return of Beijing’s famed 1920s electric trams, the street is an attraction in itself that has proven a great magnet for the crowds. But the verdict on the shopping experience and authenticity of its ambience has been less ecstatic.

"It is fake," cuts Liang Chunrong. The image she has preserved of the old street from her parents’ tales is of an exhilarating mish-mash of tea houses, noodle shops and brisk sellers. "Nothing like the manicured buildings here," she says.

French tourist Amelie Bernard says she enjoyed the stroll along Qianmen but for shopping she prefers Street Silk Market. "This here feels a bit like a museum of Chinese things. There at the market you have the real bargain and the real choice".

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